The Isola Sacra necropolis offers a rare insight into cosmopolitan middle-class life and death over three ancient Roman dynasties.
Located just south of the coastal town of Fiumicino, some 30km south-west of Rome, the Isola Sacra is an artificial island containing a necropolis or cemetery dating from the first century AD and which was in use for around 300 years.
Situated at the mouth of the Tiber, the island which was not declared sacred until the sixth century, is bordered by the Fossa Traiana to the north (now the canal of Fiumicino), the Tiber to the east and south, and the sea to the west.
Isola Sacra was created by Trajan around 130 AD as the result of the construction of a connecting canal between the Tiber and the sea, replacing an earlier Claudian canal. The island forms a rough rectangle, and is now wider towards the west than it was in the classical period due to sand deposition from the sea over centuries.
The cemetery was most probably submerged under a build-up of silt and sand by the sixth century and only came to light in the 1920s when a land reclaim operation was underway. It was restored over the next 20 years. For the last two decades the British School at Rome has been instrumental in the successful excavation of Portus, the Roman empire's first deep water port close to Rome. The original harbour was begun around 46 AD by Claudius (10 BC – 54 AD) and completed some 20 years later, after his death.At first glance the general effect of the cemetery is of a miniature village complete with its houses, tree lined streets and squares. Strict rules dictated the dimensions of the sepulchres, which were vigorously checked and recorded on marble plaques set in front of the tomb.
The majority of the 100 sepulchres had little courtyards leading to the doorway with an inscription over it. Once inside there were one or two rooms – some have two floors – niches for urns, decorations and space for families to come and remember their loved ones. One features a terrace, inviting families and friends to sit in the sun and have a picnic maybe, musing over old times.
The most-sought after burial sites were the ones most visible from the then first-century main road connecting the cities of Ostia and Portus. As with the Via Appia Antica in Rome, the most important tombs were always the ones closest to the road, acting as a public display of the dead person’s wealth and importance.
CURRENTLY CLOSED DUE TO THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC. Isola Sacra is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 10.00-16.00, also on the first and third Sunday of the month. Admission is free but booking is obligatory, tel. 066583888. Via Monte Spinoncia 52.
The site is badly signposted and access by public transport is difficult. Easiest access is by car, and then perhaps by taxi from Rome costing about €50 one way. Alternatively the Isola Sacra can be reached by train or bus to Fumicino airport and then two stops on a Cotral coach to Via della Scafa 374, Ostia.
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Isola Sacra: life and death in ancient Rome
Isola Sacra, 00121 Rome, Metropolitan City of Rome, Italy
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