The Saved Ship

The wine-transporting ships of Portus

The third century marble plaque of the Collezione Torlonia—as represented in Figure 1— is a votive dedicated to the wine god Liber—Bacchus.[1] The relief represents a ship arriving at Rome’s imperial seaport Portus.

A line of waves frames the lower side of the decoration on the relief. On the left the waves are high and on the right the waves are low. The left of the relief is dominated by the representation of a ship entering the harbor. The right part is smaller and shows a ship that is tied up to the shore with a line and a walkway, discharging cargo.

The scene on the left—in which a ship is entering the harbor—is symmetrically marked by a female figure in the top left corner and a male pendant on the right, both holding a wreath. The figures stand for the worldly powers of the port and the guild of skippers, the corpus naviculariorum. Behind the ship is the Claudian lighthouse of Portus with four floors, on top of which is a fire burning in a cylindrical structure.

A marble plaque showing two ships unloading cargo.
Figure 1: A marble plaque showing two ships unloading cargo.

The scene on the right is framed diagonally by Neptunus in the lower left part, and the wine god Liber—Bacchus—in the upper right. In the upper left part, a chariot with elephants is standing on a base. In the lower right corner a man is carrying an amphora to the shore. Above him are three Nereid nymphs pouring votive wine back into the sea. In the middle is a large apotropaic eye that looks straight ahead to scare off any enemy that may be there.

Quite a number of activities take place on the ship as it is entering port. A private thanksgiving ceremony takes place on the roof of the aft cabin—in the shadow of the sail and just in front of the stern ornament [khēnískos].[2] The ship-owner [nauklēros] recites his epibatērion (arrival speech) while his wife holds the incense box from which the speaker sprinkles grains of incense onto the burning ship’s altar in front of her. A third person—cargo-owner, or captain—waits to pour his libation from a small shallow dish.[3]
Before the beginning of the sacrificial ceremony, they will have cleansed their hands in a khernibon (washing basin).[4]

Detail showing scene on the aftdeck.
Figure 2: Detail showing scene on the aftdeck.


  • To the left of this small group sits the steersman [pēdalioukhos] who holds the tiller of the rudder-oar.
  • On the foredeck sits a man working with a pickaxe. He is not the ship’s carpenter [naupēgos], but the artist working on this very relief. Two men hidden between the brail lines watch him doing his work. [5]
  • One man lifts the bowsprit to a higher position by pulling a tackle that is connected to the tip of the foremast [artemōn] to avoid the bowsprit sticking out over the quayside while mooring bow-first.

Lastly, a man in the ship’s boat [epholkion] tightens the ropes that secure the vertical position of the rudder.

The sail of the ship is marked VL, Votum Libero in Latin, confirming that the plaque is dedicated to the wine god Liber.[6] This deity is also depicted as a carved decoration [parasēmon] on the stempost. Above the top of the mast flies a winged Victory carrying a wreath. Another winged Victory serves as a tutelary decoration on or just next to the sternpost. The transom decoration is Aphrodite Euploia who flies her veil high in the wind, flanked by two minor deities.[7] In the way described above, the signs on the bow protect the goals of the owners, while the signs on the stern protect the safety of the ship and crew. The sail is decorated twice with a she-wolf, suckling the twins Remus and Romulus, thus honoring the city of Rome.

The relief shows a large number of rigging elements such as deadeyes, brail rings and brail lines, a forestay and lanyards which are used for tensioning the shrouds. The bow of the ship features a foremast [artemōn].
The left part of the relief is dedicated to human activities and the honoring of the divine. The right part of the relief, however, is less worldly, less symmetric, and more obscure. We witness how in the lower-right corner the artist leaves the ship. He carries his work in his right hand and with his left hand he balances an amphora on his shoulder. The sailors who were his admirers before, now secure the sails and observe the scene from their elevated position.

Detail of the scene on the foreship.
Figure 3: Detail of the scene on the foreship.

Three Nereid nymphs depicted straight above the artist, pour votive wine back into the sea. [8] The large apotropaic eye stares the viewer in the eye. Clearly in this part of the relief Bacchus, complete with panther and thyrsos staff, has taken the lead.

The bow of the ship is connected with a rope to a pierced stone on the quayside and a walkway. The cargo will be discharged to the shore by a walkway. The shipping clerk [perineōs] will tally the cargo and make entries into his administrative ledger.[9]

When the day of departure for the new journey is set, a priest may be asked to garland [stephein] the stern of the ship.[10] There will be a departure speech (for protection on landing) [apobatērion] by the one that leaves, and a wish for a favorable crossing [euploia] by the one that stays behind. [11]

The ship and crew seem to conduct the rituals correctly and therefore they prosper and are “saved.”


1 The plaque is dated c. 160-215 CE.

2 The khēnískosis is the carved, outboard facing, stern-ornament in the shape of a goose’s head and neck. According to Lionel Casson (2014), Roman shipping was largely based on Greek traditions, including in the terminology, so Greek terms are used throughout.

3 “Hail, Poseidon, Holder of the Earth, dark-haired lord! O blessed one, be kindly in heart and help those who voyage in ships!” [Homeric Hymn 22 to Poseidon 6-7]

4 Kapitän, G. 1979. See Figure 12:14 for the depiction of a washing basin.

5 After

6 Eckert, M., 2011. A common inscription on altars was “VSLM”; Votum Solvit Libens Merito (“willingly and deservedly fulfilling their sacred pledge.”)

7 Euploia: a wish or prayer for a favorable voyage and an exclusive epithet of Aphrodite.

8 Thus connecting Liber, Bacchus, with Neptunus (Poseidon).

9 Perineōs: literally “one who is on board a ship but has nothing to do with the sailors”. See Casson L. 2014, notes 9.69 and 13.83.

10 See, for example, the description of the garlanding of the ship in Plato Phaedo 58a–58c.

11 Euploia: a wish or prayer for a favorable voyage, and an exclusive epithet of Aphrodite.


Various conversations with members of the Kosmos Society.

Kapitän, G. 1979. “Louteria from the sea.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Taylor & Francis.

Eckert, M. 2011. Die Aphrodite der Seefahrer. Archaeological Institute of the University of Hamburg. The Torlonia relief.

Meij, R. de 2021. Periplous, A Journey Through the Ancient Mediterranean. Brave New Books, Amsterdam.

Casson, L. 2014. Ships and Seafaring in the Ancient World, online at Project MUSE, Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore.

Image credits

Figure 1: A marble plaque showing two ships unloading cargo. Collezione Torlonia, Capitoline Museum, Rome. Photo: Sailko. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Figure 2: Detail showing scene on the aftdeck.

Figure 3: Detail of the scene on the foreship.


Rien is a member of Kosmos Society.