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"Sinuessa, the sunken city of Sessa Aurunca and Mondragone"

Dott. Geol. Fedele, Massimo Pasquale

The archaeological area of the ancient Roman colony of Sinuessa in the territory of Sessa Aurunca and Mondragone has certainly been among the major sites of geopolitical interest since ancient times, as it was the easiest passage to the south of the Italian peninsula and was a transit route for the entire Mediterranean basin of goods produced in Campania Felix. There is therefore an immediate connection with the nearby island of Ischia (the first Greek colony of Tyrrhenian Italy), clearly visible on beautiful days from the coast of Campania-Lazio, where you can recognize the traits of an emporion — a colonial settlement of an exclusively commercial character that took place at a time of "pre-colonization" (XI-X sec- a.c.).

The writer Pliny the Elder, a true chronicler of the time, commander of the fleet of the Miseno and Roman naturalist, in his scientific work Naturalis Historia (which counts 37 volumes, reference text in the field of scientific and technical knowledge throughout the Renaissance), cf. N. H., Liber III, 59, states that “…dein flumen Aufentum, supra quod Tarracina oppidum, lingua Voslcorum Anxur dictum, et ubi fuere Amyclae sive Amynclae, a serpentibus deletae, dein locus Speluncae, lacus Fundanus, Caieta portus, oppidum Formiae, Hormiae dictum, ut existimavere, antiqua Laestrygonum sedes. Ultra fuit oppidum Pirae, est colonia Minturnae, Liri amne divisa, Clani olim appellato, Sinuessa, extremum in adiecto Latio, quam quidam Sinopen dixere vocitatam." , the translation of which is "...then follows the river Ufente, above it the city of Terracina called Anxur in the language of the Volsci (people who inhabited the coastal part of Lazio, south of the Tiber), and there was Amyclae destroyed by snakes, and after the site of the Cave (the current Sperlonga) and the lake of Fondi, the port of Gaeta (the Roman poet Publius Virgil Marone, known simply as Virgil, 70 B.C. - 19 B.C., derives the name of Caieta from the name of the nurse of Aeneas who died there during her journey to the coast of Lazio), the city of Formia (from the Greek Hormiae ie landing place; Strabo, geographer and ancient Greek historian, attributes to the Laconi the foundation of Formia and the name of the gulf of Gaeta) which was considered the seat of the Lestrigoni. Beyond there was once the city of Pirae, colony of Minturnae, crossed by the river Liri (the current Garigliano), once called Clanis (or Lagni), and finally, Sinuessa (now included in the municipality of Cellole) located in the extreme Lazio that someone used to call Sinope (homonymous of the Greek city located on the Black Sea coast in Turkey)".

The sources report that the colony "Sinuessa" was founded in 296 B.C. With the passage of time it occupied a part of the agro Falerno and became one of the most important and flourishing cities, first of the Latium Adiectum and then of the Roman Empire. In fact, around 174 BC, Sinuessa will become a great city thanks to the production and trade of Falerno wine throughout the Mediterranean, as well as a sought-after holiday place for the presence of sulphurous thermal waters located in the locality "Levagnole"between the slopes of Monte Cicoli and the Tyrrhenian beach. These waters (Aquae Sinuessanae), whose existence we find reliable references in the writings of Tacitus and Pliny the Elder, are peacefully recognized of great quality because of its remarkable therapeutic properties.

The history of the city seems to be interrupted around the third century A.D. along with its port facilities (Crimaco L., 1993), which have sunk about ten meters according to the research of marine geoarchaeology carried out by ENEA. This depth is anomalous compared to other similar and contemporary structures built for the construction of piers and docks in the nearby Phlegraean settlements of Baia and Portus Julius.

The different geoarchaeological investigation campaigns have clarified better the geological-geomorphological-structural dynamics that occurred in the area over the millennia.

Parallel to the coastline along the municipal coast of Mondragone, Sessa Aurunca and Cellole, at a depth of about 7.0 meters and at a distance from the coast of about 650 meters, it rises for about two-three meters from a sandy bottom a rocky bank of an ignimbritic nature. The bank has a length of 8 km and a width of about 2 km and consists of the formation of the Campania Grey Tuff, laid about 39,000 years ago in the Piana Campana by highly mobile pyroclastic flows from the Phlegraean Fields, emissions that partially bypassed even the carbonate chain of Monte Massico. The presence of paleobeaches at the same depth of the flat summit of the tuffaceous bank leads to believe that this had emerged and frequented by man in Roman times also for activities related to the port.

Towards the northern edge of the bank, a depressed area, about 3 meters deep, was found, characterized by the presence of 24 cubic-shaped elements, 3 meters on the side, in cement conglomerate (opus cementicium). At the top of the blocks were detected semicircular holes, to be used for lifting, transport and approach. They are called pilae and are typical of Roman maritime works as described by Vitruvius in De Architectura (since the 1st cent. a.c.). typical of the Roman maritime structures spread along the southernmost Phlegraean coast.

The top of the bench is sometimes quenched by escarpments between 2 and 4 meters high to be attributed to the effects of the columnar fracturing riveniente by the cooling of the ignimbritic mass after its deposition in the subaircraft environment. The submerged tuffaceous bank is considerably engraved by paleocanals in alignment with the current inland waterways. These were "sculpted" in a subaircraft environment during the last glacial episode (period called Würm), when the level of the Tyrrhenian Sea was set back to the current isobath of 110-120 meters. The paleocanals interrupt the continuity of the topographic surface, giving the superficial belt an articulated morphology, expressed by escarpments also of metric dimensions and by vast depressed areas on a plurimetric scale.

Subsequently, the post-glacial rise of the sea level led to an overland advance of the shore line, with retrogradation of the platform facies and then coastal, with phases of stasis and with the genesis of lagoon and marsh environments. During the Greco-Roman period (3800-2300 years ago) the conditions for the formation of the coastal dune cordon and of humid environments behind occurred.

The northernmost channel, near the pilae, probably allowed the transit and maneuvering of the Roman ships. The discovery along the bottom of a large stump of lead anchor, a large amount of amphorae and Roman fragments, as well as a cavity of millstone, confirm this discovery. It is plausible that the sinuous physiography has favored the choice of this site for the docking of the ships to Sinuessa, in how much sheltered from the swells.

Another element that has disappeared in the tectonic subsidence is mentioned, a Roman paved road perpendicular to the shoreline and that becomes obliterated towards the sea under the recent sand of the dune cordon near the residential complex of Baia Azzurra. This stump road was probably a segment of a network of coastal roads serving the landing area of the city of Sinuessa, with activities developed on the part of flat depositional surface of the tuffaceous rocky bank. From here passed, in fact, the Via Appia (Regina Viarum), great artery of road connection of the time, built from 312 b.C. by the consul Appio Claudio who put in communication the colony of Minturnae (river port in southern Lazio) with Rome and with the centers of Southern Italy.

The causes of the flooding of the Sinuessa landing have been different. One is due to glacius-hydro-isostatic processes occurred in about 300 A.D. which generated a relative rise of about one meter of sea level along the Tyrrhenian coast, from Tuscany to southern Lazio. Certainly more important was the subsidence of the seabed due to the tectonic tilting of the rocky substratum present there under the seabed, variously affected by conjugated distensive faults. It is estimated that this type of lowering was about 6.5-7 meters.

In synthesis, the activities tied to portualità to the Roman epoch had to be carried out on the tufaceo bench then place to the maximum to +0,5 meters over the level of the sea. The piles were almost on the ground and therefore could not serve as berths. In the inlets from 2 to 3 meters deep, along a paleoalveo, probably docked the large Roman ships.


  • Billi A., Bosi V., De Meo A. – “Caratterizzazione strutturale del rilievo del M. Massico nell’ambito dell’evoluzione quaternaria delle depressioni costiere dei fiumi Garigliano e Volturno Campania settentrionale)”. Il Quaternario. Italian Jornal of Quaternary Sciences. 10(1), 15-26, 1997.
  • Crimaco L., Gasperetti G. – “Il territorio di Sinuessa tra Storia ed Archeologia. Prospettive di Memoria. Testimonianze Archeologiche dalla città e dal territorio di Sinuessa”. Ministero per i Beni Culturali ed Ambientali, Soprintendenza Archeologica per le province di Napoli e Caserta, 29-58, 1993.
  • Fedele, Massimo Pasquale. “Pirae. La città sommersa di Scauri”. Caramanica, 2019.
  • Pennetta M., Donadio C., Stanislao C., Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II - Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, dell’Ambiente e delle Risorse (DiSTAR),
  • Valente R., Seconda Università degli Studi di Napoli - Dipartimento di Ingegneria Civile, Design, Edilizia, Ambiente, e Nappi R., Autorità di Bacino Nazionale Liri-Garigliano e Volturno. - “Assetto geomorfologico dell’area marina di Sinuessa ed ipotesi di fruizione sostenibile”. Energia, ambiente e innovazione. 4/2016.
  • Trocciola A., Minopoli C., Pica R., Pennetta M. - “Ricerche di geoarcheologia marina per la valorizzazione sostenibile dell’approdo sommerso di Sinuessa (Campania)”. Geologia tecnica&ambientale. Quadrimestrale dell’Ordine Nazionale dei Geologi. N. 1/2019.
  • Trocciola A., Pennetta M.. - “Sinuessa, un approdo sommerso di epoca romana. Archeologia, geomorfologia costiera, strategie sostenibili di valorizzazione”. ENEA. Agenzia nazionale per le nuove tecnologie, l’energia e lo sviluppo economico sostenibile. 2017.

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