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Water management on Ventotene and Santo Stefano islands

Best known as the island to which the emperor Augustus banished his daughter Julia, Ventotene is an elongated rocky island, with a length of 3 km and a maximum width of  ~ 800 metres. Ventotene was known in antiquity as Pandataria (from the Greek word Παντοδότειρα (= bestower of everything).

The isle of Santo Stefano, 2 km to the east of Ventotene, is even smaller, a rock of circular shape with a diameter less than 500 meters. Its current name comes from a convent dedicated to Saint Stephen but in the course of history it has taken several names such as Partenope, Palmosa and Borca. Today it is administrated by the municipality Ventotene. 

Ventotene together with Santo Stefano Island, are part of the Pontine archipelago in the Tyrrhenian sea. All 6 islands of this archipelago located between Rome and Naples, including also the larger Ponza island (7 km2), and the smaller Palmarola, Zannone and Gavi islands were created by volcanic activity. Since 1999 Ventotene and Santo Stefano belong to the Marine Protected Area named after them.  

Although finds in Ventotene and Santo Stefano islands indicate human settlements dating to the Bronze Age (18th – 16th century BC) the islands were not substantially inhabited until Roman times (specifically in the 1st century BC), a period when the Tyrrhenian sea was no longer plunged by pirates.

Ventotene’s small size and its location close to Rome and Naples rendered its control a relatively easy task. That is probably the reason why it was chosen by Augustus as a place of exile for Roman aristocracy, starting with his daughter Julia the Elder (2 BC), for her excessive adultery. As all inmates belonged to the imperial family, the entire island needed to undergo a radical architectural transformation between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD that to some extent changed the island’s natural features. The activities executed included the following:

  • a Roman harbour was carved into the rock to provide the residents with fresh supplies from the mainland;
  • a complex system of cisterns was designed to store fresh water in a place where natural springs do not exist,
  • a farmland was created in the remaining area of the island in order to make it at least partially self-sufficient.
  • a monumental fishpond was cut into the rock, thus adding the products from the sea, to those coming from the land.

Indeed it was necessary to transform a rock in the middle of the sea into a residence that could host its aristocratic residents with a level of comfort and amenities comparable to what they were used to in Rome.