Defensive harbour chains

A “limen kleistos” is a port whose access was restrained by a closing device, usually with a narrow entrance[1]. This closing device, consisting of a gate system (kleithron, kleithra) or a chain system (alyseis), could be used both to stop the enemy from entering the port and to trap the enemy once inside the port, as mentioned by Dio Cassius (Hist, 51, 9) at Paraetonium (Egypt):

“Gallus, it seems, caused chains to be stretched at night across the mouth of the harbour under water, and then took no measures openly to guard against his opponents but contemptuously allowed them to sail in with perfect immunity. When they were inside, however, he drew up the chains by means of machines, and encompassing their ships on all sides – from the land, from the houses, and from the sea – he burned some and sank others.” (translation Lacus Curtius).

Another story is also told by Dio Cassius (Hist, 12, Frag.) at the port of Hippo Diarrhytos:

“The natives put chains across the mouth of the harbour, and the invaders found themselves in an awkward situation, but escaped by cleverness and good fortune. They made a quick dash at the chains, and just as the beaks of the ships were about to catch in them, the members of the crews moved back to the stern, and so the prows were lightened and cleared the chains; and again, when all rushed into the prows, the sterns of the vessels were lifted high into the air. Thus, they effected their escape […]”. Note that as they “escaped”, they were trapped inside the port.

Ancient authors mention least 8 harbours with chains at the entrance:

  • Syracusa, Sicily, in the 3rd c. BC (Frontinus, Strategemata, 1, 5),
  • Byzantion-Bosphorion, in the 2nd c. AD (Dio Cassius, Hist, 75, 10, and Zonaras, Constantin, 120, citing Dio Cassius),
  • Byzantion-Kynegoi, in the 2nd c. AD (Dio Cassius, Hist, 75, 10, and Zonaras, Constantin, 120, citing Dio Cassius),
  • Andriake, near Antalya, in the 1st c. BC (Appian, Civil wars, 4, 10, 82),
  • Alexandria Portus Magnus (3 ports), in the 1st c. AD (Lucan, Pharsale, 10, 57),
  • Paretonium, Marsa Matruh in Egypt, in the 1st c. BC (Dio Cassius, Hist., 51, 9),
  • Carthage, in the 2nd c. BC (Appian, Libyca, 96) and in the 6th c. AD (Procopius, War against Vandals, 1, 20),
  • Hippo Diarrhytos, Bizerte in Tunisia, in the 3rd c. BC (Dio Cassius, Hist., 12, fragments reported by Zonaras, 8, 16).

In the particular case of Chalkedon, near Istanbul, in the 1st c. BC (Appian, Mithridatic, 10, 71), the bronze chain was used only to close a gate system. Another particular use of a chain was made by Polycrates when he symbolically linked Delos island to Rhenea island with a chain (Thucydides, Pelop. wars, 3, 104). Using Remmatia island located between Delos and Rheneia, the length of this chain must have been at least 425 m (250 + 175 m) and it must have been placed on the seabed as it seems unlikely that it could be tense because of the large force this would require.

A system closing a harbour entrance (“phragmata”) is mentioned by Aeneas Tacticus in the 4th c. BC (Siege Defense, 8) and by Philo of Byzantion in the 3rd c. BC (Poliorcetica, 3, 29), but they do not explicitely mention chains and the surviving text of Philo is incomplete and its translation is debated[2]. Aeneas Tacticus (Siege Defense, 11) mentions the harbour of Chios where it is possible “to draw the barrier (“kleithron”) of the harbour up on land for drying and caulking” (translation Lacus Curtius) which points at a timber structure like a gate. In addition, Halieis may have been a “limen kleistos” with gates that could be closed (Jameson, 1969, contradicted by Frank Frost, 1985).

Chains stretching across a harbour entrance are mentioned by Vitruvius (Arch, 5, 12): “erect a tower on each side, wherefrom chains (“catenae”) may be suspended across by means of machinery” (translation Lacus Curtius). Archaeology has shown that chains were most probably also installed at the entrance of Phalasarna (Hadjidaki, 2019) and possibly at Myndos (Dumankaya, 2015). Many harbours (listed below) are known or suspected to have been “kleistos” but it is usually not known if chains (or gates) were used.

In order to install a chain (or gates) to close the entrance of a harbour, the width has to be limited. Except for Motya with an entrance width of 5 m (but this place is not considered any more as a military harbour), the smallest entrance width known is at Phalasarna (around 10 m). Other narrow entrances range between 10 and 30 m (Naupaktos, Lechaion, Salamis, Aegina, Halieis, Amathus, Andros, Methymne, Miletos, Knidos, Phaselis, Stratonos Pyrgos, Leuke Akte, Apollonia, Gummi, Carthage, Caesarea Mauretaniae) and up to 75 m, as far as we can see from today’s remains (Pandataria, Kantharos, Munychia, Larymna, Thasos, Chalkedon, Elaia, Kos, Rhodos, Patara, Kydonia, Paphos, Seleucia Pieria). Remains seen on Google Earth seem to show some entrances around 100 m wide (Corcyra, Anaktorion, Oiniadae, Zea, Mytilene, Kaunos, Kyrenia). Larger entrances may possibly also have had a closing chain (Myndos: 117 m acc. to Dumankaya, 2015; Golden Horn: 650 m acc. to Kastenellos, 2017[3], and even nearly 1100 m between both Hieron’s on the Bosphorus acc. to Aydingün, 2022).

Considering a unit weight of 25 kg per meter for a chain with 10 cm shackles, a length of 10 m (250 kg) is not a problem to be lifted by capstans. A 40 m-chain weights around one ton and can also be lifted, but a sag will be generated and it is interesting to know how much this sag is depending on the traction force.

The mathematical formulation was written down by Leibniz in 1691, after some discussions between people like Galileo, Bernoulli and Huygens, just to say here that it is not an easy matter. Anyhow, this formulation can now be used to compute the horizontal force required on a chain stretching between the lateral banks of a canal. If the chain is fastened 3 m above the water level with a sag of 2.5 m, it will hang at least half a meter above water, meaning that a trireme cannot pass over or under it.

On a canal 40 m wide and 3 m deep, the chain looks as follows according to Leibniz’s famous “catenary equation”:

Chain on a 40 m wide canal, fastened at 3 m above the water level and with a 2.5 m sag.

The computation shows that the required chain length is 40.4 m, just a little more than the canal width. The required horizontal traction force is about 2 tons, i.e. about twice the mass of the chain, on each side of the canal. This should not be a problem with Roman capstans located on both lateral quays of the canal at 3 m above the water level.

A smaller traction force of 1 ton would induce a longer chain with a larger sag. With a sag of 5 m, the height of fastening the chain on the banks would increase from 3 m to 5.5 m, requiring towers on both lateral quays of the canal. A wider canal, e.g. 150 m, would require a heavier chain (3.75 tons) and more traction from both banks (14 tons) in order to have a 5 m sag.

Such towers are perhaps among those meant by Vitruvius (Arch., 10, 1) when he writes about “innumerable different machines, which it is unnecessary here to discuss, since they are so well known from our daily use of them, such as wheels generally, the blacksmith’s bellows, chariots, calêches, lathes, and other things which our habits constantly require.” (translation Lacus Curtius), which implies that machines were frequently installed in/on towers/lathes.

Our computations show that a chain can be stretched between both sides of a canal by means of a traction force not exceeding 10-15 tons, which may be considered feasible with Roman equipment like capstans and treadwheels.

It has been suggested that the chain closing a harbour entrance would need to be supported by floating pontoons (Diels, 1920). Although so-called “booms” have been used in the Middle Ages with wider entrances of 300 m and more, our computations do not confirm the need for such an arrangement for entrances smaller than 100 to 150 m.


[1] Lehmann-Hartleben, 1923, p 65-74, Blackman, 2013, Mauro, 2020 & 2022a & 2022b, and Arnaud, 2023.

[2] τὰ δὲ στόματα τῶν λιμένων φράττειν τμητοῖς κλείθροις, ἐν οἷς εἰσι ἀνφιδέαι περιτρέχουσαι καὶ στρογγύλαι, σιδηροῦς κόλπους ἐχούσαι, “to fence the passes of harbours with kleithra in which are round female hinges, with iron eyes”, acc. to Arnaud, 2023.

[3] A chain of around 650 m seems to have been installed in the 5th c. near Yeralti mosque at the Golden Horn entrance.


ARNAUD, P., 2023, “Closed or open ports: Technical solutions for a difficult compromise between an efficient traffic flow and security requirements in ancient ports. The limen kleistos and the kleithra (part one)”, in Archaeologia Maritima Mediterranea, An International Journal on Underwater Archaeology, 2023:20, (p 13-29).

AYDINGÜN, S., 2022, “Discovering the Ancient Ports in West Istanbul”, Underwater Archaeology in Türkiye, edt Hakan Öniz, Istanbul, (p 163-171).

BLACKMAN, D. & RANKOV, B. et al., 2013, “Shipsheds of the Ancient Mediterranean”, Cambridge University Press, (617 p).

DIELS, H., 1920, “Antike Technik. Sieben Vorträge”, erweiterte Auflage, Teubner, Leipzig und Berlin, (243 p).

DUMANKAYA, O., 2015, “East-harbour mole at Myndos”, TINA, Sayi, N°3, (p 12-45).

FROST, F., 1985, “The “Harbour” at Halieis”, Harbour Archaeology, BAR International Series, 257, Oxford, (p 63-66).

HADJIDAKI, E., 2019, “Three Decades of Adventures with Honor Frost in Crete”, in: Blue, L. (ed.), 2019, In the Footsteps of Honor Frost. The life and legacy of a pioneer in maritime archaeology, Leiden: Sidestone Press (p 165-182).

JAMESON, M., 1969, “Excavations at Porto Cheli and Vicinity, Preliminary report, I: Halieis, 1962-1968”, Hesperia 38, (p 311-342).

KASTENELLOS, P., 2017, “The Chain Across The Golden Horn“, Apuleius Books.

LEHMANN-HARTLEBEN, K., 1923, “Die Antiken Hafenanlagen des Mittelmeeres”, (Klio, suppl. 14), Leipzig, (305 p).

MAURO, C., & GAMBASH, G., 2020, “The earliest ‘limenes kleistoi’ a comparison between archaeological-geological data and the periplus of pseudo-skylax”, REA, T. 122, 2020, n°1, (p. 55-84).

MAURO, C., 2022a, “An analysis of the ‘closed harbours’ in Strabo’s Geography: background, nature and meaning of the expression”, The Annual of the British School at Athens, 117, 2022, (p 285-309).

MAURO, C., 2022b, “Closed Harbours: an Open Question. Preliminary Thoughts Based on Archaic and Classical Evidence”, in Michael J. Curtis (Ed.), Economy and the Maritime Cultural Landscape of Greece, Panel 5.3, Archaeology and Economy in the Ancient World 28 (Heidelberg, Propylaeum 2022) (p 17-28).

List of “limenes kleistoi

Lehmann-Hartleben was the first to provide a list of (42) “limenes kleistoi” in 1923. We now have around 90 of them (known “X” or suspected “X?”, some with a chain “X”) and with varying entrance-channel widths ranging from 5 m to 120 m.

Ancient Name Modern Name LK CH Width
Centumcellae Darsena Romana in the port of Civitavecchia X? ? ?
Pandataria insula Roman villa Giulia at Punta Eolo, on the isle of Ventotene X X 35
Lokroi Epizephyrioi Locri X? ? ?
Syracuse, Lakkios, « Small Port » Porto Lachio, Syracuse X G ?
Motye, Motya Mozia, on the isle of San Pantaleo X? ? 5
unnamed Marsaxlokk X?
Port of Ambrakia Phidokastro X ? ?
Anaktorion, Anactorium near Nea Kamarina X? ? 100?
Oiniadae Katoxi, Trikardo, now inland X? ? 100?
Naupaktos Lepanto X? ? 30?
Nisa, Nisaea Roman fort at Agios Nicolas, near Megara X? ? ?
Salamis, Salamine, inner port Bay of Ambelaki, on the isle of Salamis X? ? 15
Kantharos Piraeus X ? 50
Zea Piraeus X ? 96
Munychia Piraeus X ? 54
Larymna Larimna X? ? 45?
Potidaia Nea Poteidaia X? ? ?
Aigina, Aegina Roman naval base South of Kolonna hill X? ? 30
Halai, Halieis, Halia Portocheli X? G 20
Gytheion Gythio X? ? ?
Lechaion Lechion X ? 20
port of the Pheacians, naval base of Alkinoos, Corcyra Ormos Garitsa, Kokotou district on Corfu X ? 100?
Palaiopolis Paleopolis, on the isle of Andros X? ? 20?
Paros Paros, Paroikia Bay X ? ?
Thasos Thassos, Limenas X ? 55
Samothraca Paleopoli, on the isle of Samothrace X? ? ?
Mytilene, naval base on south side of Mytilini, on the isle of Lesbos X ? 100?
Methymne Mithimna, on north coast of the isle of Lesbos X? C? 12
Chios Chio X? ? ?
Pythagoreion Pythagoreio, on the isle of Samos X G? ?
Kos, Cos Naval base at Mandraki harbour, Kos, on the isle of Kos X ? 75?
Rhodos Naval base at Port Mandraki X ? 50
Byzantion, port of Julianus, port of Sophia, portus novus Kadirga Limani X ? ?
Byzantion, Prosphorion Marmaray Sirkeci railway station, in the Golden Horn X C ?
Byzantion, Kynegoi Balat, Fener district, near Ferruh mosque, in the Golden Horn X C ?
Genesintis, Boona Persembe in the bay of Vona X ? ?
Chalkedon Kadiköy in front of Istanbul, on R Kurbagalidere X G 50?
Cyzicos, home port of Classis Pontica fleet on the isthmus of the peninsula of Erdek X ? ?
Falasarna, Phalasarna Falasarna, Phalasarna, on the isle of Crete X C? 10?
Cydonie, Kydonia Khania, Chania, on the isle of Crete X ? 75?
Salamis, Salamine of Cyprus 7 km North of Famagousta, on the isle of Cyprus X ? ?
Kition Larnaca, slipways at Bamboula, on the isle of Cyprus X ? ?
Amathus, Amathonte 10 km East of Limassol, on the isle of Cyprus X? ? 21
Nea-Paphos Kato Paphos, on the isle of Cyprus X ? 55
Soloi, Soli Potamos tou Kambou, on the isle of Cyprus X ? ?
Kyreneia Kyrenia, with an undated chain closure, on the isle of Cyprus X C 100
Canae, Kanai, Kane Prom. Karadag, near Bademli, island now connected to mainland X ? ?
Elaia, port of Pergamon, Pergamos Naval base and commercial port at Kazikbaglar X? ? 60?
Palaia Smyrna Bayrakli, Izmir X ? ?
Smyrna, Eurydikeia Konak, Izmir X? ? ?
Klazomenai Liman Tepe, near Urla Iskele X? ? ?
Erythrai Ildir, in front of Chios X? ? ?
Hellenistic port of Ephesos West side of Panayirdag hill, near Selcuk X ? ?
Priene Güllübahce on the silted up outlet of R Meander X ? ?
Miletos main port, Dokimos Harbour Milet, Lion Harbour X ? 30?
Myndus, Myndos Gümüslük “East Harbour”, Dogu Limani X? ? 117
Halicarnassus Bodrum, small naval base inside modern marina? X ? ?
Halicarnassus, Portus Secretus? Bodrum, South of fort X? ? ?
Knidos, Cnidus, naval base, ancient Triopion Cnide West, former isle of Triopion now connected to mainland X ? 25
Kaunos, Caunus Sülüklü Gölü, near Dalyan X ? 110
Patara, Arsinoe, port of Xanthos Gelemis X ? 40?
Andriace, Andriake, port of Myra Andraki, near Demre X C ?
Phaselis, Phaselide near Tekirova X? ? 18
Attaleia, port of Perge Antalya X? ? ?
Seleucia Pieria, home port of Classis Syriaca fleet Cevlik, port of Antioch of Daphne, inner harbour at the toe of the hill X ? 60
Laodicea Lattaquie X? ? ?
Sidon Saida X ? ?
Tyre, “Sidonian port” Sour, North port X ? ?
Port of Aksaph, port of Megiddo Tell abu Hawam, Haifa, near R Qishon X? ? ?
Stratonos Pyrgos Caesarea Maritima, pre-Herodian port X ? 20?
Ezion Geber? Gasion Gabel? Geziret Faraun, Pharaoh’s island, Coral island X? ? ?
Asabon Jazirat al-Ghanam, Cape Musandam, Mussendom X? ? ?
Girsu Tell Telloh X? ? ?
Ur, Uri, Sumerian Urim, North Port Tell el-Muqayyar X ? ?
Ur, Uri, Sumerian Urim, West Port Tell el-Muqayyar X ? ?
Alexandria, Portus Magnus, home port of Classis Alexandrina fleet Royal port near Palace X C 100?
Kibotos port located inside the Port of Eunostos X? ? ?
Leuce, Leuke Akte Ras el-Kanayis, Ras Kanaïs X? ? 15
Paraetonium Marsa Matrouh, Matruh, Bates’ island, Geziret el-Yehudiyeh X C ?
Chersis, Xherson, Aphrodisias insula el-Kerchi, Kersa, Chersa islets 15 km NW of Derna X? ? ?
Apollonia, port of Cyrene Susah, Soussa X? ? 14
Gummi Mahdia X ? 15
Ruspina Monastir X? ? ?
Hadrumete Sousse, initial port near the North wall of city X? ? ?
Carthago Carthago, rectangular commercial port X C 21
Carthago Cothon of Carthage: circular naval base X ? ?
Hippo Diarrhytos Bizerte X C ?
Caesarea Mauretaniae, Iol Cherchel, western basin X? ? 15