Ancona was founded by Greek settlers from Syracuse about 387 BC, who gave it its name: Ancona stems from the Greek word Αγκων, meaning “elbow”; the harbour to the east of the town was originally protected only by the promontory on the north, shaped like an elbow. Greek merchants established a Tyrian purple dye factory here. In Roman times it kept its own coinage with the punning device of the bent arm holding a palm branch, and the head of Aphrodite on the reverse, and continued the use of the Greek language.
When it became a Roman colony is uncertain. It was occupied as a naval station in the Illyrian War of 178 BC. Julius Caesar took possession of it immediately after crossing the Rubicon. Its harbour was of considerable importance in imperial times, as the nearest to Dalmatia, and was enlarged by Trajan, who constructed the north quay with his Syrian architect Apollodorus of Damascus. At the beginning of it stands the marble triumphal arch with a single archway, and without bas-reliefs, erected in his honour in 115 by the Senate and Roman people.
Ancona was successively attacked by the Goths, Lombards and Saracens between the 3rd and 5th centuries, but recovered its strength and importance. It was one of the cities of the Pentapolis of the Roman Exarchate of Ravenna in the 7th and 8th centuries. In 840, Saracen raiders sacked and burned the city. After Charlemagne’s conquest of northern Italy, it became the capital of the Marca di Ancona, whence the name of the modern region. After 1000, Ancona became increasingly independent, eventually turning into an important maritime republic (together with Gaeta, Trani and Ragusa, it is one of those not appearing on the Italian naval flag), often clashing against the nearby power of Venice. An oligarchic republic, Ancona was ruled by six Elders, elected by the three terzieri into which the city was divided: S. Pietro, Porto and Capodimonte. It had a coin of its own, the agontano, and a series of laws known as Statuti del mare e del Terzenale and Statuti della Dogana. Ancona was usually allied with Ragusa and the Byzantine Empire. In 1137, 1167 and 1174 it was strong enough to push back the forces of the Holy Roman Empire. Anconitan ships took part in the Crusades, and their navigators included Cyriac of Ancona. In the struggle between the Popes and the Holy Roman Emperors that troubled Italy from the 12th century onwards, Ancona sided with the Guelphs.
Trade routes and warehouses of the maritime republic of Ancona
Differently from other cities of northern Italy, Ancona never became a seignory. The sole exception was the rule of the Malatesta, who took the city in 1348 taking advantage of the black death and of a fire that had destroyed many of its important buildings. The Malatesta were ousted in 1383. In 1532 it definitively lost its freedom and became part of the Papal States, under Pope Clement VII. Symbol of the papal authority was the massive Citadel. Together with Rome, and Avignon in southern France, Ancona was the sole city in the Papal States in which the Jews were allowed to stay after 1569, living in the ghetto built after 1555.
In 1733 Pope Clement XII extended the quay, and an inferior imitation of Trajan’s arch was set up; he also erected a Lazaretto at the south end of the harbour, Luigi Vanvitelli being the architect-in-chief. The southern quay was built in 1880, and the harbour was protected by forts on the heights. From 1797 onwards, when the French took it, it frequently appears in history as an important fortress. Ancona entered the Kingdom of Italy when Christophe Léon Louis Juchault de Lamoricière surrendered here on 29 September 1860, eleven days after his defeat at Castelfidardo.
On 23 May 1915, Italy entered World War I and joined the Entente Powers; in response the Austro-Hungarian Navy attacked Ancona, causing extensive damage and killing several dozen people.
During World War II, in July 1944, the city was taken by the Polish II Corps as part of an Allied operation to gain access to a seaport closer to the Gothic Line in order to shorten their lines of communication for the advance into northern Italy.