The island was inhabited from neolithic through Roman times. According to local legends, Ponza was allegedly named after Roman governor Pontius Pilate, the man who tried Jesus for heresy. This legend has recently come into dispute amongst historians, because the name Pontia appears in Strabo's Geography. It is not known if this is the same name as Ponza or a similar name.
In ancient times the island was called Tyrrhenia. Legend says that Ponza is what is left of the lost island of Tyrrhenia. Ponza is said to have been connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land, which sank into the sea with most of the island below the water, with the parts remaining above sea level. The same exact phenomena happened at Capri. According to legend, there was a large city on the ancient island. There has been significant archaeological progress recently that shows this may be true. For example, it was discovered that the harbor floor of Pozzuoli had sunk and risen several times in the last 5,000 years, revealing sunken Roman temples.
Ponza was first colonised by Etruscans from Etruria. The island was heavily forested with giant trees in ancient times, but the forest is gone and the trees are extinct and the hills are covered with man-made terraces that resemble the terraces of Peru. The tallest hill on the island, called Monte Guardia, still has the rotting stumps of the extinct giant trees over eight feet wide. Crops are grown on these terraces like grapes for wine and cactus pears and fig trees.
Ponza is also suspected to be the island of Aeaea in Homer's Odyssey, as the island of the Circe the sorceress, where her cave or grotto was. Today it is known as Grotta della Maga Circe on the west side of the island, between Capo Bianco and Chaia di Luna beach. She was said to have lived in this cave in the Winter months. Spending the Summer atop nearby Mount Circe on the Mainland of Italy. This is where the Circe turned Odysseus men into animals and cast her spell on and seduced him and lived with him for a over a year. On the west side of Ponza is the Grotta di Ulisse O Del Sangue, which means Cave of Ulysses of the Blood. The Grotto or cave is almost directly underneath the hill/peninsula called Il Belvedere, which has the Giardino Botanico Ponziano a botanical garden with a villa and the remains of a castle. These caves or grottos are popular destinations to visit by boat only. * Archaeologists are now investigating Ponza in search of evidence of Homer's Odyssey.
During Roman times, Nero Caesar, eldest brother of Caligula, was deported to Ponza in AD 29, where in 30 he was put to death. Two of his sisters, Agrippina the Younger (mother of the emperor Nero) and Julia Livilla were exiled to Ponza in AD 39 for their complicity in a plot to overthrow Caligula. They were recalled to Rome in AD 41. Julia Livilla had a mansion named Palazzo Giulia (Julia's Palace) built specially for her on Ponza. The ruins are still visible there. A similar mansion with the same name was also built on nearby Ventotene for Emperor Augustus' exiled daughter, Julia the Elder.
Ponza was abandoned during the Middle Ages due to constant raids by Saracens and pirates. In 1552 the Ottoman fleet under the command of Turgut Reis (known as Dragut in the West) defeated the Spanish fleet of Emperor Charles V under the command of the famous Genoese admiral Andrea Doria near Ponza. During the 18th century, the Kingdom of Naples re-colonized the island. Today the island is World famous as a major tourist attraction with big sandy beaches like Chiaia di Luna or Half Moon Beach.
Ponza has suffered many invasions, just like nearby Sicily and had been captured at one time or another by the English, Spanish, Greeks, French, Moors, Carthaginians, Libyans, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Anatolians, and Canaanites. Even a place on central Ponza is called "Campo Inglese" which means "English Camp" for where the troops were garrisoned. Several Fortresses can still be seen around the island.
The island became part of the Kingdom of Italy in the mid-19th century and it is now part of the Republic of Italy. The island's isolation destined it to serve as a penal colony by various regimes. During the two decades of fascism, Ponza and the nearby Ventotene, served as a prison for political opponents of Mussolini's regime. The Ethiopian leader Ras Immiru, who was captured by the Italian Army in 1936, was imprisoned in a house in Santa Maria. Mussolini himself was imprisoned on the island for several weeks after being overthrown and arrested in 1943.
The island is well known for the tragic story of Lucia Rosa who threw herself into the Tyrrhenian Sea rather than being forced to marry a man against her wishes. She is viewed by many women around the world as a martyr for women's rights and symbol for human rights.
A few years ago engineers working on an ancient Roman tunnel that connected the harbour part of Ponza to the neighborhood of Santa Maria, used explosives to dig a conduit nearby — they were supposed to use a chisel. The explosive shock shattered and destroyed this 2,100 year old Roman Gallery Tunnel.
In the late Summer/early Fall of 2007, Six "Aquanauts" spent two weeks living underwater off the coast of Ponza, breaking all other records.
Ponza is the largest in the Pontine Islands, which are the remains of extinct volcanos, with a surface area of 7.3 square kilometers. Ponza is approximately 5.5 Miles long by at its widest. It is a crescent shaped island with one large beach called Spiaggia di Chiaia di Luna (Half Moon Beach) and a few small beaches and has a mostly rocky coast made of kaolin and tuff rock. The island has layers of Kaolinite and Bentonite which used to be mined. It has many odd natural rock formations, one looks like a monk, another looks like a giant pair of work pants, Spaccapurpo (Arco Naturale O Spaccapolpi), another looks like a patch of flowers and another one looks like mushrooms, another looks like a horseman. It also has Faraglione's or giant sea stacks made of solid rock. It has several small villages,among them are Commune di Ponza, Santa Maria and Le Forna. Ponza is often confused with nearby islands like Ischia and Capri, except Ponza has no active volcanism.
The island is famed for its Blue Grottos, which were created by the Etruscans. It has the Serpents Grotto and the Roman Gallery which is a Roman tunnel that connects the town of Ponza to the large sandy beach called Chiaia di Luna on its west side. The island has many archeological ruins visible all over. There are Egyptian, Canaanite, Greek, and Phoenician Necropoli ruins at the middle of the island. There are Etruscan ruins on parts of the island jumbled with Roman ruins. A large statue called Il Mommio or Il Mitreo ("The Mummy", or Mitraeum) is a 3,000 year old marble statue that was found in the harbour. The statue is now displayed in a museum in Napoli. It is the oldest Etruscan statue of its kind.
Many landowners on Ponza digging in their gardens, often find Etruscan and Roman artifacts that are quite valuable and unique, like ornate frescoes or tiled floors. These are often covered up and kept forever by the landowners, as the Italian government would find out and confiscate the whole property and nearby adjacent properties. Italian law clearly states that when such artifacts are found, the land must be automatically bought and owned by Italy, so that the residents should move out and modern buildings there be torn down, so that Archaeologists can dig and find even more ancient artifacts. This law causes these discoveries to be kept secret, discouraging Archaeological science. Thousands of landowners there are secretly keeping these treasures hidden and in secret until they die and their children are also unwilling to lose their land.
The four mines that are at the northern end of the island were closed down in 1975 by the Italian Environmental Protection Agency, because the mining operation was destroying the wildlife and flora, which are Endangered species. They were mining kaolin and Bentonite. Kaolin is used in making Kaolin-Pectate medicine. Ponza has a road that goes from north to south, but can accommodate small cars only. The planned airstrip at the north of the island was canceled, due to environment concerns. Seaplanes frequent the island because of this.
Celebrities who have vacationed on Ponza include Kirk Douglas, his son Michael Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Gina Lollobrigida, Elsa Martinelli and Sophia Loren, Jacques Cousteau and his son, Philippe Cousteau who filmed several documentaries in the area. Also, Wes Anderson's film "The Life Aquatic" was filmed on the island, dubbed in the movie, "Port-au-Patois". .
Most of the people who live there raise rabbits and chickens and other animals in coops for meat to make cacciatore. Other farmed animals include goats, lamb and pigeons and Water Buffalo to make Mozzarella Cheese.