Ancient Roman Port-City Ostia

For almost six hundred years, the Roman port of Ostia served as the chief conduit of trade between Rome and the rest of the Mediterranean world. According to historian Michael Grant, “Ostia…handled the largest volume of goods of any Mediterranean port except Alexandria.” Ostia’s growth began in the pre-Republican period, emerging in the second century AD as a flourishing commercial city of over 50,000 inhabitants. Today, the ancient ruins demonstrate that Ostia was one of the most diverse cities of the Roman World.

Serving Rome as the chief naval and commercial port in Italy, Ostia represented both a microcosm of Roman urban life as well as a community of rich diversity.

The Early Years and development of Ostia

Ostia was founded in the fourth century BC by the Roman King Ancus Marcius, although Grant attributes the founding to a later king, Servius Tullius. The initial encampment was tied to the exploitation of the salt beds at the mouth of the Tiber. The name Ostia comes from ostium, meaning the river mouth.

At the start of the Roman Republic, the Romans established a military colony at Ostia after destroying Ficano and defeating the Etruscans at Veii in 396 BC. The fortress built on the site of the future metropolis was designed to protect against invasion from Greek and Syracusian forces as well as dealing with piracy.

During the Punic Wars, Ostia served as the chief naval port for Roman fleets. It was from Ostia that Cornelius Scipio sailed with his legions to Spain. With Rome’s victory over Carthage after the Third Punic War, Ostia became the chief element in Rome’s mastery of the Mediterranean, and through its port the many imports so important to the Roman lifestyle and well being would flow.

Poor harbor conditions forced the construction of a new port, Portus, not far from the city. Although originally advocated by Julius Caesar, the new facilities were begun during the reign of the Emperor Claudius and eventually fully completed by Trajan and Hadrian. The new port dramatically increased the commercial prospects of Ostia, causing a building spree that could only be described as a miniature Rome. Public buildings, numerous baths, and the building of merchant associations complemented the rows of 4-5 story homes making up the city.

V. Santa Maria Scrinari argues that this period, the vibrant second century, defined patterns of urbanization and methods of building that allow contemporary historians and archaeologists the ability to fully appreciate Roman imperial living. Lionel Casson agrees, contrasting the ruins of Pompeii with those of Ostia. While Pompeii represented an agricultural city, Ostia’s characterizations are more far-reaching in terms of imperial urban life.

Scrinari states that “the surviving architecture…represents the nearest we come to a typical example of a Roman town.” Contributing to this representation is the rich diversity of people, mostly middle-class, as evidenced by tomb depictions in the Ostia necropolis. Images of various ancient world gods and goddesses attest to the multi-cultural nature of the Ostia community. Ostia even had a sizeable Jewish community.

Decline of Ostia

Although Ostia’s commercial decline may be linked to third century troubles felt universally through the empire, it was Constantine’s moving the imperial capital to the East that ultimately ended the traffic flowing through the city. In the late 5th century Vandals sacked Ostia and as Christians began to build great edifices in Rome, the city was plundered of its stone, notably marble. St. Peter’s Basilica contains marble carted from the ruins at Ostia.

The ruins of Ostia, Ancient Rome’s seaport and gateway to the empire, are less than fifteen miles from the heart of Rome. While Pompeii receives thousands of visitors yearly, Ostia is largely neglected. Yet Ostia provides an excellent opportunity to explore and experience Rome at it’s zenith of power, commercially and politically. The ruins are remarkably well preserved and detail everyday life in Ancient Rome through nine centuries. Visitors spending more than a day in Rome should consider visiting this example of Roman life and culture.

Ruins of Ostia – Today’s look

A meaningful exploration of Ostia begins at the Porta Romana and follows the main road into the heart of the city, passing the restored Theater, prominent baths, and a variety of other structures. What makes Ostia different from Pompeii or Herculaneum is its longevity, spanning 900 years of Roman cultural and social life. The ruins under the shadow of Vesuvius represent agricultural communities snuffed out in the first century. Ostia, by contrast, represents a true merchant city that allows the visitor to gain a more complete picture of everyday life that changed over the many centuries of Roman hegemony.

The Theater, restored in the 1940s, still displays the original foundations. It is one of the first major sites on the path. Further along, the visitor encounters the Baths of Neptune, public baths where visitors can still marvel at the intricate mosaic patterns bordering the floors. Eventually, the ruins become more pronounced as the walk winds into the former city.

The Forum at Ostia

Ruins of Ostia Forum.
Ruins of Ostia Forum. Image: OverRome

The Forum is much smaller than the Forum Romanum and is dominated by the Capitolium, used for Roman state religion and once covered in the finest marble. Most of Ostia’s precious marble was carted to Rome in earlier centuries following the fall of the Empire as Christians began to build great basilicas. Today the Capitolium is a mass of red brick, the top accessed by steep stone stairs. At the Forum, the visitor can also see the Temple of Rome and Augustus, the market or Macellum, and the Forum Baths.

Near the Forum, the visitor can obtain a detailed look at social life in the Ostia museum. The museum features hundreds of marble sculptures and statues, part of the collection of over 3000 excavated from Ostia and its environs. Hundreds of artifacts document every aspect of Roman life from amphorae to terra cotta lamps. Replicas can be purchased in the gift shop.

Sources:

  • Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) see chapter 7.
  • Michael Grant, History of Rome (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978).
  • Michael Grant, The Ancient Mediterranean (History Book Club, by arrangement with Plume, member of Penguin Putnam, 1969) p 291.
  • Angelo Pellegrino, Ostia Antica (Rome: Soprintendenza Archeologica di Ostia, 2001).
  • V. Santa Maria Scrinari, Ancient Ostia (Rome: Vision S.r.l., 1981).