Ostia Antica is a large archeological site, close to the modern suburb of Ostia, that was the location of the harbour city of ancient Rome, which is approximately 30 kilometres (19 miles) to the northeast. “Ostia” (plur. of “ostium”) is a derivation of “os”, the Latin word for “mouth”. At the mouth of the River Tiber, Ostia was Rome’s seaport, but due to silting the site now lies 3 kilometres (2 miles) from the sea. The site is noted for the excellent preservation of its ancient buildings, magnificent frescoes and impressive mosaics.
Ostia may have been Rome’s first colonia. According to the legend Ancus Marcius, the semi-legendary fourth king of Rome, first destroyed Ficana, an ancient town that was only 17 km (11 mi) from Rome and had a small harbour on the Tiber, and then proceeded with establishing the new colony 10 km (6 mi) further west and closer to the sea coast. An inscription seems to confirm the establishment of the old castrum of Ostia in the 7th century BC. The oldest archaeological remains so far discovered date back to only the 4th century BC. The most ancient buildings currently visible are from the 3rd century BC, notably the Castrum (military camp); of a slightly later date is the Capitolium (temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva). The opus quadratum of the walls of the original castrum at Ostia provide important evidence for the building techniques that were employed in Roman urbanization during the period of the Middle Republic.
Ostia was a scene of fighting during the period of the civil wars Sulla’s first civil war between Gaius Marius and Sulla during the 1st century BC. In 87 BC, Gaius attacked the city in order to cut off the flow of trade to Rome. Forces led by Cinna, Carbo and Sertorius crossed the Tiber at three points before capturing the city and plundering it. After his victory here, Gaius moved on to attack and capture Antium, Aricia and Lanuvium to further destroy the foodstores of Rome. During Julius Caesar’s reign as Emperor, one of his improvements to the city was his establishment of better supervision of the supply of grain to Rome. He proposed better access to grain by the use of a new harbor in Ostia along with a canal from Tarracina.
The town was further developed during the first century AD under the influence of Tiberius, who ordered the building of the town’s first Forum. The town was also soon enriched by the construction of a new harbor on the northern mouths of the Tiber (which reaches the sea with a larger mouth in Ostia, Fiumara Grande, and a narrower one near to the current Fiumicino International Airport). The new harbor, not surprisingly called Portus, from the Latin for “harbor,” was excavated from the ground at the orders of the emperor Claudius. This harbour became silted up and needed to be supplemented later by a harbor built by Trajan finished in the year 113 AD; it has a hexagonal form, in order to reduce the erosive forces of the waves. This took business away from Ostia itself (further down river) and began its commercial decline. Ostia itself was provided with all the services a town of the time could require; in particular, a famous lighthouse. By 1954 eighteen mithraea had been discovered: Mithras had his largest following among the working population that were the majority of this port town. Archaeologists also discovered the public latrinas, organized for collective use as a series of seats that allow us to imagine today that the function was also a social moment. In addition, Ostia had a large theatre, many public baths, numerous taverns and inns and a firefighting service. Ostia also contained the Ostia Synagogue, the earliest synagogue yet identified in Europe; it created a stir when it was unearthed in 1960-61.
Trajan too, required a widening of the naval areas, and ordered the building of another harbor, again pointing towards the north. It must be remembered that at a relatively short distance, there was also the harbor of Civitavecchia (Centum Cellae), and Rome was starting to have a significant number of harbours, the most important remained Portus. Ostia grew to 50,000 inhabitants in the 2nd century, reaching a peak of some 100,000 inhabitants in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. In time, naval activities became focused on Portus instead. A slow decadence began in the late Roman era around the time of Constantine I, with the town ceasing to be an active port and instead becoming a popular country retreat for rich aristocrats from Rome itself (along the lines of Brighton’s relationship to London in the 18th century). With the end of the Roman Empire, Ostia fell slowly into decay, and was finally abandoned in the 9th century due to the repeated invasions and sackings by Arab pirates, including the Battle of Ostia, a naval battle in 849 between Christians and Saracens; the remaining inhabitants moved to Gregoriopolis.
I have visited Ostia twice. The first visit was in 1976, lasted half a day and photos were made using a Praktika XL on Agfa slides.The second visit in 2013 lasted the whole day, photos made with DSLR Canon 1200D by me and Canon S95 by Sophie. The fun part was taking photos at the same location, the last page in the next table shows the 1976 photos with some 2013 equivalents.
|Ostia mosaics in shops|
|Ostia from higher viewing points|
|Ostia photos in 1976 and 2014|