by Judith Anne Testa
Ostia Antica is just as well-preserved as Pompeii, without the crowds, commercialization and travel time.
Ostia Antica is Rome's answer to over-crowded, commercialized and inconveniently located Pompeii. Situated half an hour from central Rome, the amazingly well-preserved ancient city of Ostia was once the port of Rome. Through it passed many of the luxuries and necessities the capital city received from the colonies and provinces of its vast empire. Goods would then be transferred to barges and carried up the Tiber to the docks of Rome. Today the site is far less visited than Pompeii, although it's a lot easier to get to, and is a much more relaxing place to spend a day.
According to legend, the town owes its foundation to Ancius Marcius, the fourth king of Rome, in the seventh century BC, although the earliest remains found date from the 300s BC. It lies at what used to be the mouth of the Tiber, where that river emptied into the Mediterranean, and takes its name from the Latin "ostium," meaning mouth of the sea. Over the centuries, however, the mouth of the Tiber silted up, and today the city is several miles inland. Ostia was Rome's first colony, founded as a military outpost to guard the mouth of the river against sea-borne invasions. But as the Romans conquered the lands around the Mediterranean -- turning that huge body of water into what they called "Mare Nostrum," Our Sea -- the town lost its military character and its port assumed commercial importance. Among the many products that arrived at Ostia was the vital grain supply from North Africa, on which the city of Rome depended.
The importance of Ostia is reflected in the scale of imperial patronage lavished on the town. In the first century AD the emperor Tiberius sponsored the building of the town's Forum, and a few years later Claudius ordered the construction of a new and larger harbor named, appropriately enough, Portus. When that silted up -- a sign of problems to come -- the emperor Trajan had a second and even bigger harbor, hexagonal in shape, constructed slightly to the north in the year 113 AD. Trajan's successor, Hadrian, regularized the city's street pattern and commissioned the building of entire new districts. At its peak of prosperity, Ostia covered 10,000 acres and had around 100,000 inhabitants, making it three times the size of Pompeii.
But unlike Pompeii, which was principally a resort town where wealthy Romans had their summer homes, Ostia's population was mostly working class -- it was a town full of dock workers, bargemen, and merchants running small maritime businesses, as well as an ever-changing population of sailors on leave from the many ships moored in the harbor. The presence of the latter guaranteed that the town would be well supplied with taverns, snack bars and brothels. Although its buildings never came close to matching the splendor of nearby Rome, Ostia also lacked Rome's teeming and squalid slums, full of the impoverished and unemployed. Rome's port was a town of modestly successful, hard-working people, and it boasted full employment.
Unlike Pompeii, suddenly submerged intact under ashes and lava from Mount Vesuvius, Ostia suffered a gradual decay. Problems with the silting up of its harbor continued, and Trajan's larger harbor to the north of Ostia took business away from the city. By the time of Constantine in the first decades of the 300s AD, the town had ceased to be an active port, and had become a somewhat down-at-the-heels resort town. St. Augustine mentioned the decaying conditions when he passed through in the late 300s; his mother, St. Monica, had died at an inn in Ostia. After the end of the Roman Empire in the late 400s, Ostia fell into even deeper decay, and was finally abandoned in the ninth century.
Since the town's remains were exposed both to the elements and to anyone who wanted to carry off whatever the last inhabitants had left behind, Ostia suffered a "slow sacking." During the Middle Ages bricks from many of the buildings were carted away and used for new construction in Rome and elsewhere. Both the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the cathedral of Orvieto were built of bricks and other materials taken from the ruins of Ostia. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods architects helped themselves to marble from Ostia for the palaces they were building in Rome, and some of them also excavated in search of ancient statues. In the early 1800s Pope Pius VII organized some early archaeological expeditions, and during the Mussolini era extensive exploration and excavations were undertaken. Archaeological investigations continue, but the relative lack of luxury buildings at Ostia means that the finds have not been as dramatic as those made at wealthier Pompeii.
Nonetheless, Ostia is well worth an afternoon or a morning visit, although enthusiasts of Roman archaeology would no doubt want to spend a full day there. An especially pleasant aspect of Ostia is its tranquility. No modern buildings, roads, or telephone wires are visible, and the site is never crowded with tourists, despite its proximity to Rome. You can walk along Ostia's mile-long, paved main street and find your feet settling into the deep ruts left by the four-wheeled carts the ancient inhabitants used to haul merchandise and baggage between Ostia and Rome. Since Ostia was never burned or otherwise deliberately destroyed by invaders, its buildings (those not dismantled for their materials) are in a remarkably good state of preservation, with some of them still standing several stories high.
Once inside the site, it's a good idea to stop at the little bookstore and café near the entrance and buy a guidebook -- you'll enjoy this ancient, utilitarian city a lot more when you know what you're seeing. The spot where modern visitors enter is the same one the original inhabitants used -- it's where Via Ostiense, the road connecting Ostia and Rome, ends (Via Ostiense means "the way to Ostia") and the town's main street, the "Decumanus Maximus," begins.
Although in an article of this length it's impossible to mention all the points of interest at Ostia, it might help the reader to know something about the scope of the town. Despite the destruction and wear and tear of centuries, there are still many identifiable structures: 19 bath houses, 22 private homes, 66 insulae (apartment blocks), containing 162 apartment units, 2 mills, 3 laundry-dye shops, a theater, and 18 Mithraea -- the latter sites where locals worshiped the popular Persian deity Mithras. There are also numerous temples and an early Christian church, as well as the oldest synagogue in Europe. In addition, the city contains warehouses and business establishments, along with hundreds of taverns, many of which apparently also functioned as brothels -- they often have a series of tiny rooms on the second floor. At the edge of the town is a graveyard and near the city center a public (VERY public!) latrine.
Simply by walking straight down the town's main street, the visitor can enjoy many of Ostia's principal sights. Just past the entrance on the right are the Baths of the Cisiarii, or Cart-Drivers. Although cart-driving may seem like a humble occupation, in a town so focused on commerce, their activities were essential and the members of this brotherhood were prosperous. The site preserves a wonderful black-and-white mosaic floor that shows cart drivers in vigorous action, moving people and merchandise. A little further along is a much larger and more luxurious bath complex, called the Baths of Neptune, because of a spectacular mosaic showing the sea god in a chariot drawn by four pawing seahorses. This is what's known as an imperial bath -- one whose construction was sponsored by an emperor or, in this case, two emperors. The baths were begun by Hadrian and completed by Antoninus Pius in 139 AD.
Continuing along the Decumanus Maximus, you'll come to a theater founded in the late first century BC by the emperor Augustus and expanded and rebuilt in 196 AD. Although the seats have been restored so that modern theatrical performances can be held here, the original three-story-high architectural backdrop that formed the theater's permanent scenery is now totally missing. One of the largest structures of the city is just behind the theater: the Forum of the Corporations. This huge rectangular portico, built in the mid-first century AD, was the center of Ostia's thriving commercial life, where all business connected with the city's maritime affairs was conducted. Sixty-four different maritime companies had their home offices here, with mosaic inscriptions and pictures specifying and publicizing the activities of each.
The images of ships are particularly interesting, as they give us an excellent idea of the vessels the Romans used for transporting merchandise from all around the Mediterranean world. This is where you'd come if you were in charge of shipping something to Rome, whether it was olive oil from Spain, wheat from North Africa, sugar from India, or African wild beasts for the blood sports of the Colosseum. Rising on a high podium at the center of the forum are the remains of a temple, probably dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of grains, since grain shipping was Ostia's single most important business. The name of the goddess has given us the English word "cereal."
About midway along the length of Ostia's main street you'll come to the "Forica," or public latrine. Although attached to an apartment building and making use of the same sewer system as the facilities inside the building, it was for the use of passersby. Originally roofed, with high walls, and windows up near the roof, the latrine offered no privacy within. A long bench with many holes extends around all four sides of the room, and beneath that ran a continuous flow of water. Occupants sat cheek-to-cheek, so to speak. There were two small doors that faced the street, and there seems to have been a pivot in the middle of the threshold, so they turned when pushed, rather like our modern revolving doors. Whether this facility served both sexes is unknown.
Also facing out to Ostia's main street is the Thermopolium, the ancient equivalent of a combined tavern and snack bar. There's a marble counter at the entrance, where clients in a hurry could come from the street and grab a quick stand-up meal -- the ancient Romans invented fast food. Both hot and cold drinks were available, including hot wine sweetened with honey, and flat bread with various vegetables and meats on it (that's right -- ancient Roman pizza!), as well as sausages. How do we know what people ate here? Because the wall above some shelves in the central room preserves a fine painting that displays the food served -- an illustrated menu. In a courtyard to the left, paved and containing a little fountain, clients could consume more leisurely meals.
Just past the Thermopolium, the Decumanus Maximus leads into the city's main forum -- the center of Ostia's political and religious life. It's blessedly small in comparison to the vast Roman Forum and the Imperial Forums in Rome, but it includes a senate house, and a temple dedicated to the goddess Roma and the deified emperor Augustus. As you continue across the forum, the Decumanus Maximus angles off to the left, and there you'll find the Caupona of Alexander Helix. The word caupona means a low-life tavern, and this one has the name of its owner written in mosaic on the entrance floor. Its counter for serving wine is still in good condition. The floor mosaic suggests the place was pretty rowdy -- there's Venus with Cupid (sex for hire upstairs?), a scene of two wrestlers in violent combat, and another of two female dancers in grotesque postures.
The presumably noisy caupona stood at the edge of town, right next to the city's Marine Gate, a spot that once looked directly out to the sea, then only a few hundred feet away. After passing through the remains of the gate, you can zigzag to the left, to the right, and then to the left again, finally reaching the remains of Ostia's synagogue, which created quite a stir when it was unearthed in 1960. Datable to the second century AD, it's the oldest synagogue to have been found in Europe. Since Ostia was a mercantile community and most Jews of that era were merchants, it's not surprising that there was a Jewish population in Ostia, just as there was in Rome, another reminder of how ancient Italy's Jewish community is. One of Rome's oldest Jewish families bears the name "Di Porto"; its members are descendants of the Jewish bargemen who plied the river route between Ostia's port (Portus) and Rome. The site of the synagogue has become a popular spot for modern Roman Jewish couples to hold their weddings.
Of course there are dozens of other sites to be seen at Ostia -- Mithraic shrines, a church, temples, bathhouses, apartments -- and many are in such good condition that visitors are allowed to climb around in them. Although none of the roofs remain, enough of the buildings survive to make it easy for visitors to imagine the lively and bustling life of this sturdy and unpretentious Roman town.