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Ostia Antica – The Perfect Half Day Trip from Rome – You’re Here!
Ostia Antica is by far one of the most interesting ancient cities I have visited and I love how convenient yet off the beaten path it is. Ostia Antica, the ruins of the ancient Roman port city of Ostia, is located just half an hour away from Rome by public metro and yet hardly anyone knows about the ruins. If you love ancient Roman ruins and do not have the time to visit Pompeii or simply want to see two different ancient towns than I would suggest a stop at Ostia.
A Little History on Ostia Antica
The city of Ostia was founded in the 7th century B.C.E. by the fourth king of Rome, Marcus Ancus, and it became Rome’s first colonia or Roman outpost in conquered territory. The city was originally located along and at the mouth of the Tiber river. Ostium means mouth in Latin hence the name Ostia and this city was essential to Rome’s power and growth because of the salt trade.
Fun Fact: Salt was used as currency during this period. In fact, the word salary comes from the Latin word “salarium” which means money paid to the Roman army to purchase salt.
While we know that Ostia Antica was founded in the 7th century B.C.E. because of the literary sources there is no actual archaeological evidence of this early period of settlement. The earliest remains found at Ostia are from the 4th and 3rd century B.C.E. when Rome built their military camp at the site. As the Roman Empire began to expand so did Ostia and its role as the port city of Rome.
Ostia Antica grew in importance enough that they were deemed part of Rome and given the seal of SPQO (Senatus Populusque Ostia- the Senate and the People of Ostia) which you can still see at the entrance of the city. The city eventually reached its peak in the 2nd century C.E. with a population of roughly 75,000 people. As the port city of Rome, Ostia Antica had a unique role in the empire and was almost always the starting point for people entering Rome via the Tiber River. Therefore it was a very cosmopolitan city with a place for the arts, the government, trade, and of course, all the gritty things that come with port cities like drinking establishments and brothels.
Walking through Ostia is like visiting a microcosm of the Roman Empire. You have the grandeur of Rome, the grittiness of port cities, the highrises of a large “modern” Roman city and everything in between. Unfortunately for Ostia Antica, when Rome began to decline so did the city. The upside is that Ostia declined so much in fortune that it was never sacked by the Barbarian hordes as Rome was sacked leaving a relatively intact city for us to study and visit today!
Top Sights in Ostia Antica
There is so much to see in Ostia Antica as this was a truly cosmopolitan city. However, we wanted to take the time to mention some of the most famous sights and some lesser known sights all of which were integral to the city as a whole. They also showcase the diversity of the city and how important Roman building was to the creation of a unified and homogenous Roman Empire.
Baths of Neptune
The Baths of Neptune are one of the first impressive sights that you will encounter when you enter Ostia Antica. They were built by Emperor Hadrian in 139 C.E. and were a gift to the people of Ostia. Baths were an important part of Roman daily life because they were the one extremely cheap activity that was open to all classes. The cost to enter the Baths of Neptune was just one small bronze coin, called asses – yes, I am serious, which was equal to a glass of cheap red wine. In addition to the cheap cost, the baths were also open from 1 pm to 1 am which made them accessible to everyone.
These baths are particularly impressive because of the remains of the black and white mosaics that still cover the floor of the baths today. These mosaics are not just decorative but also functional. The mosaic depicting Neptune, the god of the sea, earthquakes, horses and raw power, was to show that this was the men’s dressing room. And the mosaic with the female water goddess designated the female changing room. The large open, grassy area was also part of the baths and was the Palestra or gym. Here the Romans could work out especially through boxing and wrestling which they did in the Greek style… which means they were naked.
The House of the Vigili
The House of the Vigili is one of the most interesting ruins to be found at Ostia Antica because it is actually the remains of the ancient Ostian fire department. The men who were stationed here were from the Roman army and spent four months out of the year here acting as firemen and night watchman. The reason we know that this was where the firemen lived is thanks to a series of inscriptions which cover the building.
When exploring the two level House of the Vigili, where the firemen lived, don’t miss a chance to wander to the back and see the latrines. Yes, these are the firemen’s ancient toilets. It is surprising though how much you can learn from them. These were very social spaces where you could find shrines, friends could have a chat and if you were afraid of cold marble slaves to warm it up for you.
It wouldn’t be a Roman city without some entertainment. The Romans after all coined the phrase “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses) and it was said that that was all you need to make the people happy. Whenever the Romans colonized a new city they always had a few pieces of infrastructure they built including a theater or amphitheater, a forum and bath complexes.
The theater is no different here at Ostia Antica except that the city had been a military camp for about three hundred years before the theater was constructed in the 1st century B. C.E. by Marcus Agrippa. (You may recognize the name Marcus Agrippa from the inscription at the Pantheon) The theater is built along the Decumanus Maximus which was the main east-west oriented road in the city (and all major Roman cities built along a grid pattern) and the one that connected to the city of Rome. The theater became a major part of Ostia Antica and its culture. It also reflected the growing size of the city. So much so that Emperors Commodus, Septimius Severus, and Caracalla doubled the size of the theater from around 2,000 people to 4,000 people in the late 2nd-century C.E.
As you explore the theater you may notice that it is in remarkably good shape. That is thanks to the refurbishments completed by Mussolini, although it would have been double the height it is today in its heyday. The theater remarkably still has the remains of some of its stage including the decorative masks carved into marble pillars which reflect the different characters usually found in Roman plays. More often than not Roman theater was filled with typical characters including the drunk old lady, the witty slave, the rich man, etc… These typical characters made the plays easier for all people to understand especially in a port city where a multitude of languages were spoken.
The thermopolium was integral to the daily lives of the people of Ostia Antica, especially those that lived in the insula (apartments) across the city. Because these apartments were built from wood after the second story it was too dangerous to light cooking fires (and also explains the presence of the House of the Vigili) and so they would head to the thermopolium daily. So what were they?
In essence, they were the world’s first fast food stands. The thermopolium was where local people could go to get a hot meal, especially during lunch which was the largest and most important meal of the day – and still is in Italy. The food usually on offer was different types of grain, vegetables, pork, fish, and poultry. We know this thanks to the remains of the frescoes on the walls that acted as the menu. The Roman people had a varied diet but it never included much red meat and that was one of the reasons that the Ancient Romans were shorter people.
Perhaps the most important element of the Roman diet was their condiment, garum, which was served out of the divots in the countertop at the thermopolium. Garum was a type of fermented fish sauce that was ubiquitous through the Roman Empire. This sauce was ideal for the Roman diet because it did not need to “be refrigerated”. Instead, it acted as a preserving agent and actually brought moisture back to dishes along with a large dose of salt and fermented fish.
Temple to Ceres and Piazza della Corporazione
Behind the theater is the Temple to Ceres, the goddess of grain, and the Piazza della Corporazione. This square was the main sight of commerce in Ostia Antica and was extremely important to the wealthy and influence of the city. Here there were around 40 shops that all specialized in something different.
Today we know what many of those shops specialized in thanks to descriptive mosaics that cover the floor of the shops. You could find anything here from shipbuilding, olive oil from Cadiz, Spain, leather traders, grain importers, traders of wild animals, and the list goes on and on. These shops, however, did not have any merchandise in them. They are quite small. Instead, they functioned more as offices where people could meet and create deals.
The thing to realize is that these shops were not static for the length of Ostia Antica’s prominence but instead, they were often paved over and new mosaics were created. You can still see some examples of older mosaics underneath and different floor heights because of this repaving process.
The Forum is intrinsic to any Roman city and Ostia Antica is no different. It was the religious and administrative center of the city and was also a spot for the locals to come together for a chat, a prayer, a debate or even a bath. In fact, the Forum is the heart of every Roman city and you can’t miss visiting Ostia’s.
You actually can’t miss it because it is the heart of the city and where the two major roads, the Decamanus Maximus and the Cardo (the main north-south road), converge. The Ostian Forum is dominated by the large Capitolium built by Hadrian and dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. There was a law in Rome that no buildings to the gods could be built on ground level so there were always huge steps leading up to the temple, and this applied to both the Capitolium and the temple across from it dedicated to Roma and Emperor Augustus.
(The cult of the Emperor, especially Augustus, and the reverence of the deified Rome was very important to Rome as they spread their empire. By deifying their emperors and the city it added a sense of religious devotion to the patriotism of their conquered citizens)
Not only is the Forum dedicated to religion but it is also the center of Ostia Antica’s government. There is a basilica which was the Palace of Justice. (All Roman basilicas were the seat of the courts and not a spot for religion but the Catholic church took the shape when they began to build churches across Europe) The seat of the Ostian Senate was also based in the Curia in the Forum. The Forum was also the site of another set of baths, the Forum Baths, which to this day have only been a quarter restored. They offer a great look into how the baths were structured and you can walk through the solarium or tanning room, the cold baths, the warm baths and the saunas.
All of these building structures from the main temples of the Capitolium and the Temple of Roma and Augustus, the Palace of Justice and the baths were integral to all Roman cities. When Rome conquered an area they used religion and architecture to show their dominance not just through the military but also through culture. All of these elements were integral to the romanization of the conquered territories and were meant to increase loyalty to the emperor and his empire.
You can’t leave Ostia Antica without getting a look at the public restrooms just off the Forum. Really, what trip would be complete? The Romans were actually very fastidious and bathing and cleanliness were considered a right to all people. These latrines were open to everyone and were separated by sex. There was constantly running water underneath the latrines so that all the waste would be washed away and keep the latrines fresh. In addition, there was a communal sponge with which they cleansed themselves when they were finished. (While the Romans were fastidious they didn’t know about germ transfer…) The latrines were a popular gathering spot for locals and for all the local gossip!
How to Get to Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica is super easy to get to which is just one of the many, many, many reasons you should visit this amazing sight. The best way to get here is to take the Metro Line B to Piramide. From there you will be able to hop on to the Ostia-Lido Train in the same station. You do not need to buy another ticket, your metro ticket works for this train too! Simply hop on the train and then get off at Ostia Antica.
Once you exit the metro head straight across the pedestrian bridge that goes over Via Ostiense. Then keep walking straight until you cannot anymore. Once you reach a dead end, turn to your left onto Viale degli Scavi. You will then run straight into the entrance of the ruins.
Ostia Antica is open every day except for Mondays from 8:30 am to 7:30 pm during the summer. Please visit their website for closing times during the rest of the year. I would highly suggest visiting in the morning before 10 am to miss the crowds and the Roman heat (especially if you are visiting in summer!). The ticket to enter costs € 8.00 and can be purchased at the gate.
Ostia Antica should be on everyone’s list for what to see in Rome not only because of its importance to the city but because it truly gives you a chance to go back in time and explore what a truly cosmopolitan city looked like. This is also a perfect city to explore without all the crowds! If you are looking for the perfect half-day trip from Rome you can do no better than Ostia Antica! Plus during the summer you can continue on the Ostia-Lido train and head straight to the beach!
Read On to Read the Rest of the Series!
Ostia Antica – The Perfect Half Day Trip from Rome – You’re Here!
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