Ostia Antica is a large archeological site, close to the modern suburb of Ostia, that is the location of the harbour city of ancient Rome, 15 miles (25 kilometers) southwest of Rome. "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.[2] The site is noted for the excellent preservation of its ancient buildings, magnificent frescoes and impressive mosaics.


The old entrance of the city


Ostia may have been Rome's first colonia. According to the legend Ancus Marcius, the semi-legendary fourth king of Rome, who was the first to destroy 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.[3] The oldest archaeological remains so far discovered date back to only the 4th century BC.[4] The most ancient buildings currently visible are from the 3rd century BC, notably the Castrum (military camp);[5] 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.[6]

Civil wars

Ostia was a scene of fighting during the period of the civil wars between Gaius Marius and Sulla during the 1st century BC. In 87 BC, Marius 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, Marius moved on to attack and capture Antium, Aricia and Lanuvium to further destroy the foodstores of Rome.[7]

Sacking by pirates

In 68 BC, the town was sacked by pirates.[8] During the sack,[9] the port was set on fire, the consular war fleet was destroyed, and two prominent senators were kidnapped. This attack caused such panic in Rome that Pompey the Great arranged for the tribune Aulus Gabinius to rise in the Roman Forum and propose a law, the lex Gabinia, to allow Pompey to raise an army and destroy the pirates. Within a year, the pirates had been defeated.[10]

The town was then re-built, and provided with protective walls by the statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.[11]

Imperial Ostia

Map of Ostia Antica.
insulae of Ostia Antica.

During Julius Caesar's time as Dictator, 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.

Public latrinae.

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 harbor 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,[12] in order to reduce the erosive forces of the waves.[citation needed] Moreover, it must be noted that at a relatively short distance, there was also the harbor of Civitavecchia (Centum Cellae). These elements took business away from Ostia itself and began its commercial decline.[12] In 2008 British archaeologists discovered the remains of the widest canal ever built by the Romans, 90 feet, which they believe connected Portus with Ostia across the Isola Sacra, which would have made the transport of large quantities of goods far easier than by land transport. In 2014 remains on the north side of the river opposite the city were discovered and the built-up area of the city extended beyond the perimeter of the south wall (the area within it is 69 hectares or 173 acres).

Ostia itself was provided with all the services a town of the time could require; in particular, a famous lighthouse. The popularity of the Cult of Mithras is evident in the discovery of eighteen mithraea.[13] Archaeologists have also discovered the public latrinae, organised for collective use as a series of seats that allow us to imagine today that their function was also a social one. 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.[14]

Late-Roman and sub-Roman Ostia

Santa Aurea church.

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.[15][16][17] Ostia became an episcopal see as early as the 3rd century AD, the cathedral (titulus) of Santa Aurea being located on the burial site of St. Monica, mother of Augustine; she died in an inn in the town in 387.

In time mercantile activities became focused on Portus instead. It used to be thought that that the city entered a period of slow decline after Constantine I made Portus, Ostia ceasing to be an active port and instead becoming a popular country retreat for rich aristocrats from Rome itself.[12]. In spite of the fact that Portus shows substantial growth in the 4th century the view that Ostia went into marked decline has had to be revised due to recent excavations and re-evaluation of the evidence. For scholars of the High Empire Ostia was the seaside version of Rome, the city of apartment buildings but became in late period "Rome's seaside luxury resort." The knocking down of some apartment blocks replaced by houses of the rich "were thought to have signaled the disappearance of Ostia's once-vibrant group of non-elite residents and laborers"..."recent research has suggested we take a more nuanced view of residential patterns and social demography in the Late Antique city". [18] Earlier views of decay relied on fleeting references in the ancient sources and excavators ignoring evidence from the period that the town continued to thrive despite pockets of decay into the 6th century, "..life in Ostia ended not with a Vesuvian bang but with a whimper" after a slow decline from the 6th to the 9th centuries: repairs on baths (26 remained in operation during the 4th century) and public buildings, church construction, street repaving, residential and business expansion beyond the perimeter of the south wall (the presence of a small harbor, the Porta Marina on the sea there) and a huge 4th century villa located east, and the continued operation of the river port on the western edge of the town, the navalia, a squarish basin built in from the river, a warehouse on the east side and behind it a large bath complex erroneously called the palazzo imperial). [19]

The city was mentioned by St. Augustine when he passed there in the late 4th century.[20] The poet Rutilius Namatianus reported the lack of maintenance of the city ports in 414 AD.[21]. This view has been challenged by Boin who states Namatianus' verse is a literary construct and not consistent with the archaeological record, ibid. pp. 22, 25, (the poet was lamenting the lost greatness of Rome after the sack of 410 and was hoping for the rise again of the great city).

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.[12]

Sacking and excavation

Ostia housed a late imperial mint; this coin of Maxentius was struck there.

A "local sacking" was carried out by Baroque architects,[when?] who used the remains as a sort of marble storehouse for the palazzi they were building in Rome.

Soon after, foreign explorers came in search of ancient statues and objects.[who?]

The Papacy started organizing its own investigations with Pope Pius VII; under Benito Mussolini massive excavations were undertaken from 1939 to 1942[22] during which several remains, particularly from the republican period, were brought to light. The first volume of the official series Scavi di Ostia appeared in 1954; it was devoted to a topography of the town by Italo Gismondi and after a hiatus the research still continues today. Though untouched areas adjacent to the original excavations were left undisturbed awaiting a more precise dating of Roman pottery types, the "Baths of the Swimmer", named for the mosaic figure in the apodyterium, were meticulously excavated, in 1966–70 and 1974–75, in part as a training ground for young archaeologists and in part to establish a laboratory of well-understood finds as a teaching aid. It has been estimated that two thirds of the ancient town are as yet unexcavated. In 2014, a geophysical survey using magnetometry, among other techniques, revealed the existence of a boundary wall on the north side of the Tiber enclosing an unexcavated area of the city containing three massive warehouses.[23][24]

Modern day

The excavated site of Ostia Antica is open to the public as a tourist attraction. A number of finds from the excavation are housed on-site in the Museo Ostiense.[25] The site has dining, and other facilities.[26] The Theatre is also occasionally used for cultural events.[27]


  • Ostia was featured in the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, both written by British novelist Robert Graves. The novels include scenes set at Ostia spanning from the reign of Augustus to the reign of Claudius, including the departure of Agrippa to Syria and Claudius's reconstruction of the harbour. In the 1976 television series, Ostia was frequently mentioned but never actually seen.
  • Ostia features in A War Within: The Gladiator by Nathan D. Maki. After an assassination attempt on Emperor Commodus the protagonists Antonius and Theudas escape by clinging to a barge on the Tiber, reaching Ostia, and stowing away on a trireme heading north to Ravenna.
  • Ostia appears briefly towards the end of the Roman Empire section of the 1981 comedy film History of the World, Part I, where the main characters board a galleon (bearing the El Al logo) bound for Judaea. In the film, however, Ostia is only ever referred to as simply "the port".
  • Ostia is mentioned several times in the 2005 HBO/BBC historical drama series Rome.
  • Ostia is mentioned in the 2000 film Gladiator, when the protagonist, Maximus, learns that his army is camped at Ostia and awaiting orders.
  • One of the wonders buildable in the "Rise and fall of the Roman Empire" mod for Sid Meier's Civilization III is called the "Portus Ostiae"
  • Ostia is the name of the Magic World's lost kingdom and the location of the gladiatorial games in the manga series Negima!.
  • Ostia is the name of the most important city in the also fictional Lycian Alliance, in the Fire Emblem series.
  • Ostia is mentioned in several novels in the Lindsey Davis Marcus Didius Falco series.
  • Ostia is featured in the film Rome Adventure from 1962.[28]
  • Ostia is a central location in the children's novel series The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence, and its television adaption.



  1. ^ "History - Ostia Antica". www.ostiaantica.beniculturali.it. Archived from the original on 13 July 2017. Retrieved 2 September 2017. 
  2. ^ "Ostia-Introduction", OSTIA Harbour City of Ancient Rome, 2008, retrieved 2008-10-24, The ancient Roman city of Ostia was in antiquity situated at the mouth of the river Tiber, some 30 km (19 miles) to the west of Rome. The shoreline moved seawards, due to silting, from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. Therefore Ostia is today still lying next to the Tiber, but at a distance of some three kilometres (1.9 miles) from the beach. Ostia is Latin for "mouth", the mouth of the Tiber. The river was used as harbour, but in the Imperial period two harbour basins were added to the north, near Leonardo da Vinci airport. The harbour district was called Portus, Latin for "harbour". 
  3. ^ "Ancus Marcius, the fourth of the kings from Romulus after the founding of the city [Rome] founded this first colony" (Anco Marcio regi quarto a Romulo qui ab urbe condita primum coloniam --- deduxit).
  4. ^ https://www.britannica.com/place/Ostia
  5. ^ http://www.ostia-antica.org/intro.htm
  6. ^ White, Michael. "OSMAP Building Types". www.laits.utexas.edu. Retrieved 1 September 2017. 
  7. ^ Appian, The Civil Wars, 1.8, ed. Horace White, 1899
  8. ^ Robert Harris, "Pirates of the Mediterranean" New York Times, 30 September 2006
  9. ^ Cicero, On the Command of Cn. Pompeius, 33
  10. ^ Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Yonge, C. D. (Transl.). "To the citizens on Gnaeus Pompeius's command". Wikisource. Retrieved 1 September 2017. For why should I complain of the disaster of Ostia, and of that stain and blot on the republic, when almost under your very eyes, that fleet which was under the command of a Roman consul was taken and destroyed by the pirates? O ye immortal gods! could the incredible and godlike virtue of one man in so short a time bring so much light to the republic, that you who had lately been used to see a fleet of the enemy before the mouth of the Tiber, should now hear that there is not one ship belonging to the pirates on this side of the Atlantic? 34And although you have seen with what rapidity these things were done, still that rapidity ought not to be passed over by me in speaking of them.—For who ever, even if he were only going for the purpose of transacting business or making profit, contrived in so short a time to visit so many places, and to perform such long journeys, with as great celerity as Cnaeus Pompeius has performed his voyage, bearing with him the terrors of war as our general? He, when the weather could hardly be called open for sailing, went to Sicily, explored the coasts of Africa; from thence he came with his fleet to Sardinia, and these three great granaries of the republic he fortified with powerful garrisons and fleets; 35when, leaving Sardinia, he came to Italy, having secured the two Spains and Cisalpine Gaul with garrisons and ships. Having sent vessels also to the coast of Illyricum, and to every part of Achaia and Greece, he also adorned the two seas of Italy with very large fleets, and very sufficient garrisons; and he himself going in person, added all Cilicia to the dominions of the Roman people, on the forty-ninth day after he set out from Brundusium. Will the pirates who were anywhere to be found, were either taken prisoners and put to death, or else had surrendered themselves voluntarily to the power and authority of this one man. 
  11. ^ [1], Ostia Antica, A guide to Excavations, Pellegrino, 2000
  12. ^ a b c d "Ostia - Italy". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 1 September 2017. 
  13. ^ Griffith, Alison. "Topographical dictionary - Mithraism". www.ostia-antica.org. Retrieved 1 September 2017. 
  14. ^ L. Michael White, "Synagogue and Society in Imperial Ostia: Archaeological and Epigraphic Evidence" The Harvard Theological Review 90.1 (January 1997), pp 23-58; Anders Runesson, "The Oldest Original Synagogue Building in the Diaspora: A Response to L. Michael White" HTR 92.4 (October 1999), pp 409-433; L. Michael White "Reading the Ostia Synagogue: A Reply to A. Runesson", HTR 92.4 (October 1999), pp 435-464.
  15. ^ http://www.travelthruhistory.com/html/historic60.html
  16. ^ https://books.google.com/books?id=v3Pf4qand_8C&pg=PA436
  17. ^ https://books.google.com/books?id=YbtxTd95IjwC&pg=PA467
  18. ^ Ostia in Late Antiquity, Douglas Boin, 2013, Cambridge University, p. 65
  19. ^ ibid. pp. 21, 24, 52-53, 56, 57-65, 165, 231-236
  20. ^ "St. Augustine at Ostia". celt.ucc.ie. Retrieved 1 September 2017. 
  21. ^ "RUTILIUS NAMATIANUS". www.ostia-antica.org. Retrieved 1 September 2017. 
  22. ^ https://www.britannica.com/place/Ostia
  23. ^ Thomas, Emily (17–19 April 2014). "Archaeologists Unearth New Areas Of Ancient Roman City". huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  24. ^ Earl, Graeme. "New city wall discovered at Ostia". University of Southampton. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  25. ^ "The Ostiense Museum - Ostia Antica". www.ostiaantica.beniculturali.it. Retrieved 2 September 2017. 
  26. ^ "Ostia - Visiting the ruins". www.ostia-antica.org. Retrieved 2 September 2017. 
  27. ^ "Teatro romano di Ostia Antica". www.turismoroma.it. Retrieved 2 September 2017. 
  28. ^ "Rome Adventure, Filming Locations". IMDB.com. IMDB. Retrieved January 25, 2017. 


  • Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro. The Romans: From Village to Empire. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP (2012): 248
  • Hermansen, Gustav 1982. Ostia: Aspects of Roman City Life (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press)
  • Meiggs, R. (1960) 1973. Roman Ostia 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press) The standard overview.
  • Packer, James E. 1971 The Insulae of Imperial Ostia" M.Am.Acad. Rome 31
  • Pavolini, C. 'Ostia: Guida Archeologica Laterza (Rome:Laterza) (Italian)
  • Lorenzatti Sandro, Ostia. Storia Ambiente Itinerari Roma 2007 (Rome:Genius Loci)

External links