Mosaic from an insula (apartment building)

Mosaic from an insula (apartment building)

Who you would meet:

Ostia would likely be filled with all kinds of different people at any given time, because of its importance as a Roman port.  The first proven Roman structure is the Castrum, a military fort built around no later than about 400 BCE. Archaeologists are still arguing over the date.  During this time you would likely meet mostly Romans, primarily Military men and the many people it took to feed and clothe them. You might also meet some pirates. Pirates are the likely reason Rome had for building a fort at Ostia.

As time passed Ostia grew into a large city centered around the port in the 2nd century BCE. Ostia was an important stop on the grain supply to Rome. This means you would meet Romans who lived and worked in Ostia, as well as Romans on their way to and from Rome. There would also be foreigners from all over the Mediterranean in Ostia on both a permanent and temporary basis.  Many would come from Egypt and North Africa where most of the grain would have been grown.

As Ostia grew more and more people and  goods came through the port.  This meant that there would be an ever greater variety of people living and visiting the town.  You would meet people from all over though it is likely that most of the permanent population would be Roman. Most of the sailors would likely be foreign, bringing goods in, even if they worked for a Roman.

By the 2nd century C.E. Ostia was a cosmopolitan port city that was around for several centuries. There is evidence of all kinds of people living in the city, most notably a synagogue from around the 5th cent. CE indicating that there was a large Jewish population in the city in its later years.

Fun Fact: Ostia got its name from the Latin word for mouth (os) because it is located at the mouth of the Tiber River.

The Theater at Ostia

The Theater at Ostia

Why would you go there?

Since Ostia is the primary sea access to Rome, most visitors would be there on business, usually shipping or trade. There might also be travelers on their way to Rome for other reasons. Anyone who had traveled primarily by sea en route to Rome would probably stop in Ostia. In Ostia there would be lots of ships coming in to unload cargo, primarily grain and other food goods but also other imports like metals, and animals for the arena.

You would also travel to Ostia to reach other places in the Roman Empire. A Roman may go there to catch a boat to visit lands he owns in Spain, or a military man to his station. The destinations from Ostia would be other ports in the Mediterranean. Places farther away would be reached by land travel or river boats.

How would you get there?

Most travelers would reach Ostia by water travel. From Rome it would be a barge down the Tiber river. People arriving from other ports would come in large ships. These ships would mostly be merchant vessels. Even travelers coming with out large amounts of goods to sell would find passage on a merchant ship. In Roman times there was no such thing as a passenger ship. A few civilians might arrive on military vessels, but that would be fairly rare.

Before you left Ostia you might do some praying to the gods for protection and leave offerings at temples. Any traveler would pray to Mercury for safety and a wise sea traveler would also pray to Neptune, the god of the sea.

Mosaic of Neptune from a public bath complex now called the Baths of Neptune

Mosaic of Neptune from a public bath complex now called the Baths of Neptune.

Fun Fact: The ancient city of Ostia is no longer on the coast of Italy. Silting from the Tiber river has increased the shoreline 3km since ancient times.

What was Ostia like?

Ostia was a large and popular city during it’ s hayday. It a very busy port, a necropolis (city of the dead) on Isla Sacra, a forum, and theaters. There were also lots of the ordinary things found in almost all Roman cities. There were shops, temples, baths, bars, inns, apartments and brothels. The city would be busy in general too. The people who lived there would be doing everyday things, as well as all the visitors finding food and lodging. Most of the city’s economy would be based on the port and trade industry and the people there were proud of their work with the trade network and the sea. Their are many mosaics that depict ships, trade goods and sea motifs. Many of these mosaics come from the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, or the Forum of the Corporations. This market space near the theater has shop stalls decorated with depictions of the goods sold there. Ostia would also be a good place to see some exotic animals. The animals captured in other parts of the world would be brought here, then bought and sold for the circus games and gladiatorial combat.

Elephant mosaic from the Forum of Corporations

Elephant mosaic from the Forum of Corporations


Ostia: Harbor City of Ancient Rome. http://www.ostia-antica.org/

University of Texas at Austin Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins. Ostia Synagogue Area Excavatons (Osmap). http://www.utexas.edu/research/isac/web/OSMAP/OSMAP_Home.html

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