As Rome was growing into the most important city in the world, the nearby seaside town of Ostia was developing apace, to become the official port of ancient Rome. Today, this well-preserved ancient city is the closest image of what Rome must have looked like at the height of its power. At just 20 kilometers from Rome, Ostia provides curious visitors with a convenient way to witness and explore the everyday life as if frozen in time of a Roman city. So much so that it has earned the nickname “Rome’s Pompeii.”
The name Ostia comes from the Latin word ostium, or mouth, in this context of the Tiber River, which reached the Tyrrhenian Sea adjacent to the city.
The earliest vestiges of the city’s foundations date back to 355 BC, when the Romans took control of the coastal outlet after having defeated the inhabitants of Veio and Anzio. But it was the city’s use as a port, from which goods could be easily taken in and out of Rome along the Tiber, that Ostia rapidly developed into a city of exceptional importance. It reached its apex in the 2nd century AD under emperors Trajan and Hadrian, when it had a population estimated at between 60,000 to 80,000.
Ostia flourished under a number of Roman emperors: Caligula established the water supply, Claudius formed the fire brigade, Antoninus Pius built the bath complex, and Maxentius founded the mint in AD 309. It was a thriving, mostly working class city, but in the centuries that followed, pirates, Vandals, Goths, and Saracens arrived,
sacking and looting everything they could get their hands on, and the city was eventually abandoned
in the 9th century.
Nearly a millennium later, excavations were begun by 19th-century popes, and continued all the way to the time of Mussolini, when the most thorough digs took place. The result is an extraordinary archaeological site one of the largest and most important in the country that can be visited with an easy day trip from Rome. It is even more alluring considering that no ancient site in the city of Rome has been conserved so completely.
Your visit starts at Porta Romana, where Via Ostiense (a street that still today leads all the way to Rome) comes to an end, and the Decumanus Maximus Ostia’s “main street” that crosses the city from east to west begins. Next up are the Baths of the Cisiarii, featuring a beautiful mosaic floor illustrating scenes of the lives of the eponymous carters, complete with the names of their mules and other pack animals. Don’t miss the Baths of Neptune, with a decorative black-and-white floor mosaic depicting the god driving four seahorses. Other baths include those of the Seven Sages, which are decorated with satirical portraits of the Greek sages with mocking captions a testament to the irreverent spirit of the Romans. Along the Decumanus is also the 2500 seat theater, renovated in the 2nd century BC and again in the 1920s. It is still in use to this day for open-air performances during the summer months. Next to the theater is the Foro delle Corporazioni, where 70 commercial guilds from all over the world had their offices. Their trademarks appear in the mosaic floors of the arcade, including images of boats, fish, and elephants. Ostia was primarily a city of sailors and merchants, and as such, it boasted shrines to all religious creeds.
In fact, here you can find the oldest synagogue of the Western world, dating back to the 1st century AD. The Persian god
Mithras had no fewer than 17 sanctuaries here, and Anatolian goddess Cybele, Phrygian god Attis, Sabine goddess Bellona, and Greco-Egyptian god Serapis were also venerated here at several places of worship. Other sites that deserve a mention include the Baths of the Forum, the House of Diana with its apartments for rent, and a tavern with its original marble bar and a fresco showing what was on the menu. If a visit to the archeological site leaves you craving more, pop into the attached museum, which conserves the principal finds from the excavations, including a marble statue of Emperor Hadrian’s wife Sabina, an altar depicting Mithras slaying a bull, and countless other artifacts and artworks giving witness to everyday life in the bustling town of Ostia.