Ostia Antica: Urban Life in Ancient Rome

Like most ancient Roman cities, Ostia was a very organized place, with exceptional city planning.

Ostia Antica was one of the very first colonies established in Italy by the ancient Romans. In its glory days it would have been a bustling, cosmopolitan city made wealthy by trade, industry, and commerce. Connected to the capital via the Tiber River, Ostia received goods from other countries in the Mediterranean and beyond (such as grain from Egypt and olive oil from Greece). Goods were stored in immense warehouses, business was done in the Piazzale delle Corporazioni (the Square of the Corporations), and shipments of valuable commodities were sent upriver to Rome or onwards to other colonies.

Today’s modern city of Rome has amazing glimpses into the glory of the Roman Empire, with buildings such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon, but these sights are still surrounded by many layers of contemporary history and culture. A visit to Ostia Antica, on the other hand, provides a unique and immersive experience of daily life in ancient Rome, within the ruins of a remarkably preserved and isolated ancient Roman city.

Urban dwellings at Ostia Antica, outside of Rome.

The Perfect Location for Prosperity

Situated about 30 km south-west of Rome, Ostia first served as a defensive military base or castrum, established around 620 BCE. The settlement then served as Rome’s main fluvial (river) and sea port, around 200 BCE. The name of the city, “Ostia”, is derived from the Latin word ostium, meaning “mouth”, presumably in reference to the mouth of the Tiber River, where the city was located. Occupied until around 400 CE, Ostia was eventually overshadowed by Portus, the newer and bigger port that was built to better serve Rome, and it declined in importance.

The geography of the archaeological site is quite different today than it was several thousand years ago. The course of the river Tiber has changed, as has the coastline, but in ancient times, the river ran along the entire northern side of the city, with the Tyrrhenian Sea close by. Like other cities that rose to prominence in the ancient world, Ostia’s proximity to both a major river and the sea – essential lifelines for trade and direct communication with Rome – ensured its success.

Visiting Ostia Antica – Highlights, & What to Expect

A day-trip to Ostia Antica provides a wonderful insight into daily life in an ancient Roman city. The ruins are quite well-preserved, and the archaeological site is simply massive. A full day visit is highly recommended!

Ostia Antica isn’t far from the city centre of Rome – about 1 hour’s drive by car or 1 hour by train, with a few changes in train along the way. Summer is generally incredibly hot, and there is little shade or shelter at the archaeological site, so a hat and sunblock/sun protection are highly recommended.

There is a restaurant and gift/book shop, restrooms, and a large parking area should you arrive by car.

Below I’ve outlined the main sights of Ostia Antica, their significance, and how they formed part of daily life in the city. Enjoy!

The Necropolis – Ostia Antica’s City of the Dead

Necropolis on the Via Ostiense – The city’s cemetery, situated outside the sacred boundary of the city walls as per religious tradition.

As per Roman religious customs, the dead were to be buried outside the city walls, in a designated necropolis, or “city of the dead”. As you enter the Ostia Antica archaeological site, you will walk along the Via Ostiense, through the necropolis. Cremation was the most common burial practice, although burial in the earth or in a sarcophagus was also acceptable. Wall-niches in the tombs of the necropolis held urns containing the ashes and incinerated remains of the dead. In addition to simple tombs with niches for cremated remains, you will see several monumental sepulchres in the necropolis. These elaborate resting places were erected by wealthier citizens whilst they were still alive, in preparation for their eventual deaths.

Niches that held urns containing cremated remains.

In addition to the cultural significance of the necropolis, the architecture of the city of the dead is also worth taking the time to appreciate. The innovative Roman brickwork in Ostia is quite impressive!

Beautiful Private Buildings & Public Spaces

Intricate decorative brickwork.

Considering that Ostia was the place where Romans and merchants from all over the Mediterranean mingled to do business, it is no surprise that the city was adorned with decorative brickwork and marble sculptures as symbols of the wealth of the Roman empire. Of particular interest are the floor mosaics of Ostia, which are remarkably preserved and beautifully crafted. One of the most impressive mosaics is that found in the Thermal Baths of Neptune, which depicts Neptune – god of the sea – in a chariot drawn by seahorses and surrounded by fantastical marine creatures. Sadly this mosaic was partly covered when we visited, to protect it from the rain, but in summer it is fully visible.

Restoration work being done on floor mosaics. Mosaics are also protected from the rain with plastic coverings during rainy seasons.

These signature decorative black-and-white floor mosaics are found in both public and private spaces in Ostia – in the public baths, in wealthy homes, and in the commercial centre of the city, or the Piazzale delle Corporazioni (the Square of the Corporations). The scenes depicted in the mosaics are surprisingly beautiful, and a testament to the craftsmanship of the mosaic artisans.

Colourful frescoes on the walls of a private villa. These beautiful paintings show the opulent standard of living and considerable wealth that some merchants had attained in Ostia.

In addition to public works of art, Ostia Antica had an impressive amphitheatre and multiple public baths. Quality of life in Ostia was likely quite high, with a wide variety of food coming in to the port from other countries, the availability of public hygiene and exercise facilities, many job opportunities and housing availabilities, and leisure activities. It must have been quite an interesting city to live in!

The large amphitheatre at Ostia.
Funny faces! Theatre masks outside the theatre.
Public latrines – No chance of privacy.

Public life was an integral part of ancient Roman society. Bathing and using the toilet were public activities, with separate facilities available for men and women. Entertainment was accessible to all, although seating was allocated according to social status. Theatre was especially popular, as we can see from the amphitheatre and the theatre mask sculptures. Temples to multiple deities allowed citizens to fulfil their religious obligations, and religious festivals were regularly celebrated.

Feeding Rome – Commerce & Trade

Ruins of shops in the Piazzale delle Corporazioni (the Square of the Corporations) with mosaic depictions of the goods and services on offer.

Salt was the first commodity that was produced in Ostia and sent to Rome (or traded with neighbouring countries). During the days of the Roman Empire, grain was the most important commodity imported by the capital. The grain was received at the sea port, unloaded from ships from Northern Africa and Southern Italy, stored in warehouses in Ostia, and then distributed upriver to Rome.

Ostia had a highly organized mercantile life. The most striking evidence of this is the series of mosaics outside each of the former shops. There are depictions of ships (for the shipwright’s offices), grain, fish, etc, which must have come in handy for city that received many foreign visitors who would be speaking different languages. There are even images of elephants and other exotic animals, which likely indicated the offices of the importers of wild animals for the Colosseum gladiatorial animal hunts!

Ostia Antica’s Mithraeum, and the Cult of Mithras

The sacrifical knife is missing from the hand of Mithras, who holds the bull still before he cuts its throat.

Likely due to an intermingling of cultures, religious life in Ostia included the worship of foreign deities. The Mithraeum, or temple to the Persian god Mithras, is one of the most interesting religious sights in Ostia Antica. Like all secret temples to Mithras, Ostia’s Mithraeum is found underground, beneath the Baths of Mithras.

Mithras is believed to have been a Persian / Graeco-Roman god who was especially popular with the Roman military – probably because membership involved the opportunity to rise in rank over time. The central scenes to the worship of Mithras are the “bull-slaying scene” (see the statue pictured above) and the banqueting scene, where Mithras and Sol, the Sun God, feast on the slaughtered bull. The Cult of Mithras remains mysterious and secretive, but what we do know is that Mithras seems to be associated with strength, discipline, and brotherhood.

The images below, in black-and-white mosaics found at the Piazzale delle Corporazioni at Ostia, depict some of the levels of initiation in the Cult of Mithras. Below you can see, from left to right:

  • Level 7: Patera (ceremonial libation bowl), rod, Phrygian cap, sickle
  • Level 6: Torch, crown, and whip (Heliodromus, “sun runner”)
  • Level 5Akimakes (Persian hooked dagger), crescent moon and stars
Levels of initiation in the Cult of Mithras.

The statue of the bull-slaying is kept in the Ostia Antica archaeological site museum, and you can visit the Mithraeum beneath the Baths of Mithras.

Industry & Infrastructure – Bakers, Shipwrights, & Fishmongers

Millstones from the bakery

Ostia was a very busy place, full of shops (tabernae), taverns (and likely brothels!), commercial offices, multi-story apartment blocks (insulae), public baths and latrines, temples, and public spaces. Industry was especially important in Ostia – the abundance of grain stored in Ostia’s warehouses kept the city’s bakeries busy, and “Ostia bread” was transported to Rome via the Tiber.

Mosaic on the floor of a fishmonger‘s shop, depicting a dolphin with an octopus in its mouth. The apotropaic* text, INBIDE CALCO TE, means ‘Envious one, I tread on you’.
This protective ‘charm’ is believed to be directed at the dolphin, who scares away fish and is therefore antagonistic to the fisherman. Alternatively, it could refer to the octopus, which is seen as a foe.

* intended to repel the evil eye, to deflect bad luck
Fishmonger at Ostia Antica

Fishing was another lucrative commercial activity – fishermen and fishmongers had guild offices and plenty of business in Ostia. The production and storage of goods coveted by Rome kept Ostia busy and chaotic. There is a remarkably intact fishmonger’s shop that has marble tables and a beautifully decorated mosaic floor.

Insulae – Urban Accommodation in Ostia Antica

Typical accommodation in Ostia was surprisingly “modern” – multi-storey apartments that housed multiple families, with shops on the ground floor. The first floor was usually occupied by wealthier tenants, and the floors above would have been taken by the average citizen. The poorest people would live in the cramped, hot space between the roof and the ceiling, and would pay rent by the day or week. Wealthier citizens have owned their homes, and would have lived in villas of no more than two storeys, with spacious rooms and luxurious décor.

Ostia Antica declines in importance

Ostia had crucial sea and fluvial ports which served the city of Rome, until a newer and bigger port was established around 42 CE by the emperor Claudius. The gradual movement of commerce to Portus, which had a large artifical harbour and larger warehouses, would likely have caused Ostia to lose its importance over time as the centre of trade shifted.

A day trip to Ostia Antica is a must if you’re interested in ancient Rome, architecture, archaeology, or even just a different view of ancient ruins outside of a modern city.