A visit to Ostia Antica

Jan 15, 2019 | Bible Archeology | 0 comments

If you have ever enjoyed walking around the ruins of Pompeii – but deplored the crowds and the commercialism – then a visit to Ostia Antica is just for you.

Ostia was the sea port for ancient Rome, founded in the 4th century BC at the mouth of the Tiber to guard the water-route to Rome. Two hundred years later it was a flourishing city with as many as 100,000 inhabitants, for Ostia had become the main landing place for cargos destined for Rome and as that city prospered, so Ostia also flourished. By the time of Christ it was the place where the grain ships from Egypt and Africa unloaded, where exotic animals for the circus landed on Italian soil, where the thousands of merchants, politicians and tourists who had business in the capital of the world arrived.

Like all sea ports, however, Ostia was fairly non-descript. No one ever wrote panegyrics on its beauty or waxed lyrical about its architecture. People came and went with their eyes firmly fixed on their destination, heedless of the unimportant stopping places on their way. In fact, the only reference to Ostia that I can recall occurs in St Augustine’s confessions, where he describes the death of his mother, St Monica.

Following his conversion to Christianity, Augustine abandoned his career as a teacher of rhetoric in Milan and headed back to his north African home. Together with his mother he travelled overland to Rome, and then the twenty miles to Ostia, where they stayed for several days waiting for a boat. Ostia was no health resort – nearby marshes may have provided a home for mosquitoes and malaria – and Monica fell sick. As the illness progressed and it became clear that the outcome was likely to be fatal, both Augustine and his brother were distressed at the thought of leaving their mother in this insalubrious port. When they expressed this to her, she smiled and said, “Nothing is far from God and I need have no fear that He will not know where to find me when He comes to raise me to life at the end of the world.”

She forbade them to embalm her body or to raise any costly monument to her memory, either there or in Africa. After her funeral, Augustine reports that he visited the baths in Ostia, as he had been assured that they helped to soothe away griefs – though in his case the therapy failed to work.

It is possible that he visited the Baths of Neptune, just inside the Roman Gate, whose ruins are the first thing that the visitor encounters after paying 10,000 lire for a ticket. Here you can admire a well preserved mosaic which measures 55′ x 36′ and depicts Neptune riding in a chariot drawn by four horses.

Ostia’s importance as a port came to an end when the harbour silted up and the coastline extended a mile further out to sea. With no further reason for existence, the city declined and was eventually deserted, leaving 10,000 acres of ruins among which the local shepherds grazed their flocks. In 1483 Pope Julius II plundered the ruins for bricks to build a massive castle. Marble columns and limestone paving were broken up and burned to make lime mortar to hold the bricks together, and one must suspect that more than one ancient statue disappeared into the lime kiln, which still stands in the ruins of the Baths of Neptune.

Today the archaeologists have rediscovered and excavated the ruins of Ostia and a one hour train journey will take you there from Rome. You can wander round the city at your leisure, untroubled by the hordes of tourists that clog up the streets and alleys of the more famous Pompeii. Here, however, you are seeing a typical Roman city, for Pompeii was really a Roman pleasure resort where the rich and famous went to escape from the noise and bustle of the capital. Ostia, however, was a working city.

Perhaps nowhere is this brought home more obviously than in the insulae or appartment blocks, the crowded tenements where the workers lived. These buildings, which could be three or four stories high, varied from crowded warrens of tiny appartments where labourers and their families lived much like people do in the third world today, to luxury flats like those in Manhattan or Ealing. Marble staircases led to comfortable dwellings whose kitchens boasted lead pipes through which hot and cold water flowed. Down in the courtyard of these luxury flats there might be a swimming pool, but whether rich or poor, all the insulae were served by a communal toilet, and the visitor today can chuckle over the forica with twenty marble seats around its four walls. The ample ventilation probably owed more to the smell than to a love of fresh air!

In all cases the ground floor of the insula was given over to shops, restaurants and bars. Marble shelves held rows of clay pots and jars while the walls were decorated with fresco depicting the goods on offer – sausages, wine and vegetables. Back rooms held ovens and stoves where the food was prepared while the patrons sat around a small pool in the open air patio.

Because of lack of space, people sat at tables to eat in these restaurants. At home they would reline on couches, propped up on the left elbow while they reached for their food with the right hand. This was also the way in which the men ate at the Collegiate Temple, where members of the club would meet regularly for banquets that might start in the early afternoon and continue until the following dawn. These communal meals were either in honour of the gods or held to commemorate (and at the expense of) club members who had died.

So crowded were the tenements of Ostia, that a special guild of firemen was established to deal with the fires that broke out from unattended cooking fires or over-zealous use of the hypocausts and central heating. In 132 AD a headquarters building and barracks was erected for these men, equipped with all modern conveniences such as a dining room and toilet, sleeping quarters, offices and a small chapel where the divine emperor could be worshipped.

As in Pompeii, we can learn a lot about the habits and customs of Roman times by examining the lay-out of the city. For example, it is probably significant that the city laundry, where small pottery tubs were set into brick counters, stood next door to the public baths. Men and women could enter the baths and disrobe in the changing room, then go into the hot, cold and tepid rooms to relax, bathe, talk or do business deals. When they were ready to leave, their freshly laundered clothes would be ready for them.

Other forms of recreation were available in Ostia, as in any Roman city. There was the theatre, built in 12 BC, and large enough to hold 3,500 spectators. The importance of Ostia can be guaged by the fact that Ovid’s Medea was premiered here to great acclaim; it is a pity that the play is now lost. The platform of the stage is still intact, but the three-story backdrop of pillars and porticoes has fallen into ruins.

There was also a large open space for gymnastics, a popular form of exercise believed to be beneficial to health and necessary training for military affairs. Ostia also boasted a library which, while not as large as the famous libraries of Alexandria or Pergamum, nevertheless provided information and amusement to the upper classes of the city.

Most of the business in the city was conducted in the Forum of the Corporations, where a pillared portico housed the offices of sixty-four merchant shipping companies. In front of each office a rectangle of mosaic in the floor gave the name of the company inside and a small picture or icon representing the business in which each specialised.

At one end of the forum stood the temple of Ceres, the goddess who presided over fertility and prosperity. This, however, was not the only place of worship in Ostia.

As a sea port, Ostia was subject to many influences from the seamen and travellers that thronged the harbour. Sailors are notoriously superstitious and naturally wished to placate their various gods before setting out on the uncertain sea. Worship required temples and shrines and the remains of these buildings and the cult statues can be seen in Ostia: Isus and the mysteries of Osiris were a popular Egyptian cult that gained many adherents in Italy, Cybele the Great Mother from Asia Minor also had a large following. The Greek gods and goddesses were represented in Ostia, as well as a Jewish synagogue outside the city walls, built by Jewish lightermen whose barges transported goods along the Tiber to and from Rome.

Eventually Christianity also established its presence in Ostia and there are the remains of a Christian basilica among the ruins. As in most places in the Roman empire, however, there was persecution of Christians in the early days and tradition speaks of a certain Aurea who was martyred in Ostia and who is commemorated in the chapel inside Pope Julius’ castle.

In summer there is a boat service to Ostia Antica: tickets include admission to the ruins and a 90 minute guided tour of the ruins (in Italian, unfortunately) as well as a meal on board. More leisurely tourists should plan to spend four hours if they wish to see everything. The site is open at 9.00 in the summer and 9.30 in winter. Unlike Pompeii, from the heart of the ruins nothing else is visible – no modern buildings, no intrusive electric wires and no roar of traffic from a nearby autostrada.

The modern world is not entirely absent, however. There is a small museum where objects found in Ostia are displayed, and a number of eating houses and cafes where the hungry visitor can sample typical Italian pasta and pizza before going out to trudge along the wheel-rutted roads or fight through the tangle of briars and weeds that fill many of the ancient courtyards.

Article used with permission of Diggins Online. You can find more useful material at Apologtetics Courses, Free Courses and Brethren Assembly. Secular materials can be found at Coins Encyclopedia and Guide For Income

Archeology Course 3, Lesson 1

Archaeological science (also known as archaeometry) consists of the application of scientific techniques and methodologies to archaeology. One can divide archaeological science into the following areas Physical and chemical dating methods which provide archaeology...

Biblical Archeology Free Bible Course 2, Lesson 2

Study Bible, Theology, Ministry Masters and Doctoral Diplomas in Trinity School of Apologetics and Theology — A Bible School and Seminary With a Difference! Biblical Archeology Free Bible School Course 2, Lesson 2Milestones in Biblical Archeology Milestones prior to...

Biblical Archeology Bible School Course 2, Lesson 1

Biblical Archeology Bible School Course 2, Lesson 1

Study Bible, Theology, Ministry Masters and Doctoral Diplomas in Trinity School of Apologetics and Theology — A Bible School and Seminary With a Difference! Biblical Archeology Course 2, Lesson 1Biblical Archaeology, A Detailed Introduction Biblical archaeology is the...