Exploring the jewels of Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient seaport

Ostia Antica is the perfect day-trip from Rome. The ancient ruins of this seaport town hold similar charm to more well-known sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, but it is easier to reach from the capital and much less crowded with tourists.

I chose it as the main expedition for my mother’s visit earlier this month. We travelled by metro from Rome’s Porta San Paolo station (next to the Piramide stop), which took about half an hour. Entrance tickets cost 11 euros each, including an exhibition in the museum. We were lucky with the weather as the skies were crystal clear but it was not too hot, being November. These sites are better avoided on scorching summer days, as there are few places to hide from the sun.

Ostia used to sit at the mouth of the river Tiber (and is the latin word for “mouth”). From about the second century BC it served as a commercial harbour, gradually developing to handle imports such as grain, wine and marble to supply Rome. However, the shoreline slowly moved towards the sea from the Middle Ages, so nowadays the remains of the city are about three km from the beach.

At its peak the population was around 50,000, including many slaves. The city started to decline after earthquakes in the third and fourth century, and as nearby Portus stole trade from Ostia. For a time after this it became a site for expensive houses owned by merchants. In later centuries, as the town was slowly abandoned, its marble was reused for cathedrals in Pisa, Florence and Orvieto.

When we passed through the Roman gates of the site, we arrived at the Decumanus Maximus, the main street through Ostia, which continued the road that originally ran all the way to Rome.

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We walked along the Decumanus Maximus and reached the square of Victory, where we saw this statue of a winged Minerva (which is actually a plaster-cast, the original is in the museum):

IMG_2698We then arrived at the first true “jewels” of Ostia: the baths of Neptune, originally built by Hadrian (117-138 AD) and Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD). Here we admired the wonderful black-and-white mosaics of Neptune and his wife Amphitrite. Neptune is riding on a chariot, surrounded by nereids and other sea creatures. Amphitrite is accompanied by a winged eros, a symbol of their marriage:

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The next site we came to, which I view as the jewel in the crown of Ostia, was the ancient theatre. This was originally built in the first century BC by Agrippa, Emperor Augustus’ lieutenant. It was then enlarged at the end of the second century AD, when it could seat 4,000 people for shows. The stage of the theatre could be flooded for water displays.

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I particularly liked the large theatrical masks, which used to decorate the building:

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After eating lunch in the theatre we wandered up towards the museum. On the way we stopped in the well-preserved bakery, where bread was made for the people of Ostia. Here you can still see the millstones, kneading machines, and the oven! Here’s a millstone:

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The museum close to the mill bakery has a stunning collection of statues from Ostia and Portus. Here are some of my favourites:

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The Head of Victory, from a statue originally in the Temple of Rome and Augustus, Ostia Antica

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Priest sacrificing to Cybele, from the cemetery of Portus, 3rd Century AD

We then wandered up to the Forum, the central square of Ostia. Here we saw the Capitolium: a large temple dedicated to the Capitoline triad of Gods, Jupiter, Minerva and Juno and built by Hadrian.

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Here’s a video to give you an idea of the atmosphere in the Forum:

Further on from the square other sites of interest include the Round Temple, which is the last major temple built in Ostia. There is not much left of it today except for some columns and other remains. Close to this is the House of the Fishmongers, which used to be the site of some fish shops. Here you can still see some interesting mosaics on the floor, depicting a dolphin, a fish and an octopus. You can also read the inscription “INBIDE CALCO TE”– “Envious one, I tread on you”. It either refers to the dolphin talking to the fish, or to the octopus. It supposedly had the powers to avert evil or bad luck.

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These were my favourite parts of Ostia Antica. I also especially liked being there in the late afternoon, when the skies emphasised the atmosphere of a forgotten time, especially around the temples:

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For more information on Ostia Antica, see here

It is also worth printing this very useful free guide of the site before you visit

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