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Posted: Mar 23, 2005  13:12

A Day in the Ancient Roman Port of Ostia


Editors Note: Welcome back Sam, missed your writing and the exciting adventures you share with our readers. We encourage our readers to email Sam with questions or comments on his travels.

Ostia street near theater.
During a two-week study abroad class in Rome, I spent a day in the nearby ancient port city of Ostia Antica. This historical site is largely the remains of ancient buildings and streets of a small city that served as ancient Rome’s seaport. Ostia Antica is about an hour away from Rome by train or car, or perhaps half a day by foot or river barge. This city was a seaport on the Mediterranean shore two thousand years ago, during the height of the Roman Empire, but the alluvial deposits of the Tiber River have moved the coastline steadily west over the last two thousand years so that the ancient seaport is now two miles inland. Today, the crumbling brick remains of the ancient Roman city of Ostia Antica lie fairly well preserved while waterfront resorts of the modern city of Ostia crowd the coastline two miles to the west.

Ostia is probably the best-preserved ancient Roman city in Italy after Pompeii (which was buried after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.). Since Ostia was largely abandoned after the Visigoths sacked Rome in the fifth century, its sturdy brick structures remained in their original positions, gradually decaying and being buried by earth over the centuries until they were eventually excavated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result, modern tourists can wander along a mile long Roman street through the remains of ancient bathhouses, taverns, apartments and temples.

The population of the ancient city of Rome surpassed a million people during the first and second centuries. It was the largest city in Europe ever until London surpassed a million people in the nineteenth century. This unusually large pre-industrial city had to import a considerable amount of grain, wine, olive oil, marble, and lumber from Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia Minor to sustain its population. For example, Rome’s grain came from Sardinia, Sicily, and eventually Egypt as the city grew in size. To facilitate this influx of grain, the Emperor Trajan administered the construction of an elaborate harbor in the vicinity of Ostia in the late first century AD. This harbor, called Portus, consisted of a massive lighthouse, two large breakwaters, a hexagonal enclosed harbor, numerous warehouses, and numerous sculptures including a colossal statue of Emperor Trajan himself.

Torlonia relief.
After this port was completed, huge grain ships from Egypt and other Mediterranean ports called here during the shipping season. The volume of shipping in the ancient world was quite considerable by any standards, as supported by surviving material evidence. Most of the known shipwrecks in the Mediterranean occurred during the Roman era, somewhat circumstantial evidence of a massive volume that surpassed any other era aside from the last two centuries or so. (Of course there is the possibility that shipwreck evidence only proves that the Romans did not excel in shipbuilding!) Another piece of evidence is Mount Testaccio in Rome, a massive pile of discarded amphorae, or clay containers used for shipping wine and olive oil. This massive pile gradually accumulated over several centuries and is at present a major item of interest for archaeologists and historians interested in the extent of Roman economic activity.

Some of the highlights of Ostia include the city streets, the Baths of Neptune, an ancient amphitheater that is still used today for concerts, a collection of offices for international trade, the remains of insulae (apartment buildings), mills, neighborhood taverns, and a mithraeum located underneath another bath house on the far side of the city.

The Via Ostiensis, or the Ostian Way, that connects Rome to Ostia, enters the city through the Porta Romana, or the Roman Gate. Numerous burial tombs surround this entrance to the city, typical of how Roman cities located burial sites outside the city proper. After entering the city, the highway becomes the decumanus maximus (loosely translates as primary arterial street), an important street that extends a mile through decaying brick foundations before it terminates at the ancient waterfront on the other side of town. The paving stones contain ruts, perhaps from heavy carts laden with grain or marble. It was not difficult to imagine this highway as the principle artery between Rome and Ostia, filled with loaded carts, official messengers, and merchants intending to purchase or sell goods. The Tiber River itself was probably an even busier thoroughfare because most of the cargo was sent to Rome on riverboats that were towed by large groups of laborers or oxen.

Ostia bath of Neptune.
Only the brick foundation and a few mosaics remain from the Baths of Neptune on the eastern side of the city. One particular mosaic, a black and white depiction of the god Neptune surrounded by mythological sea creatures gave the structure its name. It is located in the remains of the great hall that led to the various bathing chambers; the frigidarium (cold baths), the tepidarium (warm baths), and the calidarium (hot baths). I remember trying to visualize these chambers fully enclosed, covered with colorful tiles and filled with steam as prominent Romans wandered in for the social convention of bathing, but the bright sunlight and the patches of dried pine needles on the mosaics undermined this effort. Unfortunately on the stifling hot day when I visited Ostia, the fridigarium was only filled with dried leaves and pine needles instead of refreshing cold water.

Ostia Piazzale delle Corp mosaic.
Behind a large and heavily restored amphitheater, still used for concerts today, was the Piazzale delle Corporazione, a rectangular structure with numerous small stalls surrounding a large courtyard. This structure functioned as an ancient office building for merchants, ship owners, riverboat men and other shipping officials. The building itself has been reduced to a few crumbling marble columns and the brick foundations for about sixty stalls around the exterior of the building, each decorated with a preserved floor mosaic that described the activity of the tenant. Many of these identified ancient ports from all around the Mediterranean (which the Romans called Mare Nostrum, or “Our Sea”).

The nearby side streets led to numerous tenements that were originally several stories but reduced to their ground floor by eighteen centuries of decay. Nearby was a bakery with its crude stone grain mills. These three-foot wide and very heavy granite mills had fittings for wooden handles to facilitate turning them by hand, doubtlessly a dreary backbreaking endeavor. A crumbling floor inscription from the remains of a tavern stated: Dicit Fortunatus vinum cratera quod sitis bibe (“Fortune says to drink a bowl of wine for thirst”).

Next, we came to a section of the street lined by arcaded buildings with the second story still intact. The Thermopolium, the remains of a third century restaurant, represented one of many taverns and restaurants that undoubtedly were a part of every neighborhood in the city. Sturdy arches and pillars supported the intact ceiling while stone counters and an oven completed the layout of the facility. A preserved wall painting depicted common foods served here; radishes, olives, eggs in brine and turnips, in addition to bread and wine. I could imagine dozens of sweaty shipbuilders, sailors, travelers, or tradesmen mingling with regulars waiting in line for lunch while enduring the heat.

Thermopolium painting.
The last major structure that we visited in Ostia was the Baths of Mithras, located on the far side of the city from the Porta Romana. The crumbling baths were largely covered with vegetation, but the primary item of interest, a mithraeum located in a small chamber below the baths, was in excellent shape. A mithraeum is the chamber where initiates of the Persian cult of Mithras participated in their rituals. This cult was adopted by the Romans after extensive campaigns in Asia Minor during the second century.

The intact chamber was partially illuminated by sunlight through cracks in the ceiling. A marble statue of Mithras slaying a bull was at one end of the temple lined by stone benches where initiates or participants would sit while partaking in rituals lined both sides of the chamber.

Behind the statue, a dark passageway led into the underground works of the baths, which included chambers for furnaces and reservoirs fed by an aqueduct. The small group of college students that I visited Rome with couldn’t resist heading down that passage despite the initial complete darkness. We followed it into the crumbling chambers underneath the bath structure using only lighters and pocket flashlights for illumination. Our professor’s eight-year-old boy just could not contain his excitement as he explored what appeared to be the bowels of the earth in JRR Tolkien’s Mines of Moria. Hopefully we wouldn’t run into any goblins or psychotic creatures who only wanted to guard their “precious.” Quite frankly, I probably do not need to invoke the mystique of The Lord of the Rings to enhance the experience of exploring an ancient network of chambers and passageways built just a century or two after the birth of Christ.

The muddy passageways were partially filled with seeping water, so the surface was quite slick. Actually the entire expedition was fraught with the perils of unstable footing or unexpected drop-offs, not to mention the possibility of getting lost down there. Nonetheless, we followed the extensive network of subterranean muddy passageways into the ancient structure. A couple of passageways diverted from the main passageway into rooms filled with murky black water, which would have resulted in a cold plunge into icy water for the careless.

The setting of course, lent itself to a sense of unease while we explored dark passages that were exposed to a minimum of sunlight. I couldn’t resist an opportunity to capitalize on this. After I had exited the subterranean vault, I heard two young women from our party behind me also on their way out. I slipped back in and hid around a corner and waited for an opportunity to terrorize them by snarling like a subterranean creature kept in the dark for far too long. I was only partially successful; one of them saw me and looked at me as if to say “That’s nice, now grow up.” But the other woman just about jumped out of her skin. She wasn’t all that happy with me afterwards, but the rest of our group appreciated it at her expense after I told them about it.

A half hour later, our group arrived at the modern version of Ostia, a collection of boxy hotels along the Mediterranean coast, which was virtually walled off from visitors who were not willing to pay three Euros to enter the beach. We body surfed for a while in the gentle waves that washed up on the shore and then swam out as far as we could to see where the shallow water dropped off. The high mineral content of the water made floating easy and also cleared my sinuses immediately, but it burned my eyes.

After swimming in the Mediterranean, we bought huge bottles of cheap Italian beer and sat under colorful umbrellas on the beach and relaxed as the sun dropped over the horizon. I stared at the gentle waves of the Mediterranean as the sun slowly sank over the horizon and contemplated ancient merchant ships loaded with grain or bedecked with amphorae (large pottery jars) of wine or olive oil that used to sail along this coast as they approached Trajan’s massive harbor at Portus.


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