Ostia: Like Pompeii, but closer (Part 1)

Like many travelers on their trips to Rome, I was at first tempted by a day-long excursion to Pompeii. However, at a closer look, I decided to swap the three-hour ride to a twenty-minute one, and visit the remains of Ostia Antica instead.

Ostia Antica doesn’t share Pompeii’s wide publicity – I cannot recall either a magnificent painting or a Hollywood blockbuster, dedicated to it. Among other things, it means, that during the visit you will not have to suffer among the crowds of tourists!

Statue of Minerva.

Statue of Minerva.

Ostia emerged as a major mercantile town as early as 1st century BC, and soon became virtually a gateway to Rome for everyone arriving in the capital by sea. Despite being subsumed into the empire fairly early, the town fiercely guarded the signs of its independence, however illusionary. For example, above the gates I’d expect to read SPQR, the usual inscription, meaning “Senate and the People of Rome” (as well as the title of Mary Beard’s excellent book). However, instead I saw “SPQO” – that is, almost the same, but with O for the Latin name of the town, which is hailed instead of the imperial capital.

Ostia didn’t have Pompeii’s dubious fortune of being buried (and conserved) under volcanic ash. However, the properties of local mud helped to preserve most of the town for us to see. I could admire the remains of diverse and multicultural civilization, which flourished in Ostica over the centuries. As I’ve said, it was a mercantile city; people from all over the vast empire and far beyond worked and settled here.

A well-preserved cemetery just beyond the erstwhile city walls offers an amazing insight. One can look, for example, at a family mausoleum, including a statue of lars – minor god-protector. To ensure, that the family members will be well-cared about, their relatives would adorn the statue with flowers and offerings.


Some ads, set in mosaic.

On the same cemetery, you can see a tomb of a priestess. Her name, Metilia Acte, is still legible on the sarcophagus. She didn’t worship at the altars of conventional Roman gods, the gods of the spreading empire. Instead, she served Cybele, the Great Mother of Phrygia. Her cult was widespread Ostia, where Asian population was very numerous. Ostia accommodated a great variety of faiths. There, you could find worshippers of Isis, the Egyptian goddess, whose cult predated the birth of the Roman Empire by thousands of years. You could meet the followers of Mithras, a tough warrior-god, who came to Rome from Persia (but later became very popular among soldiers, serving on the Scottish border). You could see what is now considered the oldest synagogue in Europe. Small museum, located on site, showcases original statues of various deities – some now entrenched in popular imagination and popular culture, some long-forgotten.

This colourful array of faiths is somewhat mirrored by no less colourful array of ethnicities. If you were to wander Ostia streets in its heyday, you would see people from what is now Germany and Spain, Greece and France, Syria and England, Algeria and Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia. You’d see goods from all over the world unloaded in the port. Grain from Egypt, the breadbasket of the Empire, would be transported to this Empire’s giant, insatiable capital. Amber from the Baltic will be set into necklaces and adorn the necks of olive-skinned Roman girls. Elephants and tigers from the African shores will be slaughtered during the games, set in Ostia’s great amphitheatre.  And, if you are new to the place, but want to buy something – from local fish to sapphires from Sri-Lanka – then these helpful ads, set in black mosaic, will tell you about the available goods and here to find the vendors.

The older post of Ostia, the port of Claudius, where goods-laden ships used to arrive, has been incorporated into the area of Da Vinci airport. Some of its features can be seen among the meadows, streets, parking lots, and office buildings. Here’s to the continuity of history…

At first, I intended to squeeze the wealth of Ostia’s heritage just in one blog post. However, in the end I decided to be merciful to my poor readers and cut it into two smaller articles.

So, to be continued! Next week, we will see visit the Roman baths and learn, why you WOULDN’T want to rent a penthouse in a Roman development…


Alberto Angela, The Reach of Rome (UK edition)


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