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PORT CITY PROFILE: Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient port

ROME, ITALY – Legend has it that Ostia Antica was founded at the mouth of the Tiber in the 7th century BC by King Ancus Marciusto to protect Rome from attacks coming via the sea. The legend makes sense – threats often came from the sea in Italy. We know that when Ostia Antica was eventually abandoned in the 9th century AD it was due to the repeated invasions and sackings by Arab pirates attacking from the sea.

Coinage of King Ancus Marciusto who is purported to have founded Ostia Antica in the 7th century BC

Once the port of Ostia Antica was properly established, it took on critical commercial functions associated keeping Rome supplied with food. Population estimates of Rome in ancient times vary with some as high as 1 million inhabitants. Efficiently supplying that many people with food and other essentials was critical to the continued existence of the empire. Ostia Antica, like many ports in the world to this day, played a critical but sometimes overlooked role in keeping society afloat.

Today the ancient port of Ostia Antica sits almost 2 miles away from the sea. Like many ports in ancient times, the silt from the Tiber river eventually silted up the port and rendered it useless.

Today, due to silting the ancient port of Ostia Antica lies 2 miles away from the sea.

The everyday life of its citizens

Visualization of the town of ancient Ostia Antica (Credit: Angelo Coccettini)

At its peak, Ostia was a diverse community of 100,000 people. It was however comparatively poor compared to other Roman cities such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Poor or not though, people still had to live, work, eat and attend to their bodily functions. There is much evidence of how the port city residents went about their daily lives remaining to this day.


Casa di Diana – typical multi-tiered tenement building for the working classes

The city was a working-class community. Poorer people lived in multi-storied tenements.  These apartment complexes were usually cramped with no kitchens.  Heating and plumbing were non-existent and garbage was typically tossed out the windows onto the street below.

Baths and toilets

Photo: The Baths of Neptune, Ostia Antica

As the working classes lacked toilets and plumbing at home, public baths and toilets played an essential role in daily life. The baths were intended for public use in Ostia Antica, created as a gift to the public, and were free to use.

Ostia Antica’s famous communal toilets

The communal toilets at Ostia were made of marble and line three sides of the enclosed space. A trough in front of the line of toilets was for the communal sponge which people used to clean themselves after using the toilets. The sponge would be “cleaned” by a stream of water running through. Slaves also could be employed as seat warmers during colder months.


The remains of an old snack bar at Ostia, Antica

Typically, the Romans ate three meals a day. Breakfast usually consisted of bread or a wheat pancake eaten with dates and honey. At midday, common people ate a light meal of fish, cold meat, bread and vegetables. Often the evening meal consisted of the leftovers of the day’s lunch.

Old fishmongers shop in Ostia Antica

Given its proximity to the sea, fish and seafood obviously played an important part in the ancient Roman’s diet. The remains of a fishmonger’s shop, as well as a bakery, are on exhibit at the archaeological site in Ostia Antica.

Types of cargo moving through the port

Roman Trade Routes AD 180 (Source ORBIS, Stanford University)

The Romans were organised in complex ways not seen again until at least the 18th and 19thcenturies. Trade was vital to Ancient Rome. The empire cost a vast sum of money to run and trade brought in much of the money required to keep it afloat. 

Loading cargo onto a vessel

The Romans imported a wide variety of materials from their empire: beef, corn, glassware, iron, lead, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, purple dye, silk, silver, spices, timber, tin and wine.

The main trading partners were in Spain, France, the Middle East and North Africa. Britain exported lead, woollen products and tin. In return, it imported from Rome wine, olive oil, pottery and papyrus.

The arrival of a merchant ship at Ostian where a smaller ship (on the right) is unloading its wine jars.

Ostia’s commercial and shipping interests produced a rich and cosmopolitan city. Adjacent to the theatre is the Forum of the Corporations, a large open-air market complex where shipping agencies from cities all across the empire had booking offices. Most of these shops had floors richly decorated with scenes of their hometowns, harbors, and ships.

Mosaics on an office floor of a merchant’s office in Ostia Antica. The mosaic still has an inscription and depicts a merchant ship flanked by two grain measures. The inscription indicates that the office trades in grain from Cagliari (or Sardinia)

Perhaps more than any other commodity that passed through its warehouses, grain and other foodstuffs were the basis of the city’s wealth and fame, for Ostia provided the food supply for the nearly one million people that packed the city of Rome. Grain from Egypt, olives and oils from North Africa, wines from Gaul — all flowed into Rome through Ostia.

Competition and decline

Ostia suffered from the decline of the Roman economy beginning in the 3rd century AD. As trade decreased, the town became more popular as a residential area for the wealthy.

Competition from other ports took its toll as well as various Roman emperors sought to improve and expand the efficiency of the maritime logistics network that was so crucial to supplying Rome.

The city was finally abandoned in the 9th century due to the repeated invasions and sackings by Arab pirates.

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