There’s a good reason they call Ostia Antica “Pompeii without the crowds”. It’s arguably the most beautifully preserved Roman ruin in existence and because its story isn’t quite as sexy as that of Pompeii (read: it wasn’t wiped out by a volcanic eruption) it remains pristinely uncrowded at all times of the year. Ostia, located on the mouth or ostium of the Tiber river began as a salt-producing town but rose to prominence after being conquered by Rome and becoming the rapidly-growing city’s main port. Goods from every corner of the Mediterranean landed in Ostia before moving on to the voracious imperial capital. Unlike Pompeii, Ostia’s fortunes changed slowly; Rome built a new port in the 1st century AD, and over the ensuing centuries the mouth of the river began to silt up and turn into a marsh. The marsh bred mosquitos and the mosquitos brought malaria. By the 19th century a city that had once held anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 people was all but a ghost town. Also unlike Pompeii, Ostia was a buzzing mercantile city as opposed to a quiet resort town. This means that when you go you will come in contact with a staggering variety of art and ruins that transport you back to life in ancient Rome.
Visiting Ostia Antica: Things to See
The Baths of the Cisiarii and the Baths of Neptune
Public baths were among the Roman Empire’s most forward-thinking public works. Like today’s health spas, except open to the general public, they contained swimming pools, saunas, steam rooms, and even prototypical exercise gyms. Although you won’t be doing any soaking in Ostia’s numerous bath houses, you will be seeing the jaw-dropping mosaics that decorate the interiors. In the Baths of the Cisiarii there is a mosaic showing men at work pulling clients in wagons. But it’s the Baths of Neptune that hold the most impressive treasure: a giant floor mosaic depicting the Roman/Greek sea god Neptune, driving a pack of horses while surrounded by all manner of sea monsters and nymphs.
The Roman Amphitheater
This beautiful theater was built by Agrippa in the first century BC and still hosts shows every summer. It’s 2,700 seats are divided into two tiers which would have been segregated according to sex (men got the better seats while women were in the upper deck). Although it would have featured much more decoration 2000 years ago, don’t miss the three marble mask hanging to the right of the stage, they are a great example of exquisite stone work.
The Piazalle delle Corporazioni
This huge square, lined with the offices of Ostia’s main merchants and traders, was the center of trade and commerce. People visit it today to gape at the intricate floor mosaics that advertised the trades of everyone on the square. From local workmen like tanners, ship repairers, and dock workers, to foreign importers of goods like palm oil and grain, the entire mercantile life of the ancient mediterranen is represented in these mosaics. The most famous of the bunch is a surprisingly realistic depiction of an elephant which probably indicated an importer of exotic animals or perhaps ivory. Keep an eye out for two recurring images: the first is the Roman sailing ship, a key tool of empire expansion that employed the latest technologies of the day to tame the often-unpredictable Mediterranean. These ships not only brought food and trade goods, they were also responsible for transporting treasures looted from conquered territories – like relics or Egyptian Obelisks – many of which are still in Rome today. The second image that keeps popping up is the light house – a tower with a flickering flame on top. Over time, it came to be the symbol of Ostia Antica, the port where all ships eventually returned.
The Roman Fast Food Joint – Thermopolium
Many houses and apartments in ancient Rome did not have kitchens; the braziers they used for heat were big enough fire hazards as it was. When people got hungry they headed to their local thermopolium, which were like modern fast rood restaurants, or snack bars. The most famous thermopolium in Ostia is on the Via Casa di Diana, a well-preserved street in what would have been an upscale neighborhood. The store features a marble counter with a mosaic above it advertising food and drink. It also contains a small wine cellar and a bathroom in the back.
The Casa di Diana, Casa dei Dipinti and other Insula
Insula were a type of Roman building similar to modern apartment blocks. They featured shops or taverns on the ground floor with living space that reached as high as four stories overhead. The Casa di Diana and Casa dei Dipinti are the most famous of these buildings in Ostia because of their size, condition, and the art that was once inside them. The casa dei Dipinti also features a great view from its top floor. Note the size the of the rooms and try to imagine the living conditions: cramped, smelly, and with very little protection from the elements, these apartments were much closer to tenements than the typical idea of white marble and billowing togas that we associate with Rome.
Like all cities conquered by Rome, the centre of public life in Ostia was the Forum – a large square surrounded by civic buildings and temples where people met to socialize and conduct business. Ostia’s Forum features the Capitolum, a temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, which would have been the most important religious center in the old city. Facing it acros the square is the Temple of Roma and Augustus. There is also yet another bath complex, because a city based on trade needs plenty of places to conduct business meetings.
Ostia is dotted with scores of mithraeum, i.e., temples dedicated to the god Mithras. This deity, who is usually represented riding or killing a bull, was imported from Persia sometime in the 1st century and caught on especially well with Rome’s military class. Very little is known about what was actually worshiped in mithraeums, despite their ubuiquity in the Roman Empire. One thing we do know is that Roman Mithraism included a series of 7 rites that initiates passed through in order to attain different ranks within the religion. Visiting one of Ostia’s many mithraeum today is a peek into one of the greatest religious mysteries surrounding Ancient Rome.
The Ancient Public Restroom
We should clarify that you can’t use this public restroom, but it remains one of the most popular attractions in Ostia, just the same. This ancient lavatory is lined with 20 ancient toliets that had a constant supply of water flowing beneath them fed from an aqueduct. Two interesting things to note: 1. There are no cubicles because Romans didn’t have the same taboos that we do about privacy. 2 There is a hole in the front of each toilet so that people could insert a stick with a damp cloth or sponge on it and wipe themselves.
Tips for Visiting Ostia Antica
The Ruins of Ostia Antica are open to visitors Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30 am to sunset-ish. Here are the official hours throughout the year.
|from the last Sunday in October
to February, 15th
|8:30 a.m./3:30 p.m.||4:30 p.m.|
|from February, 16th to March, 15th||8:30 a.m./4:00 p.m.||5:00 p.m.|
|from March 16th to the last Saturday||8:30 a.m./4:30 p.m.||5:30 p.m.|
|from the last Sunday in March
to August, 31st
|8:30 a.m./6:15 p.m.||7:15 p.m.|
|from September, 1st to September, 30th||8:30 a.m./6:00 p.m.||7:00 p.m.|
|from October, 1st to the last Sunday in October||8:30 a.m./5:30 p.m.||6:30 p.m.|
The following are strictly forbidden inside the ruins:
1. Soccer and any other ball games
2. Climbing on the ruins
3. Writing on the walls
4. Picking flowers or breaking branches
4. Touching objects inside the Excavations and the Museum
The authorities at Ostia Antica take these rules very seriously and will promptly kick you out if they find you breaking any of them.
The Best Time to Visit Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica is gloriously uncrowded at all times of the year. However, it’s worth remembering that being on low-lying grown in the middle of the Italian summer is one of the hotter ways to spend an afternoon. Although the marshes have been drained and the malaria is long gone, Ostia can still be devilishly sticky. If you visit in the summer bring a good hat and plenty of sun screen. Or better yet, go in the fall, winter or spring.
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