The port city of Ostia, built at the mouth of the River Tiber, was home to between forty and sixty thousand residents during its peak. Attracting merchants, traders, farmers, patricians and builders, Rome’s central naval base proved significant in its overseas operations and enabled it to conduct widespread trade between its many provinces, notably during the Republican period.
Huge amounts of archaeological finds and beautiful architecture are free to see in the town of Ostia Antica, and have survived two thousand years beneath thick mud. Warehouses, insulae, docks, columns and a set of three glorious bathhouses – given to Ostia as an Imperial Gift – are the main attractions of the city.
The traditional date for the founding of Ostia is within the rule of Rome’s fourth king, Ancus Marcius, however there is evidence to support that Latin tribes had lived around Ostia hundreds of years before the beginning of Rome. Almost certainly they took advantage of the surrounding salt plains. The minerals extracted from these fields were excellent for preserving meats, which was convenient, considering the Romans shipped a lot of Italian produce for trade with foreign people.
In Rome’s brutal conflicts with the North-African city of Carthage (the Punic Wars), Ostia became crucial for the State to retain a grip on naval operations. This was the centre of fleet deployment in the Western seas, and many war ships were constructed at harbours and workshops on the coast. Rome also fortified Ostia with a military castle or “Castrum”, making it a garrison for legionaries.
During the Imperial Period, the port of Ostia was expanded considerably, with a new harbour being built for ease-of-access. As residential areas spilled out into surrounding countryside, the flats extended higher and higher, with many soaring up to five or six floors high. The huge and ambitious burst of growth in Ostia catalysed a increase in trade, particularly with the Egypt and the Middle East. The Romans were now able to source Italy with even cheaper grain, causing food prices to drop for the poor. This also caused mass unemployment for farmers, who found that they were outdone by the horrendously low prices of grains and cereals coming in from the Eastern provinces.
Ostia was linked to the Capital – Rome – by the Via Ostiense. Many rich men case down this road to settle in the harbour city, commissioning the construction of large villas.
In the fifth century – the period generally recognised as the major decline of Rome – Ostia was attacked by barbarians as Italy fell victim to enemy incursions and migrations. In 455 AD, it was sacked by the Vandals. Moreover, pirates and barbarian thieves had started patrolling the seas, attacking ships that were importing foreign produce. This cut off the grain trade, causing considerable damage to Rome’s economy. Many people left Ostia (and Rome) as the Empire declined. Ostia was flooded with muddy waters and sunk beneath soil, until recently, when the remains were excavated.
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