A visit to the ruins of Ostia Antica, the seaport of ancient Rome, is a worthwhile experience in any season of the year. In December, one can wander beneath blue skies and the place is almost your own. This time of year, early birds can explore the site in the morning breeze and shade of the tall pines before making the short trip to the nearby coast for an afternoon at the beach.
Ostia is almost as old as Rome itself. According to legend, the city was founded by Ancus Marcius, king of Rome from 642-617 BC. Remains of the oldest known buildings now visible date from around 400 BC, though most of what visitors see today dates from the second century AD.
The seaport is about 15 miles southwest of Rome. Silting has changed the physical environment of Ostia. Today the sits about two miles inland from the coast; the course of the Tiber has changed since antiquity and only part of the city flanks the river.
A tour of the site gives one a look into the day-to-day life that is not possible to experience in Rome. All sorts of public and domestic architecture can be seen.
Here are some highlights.
This is all fun to see, but the city truly comes to life in the Latin language of the Romans. Like Rome, Ostia is filled with voices. Countless ancient and medieval writers imagined, observed and recorded the living experience of Ostia in the Latin writing in various genre.
Let’s sample three of them: the playwright Plautus (active around 200 BC); St. Augustine, who sojourned here with his mother and friends in the 380s AD; and the anonymous biographer of Pope Leo IV, who describes how Muslim pirates used Ostia as a staging ground for their depredation of St. Peter’s basilica in the ninth century. This thousand-year snapshot is a just a taste of all that’s been written about the place.
The theater is largest structure left from the ancient city. Here, among other entertainments, audiences would view the productions from two Rome’s earliest literary stars, the playwrights Plautus and Terence. The popularity of Plautus has reached our own times. Steven Sondheim’s Broadway classic A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is adapted from his work.
Plautus is perfect. His plays are set in harbor towns, which are gathering places of people from all over the Roman world. As a maritime city based on international trade, Ostia is the perfect stand-in for his settings. The theater sits in the middle of the city and looks out toward the Tiber. Between the theater and river are the famous black-and-white mosaics that depict the origins of the traders of far-flung origin and items associated with various places.
The plays are filled with stock characters that exaggerate social roles in Roman society: the lustful old man, the grasping merchant, the clever slave, the noble prostitute. Their interactions on stage are full of wit, word play, racy talk and slapstick action. His Latin seems to lack polish, but the apparent crudeness captures the day-to-day talk of his own times. Yet, they are full of poignant statements on the human experience. Many modern expressions come from his work.
Dictum sapienti sat est. [A word to the wise is enough.]
[F]acias ipse quod faciamus nobis suades. [Practice what you preach.]
Te de aliis, quam alios de te suavius est fieri doctos. [It’s better to learn from the mistakes of others than that others should learn from you.]
Animus aequus optimus est aerumnae condimentum. [Patience is the best remedy for every trouble.]
Past the theater, the residential buildings—large mansions and dense apartment blocks—become thicker in the landscape. St. Augustine is probably the best known sojourner among the insula, Roman-style apartment houses in Ostia. He describes his time here with Monica, his mother, and a group of friends, all of whom were travelling from Italy back to their native Africa in 387. The account is found in book nine of Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine’s meditation on this life and his conversion to the Christian life.
When I look for their house here, my step is guided by past experience. I don’t want to recreate life from memory. And anyway, when I return I’m never sure if I’m in the same spot, looking at the same window of the same silent house I sat beside that first experience there.
One summer afternoon (I forget how long ago) a group of us found ourselves in an overgrown garden that sat in the middle of a block of houses. We were Latin language students in Rome, Reggie Foster being our teacher. At that the time, he was a longstanding Latinist working in the Vatican and teaching—for free—a summer experience for advanced students. As he has for our excursions to other sites, Reggie has prepared a booklet of readings in Latin, all of them about Ostia. Augustine is grand finale of our visit.
Reggie turned to the last page of readings and looked toward a window above us on the second floor of a silent house.
“There they are,” Reggie says. Watching us.” He calls out the name of one of group. Lege. Read.
Impendente autem die quo ex hac vita erat exitura quem diem tu noveras ignorantibus nobis … (The day now approaching that she was about to depart this life, which day You know for certain though it be unknown to us …)
Augustine recounts the last heart-to-heart conversation with his mother, ego et ipsa soli staremus incumbents ad quandam fenestram unde hortus intra domum quae nos habebat prospecabatur illic apud Ostia Tiberina ubi remote a turbis post longi intineris laborem instaurabamus nos navigationi conloquebamur ergo soli valde dulciter … (she and I were there alone leaning in a window overlooking the garden of a house in Ostia, where we rested and prepared for another journey, and our hands grasping each other there we spoke with great sweetness …)
Reggie broke into the recitation, “Look at them. There they are, friends, watching us.” There were tears in his eyes. “I feel sorry for the people who don’t know about this.”
He called another name: Lege. The reading continued. Later some of us went up into the house, stood in the window, and looked down toward Reggie and the others below us, whom he inspired, entertained and educated.
Monica never left Ostia. Having urged the conversion of her family to Christianity, her life is fulfilled. She died and was entombed there, her relics remaining in the church of St. Aurea for hundreds of years.
Though the international horizons of Ostia receded with the break up on the Roman Empire, the coastal city retained its role as a passage way to Rome. The name Ostia comes from the word ostium, which can mean a mouth, a door, or entrance way, in this case to the Tiber and to Rome itself.
One wonders what became of Africans like Augustine and Monica. By the eighth century, their homeland was no longer Roman and only marginally Christian. In the ninth century, Africans returned to Ostia as Islamic raiders, Rome being their target. In August 846, those freebooters pillaged the richly endowed, suburban shrines at the basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican and that of St. Paul on the via Ostiensis.
In the years after that assault, Pope Leo IV traveled from the Lateran palace to Ostia in order to organize and inspire the defense against the renewed threat from those same buccaneers. Leo’s biographer reports that the city’s defender clamored for his benediction, “That they might be the victors over the sons of Belial, the soldiers begged Pope Leo to receive the Lord’s body from his sacred hands. With his own lips he chanted mass for them in St. Aurea’s church, and from his hands they all took communion.”
Qui ut meliores de Belial filiis victores existerent summopere deprecati sun tut de suis sacris manibus corpus dominicum percipere meruissent. Quibus ore suo missam in ecclesia beatae Auree decantavit, atque universi ex illius, ut dictum est, manibus communionem sumpserunt. Et ante quam haec fierent, usque ad praefatam ecclesiam, cum hymnis et letanias canticisque praecipuis, simul cum ipsis Neapolitanis, Christo auxiliante, profectus est. In qua etiam flexis genibus Altissimum deprecates est quatinus orationibus suis ipse christianorum hostes in manus resistentium tradere dignaretur; super quos etiam multis cum lacrimis hanc orationem obtulit, dicens “Deus cuis destera beatum Petrum apostolum ambulantem in fluctibus, ne mergeretur, erexit, et quoapostolum eius Paulum tertio naufragantem de profundo pelagi liberavit, exaudi nos porpitius et concede ut amborum meritis horum fidelium tuorum brachia contra inimicos sanctae tuae Ecclesiae dimicantia omnipotenti dexterea tua corroborentur et convalescent; ut de recepto triumpho nomen sanctum tuum n cunctis gentibus appareat gloriosum.Life of Leo IV
Battle was joined the day after mass was chanted in the church were the relics of St. Monica were preserved. The enemy force was scattered by the Christians, and by a storm Romans believed had arrived by divine intervention.
Die vero altera postquam a iamdicta civtate venerabilis reversus est presul, ipsi sceleratorum socii sive participes iuxta litus maris Ostensis multis cum navibus paruerunt Contra quos Neapolitani impetum facientes, dimicare fortiter voluerunt, etiam aliquantos vulneraverunt ex illis; et inde trimumphum acceperant, si unum non citius impedimentum accidisset. Quam ob rem, dum ad invicem adtentius dimicarent , subito tam validus ac superemiens excitatus est ventus, qualem quis his temporibus meminisse valet, qui utrasque naves confestim divisit, tamen Sacracenorum amplius.Life of Leo IV
Having returned to Rome, Pope Leo’s next move was to fortify the basilica of St. Peter against future attacks. A good portion of the wall he built can still be seen in the neighborhood around the Vatican. The survivors amongst the Muslim buccaneers were gathered from the sea and brought to Ostia. A good number of them were murdered by the victorious, their bodies hung from trees. The leftovers were sent to Rome for forced labor, most especially on the wall around St. Peter’s.
The dead in the trees; prisoners marched as slaves to the city they’d wished to despoil; it lacks the fun and tenderness of Plautus, and the poignancy of Augustine, but this experience is as much a part of Ostia’s story as any other.
Now the world returns to Ostia. For the traveler to Rome who can’t make it to Pompeii, Ostia is an alternate view into the ancient world. Here one finds the suggestive outline of life and less the color and detail one gets down by Vesuvius. But that sort of detail (the statues of Priapus; the frescoed advertisements of supple prostitutes) can be misleading, whereas the voices of Ostia encourage the visitor to agree, like the playwright Terence (himself of African origin) said to the Romans here, homo sum humani a me nihil alienum puto — “I am a human being; nothing human is strange to me”.
Ostia-antica.org is an excellent resource for visitors to the site and to armchair travelers. The site provides a visitors’ guide, primary reading sources for Ostia was frequently written about in antiquity and the Middle Ages, and also photos, videos, and other useful items.