OSTIA ANTICA DAY TRIP - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)


For an exciting day trip, pop down to the Roman port of Ostia, which is similar to Pompeii but a lot closer and, in some ways, more interesting. Because Ostia was a working port town, it offers a more complete and gritty look at Roman life than wealthier Pompeii. Wandering around today, you’ll see warehouses, apartment flats, mansions, shopping arcades, and baths that served a once-thriving port of 60,000 people. With over 70 peaceful park-like acres to explore and relatively few crowds, it’s a welcome break from the bustle of Rome.


Getting to Ostia Antica from downtown Rome is a snap—it’s a 45-minute combination Metro/train ride. (Since the train is part of the Metro system, it only costs one Metro ticket each way—€3 total round-trip.)

From Rome, take Metro line B to the Piramide stop, which is attached to the Roma Porta San Paolo train station. The train tracks are just a few steps from the Metro tracks: Follow signs to Lido—go up the escalator, turn left, and go down the steps into the Roma-Lido station. All trains depart in the direction of Lido, leave every 15 minutes, and stop at Ostia Antica along the way. The lighted schedule reads something like, “Prossima partenza alle ore 13.25, bin 3,” meaning, “Next departure at 13:25 from track 3.” Look for the next train, hop on, ride for about 30 minutes (no need to stamp your Metro ticket again, but keep it handy in case they decide to check), and get off at the Ostia Antica stop.

Leaving the train station in Ostia Antica, cross the road via the blue skybridge and walk straight down Via della Stazione di Ostia Antica, continuing straight (through a small parking lot) until you reach the larger parking lot for the site. The entrance is to your left.


Cost: €8 for the site and museum, €10 with special exhibits.

Hours: April-Aug Tue-Sun 8:30-19:15, Sept until 19:00, Oct until 18:30, Nov-mid-Feb until 16:30, mid-Feb-March until 17:00, late March until 17:30, closed Mon year-round, last entry one hour before closing. The museum sometimes closes from 13:30 to 14:30 for lunch.

Information: A map of the site with suggested itineraries is available for €2 from the ticket office. Tel. 06-5635-0215. Helpful websites include www.ostiaantica.beniculturali.it and www.ostia-antica.org.

Tours: Although you’ll see little audioguide markers throughout the site, there may not be audioguides for rent. However, you can Image download my free Ostia Antica audio tour.

Length of This Tour: Allow two hours inside the site. Add in your round-trip train rides, and it’s at least a four-hour excursion from Rome.

Services: There are WCs at the entrance, near the cafeteria, and (often the cleanest of all) in the modern building behind the marble chunks, east of the cafeteria.

Eating: The only option is a small cafeteria with sandwiches and a few hot dishes next to Ostia’s museum. Ostia is a great place for a discreet picnic among the ruins.

Sightseeing Tip: Maximize sightseeing efficiency by visiting south Rome sights on your return. The Piramide Metro stop—where you’ll change trains—really is next to a pyramid, and also near the colorful Testaccio neighborhood. Farther south are St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, E.U.R., and the Montemartini Museum (for more on all of these, see here).

Beach Time: The train line that leads to Ostia also connects Romans to their beaches. To combine some fun with your sightseeing, read up on these beaches on here.


Located at (and named for) the mouth (ostium) of the Tiber, Ostia was founded in the fourth century B.C. Gobbled up early by Rome, its main industry was salt gleaned from nearby salt flats (salt was a precious preserver of meat in ancient times). Often called Rome’s first colony, Ostia served as a naval base, protecting Rome from any invasion by river. By 150 B.C., when Rome controlled the Mediterranean, Ostia’s importance became commercial rather than military. At its peak, Ostia was vital to the Roman Empire. Most of what the city of Rome consumed—and that was a lot by historical standards—came in through this port.


Rome eventually outgrew Ostia, and a vast new port was dug nearby (where Rome’s airport now stands). But Ostia remained a key administrative and warehousing center, busy with the big business of keeping more than a million Romans fed and in sandals.

Eventually things really soured for Ostia. Rome fell. The river changed course. The port was abandoned, silted up, became a malaria-infested swamp, and was eventually forgotten. The mud that buried Ostia actually protected it from the ravages of time—and from stone-scavenging medieval peasants.


(See “Ostia Antica” map, here.)

Consider your visit a three-part affair:

1. Follow this tour, which leads you straight down Decumanus Maximus (the town’s main drag), with a couple of slight detours, finishing at the forum (the main square).

2. Pop into the museum, and consider getting a bite to eat at the cafeteria.

3. Explore the back lanes—going on a visual scavenger hunt—as you wander your way back to the entry point.

✵ Find the map (30 yards inside the gate, on the right) for an orientation: We’re entering at the far right and heading down the main street, labeled Decumano Massimo, to the forum, labeled Foro. The blue Tiber River borders the top. The pale green shows the former course of the river—which eventually abandoned its city. Notice how the core of Ostia is a rectangular Roman military camp, with two major roads crossing at the forum. One of four city gates lies ahead, and on your left is the...

Image Necropolis

As you pass by row after row of brick foundations, you might think that these ruins are former homes in a great city. Oh, this was a city—but a city of the dead. These are not homes, but tombs.

Ancient Romans buried their dead outside the city walls. Ostia was a famously pagan town, slow to become Christian. To a pagan, the closest thing to an afterlife was to be remembered. If their families could afford it, they’d place the tomb on the roadside with a thumbnail bio carved into the stone that all could read as they came and went (for example, “My name was Caius. I was a baker.”). This area was called a necropolis (city of the dead); Christians preferred the term cemetery (from the Greek for resting place).


Also lining the road, you’ll see a few sarcophagi (small stone “coffins” where remains were placed) and statues, which honored the dead.

Burial practices changed over the years. In B.C. times, the remains were placed in these room-like tombs. After the first century A.D., cremation became popular, so this necropolis also has some family sepulchers (marked by arches) lined with niches for ash-filled urns. In the second and third centuries A.D., the Romans here buried their dead in marble and terra-cotta sarcophagi, placed in the tombs.

✵ Ahead (where the road narrows), you enter the ancient city of Ostia through the scant remains of the gate called...

Image Porta Romana

Just as Rome’s Porta San Paolo faced Ostia, Ostia’s Porta Romana faced Rome. This gate, which was locked at night, was part of a wall that surrounded the city on three sides. The fourth “wall” of defense was the river.

Pass through the gate and imagine entering the city. On the grand piazza, a statue of Victory greeted visitors (there’s a copy up ahead). You could water your animals at the huge water basin on the left (the low, rectangular brickwork structure near the statue), and store your goods in the warehouse on the right (the maze of brick foundations a few steps ahead). Immediately to the left (under an umbrella pine), find a low wall with marble panels. The Latin inscription proclaimed to all who entered: “The Senate (“…[SE]NATUS…”) and the people of the colony of Ostia constructed the walls.” The “colony” reference is a reminder that Ostia was the first acquisition of the Roman Empire.


From the gate, Decumanus Maximus leads straight to the forum, where this walk ends. Note that this road was elevated above some buildings’ foundations. Over the centuries, Ostia’s ground level rose. You can actually identify buildings from the republic (centuries before Christ) and the empire (centuries after Christ) by their level. Anything you walk down into is from the earlier period.

✵ Just inside the gate and to the right are the...

Image Republican Warehouses (Magazzini Repubblicani)

In the first century B.C., this city bustled in its role as a river port. Walking along the main street, you pass vast warehouses on the right. The goods of the port, such as grain from Sicily, Egypt, and all of North Africa, were processed and stored in warehouses here (which had elevated floors to keep things dry) before being consumed by Rome.


Ahead, a series of stubby brick columns are the remains of a roofed portico that once provided a shaded walkway into town. Notice the bricks—generally, rough bricks are original, while smooth bricks are part of the reconstruction. Ostia has been picked clean since ancient times. The port’s treasures ended up gracing buildings as far away as Constantinople.

✵ Continue straight ahead about 100 yards. The little well in the road is medieval—a remnant from Middle Age squatters who found shelter in these ruins. From here, you’ll see a viewpoint (with railings), above on the right. Climb up for a view of the...

Image Baths of Neptune (Terme di Nettuno)

Examine the fine mosaic depicting Neptune riding four horses through the sea. He’s surrounded by a menagerie of sea creatures: fish, crustaceans, and serpents with the heads of horses, goats, and rams. At the top, Triton blows his long horn. Apart from the cupid riding the dolphin, the sea looks frightening—which it was.


The complex of ruins stretching below was a bath house. Romans came here to clean, swim, exercise, and socialize. They’d work up a sweat in the steam room, move to the next room (with another mosaic) to take a cold plunge, then cool down in a medium-temperature room. The large open-air square to the left of the mosaic would have been busy with people wrestling, stretching, doing jumping jacks, and getting rubdowns. The niches that ring the square housed small businesses. A row of umbrella pines in the distance marks the original channel of the river before it changed course, abandoning the town.

✵ Climb back down to the main drag, and continue to the right until you reach the theater on your right. Enter the theater through its main central gate.

Image Theater (Teatro)

As you pass through the entry tunnel, glance up at the scant remains of the stucco-rosette decor on the ceiling, which hints at the elegance of this place 2,000 years ago. At the end of the tunnel, men would bid farewell to their women (before the women went to sit in the higher seats—typical of the gender division in public Rome).


Take a seat. Before you is a typically Roman complex mixing religion, business, and entertainment: a grand theater facing a temple surrounded by a commercial square. Up to 4,000 residents could gather in this theater.

The musicians (and some actors) performed on the semicircular floor, called the orchestra. Romans also used a wooden stage—the five-foot-tall brick wall formed its lip. A wall once rose behind the stage, where scenery could be hung. Some plays featured actors in masks—notice the carved stone masks on display to the left of the stage. Each face shows a particular emotion, and the mouths are oversized so actors could speak clearly through them.

Plays were rowdy daytime events—like going to a day game at the ballpark—with lots of audience participation. And heaven help a bad actor. The three rows of marble steps near the orchestra were reserved for the chairs of big shots. Even today, this place—one of the oldest brick theaters anywhere—is used for concerts. Climb to the top of the theater for a fine view.

✵ From the theater, continue (farther away from the main street) behind the stage into the big square. Head to the right and walk counterclockwise around the square, ending up back at the theater.

Image Square of the Guilds (Piazzale delle Corporazioni)

This grand square evolved from a simple place where businessmen would stroll and powwow together to a monumental square lined with more than 60 offices of ship owners and traders. This was the bustling center of Rome’s import-export industry.

As you walk along the sidewalk (circling the square counterclockwise), admire the second-century A.D. mosaics advertising the services offered by the businesses inside. Some are in Latin, but most use pictures for illiterate sailors or non-Latin-reading foreigners.


Walking along the right side of the square, you’ll pass signs for tanners, grain importers (shipped in decorative barrels), and fish wholesalers. The elephant marks the office of Libyan traders who dealt in ivory or perhaps in exotic animals (great for parties, private spectacles, and Colosseum events). You’ll see plenty of mosaics showing Roman ships, with their elaborate sails and rudders. Roman ingenuity enabled boats to tack and sail against the wind. Commerce moved more readily, making the Mediterranean a thriving Roman free-trade zone.

When you reach the end of the right side (and continue working clockwise), find the chess-board-like mosaic. In the lower right, this mosaic has one of the most common symbols of all: the lighthouse. (It’s the squat tower with flames coming out the top. Fueled by an oven below, it directed ships into Ostia’s port.) The lighthouse became the sign of the port of Ostia.

Continuing on, notice the many statues of notable local guild members and business leaders that decorated the courtyard. The temple in the center was likely related to Ceres, the goddess of harvest and abundance (prosperity from good business).

Turning the corner again, find another lighthouse mosaic. Next comes an amphora (pointed jug) between palm trees—likely marking an importer of palm oil.

At the end of the square, as you leave, notice the small white altar on the right. This would have been used to sacrifice animals—such as the rams carved into the corners—to ask for favor from the gods. The entrails would be read to divine the future and to determine whether the gods were for or against a particular business venture. This altar is a copy; the original is in Rome. (Consider the burden on Italy of protecting and preserving what is actually the cultural heritage of all of Europe against illegal digging, exportation, vandalism, weather, and pollution. There’s a special branch of the Carabinieri dedicated to art theft.)

✵ Continue down the main street. About two blocks down, you reach the intersection with Via dei Molini. This street marks the wall of the original military castrum, or rectangular-shaped camp (described in more detail later, under “Forum”). Turn right and walk about a block and a half down Via dei Molini, keeping a sharp eye out for our next sight (look for Molino del Silvano sign on the left among the ruins). Step inside.

Image Mill (Molino)

This mill and bakery building (panificio) dates from A.D. 120. The lava millstones in front of you were used to grind grain. Study the workings: The grain was ground between two stones. At bottom is a bowl-like stone. On top of that rests a cylindrical upper section with holes through which wood poles would be inserted. Grain would be sprinkled in from a sack hanging from the ceiling. Then mules or workers would power the grinding by walking in circles, pushing on the wood poles to turn the cylindrical crushing stone. Eventually, powdery flour (with not much grit) would tumble out the bottom. They’d walk it next door to make bread.


✵ If you need a break before we continue, notice that we’re not far from the museum, cafeteria, and WC. Now, backtrack half a block down Via dei Molini in the direction of the main street. At the big tree, take the first right onto Via Casa di Diana. The street is unmarked, but it’s distinctive—lined with taller-than-usual buildings.

Image Via Casa di Diana

About 75 yards down the street (on the left), step into the Insula of the Thermopolium (Termopolio)—an ancient tavern. Step past the grooved threshold—which once held a sliding wooden door—and make yourself at home. You’ll see a couple of display shelves where they stacked food and drinks for sale, and a small sink. A cute fresco on the wall advertised the tavern’s offerings: food (the dish), drink (the cup), and music (the castanets). Too smoky and noisy? Step out back and enjoy the quiet courtyard with the fountain.


Next, cross the street to the Insula of the Paintings. Find the staircase (a few steps down the road) and climb all the way to the open rooftop for a good view.

Imagine life as an apartment dweller in ancient Rome. An insula was a multistoried apartment complex where the lower-middle class lived. These held miserable, cramped units crammed into buildings up to 10 floors high (the average was 5 floors). To reach their rooms on the higher floors, people climbed treehouse-type stairs. Plumbing didn’t exist. It was stinky. “Windows” covered with shutters or cloth curtains dipped in grease did little to cut the street din.

Buildings were made cheaply of wood, with weak foundations, so many burned or collapsed. The apartments had no heat and no kitchen, so residents cooked or purchased food elsewhere. They tossed garbage out the windows. Because chariot and cart traffic was allowed only after dark, there was lots of night noise.

The wealthier classes, on the other hand, lived in sprawling and luxurious homes. These were generally built on one floor, with a series of rooms facing a central open courtyard. Decorative pools collected rainwater. Statues, mosaics, and frescoes were everywhere. Rome’s wealthy were as comfortable as the poor were wretched.

From this rooftop perch, find the museum (the modern building). Behind the museum, see modern pleasure boats parked alongside where today’s Tiber leaves Ostia. The temporary arched roofing you see is there to protect ancient bits and pieces (worth a look).

✵ Now, walk (on street level, of course) to the end of the street, toward the high brick wall and then left into Ostia’s forum. For the best view, head for the center of the forum, where there’s a round (well-like) brick monument dedicated to the emperor’s guardian angels. From here, take in the sights.

Image Forum

As in Italian cities today, the main gathering place here was a central piazza. This forum had a large rectangular open space surrounded by columns supporting arcades and buildings.

At one end of the square is the grandest structure—the temple called the Capitolium (from A.D. 120), with its grand staircase. The marble veneer was scavenged in the Middle Ages, leaving only the core brickwork. Note the reinforcement arches in the brick. The Capitolium (named after the original atop Capitoline Hill in Rome) was dedicated to the pagan trinity of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. A forum dominated by a Capitolium temple was a standard feature of colonies throughout the empire. The purpose: to transport the Roman cult of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva to the newly conquered population.

On the opposite side of the square, distinguished by its lone sawed-off column, is the Temple of Roma and Augustus. Its position is powerfully symbolic. The power of the emperor stands equal, facing the power of the Capitolium Triad.

The town’s basilica was also on the forum square. As you face the Capitolium temple, it’s to your left and consists of little more than the footprint of the building. Dating from about A.D. 100, this was where legal activities and commercial business took place. Its central nave and two side aisles lead to the “high altar,” where the judge sat.

Under your feet runs Decumanus Maximus, one of the town’s two main streets that intersect at the forum. Whenever possible, Rome imposed a grid road plan on its conquered cities. After Rome conquered Ostia in about 400 B.C., it built a military camp, or castrum—a rectangular fort with east, west, north, and south gates and two main roads converging on the forum. Throughout the empire, Romans found comfort in this familiar city plan. While people found it no fun to be conquered, the empire brought order and stability to their lives through laws and the creation of grid-planned cities and grand squares such as this one.

Standing at the center of the forum, plan your next move after our tour ends. You could visit the museum—it’s the pink-and-white building behind the Capitolium temple. For more sightseeing, the Decumanus Maximus continues west into a vast urban expanse, great for simply wandering (see “Archaeological Scavenger Hunt” at the end of this chapter). Or the Decumanus can take you east directly back to the entrance/exit—a 15-minute walk away.

✵ But first, make one more stop. Walk to the Temple of Roma and Augustus. As you’re facing it, look left and find a brick arch over a street. Near that arch is our final sight.

Image Forum Baths (Terme del Foro) and Latrine (Forica)

Try to imagine this huge complex (which may be closed for preservation) peopled, steaming, and busy. Government-subsidized baths were a popular social and business meeting place in any Roman city. Roman engineers were experts at radiant heat. A huge furnace heated both the water and air that flowed through pipes under the floors and in the walls (you can see the hollow bricks in the walls). Notice the fine marble steps—great for lounging—that led into the pools. Bathers used olive oil rather than soap to wash, so the water needed to be periodically skimmed by servants. Like a high-end spa, there was a laconicum (sweating room), two tepidariae (where Romans were rubbed down by masseuses), and the once-steamy caldarium with three pools.


From the baths, walk a few steps farther up the street to find the 20-hole latrine (on the left). You can still see the pivot hole in the floor that once supported its revolving door. The cutout below each seat was to accommodate the washable sponge on a stick, which was used rather than toilet paper. Rushing water below each seat (brought in by aqueduct) did the flushing. So much for privacy—even today, there’s no word in Italian for it.

Image Ostia Museum

This small museum offers a delightful look at some of Ostia’s finest statuary. Without worrying too much about exactly what’s what, just wander and imagine these fine figures—tangled wrestlers, kissing cupids, playful gods—adorning the courtyards of wealthy Ostian families. Most of the statues are second- and third-century A.D. Roman pieces inspired by rare and famous Greek originals. The portrait busts are of real people—the kind you’d sit next to in the baths (or on the toilets).

Roman sculptors excelled at realistic busts. Roman religion revered the man of the house (and his father and grandfather). Statues of daddy and grandpa were common in the corner of any proper house. And with the emperor considered a god, you’d find his bust in classrooms, at the post office, and so on. The sarcophagi (marble coffins) generally show mythological scenes.

The grandest statue is the one that greets you as you go in—the Minerva as Venus that once stood by the Porta Romana, where we entered Ostia. Perhaps the most interesting room (to the left as you enter, just before the steps) features statuary from religions of foreign lands. Being a port town, Ostia accommodated people (and their worship needs) from all over the known world. The large statue of a man sacrificing a bull is a Mithraic altarpiece (see here).


The cafeteria, WC, and shop are in a modern building just behind the museum.

Archaeological Scavenger Hunt

As you return to the entry gate, get off the main drag and explore Ostia’s back streets. Wandering beyond the forum and then taking the back lanes as you return to the entry, see if you can find:

✵ Tarp- and sand-protected mosaic flooring.

✵ White cornerstones put into buildings to fend off wild carts and reflect corners in the dark.

✵ Fast-food fish joint (on Decumanus Maximus, just beyond the forum).

✵ Hidden bits of fresco (clue: under hot tin roofs).

✵ Republican buildings and buildings dating from the empire.

✵ Stucco roughed up for fresco work (before applying the wet plaster of a fresco, the surface needs to be systematically gouged so the plaster can grip the wall).

✵ Millstones for grinding grain (Ostia’s big industry).

✵ Floor patterns made colorful with inlaid marble.

✵ A domus—a single-family dwelling facing a fancy, central open-air courtyard.