Antiquity and Christian Origins
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Ostia Antica and the City of Rome

The city of Ostia, located approximately 16 miles downstream from Rome, sits at the mouth of the Tiber River on the shores of western Italy. Traditionally thought to have been Rome's first colony, Ostia derives from the Latin os (meaning "mouth"), and in ancient times the city served as Rome's harbor town.  Although Roman authors attributed its founding to their fourth king, Ancus Marcius, archaeological evidence dates the founding of the city to the fourth century B.C.E -- approximately two hundred years later than the literary sources maintain.

Map of Italy
A map shows Rome, the capital, situated in central Italy and close to the western shores. Ostia, its seaport, lies approximately 16 miles away along the Tyrrhenian Sea at the mouth of the Tiber River. The harbor at Puteoli, off the Bay of Naples, lies further down the coast. "This material originated on the Interactive Ancient Mediterranean Web site ( It has been copied, reused or redistributed under the terms of IAM's fair use policy. Copyright 1998, Interactive Ancient Mediterranean."

Ostia's foundation was modest, based on the form of a Roman military camp.  The colonists fortified a rectangular plot of land with a wall made of volcanic tufa. Inside the wall, two main roads perpendicular to each other, one north-south, the other east-west, formed accessible avenues through the center of the city. With the Tiber River and the Tyrrhenian Sea only a short distance outside the walls, early Ostia functioned not only as a simple harbor town but also as a naval camp protecting the interests of Rome.

In the third and second centuries B.C.E, Ostia emerged as a more developed port. Rome, having defeated the Carthaginians in a series of three Punic Wars, now imported its corn and grain from the new territories of Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Gaul, and Africa. Shipments would dock at Ostia before being loaded onto barges, then transported to Rome by way of the Tiber.

Fig 1: Map of Ostia and Rome; Fig 2: Aerial of Ostia and Rome
The color drawing indicates Ostia's proximity to the Tiber River and illustrates the river's importance to Rome. During the imperial period, boats carrying merchandise from throughout the Mediterranean would dock here. Workers would unload the cargo, transferring it from the large shipping vessels to smaller barges that could navigate upstream towards the capital.  Photo Source: From The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome. Peter Connolly and Hazel Dodge. Published by Oxford University Press, 1998. Page 128.  Map Source: Detail from Map 44, "Latium: Campania" in the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, showing Rome and environs including Ostia and Portus. Copyright 2000, Princeton University Press. The detail appears on the web (

Although it could not match the grand size of Puteoli's harbor, located in the Bay of Naples and also a port for Rome's trade, Ostia began to benefit from the expanding markets throughout the Roman world. This steady growth of wealth, trade, population and diversity would reach its zenith during the time of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian in the second century C.E.

The second century C.E. marked a time when the empire bounded to its largest geographical extent (stretching from Scotland to North Africa to Iran), and the city of Ostia did not watch this expansion with idle eyes. Like Rome at the same time, Ostia became a thriving, cosmopolitan town, welcoming both people and goods from all over the Mediterranean. To accommodate this growing trade, Trajan constructed a new harbor, countering the effects of years of river silting. The city soon began to import larger amounts of oil, wine and grain, supplementing their local trade in salt. And with the influx of diverse travelers, temples to the traditional Roman deities like Jupiter, Castor and Pollux, or Hercules would now stand adjacent to religions from the East: Mithraism, Judaism, or Christianity. Over the course of the next two hundred years, before it fell into decline, the city of Ostia would never outmatch its second century prime.



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UPDATED 8.27.2009 | DRB