Feb
02
2009

What was the Port of Ancient Rome?

The beautifully preserved theatre at Ostia Antica - courtesy closelyobserved.com - CC-BY

The beautifully preserved theatre at Ostia Antica - courtesy closelyobserved.com - CC-BY

The ancient Roman Port of Ostia was situated at the mouth of the Tiber River.

According to legend, Ostia was founded by the fourth king of Rome, Ancus Marcius, who was thought to have ruled in the late seventh century BC. So far no archaeological remains have been found in Ostia dating from this period. The oldest construction that has been found is the so-called Castrum. It was a rectangular, military fortress. Remains of the walls have been found around the later Ostia Forum.

In the third century BC Ostia was a naval base. Its use was related to the Punic wars, with Carthage. Ostia played an important role as a military harbour, and for that reason its inhabitants were freed from military duties, in order that they could remain at work in the port.  In the second century BC, Ostia gradually changed into a commercial port. Grain was imported from Sicily and Sardinia and later also from Africa, which became a Roman province in 146 BC.

Ostia was essential for the supplying of Rome. Eventually Ostia would became the main port of the City of Rome.

The overwhelming bulk of the buildings that have been excavated were built in the first half of the second century, during the reign of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius. This prosperous period lasted until the Severan era in the early third century.

Ostia was more than a safe port and quays, it was a complete city with theaters, public baths, temples and a Forum. During its hey-day Ostia was a densly populated city, with a large variety of buildings, and a mixed “international” population.

In the second half of the third and in the fourth century Ostia was struck by earthquakes and tsunamis and an earthquake documented in Rome in 346 AD may also have damaged the port. Often the ruins were not even cleared. Apparently it was not cost effective to rebuild them.

From then on, Ostia was simply a pleasant place to live. Many expensive villas were built from the later third until the first quarter of the fifth century. In the early fifth century Ostia became an average Italian city.

By the end of the fifth century the Ostian aqueduct had stopped functioning.  In 537 Vitigis and the Goths laid siege and Belisarius defended Ostia. The last inhabitants of Roman Ostia retreated to the theater and turned it into a little fortress.

The later Medieval history of Ostia takes it out of the realm of the ancient Roman port city and out of this tale.  It continued only as a Roman city in ruins.

For more information about ancient Rome

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