One of the great experiences when visiting the city of Rome is to take the Metro to the Piramide station and catch the train from Porta San Paolo to Ostia Antica, a 25-minute ride. Rome’s original port city is well-preserved with a forum, several temples, cemetery, imperial palace, streets lined with houses, apartments with three floors, shops, and 26 baths. The semicircle structure of the active theater is a seen. A seaport, Ostia Antica has many warehouses and a section dedicated to the import and export guilds. The city was a booming commercial center with a population at its height of 100,000. More than 100 ships could dock there.
Unique to Ostia Antica are the black and white mosaics found everywhere in the town. Colorful mosaics are predominant elsewhere in the Roman Empire; however, Ostia Antica was a working man’s town, and the mosaic tiles were all black and white. The individual tessara (tiles) were cut from marble, flint, local rocks, and stone mostly of calcium carbonate. The individual tiles are generally as small as a penny. The individual mosaics along the streets identify the 61 shops/offices of the ship-owners, importers, grain traders, wild animal traders, and others.
The mosaic of Ships, Lighthouse of Portus, and Dolphin depicts one of the many types of ships. The lighthouse of Portus signaled the entrance to the harbor.
The guilds were divided into six divisions. Upper most were grain shippers, the main food suppliers for Rome. On either side of the ship are large grain measures.
In the center of the four walkways of the Via dei Corporations is the piazza with a temple dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, grain, harvest, and abundance. Among the guilds were shipbuilders, rope-makers, and leather tanners. Traders brought olive oil from Greece and Tunesia, elephants and ivory from Africa, wine from Greece, exotic animals for colosseums, and slaves.
Ostia Antica is divided into quarters. One of the busiest was the area of meat and fish markets, including fast food shops, bakeries, and bars. The Thermopolium (fast food joint) on Via Diana is typical of this type of establishment. At the far left is a take-away counter lined with deep recesses for storing food. A large wine jug sits on top. Customers who eat or drink inside can see a painted menu on the wall. The food delights of ancient Rome could include eggs and olives, spicy turnips, lentils, meat, fish, and garum, a rotten fish sauce that was extremely popular and used much like ketchup. Fish, poultry, rabbit, vegetables, and slices of cooked pig head were also available. The thermopolium might also offer flamingo tongue, grilled dormouse, or boar stuffed with mocking birds that would fly out when the boar was cut open. An open courtyard at the back offered additional seating.
Ostia Antica has 26 baths. The Bath of Neptune was built in 139 CE during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. It is 220 feet square with more than14 major rooms, including an open-air palestra (gymnasium) decorated with mosaics of boxers and wrestlers. Baths were an important part of Roman life. Some Romans bathed several times a week; therefore, the decoration of the rooms was of great importance. Mosaics of Neptune, his wife Amphitrite, and a wide variety of mythological sea creatures fill several rooms. Neptune, Roman god of the sea, water, earthquakes, and horses is shown riding on the fish tails of four hippocampi, part horse and part fish. Neptune carries a trident, a three-pronged spear, that gave him godlike powers which he used when he struck a rock and brought forth salt water. He also struck the earth and created the first war horse. Other images are swimmers, dolphins, cupid on a dolphin, fish, mermen, mermaids, and various other sea creatures.
Patrons entered the bath through the apodyterium, a large dressing room with pegs on the walls for clothing. The tepidarium is a warm room in which bodies were anointed with oil. The caldarium is a hot room (sauna or stream bath), and the frigidarium is a cold room with a plunge pool. Romans considered good health important and believed bathing, massage, exercise, and eating well were a necessity. It was not unusual for patrons to hold dinner parties, to discuss politics, and to conduct business at the bath. Baths also had libraries that were well-used.
The Bath of Cisiarii (Coachmen) is located close to the port. It is called the Bath of the Coachman because of the mosaic of the coach (cisia) below the four-posted structure. The two-wheeled cart, an ancient cab, is pulled by two mules. Around the structure and in the sea are male and female swimmers and dolphins. Below the cab Triton, son of Neptune and Amphitrite, is the fish-tailed figure holding a staff and a conch shell that he blows to calm the waves. The name Triton refers to a single god, as well as to a group of Tritons who aid humans and fight with the gods.
Communal latrines were common. Revolving door and walls were present in this structure. The marble bench has several seats with holes over a drainage channel where fresh water flushed away waste. A sponge on a stick served to wipe oneself. Toilet paper was not invented until the 15th Century CE. The latrine at Ostia Antica is one of the best preserved in the Roman Empire.
The port of Ostia Antica was silted in by 350 CE, and now is two miles from the sea. Ostia Antica also has a Mithraeum, Synagogue, and Early Christian sites. It is now a major archeological site as important as Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Note: The Lido di Ostia, the new town founded in 1884 on the Tyrrhenian Sea, is a short train ride from Ostia Antica. The Lido di Ostia is a resort town offering beaches and restaurants.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.