Ostia: countless charming stories and historical gems for the Roman coastdistrict
The ancient port city of the Roman empire capital
Visiting the excavations of Ostia Antica is like diving into a world apart; you leave the city chaos of modern Rome and enter an oasis of tranquillity catapulted back in time. Ostia was the inland port of ancient Rome. The goods arrived in Ostia by sea and then sorted on small boats, which transported them along the Tiber River or by land to Rome. The name Ostia derives from ostium (a word that means mouth in Latin), i.e. the mouth of the Tiber River. It is said that the first settlement of Ostia was founded by the third king of Rome, Ancus Marcius, in the 7th century B.C. However, the oldest remains found in the excavations date back to the 4th/5th century B.C. Traces of the monarchic age can be found in the northeastern section of the excavations, going up the course of the Tiber River, at the height of the San Paolo mountains, towards Acilia.
The castrum or military camp to protect the salt mines
The oldest nucleus of the city (4th century B.C.) is the so-called castrum, i.e. the military camp to protect the important salt mines, just conquested from Etruscans. At the time of the Punic wars, when Rome had already conquered half of the Mediterranean, the city became a transit point for goods. In the first century B.C., Ostia was a populous commercial center where the so-called Sillane walls (from the lastname Sulla in It. Silla) occupied an area of 69 hectares. Lucius Cornelius Sulla‘s walls surrounded the entire town except for the north side, where the Tiber River flowed and where the river port was located.
The imperial age of the port city: from residential place to ghost town
During the end of the first century A.D., the emperor Domitian wanted to modernize the city, raising the pavement by one meter and building large insulae, i.e. apartment buildings. However, the port of Ostia was still suffering from silting-up problems, which were solved only under the emperor Trajan (89-117 A.D.), despite the brand-new port built under the emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.). Slowly the city became a residential place managing the traffics in the new port where the new settlement of Porto was built. With the economic crisis of the third century A.D., emperor Constantine decided to give Porto independence, thus transforming the whole area of Ostia slowly into a sort of ghost town. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the area was abandoned, given the spread of epidemics and malaria.
The village of ancient Ostia is a jewel of the late Middle Ages
Throughout the Middle Ages, there was no shortage of looting and robbery excavations, where many ancient inscriptions, statues, and marble were looted. The area of the village of Ostia Antica corresponds to the medieval settlement. To protect themselves from Saracen raids, the small population still living in the area decided to build a new settlement. It was used as a garrison, custom office, center of the salt pans, and commercial port. Equipped with towers and a moat, the village was built where in ancient times Christians buried their dead. In 1400 Pope Martin V had a tower built, surrounded by a moat, to guard the Tiber River. Later, to control the nearby salt pans and commercial traffic, Cardinal Guillaume d’Estoutville, bishop of Ostia from 1461 to 1483, restored the walls of the late medieval village with three rows of terraced houses erected inside, which are still inhabited today. Inside the village, you can visit the Castle, the Sant’Aurea Church, and the Episcopal Palace.
Episcopal Palace, Trajan’s column in a cycle of frescoes
Ostia was a bishopric from the 4th century, so its importance grew. Therefore, there are a lot of treasures hidden in the Episcopal Palace. The first floor of the building is decorated with a cycle of frescoes, commissioned by the bishop of Ostia, Raffaele Riario, nephew of Pope Julius II, to the painter Baldassarre Peruzzi (1508-1513), which was found in 1977-79 under whitewashing in lime, painted over during the plague of 1615, where this place was used as a hospital. Peruzzi created the entire cycle of monochrome frescoes with battle scenes inspired by the Trajan’s column. A celebratory decoration was created between 1511 and 1513 to celebrate the enterprising policy of Julius II, the Pope at that time. Very interesting is the representation of the emperor Trajan with the features of Pope Julius II.
The village of Ostia in the Renaissance and its importance
At the beginning of the 15th century, reference is made to the presence of a fortress, perhaps built by Pope Bonifacio IX (1389-1404) to defend the village. The papal customs office was located in the fortress, which regulated the payment for the transit of goods arriving in Rome by sea. Pope Martin V built a new circular tower which was then incorporated into the late fifteenth-century castle. Under the pontificate of Sixtus IV, in 1483, the bishop of Ostia, Cardinal Giulio Della Rovere, nephew of the Pope, began the construction of the current castle under the architect Baccio Pontelli, the architect of the Sistine Chapel for Sixtus IV. The castle was completed under Pope Innocent VIII who added a moat. When Giulio Della Rovere was elected Pope by the name of Julius II, he had an apartment built on several floors with a frescoed staircase, still visible today. The flood of the Tiber River, in 1557, changed the course of the water which passed right near the castle, thus leading to a significant environmental change that caused, over time, the abandonment of the castle as well as the transfer of the customs office, from the castle to Tor Boacciana.
The castle, later became a prison for those sentenced to forced labor for the excavations of Ostia Antica.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the castle was transformed into a prison. The garrison’s original gun chambers and lodging rooms were used as convict punishment chambers. In these environments, numerous wall inscriptions were found, which are still clearly visible. Already during the pontificate of Pius VI, at the end of the eighteenth century, the prisoners were used for work, especially in archaeological excavation operations in Rome and Ostia. The papal edict of 1802 regulated the rewards and penalties to be distributed to the convicts used in the excavations of Ostia, which were read to the prisoners every 15 days.
Lido di Ostia: the seaside of Rome
To fully understand the birth of Lido di Ostia, it is advisable to visit The Coast Eco-museum, a small treasure in Latium Region. After the ports of Rome and Ostia Antica were abandoned, the entire Roman coast became a large swamp where epidemics and malaria proliferated. The territory belonged to two noble families: the Aldobrandini and the Chigi, who stayed there occasionally. Only after the unification of Italy was it decided to reclaim this area since the new capital, Rome was not to be surrounded by the unhealthy air of its countryside. In 1884, the first cooperative of laborers in Ravenna won the contract for the reclamation, arriving in Fiumicino in November of the same year. Being able to work only in winter, there was a risk of contracting not only malaria but also pneumonia. The reclamation work is still remembered today in the names of the streets and squares (e.g. Via dei Romagnoli, Piazza dei Ravennati).
During Fascism, the marine district was born, which became the beach of the Romans, known since 1933
as the Lido di Ostia. The town was built in the style of Italian rationalism. The expansion works of the city were interrupted due to the Second World War and were resumed only during the 60s. After Rome, Ostia is the location most featured in Italian films, being close to Rome and easily accessible from Cinecittà. The filmmaker Federico Fellini, originally from Rimini, loved to travel to Ostia, where he could also taste authentic food from his home region (Emilia Romagna) thanks to the old workers families that settled down bringing their own traditions.