History / Italy

Escaping Rome to Ostia Antica

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Every traveler we know has a Bucket List, and that list will most likely include the fascinating city of Rome, Italy. Ours did. And we’ve loved all the weeks we’ve spent in Rome over the years, wandering the ancient streets, exploring the ruins and trying to envision the lives of early Romans.

If you love to imagine what life was like in an ancient Roman city, then there’s no place better than Ostia Antica, the ancient seaport for imperial Rome.

We decided to take a break from Rome’s noise and hustle, so we took the Metro to the Porta San Paolo train station, managing to jump aboard just as the train pulled out. A 30-minute ride through Roman suburbs and countryside brought us to Ostia Antica.

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At first glance you might think that Ostia is just a jumble of old brick and stone, but then you realize that it’s a treasure trove of antiquities, striking in detail.

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Incredibly well preserved, it’s one of the most spectacular ruins we’ve ever seen. That’s saying a lot.

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Ostia was a vibrant city, full of real people leading normal lives. Nowhere else can you get a feel for how ancient Romans really lived. There are ruins of shops, bars, houses, cafes, amphitheaters – even public toilets and baths! It used to be at the mouth of the Tiber River, but over time the course of the river has changed, so now it’s high and dry!

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Ostia got its start in 620 BC, but really came into its own by the 2nd Century BC. The job of the city was to keep Rome well supplied, and that meant everything from grain to perfume!

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It was a cosmopolitan mecca, full of people of many cultures, ranging from the very rich to working class folks. There were sailors, traders, cart drivers and slaves from conquered lands.

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Housing was similar to current life – with one big exception (I’ll get to that in a second). Wealthy people built lavish, elaborate homes for their families. They were eager to display their sophistication so they used imported marble and built niches in the walls for statues of the gods they worshipped.

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Merchants, on the other hand, lived in areas with other merchants. They built multi-storied shops with mosaic floors out front to denote the nature of their business. They lived in apartments above their shops and rented out the apartments above them. If you were poor, the higher up you lived, and the more stairs or ladders you had to climb. But, and here’s the exception, all the baths and toilets were public. Some were for specific professions, like the Cart Driver’s Bath. Others were for the common folk in the neighborhood.

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Baths were a big part of life in Ostia Antica. This was where people came to exercise, socialize, gossip, hear the news … and bathe. In Ostia, people used olive oil rather than soap to wash. Water was heated by furnaces below the baths, and steam was pumped up through the walls via hypocausts – an ingenious system of terracotta ductwork.

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Then there were the public toilets – or as we call them, outhouses on steroids! Some were 40 seaters! Every neighborhood had its own public toilet where people of all ages and genders went to … well, go! Urine was collected separately because it was used by the laundries for the bleaching of clothes. (I know … pause for thought!) Then you went into the latrine to take care of your business. They didn’t have toilet paper in those days, so the cutout below the seat was to accommodate the washable sponge on a stick they used instead. Rushing water (brought in by aqueduct) below each seat did the flushing. And going to the community latrine was considered a social event!

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On a more highbrow note, Theater was big – and it was one of the first things you saw as you entered by the sea. This entertainment venue came complete with marble seating, orchestra pit, stage, and could hold thousands of people.

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With the fall of Rome, the port was abandoned. We were so impressed with Ostia Antica – it topped off our Rome visit and gave us a feel for ancient Roman life like nothing else ever has.

Our friends Mike and Florence at Applecore (aka The Six Monthers) are visiting Rome this week on their way to their new home, and we suggested they might enjoy this side trip. Check out their wonderful blog to discover where they are going to live for the next 6 months.

Cheers,
Terri

P.S. Many thanks to James at Plus Ultra for expanding my vocabulary for Roman urban planning (one of my favorite topics). He mentioned the “insulae apartments” and I had to look it up. My description was spot on – now I have the right terminology. Thanks James.

“In Roman architecture, an insula (Latin for “island,” plural insulae) was a kind of apartment building that housed most of the urban citizen population of ancient Rome, including ordinary people of lower- or middle-class status (the plebs) and all but the wealthiest from the upper-middle class (the equites). The traditional elite and the very wealthy lived in domus, large single-family residences, but the two kinds of housing were intermingled in the city and not segregated into separate neighborhoods. The ground-level floor of the insulae was used for tabernae, shops and businesses, with the living space upstairs. Like modern apartment buildings, an insula might have a name, usually referring to the owner of the building.” —protexya

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72 thoughts on “Escaping Rome to Ostia Antica

  1. Terri this is fabulous! Isn’t the multi seater toilet amazing? I pondered that quite some time in Turkey at similar spots. Social outing indeed! The new ‘keep your clothes their whitest’ strategy is new to me. Perhaps you could try selling that concept to current laundry detergent companies. 🙂
    Our plan is to be in Rome in the fall. Thanks for this post and info!

    • Sue, how exciting that you’re heading to Rome this year. I’m with you on the “clothes bleach” – new to me. I had always read about the use in the leather tanning process. I do remember that my Grandmother had a 2-seater outhouse (considered deluxe in those days), complete with last season’s thick Sear’s Catalog. My sisters and I used to get such a kick out of going to Granny’s outhouse together. Kids are weird! 🙂 ~Terri

  2. We visited the site at Ostia Antica nearly 10 years ago and it was wonderful. I am sure that had something to do with one of my son’s choosing archaeology for his degree course. Suffice to say he did it for one year and changed course graduating in accountancy and economics! Back to the site we loved it and I remember those toilets 🙂 OH has a photograph somewhere on the hard drive. I am sure they have uncovered more since my visit.

    • Hi Booketta, so glad you stopped by. Our first trip to Ostia Antica was 10 years ago, too. When we went back recently it was as thrilling as the first time. They were working on some new digs while we were there, along the edge of the city, but we could’t tell what was being excavated. I guess we’ll just have to go back again. 🙂 All the best, Terri

  3. “If you love to imagine what life was like in an ancient Roman city, then there’s no place better than Ostia Antica”

    Well, there’s also Pompeii and Herculaneum… I’ve seen both (preferred Herculaneum), but not Ostia Antica – do you really think it’s better? Ostica Antica is a lot more accessible from Rome, but Herculaneum and Pompeii give you a(nother) good reason to visit Naples and the Amalfi Coast.

    • Hi Kathy! I too love Pompeii and Herculaneum – they were my first introduction to ancient Roman cities (and prepared me for what I saw at Ostia Antica). And you’re right about the not-to-be-missed access to Naples and the Amalfi coast.

      Of the three, Ostia Antica gave me the greatest sense of what it was like to live as a Roman of the times. And it didn’t suffer the catastrophic destruction of the other two. It also helps that it’s not so heavily visited, so there were very few tourists around. We felt like we had the place to ourselves and that added to our enjoyment. Being just 30 minutes from Rome, easily accessed by public transit, was also a plus. So, I can’t judge whether it’s better, but of the three I prefer Ostia Antica.

      Happy New Year to you! ~Terri

      • Happy New Year and good travels to you too. Ostia Antica is definitely on my list if I make it back to Rome (not one of my favorite cities). I got lucky with Herculaneum, the weather wasn’t very good, it was early in the year, and there weren’t many people around.

  4. Thank you for a wonderful trip down memory lane! I went to Ostia Antica ten years ago now and I loved that it was relatively un-touristy (we even crawled around in underground tunnels full of bats). Is it still quiet or did you just manage to capture photos withough other people in them?

    • Rosie, so glad I could give you a stroll down memory lane. Yes, Ostia is still very quiet, although we were there in the shoulder season, so I’m not sure what to expect during peak tourist season. And you got to go in the underground tunnels … full of bats? Yikes! From what I saw, all tunnels were barricaded with gates and there seemed to be deep water in several. I guess you were there before the gates. Thanks for stopping by. Are you still in Bolivia! ~Terri

    • Andrew, you always come up with the best suggestions! Thanks. Although I’ve been to all those countries, somehow I’ve missed those destinations. Have you done posts on all of them? ~Terri

  5. Thanks to your input, we are looking into this tour. The weather seems to be cooperating as well! Thank you for this post, the photos, and all the quality information. – Mike

    • Hi Mike! I know that you and Florence are pressed for time in Rome, and I know you’re enjoying it. If you find yourself with a free day, Ostia is a joy if you like antiquities (and a little peace and quiet). 🙂 Can’t wait to hear more about your Rome explorations. ~Terri

  6. For such a well-preserved ancient city, Ostia seems strangely devoid of visitors! Terri, as I was reading this I wondered if you’d mention the ‘insulae’ apartment blocks and public latrines – and you gave us a great explanation of both. 🙂 I guess the Romans would have been experts at toilet humour, or maybe to them it was completely normal and not something to be laughed at. Funny how such open, mixed gender facilities are inconceivable in modern society… when did it all cease to be a social event?

    • James, you are the master of the perfect word. I wasn’t familiar with the term “insulae” and thanks to you, now I have expanded my vocabulary. I added a postscript with your helpful information and a link to you. And you’re right about the toilet humor and other graphic tidbits (a la Pompeii and Herculaneum). I guess every society through the ages has defined “social event” a bit differently. 🙂 Thanks for your great comment. ~Terri

      • You’re welcome, Terri – it was something I remembered from a book on ancient Rome that I got years ago. 🙂 Thanks too for including me in the postscript!

  7. Thank you. I am from Ostia. I was born in and went to school in Ostia and have visited the ruins of Ostia Antica several times. They are great place to unwind while pondering about history. Nice to see it on your blog. Your post transported me back home for a moment. I hope your friends enjoy it. Nice photos. Thank you.

    • Ros, that’s amazing! I knew you were from Italy, but had no idea you were from Ostia. What a charming place to grow up. So glad that I could transport you back home for a few brief moments. Are you still in South Korea? ~Terri

      • Hi Terri, yes, I am from there 🙂
        Thank you.
        I have left Seoul and I am back in London now but I will be relocating to South Korea within the next couple of months. Hopefully I’ll be able to post more updates once I am out there and have some spare time.

    • Hi Maria, So great to hear from you again. It looks like we covered much of the same ground last year – weren’t the Baltic States awesome! We’ve been to Ostia Antica twice, and we were so curious about the communal toilets (I mean, who does a 40-seater?) that we did a lot of research. Voila! Really glad you reconnected and I look forward to more of your adventures. All the best, Terri

  8. We lived in Lido di Ostia three months and visited Ostia Antica twice. It’s wonderful to see your photo and read your post. Thanks.

    • Thanks JF, what a wonderful place you and Tamara lived. I’m sure you have some wonderful stories to go with it. We too have been to Ostia Antica twice and I would gladly go back again … and again. ~Terri

  9. What fascinating ruins and those mosaic floors……just dazzling. I almost wish I’d visited this place instead of Pompeii, but being on a tour meant going where the tour took us.
    Maybe one day I’ll get back to Italy again. There’s just so much I haven’t seen.

    • Happy New Year Vicki! Like you, I am a huge fan of those mosaic floors – and you talk about standing the test of time! Wow! It’s great that you got to see Pompeii – another wonderful site for Roman ruins. And you have the added twist of what the volcano left behind. Did you also go to Herculaneum? ~Terri

      • No Terri.

        I have a poor memory, but DO remember all of my visit to Pompeii all those years ago. I’m so glad I saw it as they say another volcano eruption is imminent (well, in the next 20 years or something).

        I believe much more of Pompeii has been excavated since I was there. Would love to go back.

        I think the most amusing point of the visit was how straight the streets were. Apparently they are so straight that they are less than one inch out of line from beginning to end. The only streets that were crooked are those of the prostitutes in the ‘red light’ district of the ruins. Well, that’s what I remember the guide saying. What a funny thing to remember – lol.

        Which also reminds me of the ruts in the stone roads in Rome. I just kept staring and staring, as they were supposedly from the wearing of the chariot/cart wheels. I couldn’t believe I was looking at something so old.

  10. Great post! I love learning something new. It is interesting to think about how people used to live in different times and cultures. Toilet time as social time, very different from our idea of social time now 🙂 Ancient Rome- toilets, Modern America- Facebook and twitter.

    • Many thanks Amy. We were so surprised and curious about the 40-seater latrine that we did some digging. The answer was pretty amazing for sure. I love your analogy … and I guess some people might consider them one in the same1 🙂 ~Terri

    • Hi Jeff. I too love Pompeii and Herculaneum – they were my first introduction to ancient Roman cities (and prepared me for what I saw at Ostia Antica). Of the three, Ostia Antica gave me the greatest sense of what it was like to live as a Roman of the times. And it didn’t suffer the catastrophic destruction of the other two. It also helps that it’s not so heavily visited, so there were very few tourists around. We felt like we had the place to ourselves and that added to our enjoyment. Being just 30 minutes from Rome, easily accessed by public transit, was also a plus. So, I can’t judge whether it’s better, but of the three I prefer Ostia Antica. ~Terri

  11. Great timing on this post Terri and James. Just the other day I was watching a documentary on Ostia Antica and I commented to my husband how disappointing it was that we didn’t know that the site existed when we were in Rome. You’ve just reaffirmed that Ostia Antica is a must see on our next Italian visit, thanks!

    • Hi Gina and Simon! Isn’t it funny how timing is everything. We’ve been to Ostia Antica twice and it never fails to make us smile – just imagining everyday life for Romans. It helps that it’s an easy side trip from Rome, and easy for a family to access via public transit. So glad you stopped by. ~Terri

  12. This is fascinating! Thanks for sharing your visit there, I will definitely be branching outside the city of Rome on my next visit to see Ostia Antica. It is so interesting to be able to have a view into Roman life.

    • It sounds like the perfect trip for you Bridget. It’s always fun to discover great day trips from a major hub city, and if you’re interested in antiquities, Ostia Antica is one of the best. Have fun! ~Terri

  13. As always, you add information to your blog that helps me understand the area you are visiting. Fascinating pics and interesting tidbits about toileting!!! And that last picture — who stooped down to get that great perspective!!!

    • Thanks so much Rusha. Since I’d never seen a 40-seat latrine I just had to find out the backstory! And as for that last shot, there are lots of ups-and-downs in Ostia. I was standing in a partial basement and thought it might be interesting – plus I love daisies. 🙂 ~Terri

  14. This ruin site is amazingly well-preserved. We did a lengthy tour of ruins in Mexico, which we found to be fascinating, so I’m sure we would love this. Public toilets…hmmm. Great post Terri! 🙂

  15. Without doubt, in all of my travels Rome is my favourite city. I’ve been back numerous times, and I’m still always blown away. You can even smell the history as you walk around the streets, it oozes from the stones and whistles around the forum as if you sit among gods and emperors. Love it, and always will. Great post Terri.

    • Thank you Steve. It sounds like Rome got in your blood. Given all your travel, saying it’s your favorite is quite a testament to the city! Such incredible history! It can be “in your face” at times, and it’s good to know that Ostia is a serene getaway where you can collect your thoughts. Are you still in Indonesia? ~Terri

  16. I agree Ostia is a great place to see days gone by in a way that is less crowded and easily do-able from Rome. We went there our last visit and love it. Did you find a tour that would take you through? I guess if there is a downside it would be for those people going without a tour and wondering ‘what am I looking at?’ I studied ancient art and architecture (Roman) so I loved the chance to explore on my own and I became my husband’s guide. His highlight was finding the toilets 😉
    Thanks for the great photos… and very informative text.

    • Great points! This was our second visit in 10 years and we remembered there was very little info onsite, so we came prepared with our own research. I’m a huge fan of self-guided tours, and your husband was one lucky man to have you as his tour guide. Isn’t it interesting that both our husbands found the communal toilets! 🙂 ~Terri

      • LOL well it is certainly an interesting place and the toilets and men and bathroom humour… need I say more 😉
        I really like self guided too. We just came back from Angkor Wat and we did things on our own. We had a driver who gave us some information which was helpful. It would have been nice to know more, but it does limit you to a time frame and see and do what they pick. Some of the temples and areas at Angkor meant big crowds. When we went off on our own we avoided the pushing and obstructed views, when possible, and had a much more enjoyable experience.

  17. How did I miss this addition? I didn’t know of this area (the old mouth, literally, if I’m right) but it does look fascinating. One of the great things about Rome is the ruins just lying about wherever. These obviously have the advantage of being accessible and extensive – and not overcrowded.

    I must say that while a steam bath is appealing I do prefer private toilets.

    • Bronwyn, the day we were there in October, we nearly had the place to ourselves! It was so cool! But I’m sure that high season brings bigger crowds. We loved that it was so accessible – not roped off. And I’m with you on the steam bath and toilets. 🙂 ~Terri

  18. Wonderful photos, loved the “action shot” on the toilets lol. I loved Ostia Antica– I was surprised at how enormous it was, so it never really felt crowded with tourists. My fav spot was the restaurant.

    • Thanks Kristin. The restaurant – is that the one that has the sign up “Taverne del Pescivendoli” and the great mosaic floor? We got a photo, but I don’t think we did it justice. ~Terri

    • Thanks so much Jet. Too funny you mentioned the mosaic tile floors. James is currently writing a post about them. As a “teaser,” James said to tell you that it involves “mule nicknames.” 🙂 ~Terri

  19. When I lived in Rome I never had a chance to visit Ostia Antica. These beautiful images and stories made me travel. So much history within, I think is so impressive. If you had to choose a favourite part of it, which would it be?

  20. Italy is on our agenda this year, and this may be one of our must-see’s. You presented it in such an interesting way that I feel like I just got a personal tour!

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