Ostia Antica Tour in the ancient Theater

How to reach Ostia Antica Archeological park

Where to start our Ostia Antica tour? All roads lead to Rome but if you’re in the center of Rome to reach the beginning point of our tour you have to go westward, towards the seaside. The road that will lead you is called Via Ostiense and it’s not difficult to guess why. Another speaking name is Ostia from Latin Ostium i.e. mouth. In fact, the city is at the mouth of the Tiber river and it was an ancient harbour city, the main port of Rome. Don’t worry if you don’t have a car or a boat, you can catch a train from the station at Piramide that will take you in 26 min. to your destination.
From the train station Ostia Antica to the archeological area entrance there are only twelve minutes walking. There is also a renaissance hamlet here to visit where you could have a picturesque aperitivo after the tour. A few stops more with the train and you could arrive at the sandy seaside, in some stretches still characterized by dunes and by the pine grove. But, as soon as you will step on the slaps of the ancient road of Ostia Antica park, you will be enchanted and forget about all these extras. The tall pine trees decorates the archeological area offering shade to the travellers. Moreover, the sarcophages, the buildings of red and yellow bricks, the columns and other ruins will transform the view in a postcard. And if all of that was not sufficient, there are cats behaving as landlords to drive you crazy about the Ostia Antica tour.

Speaking deads during Ostia Antica tour

If you look right, you will find a welcome panel that explains you how the river changed in XVI century its course. Otherwise, it would have been visible there, behind the asphalted road and along our Ostia Antica tour. In those times you would have seen on the river boats and wares

being carried to the spoiled capital pulled by oxen. On the opposite side you can admire different buildings, an alley that snakes to a second smaller road. We are still outside the ancient harbor city of Ostia and what you’re looking is the necropoli, the dead city. In fact, the ancient Romans buried their deceased outside the urban centers for hygienic reason. There was a law about it since V century B.C., scratched on the twelve bronze tables that were nailed down in the Roman Forum (the main square in Rome). You would immediately run along the alley to discover the road there behind and that building which bricks upper decoration reminds you of both suns and skulls. The charm of these buildings is strong because each one of them tells you a different story.
The architecture for sure tells us the century and the fortune of the family. Therefore they must have been a kind of visual visiting cards for the travellers arriving to Ostia. Indeed, there were many Latin inscriptions and thanks to the foundings we learn some names, professions and qualities of the people buried. Each room there, each corner, has its own voice and the heart breaks leaving them unheard. However, the Ostia Antica tour is challenging for the hard selection to make. In fact, we have to move on: the city is still far and it’s wider than you think and it’s even wider than we thought for centuries having a part still to be excavated.

Ancient pedestrian areas and thermal baths: how to enjoy life and leave worries on the side.

Going straight you would notice a kind of structure on both sides narrowing the street. Our Ostia Antica tour arrived in front of Porta Romana, the main gate to the city for those, like you, arrived by land coming mostly from Rome. Along this paragraph there is a reconstruction with me dressed as it suits in such a time. As you entered the city, on your right, you will notice a series of connected environments and if you look carefully you will see some black and white mosaic pavements. Ostia Antica is famous worldwide for the beauty of those mosaics.Those halls are the thermal baths of the cart drivers, an important corporation especially here and then. On your left side there is the square Piazzale della Libertà, restored by the famous orator Cicero (as the big inscription almost behind you explains).

A big monumental through offered refreshment to the oxen and horses while most of the people would walk in the city and the cart drivers could enjoy the thermal baths across the street, certainly for hours. In spite of weird thoughts about the hygiene concern some people might have today about those thermal baths, Romans were the first civilization to use the best engineering technique, private and public money to wash daily, to offer public toilets with running water and clear drinkable water everywhere on the streets. Still today you can enjoy two of our typical nasoni (drinking fountains) in the archeological park serving very cool water even under the full hit of the sun. So leave the worries behind, enter that door and drink and walk to experience the time travel and the connection to history and nature that our Ostia Antica tour offers.

Strolling along the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue and reference point for our Ostia Antica tour

Each Roman city was grounded and planned with a main road leading you to the main square where there was the Capitolium, the temple dedicated to Jupiter but also the main city institutions. The name of the road is Decumanus Maximus and our Ostia Antica tour will run along it and hold it as reference point to get an orientation. Keep in mind that Ostia was essential for Rome: all the wares from all empire corners arrived here by boat. Capable men or trusted freed slaves had to stocked them here or bring them immediately by a boat, carried on the Tiber river, by oxes on the shores, to the capital. As wares you should imagine everything Rome could need, want, show off to reiterate her status and endless possibilities: wines, olive oils, parfums, spices as zaffran and pepper, silk, marbles of all colors and shades, architectural elements, statues, paintings and decorations of famous foreign artists and even gods (but this is another long story). The main avenue had to mirror this amazing rich network: it was monumental and if you look at both sides you might recognize that there was a monumental portico. Behind the columns, there are many warehouses: the whole city was packed with storage rooms. On this road you could have appreciated the most incredible characters beautifully dressed going the Neptune Thermal Baths that you will find on your right.

There are many beautiful thermal baths to visit and admire here but these are the closest to the entrance. Hence, it’s the one reached by everyone, especially those that wonder not being prepared at the size of the archeological area which it doesn’t fit even the maps sold at the bookshop. So, it might be crowded, especially because it gives us a first possibility to climb some stairs and look from above this part of Ostia. From the terrace you can also admire two mosaic pavements depicting Neptune and his wife Amphitrite (the picture that you see here it’s a detail of the last one). Don’t get upset if they are covered, it’s to protect them during bad weather. If you keep these pavements on your right and you look down, you will notice a kind of big colonnade: it was the gym of the firemen. From downstair some of the rooms are accessible and can give you a good idea of the structure. They were not only a corporation but as today a kind of military corp that Augustus created to guarantee security overnight in the city of Ostia.

The Ostia Antica theater and the mythical Horace

Moving further, along the Decumanus Maximus, in our Ostia Antica Tour you will notice immediately on the right side the theater. Veritably, it is in an amazing good shape being at least 2033 years old. It has been restored in Roman times and in the ’30s to host shows which it still does every summer (program) and it was well preserved already. You can climb the steps and look at the view or play Roman theater pieces besides three old gigantic marble masks. Romans were very found of theater. It was tight to their religious celebrations and previously these types of shows took place in front of temple, in temporary structures. The Greek influence brought the idea of a stable theater that was achieved in Rome by the amazingly rich Pompey the Great, first mate of Julius Caesar and then principal enemy, the same one that was able to slought Spartacus and its insurrection.

Augustus made it an institution and took good care of this special one too. In front of the theater there is the so called corporations square, probably a showcase of the most important businesses of town that sponsored eventually also the shows. But what kind of theater show were stage by Romans? Of course the classical tragedies and comedies. There was a form of theater that was a very old Latin tradition. It was called satire and the name came from “satura lanx”, a dish composed of different first fruits, earlier offered to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. For sure the satires as theater play with singing and dance were born to celebrate this old goddess. There must have been a farcical character attached to it as also in Etruscan traditions. Slowly, it included a criticism towards the society and the powerful ones. Eventually, it became also a literary gehre whose fame still survive thanks to many: among them I should recall the name of Horace. “Why do you hasten to remove anything which hurts your eye, while if something affects your soul you postpone the cure until next year?”, he used to ask or to advice, “Seize the day, and put the least possible trust in tomorrow” and “Be modest in speech, but excel in action”. I imagine his voice resounding around these places on which our Antica Ostia tour goes.

Tragedy, comedy, satire, mimes and pantomimes: the arts of touring Ostia Antica

It is necessary during the Ostia Antica tour, like in any good tour, to recreate the atmosphere we want to experience. For sure, theatrical arts with its choreography, sounds and special effects are a crucial point to our tour. The music was part of everyday social life in Roman society. Moreover, it was an important part of staging and dramaturgy. Horace himself wrote Carmen Secularae (i.e. Secular Hymn) to be singen by children, 27 girls and 27 boys. It was commissioned by Augustus, the first emperor, for the Ludus saeculares (i.e. Secular games) of 17 B.C., and music was always connected to the cosmos and therefore to mathematics and knowledge. Imagine the power of all those white voices accompanied by percussions, flutes and ancient string instruments. So, we would have heard, for sure, some music around here.

There was not such division, like today, between concerts, dance and theater plays. Imagine that here, in the so-called Alexander’s Caupona (i.e. motel), we found a mosaic depicting dancers performing a kind of comic role, a bit grotesque and a bit erotic, with accentuated movements waving a pair of long canes and an artificial exaggerated phallus. Moreover, actors had to display uncountable skills to conquest their public and some actors became real stars. The pantomime was the king of tragedy, an actor terribly skilled in representing all types and human situations, who with his imagination recreated different human natures. He had to wear a mask according to the character he had to play, but he could change during the play and he could use everything: the hands movements were essential. The star of comedy was the mime that could also use his face and mimic. Soon also women could play comedy and it seems that filling the orchestra hole with water allowed them to give a water show, a kind of synchronized swimming, called recently Thetis mime and that still arises erotic reveries. I don’t doubt anyway that at that time it was a scandal for the traditional Roman society but the population grew let’s say international, absorbing all kind of influences from around the world. To import the latest art tendencies from all the empire corners must have been also very prestigious for those who could afford it. This shows a kind of modern aspect of our Ostia Antica tour when some social passions are morally reproached but also sign of success.

Ostia Antica everyday landry

Going back on the the Decumanus Maximus, reference point of our literary tour of Ostia Antica, we should visit something that illustrates a more practical aspect of Roman everyday life: a Fullonica. So take the next left, via degli Augustali and the second building on your right is the one of our interest. You can recognize it because of the large pots of terracotta fixed in the floor and because of the basins along the walls. Here slaves would literally jump on fabrics. The reasons were mainly three: soaping, rinsing and finishing woollen clothes . Soaping was carried out in that basins surrounded by low walls, where the slave could sustain himself with his arms while jumping. These basins are called fulling stalls and by the number you can understand this was a large laundry shop. There was no soap then. So, it was used a mix of water and other chemicals, including urine. Rinsing was done with fresh water directly connected to the urban system of water supply. The finishing consisted of several treatments to brush, shear, drying and press the fabric. In the first phase it was possible to dye: urine was a powerful fixative and colors were a status symbol. We found in Ostia Antica 6 Fullonica out of 11 that have been excavated in Italy. If compared to others, it’s relevant its independence from any domestic context, a business on its own, and it’s larger than all the fullonicas found in Pompeii until now. Now you begin to have a clear idea of Ostia everyday life and social classes stratification in imperial times: slave, trusted freed slaves, corporations, merchants, state employers, entrepreneurs and artists. But, there was also a rich elite that we will encounter later in our Ostia Antica tour.

Ostia Antica everyday bread

Let’s go on with our tour of Ostia Antica and go back to the Decumanus Maximus to take the second road on the right, via dei Molini. This road name reveals its secret: big bakery. Molini means, indeed, grinds. You will find the stone grinds still on their place if you go further on your right, after Via di Diana entering the block. The entrance still has the traces of a real sliding door but you will find many of these around Ostia Antica. What you possible could not imagine is that from the other side of the street, thanks to a kind of bridge, the cereals were arriving directly to the grinds from above. As you see they are made of two parts: the upper one was the one that turned thanks to animal labors would grind. The lower part had to be at the right distance not to burn the flour and to have it fine, and probably had a base to collect the result. As you see it was a small industry. Bread was very important in Roman society.

In 123 BC lex Sempronia frumentaria was approved thanks to the tribune of the plebs, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus. The principle innovation was that the state would sell every month to all Roman citizens wheat to the constant price of 6 axes and one third per bushel. This monthly happening made politicians supporting it loved by plebeians and less by the patricians that claimed it would increase the laziness of the population. By 58 B.C. this state wheat was not sold anymore but given for free. This special distribution took, under Augustus, the name of frumentationes and it was a fundamental part of his politics and of all future emperors. It would include in time also bread, meat and wine. In I century B.C. there were already 72 bread types in Roman society with different ingredients, flour texture, cooking times or methods. If you look carefully inside you can find the oven on the right, two throughs in the backyard and there on the left even a shrine (closed but peep through the gate). The Ostia Antica tour is fun because there is so much to discover and to wonder, it’s also challenging since everything is so interesting and the sights so beautiful that it wears out.

Ostia Antica hotels and restaurants

We should go back to Via di Diana to complete this particularly part of our Ostia Antica tour dedicated to the everyday life of this ancient city. In fact, as you take this street, you will feel thrown into III century A.D. The road is for sure well preserved, but the most impressive are the facades of the buildings flanking the street. The yellow and red brinks design with taste their look. They might have been three storeys buildings: you can still admire especially two of them with traces of balconies and windows. The building where you saw the grinds and the sanctuary has its south facade here, and it shoulders with Casa di Diana, a charming building, unluckily almost always closed, with fragments of paintings depicting girls dancing, floreal decorations, dolphins, a medusa head, a bird hanging, black and white mosaic, one with some colour, a opus sectile (a kind of puzzle of different colored marble building a picture or a complex decoration), a fountain, a relief of terracotta depicting Diana hunting and giving the name to the building and even a Mithraeum.

We should go back to Via di Diana to complete this particularly part of our Ostia Antica tour dedicated to the everyday life of this ancient city. In fact, as you take this street, you will feel thrown into III century A.D. The road is for sure well preserved, but the most impressive are the facades of the buildings flanking the street. The yellow and red brinks design with taste their look. They might have been three storeys buildings: you can still admire especially two of them with traces of balconies and windows. The building where you saw the grinds and the sanctuary has its south facade here, and it shoulders with Casa di Diana, a charming building,

unluckily almost always closed, with fragments of paintings depicting girls dancing, floreal decorations, dolphins, a medusa head, a bird hanging, black and white mosaic, one with some colour, a opus sectile (a kind of puzzle of different colored marble building a picture or a complex decoration), a fountain, a relief of terracotta depicting Diana hunting and giving the name to the building and even a Mithraeum. What is it? A kind of a sanctuary depicting usually a grotta dedicated to the mystery cult of Mithra that came from the east part of the empire, and it was worship by men, probably soldiers, especially in II century A.D. For many experts the building was the luxurious central hotel of Ostia.
But the biggest surprise is on the left side the further corner building: it’s a Thermopolium, a kind of restaurant. You can admire the marble bench with two sinks, and as you enter you can see more details like the hooks on the wall, or the big anfora buried to keep wine cold, or a beautiful painted menu to discover the specialties of the house. But, the highlight is courtyard with the fountain in the middle where you can still see pieces of marble that used to cover pavements and walls and where the guest would probably enjoy the meal. I can still hear their voices, as they relax and savor the company, and some ancient bar music reaching our today’s Ostia Antica tour (to know more about the music above).

The Capitol – Ostia Antica spiritual trip

Now we have in front of us the major highlight of Ostia Antica tour, don’t let the interest and attention leave. I don’t like to wear my guests, or readers in this case, out. So relax, we are slowly approaching our great final. As we arrived at the end of via di Diana we can already perceive the monumental, massive size of the Capitol, i.e. the temple dedicated to Capitoline Triad: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Don’t think that you can exactly identify Jupiter with Zeus, the god of the Greeks, the Romans added to their old thunder and light god the Greek legends. He was the principal deity of the Romans from the times of Romolo, the first legendary king, to Christianity. To the divine triad was dedicated the principle temple in Roman towns (especially in the western part of the empire) and it was built on the main square called always Forum.

Rome itself it’s a kind of exception having the triad temple overlooking the forum from above, i.e. from the Capitoline hill. Moreover, this could explain why Ostia Antica Capitol is on a such high podium and it defines the origin of the words “Capitoline triad”.
What you are looking is only the right side of it, so turn left and you will be charmed by the rest of a majestic pavement and columns of white marble that used to be two side porticos in the Forum of Ostia. Behind the temple there is second principle Ostia Antica road that crosses here the Decumanus Maximus. It’s called Cardo and it would end in front of the tiber where probably there was a monumental dock to welcome those that came by boat. As you turn to see the main facade of the temple, you will see a large marble staircase of 21 steps and you can only imagine the massive columns that used to stand there and sustain the beautiful missing pediment. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom and military strategy and Juno, goddess of family and fertility completing what was essential in Ostia Antica life as in Rome.

You can still see inside the niches for sculptures and the base for the cult statue, before the steps rest of the altar. It’s missing almost all the marble that use to cover the walls and the pavement (consisted of squares enclosing rhombs!). Indeed, the whole structure, probably originally over 20m of height (i.e. over 66 ft or higher than a six storey building), was always visible even when all the city was buried from detritus of centuries. The removal of the marble started in XVth century and went on to XIX century. The Ostia Antica Capitol was rebuild in its size under, and maybe designed by, the mythical emperor Hadrian (that Marguerite Yourcenar consecrated also the the literary fame, check Memoirs of Hadrian). To understand the Roman religion believes, we have to keep in mind that all started as animism, giving life to the nature fertility, to the sky, to volcano or to time and change for example.

The personification started with the contact with other population, first the Latin population, then Etruscans and it developed absorbing new shades, legends, myths and even new gods from Egypt and Syria . Since Jupiter characterized the beginning of Roman expansion became the patron of Rome supremacy over other populations. Worshiping spirits stayed over centuries as duty of the father of each family: they were divided into three categories depending on their area of influence. First, there were the Lari that were responsible of houses. Second, there were the Penati that had to take care of families. Last but not least, there were the Mani tight to underworld. You might find niches dedicated to them also in Ostia Antica, especially in houses and blocks. So the Capitoline triad represents the political, military and social career and for this reason his temple is the beating heart of Ostia Antica society. The priests was one of the highest circle to belong. The emperor had always the title of Pontifex Maximus which was the most important religious position to occupy. And now our tour of Ostia Antica can concentrate on the other Forum big players.

The Forum – the real treasures of Ostia Antica

In this special tour across Ostia Antica it’s important to stops often to admire the sights: the beautiful pine trees, wild flowers growing between the ruins, that small but refined capitel on the side and the golden light. So let’s turn around, so you can admire the wide square. Let your eyes get lost in the distance and appreciate how the sun rays falls on each surface or add a special shade in a corner or outline a column decoration. In the opposite side of the Capitol you can observe the temple of Rome and August making clear the political schema of ancient Ostia world. While you go toward it, you should notice six squared holes leading you to Decumanus Maximus. Some experts thought they have might sustain a kind of Velarium, a kind of pavilion to protect the citizens from the sun or rain.
On the right, before you cross the Decumanus, you find the Curia, where the senators met, with marmor pavement and a columned porch. On the wall there have been repositioned some inscriptions with 250 names of the Augustales, the priests responsible for the emperor cult. Still on the right side, as you cross the Decumanus you find the Basilica, which is not as you might think a church. Basilica comes from Greek and it means royal hall, but this architecture type was imported by Romans in the republic to host justice, administration and meetings. Then, later, the Christians thought that this type of building would suit the community needs much better than a temple, that was meant to be entered only by priests. Moreover, the connection between justice and christianism marked a good point. You can still detect on the arches of the marble portico the relief with erotes and fruit garlands.

On your left side of the Forum you can visit the public thermal baths. Inside you should have fun identifying the so called frigidarium (the room with the cold swimming pool), the palestra (Gym hall) and the latrina (toilettes). There are mosaic pavements inside, and the architecture is still today awesome. As marked at the beginning of our Ostia Antica tour water was an individual, social and even political prestigious conquest that reflected a quality life beyond social classes and money as today and tomorrow: our blue gold.

Antica Ostia Tour: how much still to discover?

Our Ostia Antica tour as any human-related tour left a lot behind. On many of the streets mentioned there was something more to see, to wonder, to awake your fantasies. Experience in giving group tours but especially private taught me that time is another of treasure that we underestimated: we need time to appreciate, to admire, to wonder, to concentrate, to listen, to ask question and also to dare answers. Creativity can be spontaneous but to be a lasting process needs also time and careful planning. Also writing an experience take more time than living it. Therefore, I invite you to enjoy the tour live in the real ancient city. In this Ostia Antica Tour post we left out at least 16 Mithraeum (those special sanctuaries dedicated to Mythra and the invincible sun) and all the private houses and residential blocks.

We didn’t check any warehouse, any shop, any republican house or temple, any school, any of the uncountable public and private sanctuaries and the precious museum; we visit only one of the principle gates to the city, and so I could not tell all those stories that are anyway part of this immeasurable beauty and of its meaning. So much that I should call then the “1000D effect” (forgive me for the strong statement and let me a poetic licence for the effort I made to realize this literary tour), in comparison to this contemporary fashion of 3D projections that leave little to your own imagination, one of the most amazing treasure we are still unaware of. Today the Ostia Antica Park reopened after being shut down as part of the strategy to prevent the spreading of Covid-19. Here below you find the video featuring this tour of Ostia Antica. Subscribe here below to my blog + v if you don’t want to miss next tour.
I hope in the future we will both have the chance and the will to take some time together and enjoy the real adventure: book an actual live tour of Ostia Antica.


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10 Responses

  1. I haven’t been yet to Rome, but this city is on my bucket list! It’s amazing how ancient, beautiful, and well preserved it actually is! Thank you for sharing all this information and photos! Now I want faster to be able to travel again and buy a ticket to Italy!!!

  2. This is an incredible review. I’ve visited several parks in Rome but never been to this one. Bookmarking this for next trip, post pandemic.

    • Yes, Jamie! You have to.. I didn’t cover even the most important things there with my review. For example there is the oldest sinagoghe outside Israel! But putting even aside the history it’s of a overwhelming beauty.

  3. This is such a great guide 😉 I wish I visited this place when I visited Rome a couple of years ago. I will definitely check it out in the future. I can’t wait to go back to Rome!

    • Thanks, Cristina! I would definitely include Ostia Antica in your possible tours: the surroundings are also so charming and there is the possibility of bird watching at the mouth of the river Tiber.

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