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O´STIA (Ὠστία: Eth. Ostiensis: Ostia), a city of Latium, situated at the mouth of the Tiber, from which position it derived its name. It was on the left bank of the river, at a distance of 16 miles from Rome, by the road which derived from it the name of Via Ostiensis. (Itin. Ant. p. 301.) All ancient writers agree in representing it as founded by the Roman king Ancus Marcius; and it seems certain that it always retained the position of a colony of Rome, and was at no period independent. From its position, indeed, it naturally became the port of Rome, and was essential to that city, not only for the purpose of maintaining that naval supremacy which it had established before the close of the regal period, but for securing its supplies of corn and other imported produce which was carried up the Tiber. Ancus Marcius at the same time established salt-works on the site, which for a long time continued to supply both Rome itself and the neighboring country in the interior with that necessary article. (Liv. 1.33; Dionys. A. R. 3.44; Cic. de Rep. 2.3, 18; Strab. v. p.232; Flor. 1.4; Eutrop. i 5; Fest. p. 197.) There can be no doubt that the importance of Ostia must have continued to increase with the growing prosperity and power of Rome; but it is remarkable that we meet with no mention of its name in history until the period of the Second Punic War. At that time it appears as a commercial and naval station of the utmost importance; and was not only the port to which the corn from Sicily and Sardinia was brought for the supply of Rome itself, as well as of the Roman legions in the field, but was the permanent station of a Roman fleet, for the protection both of the capital, and the neighbouring shores of Italy. (Liv. 22.11, 37, 57, 23.38, 25.20, 27.22.) It was at this time still reckoned one of the “coloniae maritimae;” but on account of its peculiar importance in relation to Rome, it enjoyed special privileges; so that in B.C. 207, when the other maritime colonies endeavoured to establish a claim to exemption from levies for military service, this was allowed only in the case of Ostia and Antium; the citizens of which were at the same time compelled to be constantly present as a garrison within their own walls. (Liv. 27.38.) On a subsequent occasion (B.C. 191) they attempted to extend this exemption to the naval service also; but their claim was at once disallowed by the senate. (Id. 36.3.) Even after the complete establishment of the naval power of the Roman Republic, Ostia seems to have continued to be the usual station of a Roman fleet: and in B.C. 67 it was there that a squadron, which had been assembled for the repression of the Cilician pirates, was attacked by the pirates themselves, and the ships either destroyed or taken. (Cic pro Leg. Manil. 12; D. C. 36.5.) Ostia itself also suffered severely during the civil wars of Sulla and Marius, having been taken by the latter in B.C. 87, and given up to plunder and devastation by his soldiers, .(Appian, App. BC 1.67; Liv. Epit. lxxix; Oros. 5.19; Flor. 3.21.12.)

But its position at the mouth of the Tiber, as the port of Rome, secured it from decay: and so important [p. 2.502]was the trade of Ostia become, especially on account of the supplies of corn which it furnished to the capital, that it was made the place of residence of one of the four quaestors of Italy, and gave name to one of the “provinciae quaestoriae” into which that country was divided. (Cic. pro Muren. 8, pro Sest. 17; Suet. Cl. 24.) But the increasing commerce of Ostia rendered its natural disadvantages as a port only the more sensible; and there can be little doubt that those disadvantages were themselves continually increasing. It had been originally founded, as we are expressly told, close to the mouth of the Tiber, from which it is now distant above three miles; and the process of alluvial deposition, which has wrought this change, has been undoubtedly going on throughout the intervening period. Hence Strabo describes in strong terms the disadvantages of Ostia in his day, and calls it “a city without a port, on account of the alluvial deposits continually brought down by the Tiber, which compelled the larger class of vessels to ride at anchor in the open roadstead at great risk, while their cargoes were unloaded into boats or barges, by which they were carried up the river to Rome. Other vessels were themselves towed up the Tiber, after they had been lightened by discharging a part of their cargoes.” (Strab. v. pp. 231, 232.) Dionysius gives a more favourable view, but which does not substantially differ from the preceding account. (Dionys. A. R. 3.44.) These evils had already attracted the attention of the dictator Caesar, and among the projects ascribed to him, was one for forming an artificial port or basin at Ostia (Plut. Caes. 58): but this was neglected by his successors, until the increasing difficulty of supplying Rome With corn compelled Claudius to undertake the work.

That emperor, instead of attempting to cleanse and restore the original port of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber, determined on the construction of an entirely new basin, which was excavated in the seashore about two miles to the N. of Ostia, and which was made to communicate with the river by an artificial cut or canal. This port was protected and enlarged by two moles projecting out into the sea, so as to enclose an extensive space, while in the interval between them a breakwater or artificial island was thrown up, crowned by a lighthouse. (D. C. 60.11; Suet. Cl. 20; Plin. Nat. 9.6, 16.40. s. 76; Juv. 12.75-81.) This great work was called the PORTUS AUGUSTI on which account its construction, or at least commencement, is by some writers referred to the emperor Augustus ; but there is no authority for this; and Dio Cassius distinctly assigns the commencement as well as completion of it to Claudius. Nero, however, appears to have put the finishing hand to the work, and in consequence struck coins on which he claims it for his own. (Eckhel, vol. vi. p. 276.) After this it was considerably augmented by Trajan, who added an inner basin or dock, of a hexagonal form, surrounded with quays and extensive ranges of buildings for magazines and storehouses. This port was called by him PORTUS TRAJANI; and hence we afterwards meet in inscriptions with the “Portus Augusti et Trajani,” and sometimes “Portus uterque” in the same sense. (Juv. l.c., et Schol. ad loc.; Gruter, Inscr. p. 308. 10, p. 440. 3.) At the same time he enlarged or repaired the artificial channel of communication with

PLAN OF OSTIA. PLAN OF OSTIA., AA. Main channel of the Tiber.

B. Right arm of ditto, the Fossa Trajana, now called Fiumicino.

C. Fiunme Morto, dry bed of ancient course of the Tiber.

D. Modern village of Ostia.

E. Ruins of ancient Ostia.

F. Portus Augusti.

G. Portus Trajani.

H. Insula Sacra.

[p. 2.503]

the Tiber, which now assumed the name of FOSSA TRAJANA, and is undoubtedly the same which still exists under the name of Fiumicino, and forms the right arm of the Tiber, from which it separates about a mile and a half above the site of Ostia,

The new port thus constructed soon gave rise to the growth of a new town around it, which was generally known by the name of PORTUS OSTIENSIS, sometimes also Portus Urbis or Portus Romae, but more frequently, at least in later times, simply PORTUS. It seems to have been designed more particulaly for the importation of corn for the supply of the capital, an object of which the importance became felt more and more, as the population of Rome continued to increase, while it became more absolutely dependent upon foreign produce. The adjoining district on the right bank of the Tiber was portioned out among a body of colonists before the time of Trajan (Lib. Colon. p. 222); and a new line of road was constructed along the right bank of the Tiber from Rome to the new port, which obtained the name of Via Portuensis. In the reign of Constantine the city of Portus was erected into an episcopal see (Anastas. Vit. Silvestr. 34); and the same emperor surrounded it with strong walls and towers, which are. still in considerable part extant.

Meanwhile Ostia itself was far from sinking into decay. Repeated notices of it during the earlier periods of the Roman Empire show it to have been still a flourishing and populous city, and successive emperors concurred in improving it and adorning it with public buildings. It was particularly indebted to the care of Hadrian (Gruter, Inscr, p. 249. 7) and Septimius Severus, numerous inscriptions in honour of whom have been discovered among its ruins. (Nibby, Dintorni, vol. ii. pp. 434, 468.) Aurelian, also, we are told, adorned it with a Forum, which bore his name, and which was decorated by his successor Tacitus with 100 columns of Numidic marble. (Vopisc. Aurel. 45; Tac. 10.) The existing remains confirm the inference which we should draw from these accounts, and show that Ostia must have continued to be a flourishing town till towards the close of the Roman Empire, and far superior in the number and splendour of its public buildings to the neighbouring town of Portus. But the security of the latter place, which was well fortified, while Ostia was wholly unprotected by walls (Procop. B. G. 1.26), must have contributed greatly to the advantage of Portus; and the artificial port seems to have obtained an increasing preference over the natural mouth of the Tiber. Rutilius says that in his time (about A.D. 414) the left arm, or main channel of the river, was so obstructed with sand as to be wholly deserted (Itin. 1.181); but this would appear to be an exaggerated statement, as Procopius more than a century later describes them as both navigable (Procop. l.c.). Ostia was, however, in his day already in a state of great decay, and the road which led from thence to Rome (the Via Ostiensis) was neglected and abandoned, while the Via Portuensis on the other side of the Tiber was still the scene of considerable traffic. The importance of Portus became more developed when Rome itself became exposed to the attacks of hostile barbarians. In A.D. 409 Alaric, king of the Goths, made himself master of the port, and with it of the stores of corn for the supply of the capitals which compelled the senate to capitulate on the terms that he chose to dictate (Zosim. 6.6); and again during the wars of Belisarius and Vitiges (in 537) the Gothic king, by making himself master of Portus, was able to reduce his adversary to severe distress (Procop. B. G. 1.26, &c.). The decline of Ostia continued throughout the earlier part of the middle ages: in 827 it is described as altogether in ruins, and the continued incursions of the Saracens throughout that century seem to have completed its desolation.

But meanwhile the artificial ports of Claudius and Trajan were beginning in their turn to suffer from the deposit of sand which is constantly going on along these shores; and no attempt being made in these ages of confusion and disorder to arrest the progress of the evil, they were both gradually filled up so as to be rendered altogether useless. In the 10th century, the port of Trajan was already Deduced to a mere lake or pool, altogether cut off from the sea, and only communicating by a ditch with the Tiber. (Ughelli, Italia Sacra, vol. i. p. 134.) The consequence was that for a time the trade was again forced to have recourse to the left arm of the river; and the modern Ostia, where a castle or fort had been founded by Pope Gregory IV., a little above the ruins of the ancient city, became again for a period of some centuries the landing-place of travellers and the port of Rome. It was not till 1612 that Pope Paul V. once more caused the canal of Trajan to be restored and cleared out, and continued to the present line of sea-coast, where a small port called Fiumicino was constructed; and from this time the whole traffic carried on by the Tiber with Rome (which is however but inconsiderable) has been confined to this arm of the river. The main channel, on the other hand, having been completely neglected, has become so obstructed with sand near the mouth as to be wholly impracticable.

The modern village of Ostia is a very poor place, with the ruins of an old castle, but retains little more than 50 permanent inhabitants, who are principally employed in the neighbouring salt-works. Its climate in summer is extremely unhealthy. The ruins of the ancient city begin about half a mile below it, and extend along the left bank of the Tiber for a space of near a mile and a half in length, and a mile in breadth. Though extensive, they are for the most part in a very dilapidated and imperfect state, so as to have little or no interest as architectural monuments; but among them may be distinctly traced the remains of a theatre, a temple of the Corinthian order, the forum, with several of the public buildings that surrounded it; and near the Torre Bovacciana, close to the Tiber, are the ruins of buildings that appear to indicate this as the site of the actual port or emporium of Ostia in the imperial period. The great number and beauty of the statues and other works of art, which have been brought to light by the excavations carried on at successive periods on the site of Ostia, are calculated to give a high notion of the opulence and prosperity of the ancient city.

The ruins of Portus, which are also very considerable, are of an entirely different character from those of Ostia. They are found on the right bank of the Tiber, about 2 miles from the present line of sea-coast at Fiumicino, and are still known as Porto; while the inner basin of Trajan, the hexagonal form of which may be distinctly traced, though it is in great part filled with sand, is still popularly known by the name of Il Trajano. The quays of solid masonry that surrounded it are still well preserved; while extensive, though shapeless, masses of ruins adjoining it appear to have been those of the magazines and storehouses attached to the port. The [p. 2.504]remains of the port of Claudius are less distinct; the line of the moles which bounded it may, however, be traced, though they are altogether buried in sand; the tower of the lighthouse or Pharos was still visible in the 15th century, when the ruins were visited and described by Pope Pius II., but has now entirely disappeared. A considerable part of the ancient walls with which the city was fortified by Constantine is still visible; they were strengthened with towers, and closely resemble, in their style of construction the older portions of those of Rome.

Between the site of Ostia and that of Portus is the island, formed by the two branches of the Tiber, which is about 3 miles in length by 2 in breadth. It is commonly known as the INSULA SACRA, an appellation first given to it by Procopius, who describes it in detail (B. G. 1.26). The origin of the epithet is unknown, but it appears to have been in Christian times regarded as consecrated, having been, according to Anastasius, bestowed by Constantine upon the church. It is described in exaggerated terms by a writer of the 5th century (Aethicus, Cosmogr. p. 716, ed. Gronov.) for its beauty and fertility, whence he says it was termed “Libanus Almae Veneris:” but in spring it is still covered with fine pastures abounding with beautiful flowers. The formation of this island obviously dates only from the construction of the right arm of the Tiber, now known as Il Fiumicino, which, as already shown, is probably wholly artificial. No writer before the time of the Roman Empire alludes to more than one mouth of the river.

The topography of Ostia and Portus, and the vicissitudes and changes which the two ports at the month of the Tiber have undergone, are fully traced, and the existing ruins described in detail. by Nibby (Dintorni di Roma, vol. ii. p. 426--474, 602--660); as well as by Preller, in the Berichte der Sächsischen Gesellschaft for the year 1849 (pp. 5--38). The preceding plan is copied from one given by the latter writer.


hide References (16 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (16):
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 1.8.67
    • Cicero, For Lucius Murena, 8
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 20
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 24
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 9.6
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 16.40
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 27, 22
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 27, 38
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 11
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 25, 20
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 57
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 23, 38
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 33
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 37
    • Cicero, De Republica, 2.3
    • Plutarch, Caesar, 58
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