When most people think of Ancient Rome, the Roman Forum usually comes to mind as the top place to see what life was like in ancient Roman times. There, you’ll find yourself immersed in the grandeur of an ancient city center surrounded by large monuments, stately buildings, and ancient temples and churches.
But there’s actually a lesser known place, just outside of Rome, that beats the Roman Forum for providing a more closer, intimate view of what life was really like in ancient Roman times. That place is Ostia Antica. Here are five reasons why Ostia Antica beats the Roman Forum for giving you a much closer look into what day-to-day life was like in Roman times.
Ostia is in Better Shape
Ostia Antica is Rome’s original Port city. Founded around 600 BC near the mouth (ostium) of the Tiber river, it developed into the headquarters for one of the commanders the Roman Fleet around 267 BC. Ostia started to become an important grain storage area for the military, and from there developed into a major commercial trading center.
Because of the booming commercial trade in Ostia, the city soon ran out of capacity to dock ships. In 98 AD Emperor Trajan started work on a new harbor about 3km north of Ostia to provide extra ship capacity. As the urban center around this new harbor (Portus) developed and at the same time Rome’s population started declining, Ostia faded in importance, and around 800 AD it was finally abandoned, hastened by repeated Saracen pirate attacks.
Most of Ostia was gradually covered by silt from repeated flooding of the Tiber and by its changing course. All of the silt accumulation helped to preserve the remaining structures until excavation of the site started in the early 1800’s, resulting in the really well-preserved ancient city that you can see today.
To help us to better understand the history of Ostia and everything there is to see there, we signed up for the “Daily Life in Ostia Antica” private tour through tripadvisor, which was hosted by Maria from viator. Maria is a trained archaeologist who actually lives in the present-day city of Ostia. Maria’s knowledge of the history and background of Ostia Antica was amazing, and we learned so much from her on our 3-hour tour with her. Here she is pointing out some details of the necropolis, a burial site near the park entrance, to Chris:
According to ancient law, burial places had to be located outside of the city walls. Here we could see elaborate tombs for people of upper social classes.
The entrance to the city, the Porta Romana, is marked by the remnants of an elaborate marble entrance.
Inside Ostia Antica itself, we were amazed by the excellent condition of many of the areas we saw. For example, in a shop near the Roman Baths you can clearly see a beautiful marble bar counter with shelves and basins for washing dishes, along with a built-in stove!
There are also plenty of well-preserved murals and paintings still visible in their original locations including a mural showing items you could purchase in the shop.
Even some of the mosaic tile floors are still in great condition!
2. Ostia Isn’t Crowded
Because Ostia is outside of Rome’s historical district and is somewhat off the beaten path, fewer people venture out to see it. We visited Ostia twice, in June and also in September, and on both occasions we never encountered more than 20 people in the entire 84-acre site. You can practically have the place to yourself when you visit!
3. Ostia is Cooler in the Summer
Because Ostia is only 2km away from the sea, it’s cooler in the summer compared to the Roman Forum where you can bake in the noonday sun. There’s quite a bit of shade from the many pine trees on the site. That said, especially during July and August, I’d suggest you visit either early in the morning or late in the afternoon when it’s cooler and when the lighting is more subdued compared to the middle of the day.
4. Ostia Gives You a Better View into Roman Life
A visit to Ostia lets you get a good idea of what day-to-day life must have been like for Romans living and working in a large commercial center.
You can see how people lived in apartments at the House of Diana.
For daily entertainment for the city’s residents, the city had an impressive theatre.
The city had two bath complexes, with the much of the original structure of the Forum Baths still visible.
You can even see the remnants of a complex system of hollow pipes that ran warm water through the floors and walls in the Forum Baths.
There’s also a museum onsite that houses many artifacts found in Ostia.
5. Ostia is Close to the Airport
Ostia is a great place to visit if you’re at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport for an overnight stay or even for a short layover, since it’s only about a 15-min. taxi ride away.
If you are in Rome for an overnight visit, I’d recommend you stay at the Best Western Hotel Rome Airport; it’s a nice basic hotel with a good restaurant, it has a regular shuttle service to take you to the airport terminals (5 min. away), and it avoids you from having to go into Rome itself for an overnight stay (a 60-euro, 45-minute taxi ride).
Contact us if you’d like more details about visiting Ostia Antica or any of the other exiting destinations in Italy!