Ostia was a port city on the west coast of Italy at the mouth of the Tiber River. As the port for the city of Rome, which lay 16 miles away, Ostia played an important role in the history of Roman trade, communications, and military campaigns.
According to Roman tradition, King Ancus Marcius founded Ostia in the 600s B.C. Archaeologists* have discovered no trace of this early settlement, although they have found a fort at the site that was built about 400 B.C. During the Punic Wars against Carthage, Rome greatly increased the size of its navy, which was based at Ostia. After Rome defeated Carthage in 146 B.C., the size of the Roman fleet declined, and Ostia became the commercial and trade center for Rome. The port received grain shipments from Egypt and other places to feed Rome’s growing population. Large ships, unable to sail up the Tiber River to Rome, unloaded grain at Ostia, where it was transferred to smellier vessels and transported upriver to the city.
During a civil war in 87 B.C., the Roman politician Gaius Marius captured and sacked* the port. Twenty years later, pirates raided Ostia and destroyed the Roman fleet. Even so, the emperors Claudius and Trajan improved and expanded the port’s harbors. These improvements provided protection against storms and helped prevent the buildup of silt* that was carried downstream by the Tiber. During the A.D. 300s, the power of the Roman Empire declined, and Ostia’s commercial importance lessened. The Visigoths, a northern tribe, sacked the port in A.D. 408. By the A.D. 800s, Ostia was completely abandoned.
Archaeological excavations at Ostia reveal that the port city had apartment buildings four stories high, a theater, public baths, shops, bakeries, large public warehouses for storing grain, and various commercial and religious buildings. (See also Houses; Naval Power, Roman; Trade, Roman.)
* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins
* sack to rob a captured city
* silt fine particles of earth and sand carried by moving water