(E2) Lesson 0.3 Rome and Ostia

There are both historical and mythological explanations for the origins of the Romans. In Virgil’s Aeneid, a Trojan prince named Aeneas travels to Italy, marries a woman from the Latin tribe, and becomes the ancestor of the Romans. The Latins migrated to what would later become Rome around 1200 BCE (Before Common Era). Romulus, hailed as the first king of Rome and a descendent of Aeneas, led the city’s establishment around 753 BCE. His reign, beyond establishing Rome’s political structures, is renowned for the creation of the city’s boundaries, the building of the city itself, and the initiation of religious rites, all helping to set the course for the rest of Rome’s storied history.

Most classicists divide the timeline of Ancient Rome into three parts, based on its form of government during that period – the Monarchy, the Republic, and the Empire. The first period, the Monarchy, was the time of kings and lasted about 200 years. In 509 BCE, the last of these kings was expelled from the city and Rome became a Republic, a form of government run by a senate and led by two consuls, who were elected for only one-year terms. The senate was a group of wealthy men who voted on various laws. During this time, Roman society was divided into two distinct classes – patricians, the wealthy, elite class, and the plebeians, the commoners. In the early days of Rome, the patricians held most of the political power, but over time the plebeians were able to gain more rights and influence.

The Romans feared a return to the time of tyrannical kings, and so they established their new form of government in order to avoid any single man holding all the power. A few centuries later, when a military general named Julius Caesar became immensely popular, the senate was afraid of his ambition and plotted to assassinate him. Although Julius Caesar’s life ended violently in 44 BCE, this move set the stage for the next era of Ancient Rome. Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, would go on to become Rome’s first emperor.

Octavian, also known as Augustus, came to power in 27 BCE and soon began the Roman Empire. His reign saw the beginning of a golden period of Rome called the Pax Romana. The arts, laws, and literature flourished, while the Empire expanded and life was relatively peaceful for millions of Romans. This golden period lasted about two centuries; in the following years, Rome began a steady decline.

Ancient Rome reached its peak during 117 CE, by the death of the Emperor Trajan. Eventually, in 286 CE the Empire was split into two parts–one in the east with the capital in Constantinople and the other in the west with Rome as the capital. The eastern part became known as the Byzantine Empire. The western part was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE. This is why many say that the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, though the Byzantine Empire continued for much longer.


Let’s take a trip back in time to a Roman city. You can feel warm air on your skin, hear the waves nearby, and throughout the city you see a beautiful mosaic of people. Salvēte and welcome to ancient Ostia, the setting for our adventure. Although our story takes place during the second half of the 2nd century CE, the history of this Italian port city actually extends much further back–all the way back to the seven kings of Rome!

Ostia held strategic importance to the Romans. The Tiber River, which ran through the city of Rome, made its way to the Mediterranean Sea in Ostia. In fact, this is how the city got its name–Ostia, the plural form of ōstium, which means mouth (of a river). A merchant picking up goods in a far off locale such as Egypt would stop in Ostia on his way down the river to sell those goods in Rome. This convenient location meant that Ostia was inhabited by a wide variety of people. Everyone, from enslaved people, immigrants, poor laborers, to rich mercantile families and Roman patricians, could be found in the port city.

Of course, life wasn’t the same for everyone in Ostia. Enslaved people were forced to serve their masters. In Ostia, many performed menial tasks such as operating millstones to grind the grain that bakeries would turn into bread. However, the possibility existed for some enslaved people to buy or be granted their freedom. They would then be known as lībertī, or a freedman or a freedwoman.

Speaking of business, Ostia’s status as a port city allowed the middle class to thrive. Workers were a part of collēgium, corporations that centered around a certain occupation. In fact, Ostia is home to the Square of Corporations, a collection of offices built during the middle of the 1st century CE. Different mosaics across the square provide a window into the various jobs that Romans held and are still visible today. These mosaics depict businesses for ropemaking, tanning leather, and shipbuilding. Many professions are associated with sailing or navigation, which is not surprising since Ostia is located on the coast. Merchant families rose to great wealth and lived similarly to wealthy families in Rome.

Immigration contributed to the culture of Ostia. People immigrated from other parts of the empire such as Greece, North Africa, the Near East, or Spain. The immigrants brought their culture, customs, religions and languages. People from all over the empire often found themselves working together as members of the same guilds, or organizations of people who do similar work. There were even some guilds dedicated to residents from a certain locale. Ostia Antica is known for being the home of a thriving Jewish population. In fact, a synagogue was found amongst the ruins of the city–it is the oldest synagogue outside of Israel!

Ostia was a strategic area throughout Roman history. The Republican era saw Ostia being used as a fort and supply station. Though it was a relatively peaceful city, the location sometimes proved to be dangerous too. The same access to the open sea that made Ostia the darling of merchants also made it extremely enticing for pirates.

During the Empire, Ostia enjoyed great prosperity, reaching the height of its population in the early 2nd century CE. But as the Empire fell, so did Ostia, and the city was eventually abandoned. Many centuries passed before Ostia was discovered by archaeologists. Its buildings were well-preserved by the mud and silt from the nearby sea. You can visit the ruins of Ostia today and imagine what life was like for the thousands of people who lived there.

Archaeological Roman empire street view in Ancient Ostia – Rome – Italy