LLR Books

Ostia Antica: The Multi-Ethnic District of Ancient Rome



By Martha Bakerjian

Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome, is a vast archeological site that can easily be visited as a day trip from Rome. Nicoletta Di Livio, a licensed tour guide with Overome, a Rome tour company that offers Ancient Ostia tours, gives us an insight into the people of Ostia during the 2nd century when Hadrian was Emperor and Ostia was at its peak as an important port city. Nicoletta says:
Ostia Antica was a very important city during the Roman Empire. But why this name? In Latin Ostium means "river's mouth"; in fact, the ancient city was founded in the 4th century BC at the mouth of the Tiber River, a strategically important place. It was the entrance to Rome for people coming from the Tyrrhenian Sea and it was only 30 kilometers away from the city.
Initially, Ostium wasn't a city but a castrum, a military fort for defense and control. The first village was near one of the most precious products of ancient times: salt. Ostia's salt pans were a great source of wealth for Romans. Salt was used to keep food fresh and it was so important that the Italian word salario (salary) derives from the custom to pay the soldiers with a bag of salt. Once extracted and shaped into slabs, salt was carried inland along Via Salaria. Then it reached the Adriatic Sea passing the Apennines. The importance of Ostia and its salt is still remembered today.
 Let's now talk about Ostia's people. During the Age of Hadrian there were about 50,000 inhabitants, almost as many as today in some of Rome's districts. They differed greatly from one another because Ostia was probably the biggest port of the Empire, so it gathered all the ethnic groups like a real Tower of Babel. The statues we still have today prove the greatness of this Empire: each face, each shape tells us a story about feelings and emotions! We just have to decode their essence to understand the people who lived there.
The Roman Empire opened the door to the subdued people creating the greatest multi-ethnic society in history. Ostia was an extraordinarily varied city with different languages and religions that coexisted without any problems because people were unified by one culture: "Roman's law". If someone didn't bow to authority it meant he was against the system and therefore an enemy.
Once this rule was accepted Romans were completely free. They could choose what to wear, the language to speak and adore their own God. There was no discrimination for skin color and society was based on a merit system. Even the vanquished were welcomed if respectful of the laws.
An example was Septimius Severus. He was a great emperor, even though he was from Lybia, an old enemy of Rome. His strong African accent, his dark skin and his Berber origins didn't stop him from reaching the top of Roman society.