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Why Was Ostia Important to the City of Rome?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Rome was, understandably, the most important city in the Roman Empire. But even Rome couldn't do it all on its own. In this lesson, we'll explore the city of Ostia and learn about its role in the Roman Empire.

Ostia and Rome

If you go to Rome today, you can still see the remnants of thousands of years of history. The Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and other structures hint at the glory of this great metropolis. In fact, there's only one thing you can't find much of in Rome: open space.

Like most urban centers, ancient Rome did not have a lot of agricultural land. But, it did have a high population that still needed to eat; so, food had to be imported into the city. Much of Rome's food came from areas across Italy, but the rest came through Ostia, Rome's most important port. They say that all roads led to Rome. Well, most of the Roman trade empire was conducted by sea, and all sea routes led to Ostia.

The remains of Ostia Antica, the Roman-era city
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The History of Ostia

Ostia was the Roman Empire's single most important port, making it one of the greatest epicenters of trade in the entire Mediterranean. But, was it always this way? Ostia (likely derived from ostium - Latin for an entrance, or opening, like that at the mouth of a river) was situated right on the edge of the Italian coastline, where the Tiber River meets the Tyrrhenian Sea. This made it a good position for defense, and sources indicate that the first permanent city was likely built here around 620 BCE. Tradition states that this was Rome's first colony, built by the king, Ancus Marcius. The Romans mostly used the city for the salt flats nearby; salt was a valued commodity used to spice and preserve meat.

Ostia was built up in the 4th century BCE, and housed a small naval encampment. This base became important a century later in the Roman wars against Carthage, and afterwards continued to house the Roman naval fleet used to hunt pirates.

In the Roman Republic, Ostia continued to be used primarily as a naval base. It wasn't until the reign of the emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 CE) that Ostia's purpose began to change. Small ships could easily sail up the Tiber to Rome, but larger ships could not, and Ostia didn't have a suitable harbor to protect them from both waves and pirates. So, Claudius set to building a massive harbor, with artificial islands and channels to maintain calm waters. This was completed under the reign of Nero, and expanded in the early 2nd century CE by later emperors as the importance of the port continued to grow.

Roman Trade

Obviously, it was important for Rome to have a port, but is it really so historically significant to the city? Yes, it is.

Scholars have long noted that Rome created one of the most expansive trade empires in all of human history, and certainly the largest of the pre-industrial world. The Romans exported their olive oil, grains, ceramics and (of course) wine, around the Mediterranean. They imported food, furniture, clothing, crafts, stones, building materials, spices, and slaves from Greece, Egypt, Spain, Palestine, Arabia, India, and even China. (We forget sometimes that the Silk Roads were alive and well during the Roman Empire.)

Huge, buried amphorae of wine found in Ostia
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Rome was one of the largest cities of the ancient world, and, as noted earlier, without much agricultural land, they had to import their food. In the years of the Republic, most wheat for the city was brought in from across the Italian Peninsula. By the time that Rome became an empire, however, the demand was growing too high. Under Rome's first emperor, Augustus, the state was responsible for providing roughly 80,000 tons of wheat per year to the poor, for free. When you add in the middle and upper classes of Rome, total wheat consumption was around 250,000 tons per year, and the city only grew from there. Italy could not physically produce enough grains, so they had to be imported.

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