Bones Abroad: Ostia Antica and The Porta Romana Necropolis

If you have some extra time in Rome (and let’s face it, if you’re in Rome for more than a couple days you’ll probably have some free time) you should take the day trip out to Ostia Antica. Located only 32 km west of Rome, Ostia is an ancient Roman site that was occupied from the 7th century BC to the 5th century AD. It is an important location not only because it lies on the coast, but also because it is one of the major entryways into the Tiber. In the late Republican period it was a naval base, and by the 2nd century BC it had shifted into a commercial harbor. When the empire was founded, Ostia held a special relationship to them, bring that it was essential in allowing supplies into Rome. During the 2nd century AD, Ostia was extremely proposerous. While it was ruled by aristocrats, it had a large middle class population of merchants and craftsmen. It also had a large international populations which led to a high amount of variation in religion and architecture. Following the 4th century AD, Ostia began to decline in importance as the empire began to fail. By the early middle ages, Ostia had been completely abandoned due to endemic malaria outbreaks.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, excavations took place to reclaim the ancient city of Ostia. Since then there has been extensive work done to restore buildings and interpret their purposes. Excavations and research continue both on site and in neighboring museums.

While the whole site in general is worth visiting, I’m going to focus in on my favorite part of the tour: the Porta Romana Necropolis. There are five necropoli associated with Ostia, but this is the only one that is located within the boundaries of the site and that is easily accessible. It is literally the first steps that you take into the archaeological site, and you might not even realize that you’re entering it. Since Romans were forbidden from burying their dead within the city, they built the tombs and necropoli along the sites of the road. The main path through the Ostia archaeological site follows the ancient road of Via Ostiensis, and the tombs were built along here so that those going from Rome to Ostia would be forced to acknowledge the ancestors of this area. The tombs flank both sides of the road and date from approximately 200 BC to 300 AD.

Columbaria, via Bakkar from Ostia Antica Website

There are both open tombs, tombs with built in formae or sarcophagi, and columbaria. Both cremation and inhumation were practiced, though the degree of popularity varies through time. The tombs containing the sarcophagi have numerous inscriptions revealing information on who is buried there and various curses for disturbing the individuals interred within. The columbaria have individual niches for each urn, and there are terracotta decorations outlining each one. The columbaria have a unique feature in that they all had second stories. While these are only inferred from the presence of stairs, it is thought that this is where the memorials and funerary feasting would take place. In between the columbaria is the ustrinum. This is a location that is rarely found in archaeological contexts, and is the area where the bodies were burned prior to internment in urns.

A number of the sarcophagi that would have been located within the tomb structures can be viewed along a road running parallel to Via Ostiense,  Via dei Sepolcri, or within the museum located on site. There is a wide range in sizes and amounts of decorations, there are even stone sarcophagi that were sized for cremations rather than inhumations. Often the sarcophagi tell mythological stories meant to share the virtues of the deceased with the viewer. Some are detailed and ornate, others are more crude and simple.

It is rare to have the chance to explore such necropoli in detail and up close, so I suggest taking the time to visit this site. Traveler’s hint: if you are a teacher or a student you can get your entry fee reduced to half the normal price!


4 responses to “Bones Abroad: Ostia Antica and The Porta Romana Necropolis

  1. Dear Katy,

    Is this necropolis part of Ostia Antica itself? I’ve read that the Isola Sacra is only open on 1-2 days per month, but it would be interesting to see how the Romans honored their dead.

    Barbara Wissinger
    Erding, Germany

    • There are actually a number of necropoli at Ostia Antica. The Porta Romana necropolis is open whenever Ostia Antica is open, and is actually the first area that you visit. The site of Isola Sacra is more restricted, and access is open only once and a while as you noted. I’m working on the site and have actually never been! It is quite interesting to see the variation in memorialization of the Romans!

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