Ancient Rome’s ‘best kept secret’ revolutionised Italian capital

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Ancient Rome refers to Roman civilisation from the founding of the city of Rome in the 8th Century BC to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD. It includes the Roman Kingdom (753-509 BC), the Roman Republic (509-27 BC) and the Roman Empire (27BC-476AD). Ancient Rome grew from a small town situated on central Italy’s Tiber River into an empire that spanned Scotland to the Middle East.

It became the greatest power in the world, guided by a variety of emperors each with their own philosophies.

Among the legacies of Ancient Rome are architecture and engineering innovations — the iconic Fountain of Trevi in modern day Rome still relies on an updated version of an original Roman aqueduct.

The Italian city remains an archaeological goldmine, with tourists flocking from far and wide to catch a glimpse of some of the remarkable buildings built by the Romans.

The 2012 BBC documentary series ‘Meet The Romans with Mary Beard’ sees the British historian explore what the Empire did for the modern day city of Rome.

A short trip down the River Tiber, Prof Beard explains, is the seaport of Ostia.

Prof Beard said: “Today, Ostia is one of Rome’s best kept secrets.

“It helps us discover what Rome was importing, and from where.”

The Ostia Antica archaeological site, near the modern town of Ostia, is the location of the harbour city of Ancient Rome.

It served as Rome’s seaport, but silting means the site now lies three kilometres from the sea.

The site is renowned for its remarkably preserved ancient buildings, frescoes and mosaics.

Professor Martin Millett, one of the UK’s leading archaeologists, excavated an intriguing piazza at the site, dubbed the ‘Square of the Corporation’.

Prof Beard said: “If you sweep away the pine needles, there are mosaics all around here advertising companies importing goods from abroad.”

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There were at least 50 of these mosaics, most detailing the product their company supplied and where it came from.

Prof Beard explained the presence of so many mosaics allows archaeologists and historians to conclude that Rome was being supplied from “all corners of the Mediterranean”.

Prof Millett said: “Italy is not big enough to support the city of Rome. It is a city that’s drawing in resources from everywhere.”

He added: “People talk about Rome being a consumer city with a population of about one million.

“That implies 150,000 metric tonnes of grain a year. I don’t know how big those ships are, but you need a lot of ships like that to bring in 150,000 metric tonnes of grain.”

Ostia is believed to have been one of Ancient Rome’s first colonies, possibly even the very first.

An inscription appears to confirm the establishment of the old castrum (military camp) of Ostia in the 7th Century BC — though the oldest archaeological remains at the site so far date back to the 4th Century BC.

Ostia served as the main fleet base on the west Italian coast during the Punic Wars (264-201 BC) and played a huge role in the grain trade for Ancient Rome until the harbour became inadequate for large vessels as it was partly obstructed by a harbour.

A new harbour, called Portus — Latin for ‘harbour’ — was later built by Claudius, and Ostia became a service station for vessels heading there. Ostia initially continued to grow in size, reaching a peak of some 100,000 inhabitants in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries AD.

Trade became more and more focused on Portus as time went on, with Ostia believed to have suffered a slow decline from the 6th to the 9th Centuries AD.

Ostia fell into decay after the end of the Western Roman Empire as the population of Rome decreased, and the port was eventually abandoned in the 9th Century.

Archaeological excavations began at Ostia Antica in the 19th Century under papal authority, and this was rapidly accelerated between 1939 and 1942 under Benito Mussolini.

Research still continues today, and it has been estimated that two-thirds of the ancient port are as yet unexcavated.

The Ostia Antica site is open today as a tourist attraction, with a number of excavated artefacts housed on-site in the Museo Ostiense.

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