Engineering Rome

Public Spaces: Learning from Ostia Antica and Pompei

By Kira Twitchell
All photos were taken by the author unless otherwise noted.

1. Introduction

Visiting Italy for the first time, walking the streets of Rome, it is almost breathtaking when you turn the corner and happen upon a big square in the middle of the winding alleys. These squares are full of life in the afternoon. Take Piazza Navona for example in Figure 1, full of street performers and artists, three fountains, and a beautiful church façade. After following google maps through narrow alleyways, weaving taxis and Vespas, it’s a relief when you walk into a pedestrian-controlled space. Not only public squares, but the numerous fountains supplying endless drinking water scattered around the city are also quite convenient during a hot day of touring.

Figure 1: Piazza Navona.

Rome is a city of layers. To elaborate, it is a city built upon ancient cities. As Rome grew, fell, and grew again, open land became scarce, and thus abandoned or older cities that were filed in with earth material became the new foundations for structures built on top. This left physical historical records of how cities were constructed and functioned in ancient times. Through excavations and documentation, archeologists and tourists the same can learn from these sites. This paper will look at the city of Ostia Antica to understand the origin of public spaces that we enjoy today in Rome. For different reasons of preservation, Pompei will be used to compare and complete the explanation.

1.2 Historical Background of Ostia Antica

Ostia is derived from ‘ostium’ which means ‘mouth’. Since the city was located where the mouth of the Tiber River flows into the Mediterranean, the city took on the name Ostia. Founded in approximately 620 B.C. Ostia was ideal for exploiting the salt flats. About 200 years after the city was established, Ostia was used as a naval base and a military camp due to its prime location for strategic military defense (Steves). By the time Rome controlled all of the Mediterranean in 150 A.D., Ostia was a commercial port and a true working town filled with warehouses and markets, housing about 60,000 people (Steves).

With the fall of Rome in approximately 470 A.D., Ostia was abandoned. Over time, the ebb and flow of the Tiber and Mediterranean buried the city in silt. Now, no longer right on the water’s edge, Ostia is some 3 km (1.86 miles) east of where the current river mouth is located (Consoli). Buried under earth material for many centuries, the city was well preserved until excavation began in the 1800s. In the mid-1900s, Mussolini decided that Ostia was to be excavated completely to be put on display for the postponed World Fair of 1942 in Rome (Huissen). Today, the harbor city of Ostia is known as Ostia Antica, or the ancient Ostia, and is not entirely excavated. About a half an hour from the Colosseum, as located in Figure 2, the site can be visited by tourists but is less popular than the similar ancient city of Pompei.

Figure 2: The location of Ostia Antica with respect to Rome (Jashemski).

1.3 Historical Background of Pompei

Approximately 14 miles (23 km) outside of modern-day Naples and southeast of Rome, Pompei is an archaeological wonder useful for learning how ancient cities functioned (Jashemski). In the 8th century B.C., Pompei fell under the influence of ancient Greek settlers. However, six centuries later, Pompei was overtaken by Rome in the 2nd century B.C. (Pompei). As seen in Figure 3, Pompei is located along the west coast of Italy. Due to Pompei’s beautiful location atop a hill with perfect site lines looking towards the coast, this city became an attraction for wealthy vacationers and travelers passing through. There were spas, taverns, brothels, many shops, bakeries and cafes, secret bars for gambling, food markets, an arena, and many public buildings.

Figure 3: The location of Pompei with respect to Rome (Jashemski).

As Pompei is now known for, on August 24, 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius, just five miles from Pompei, erupted (Pompei). Over the course of the next day, volcanic debris including ash, pumice, and even small volcanic rocks still on fire, rained down on the city and the citizens. At the time of the eruption, Pompei had about 12,000 inhabitants, all caught in their daily life by the toxic gases and collapsing roofs (Pompei). The sudden burial of the city in about 19 to 23 feet (6 to 7 meters) deep of ash and pumice stones preserved Pompei to nearly the state we can see today. Pompei was buried for about 17 centuries which is why it survived all this time, protected from weathering and vandalism (Jashemski). The site of Pompei was excavated in phases, the first being in 1748. The excavation was interrupted by WWII and bombing damage can be seen on site today. In 1951 excavation was resumed and still today they are carefully uncovering and documenting more of the city (Jashemski).

2. Public spaces

A public space can be defined as the phrase implies: an area that is open to the general public, typically with unresticted access and free of charge. In the case of this discussion, public spaces will include roads, squares, markets, and water features.

2.1 Roads

Both Ostia Antica and Pompei proved the necessity for roads in different types of cities. Ostia Antica was a working city and Pompei was a luxury destination for the wealthy. Nonetheless, roads were necessary for the movement of goods through the cities and for the constant traveling of people, be that the military or vacationers. As observed in both cities, roads were constructed out of volcanic basalt stones. These large flat surfaces made it easier for carriage wheels to roll over and to clean the roads as seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4: A main road through the city of Ostia Antica.

That said, one of the original versions of crosswalks was created out of necessity for cleaning the streets of Pompei. Horses would pull carriages and goods through the roads and leave messes behind. In order to clean the streets, water from the fountains would be released down the road to flow downhill and clean the street. To allow people to cross the street without getting their feet dirty or wet and to still allow carriages to pass through, large spaced-out stones were used. All equal in height, the width of the stones were exactly the spacing of the carriage wheels. As pictured in Figure 5, three to four stones indicated a two-way street, whereas one to two stones meant it was a one-way street.

Figure 5: The three large stones in the road were the crosswalks of Pompei. The small white stones are pieces of marble embedded in the road.

Also pictured in Figure 5 small pieces of broken marble can be seen in between the large stones of the roads of Pompei. With at least two-story buildings lining the roads and no electricity, the roads became very dark at night. Thus white marble was added between the stones to reflect the light of torches so the carriage drivers knew where the road was, aka modern-day “reflectors”.

Figure 6: The stone ledge lined the roads and alleys of Pompei and created curbs and sidewalks.

Similar to the necessity for crosswalks, curbs as seen in Figure 6, were used to both separate pedestrian traffic from passing carriages and to direct the flow of water through the streets. In Pompei, some curb stones had diagonal holes carved out of the outside corners to serve as tie locations for horses, or as the tour guides would say, for “parking”.

Just behind the sidewalks, houses, stores, baths, and bars lined the streets. Stores were usually clustered in rows on street sides all similar in size. Looking through the ancient towns of both Osita Antica and Pompei, it is easy to spot a storefront from the entryway stones lining the base of the door frame. A long groove was carved on top of the front white stones as pictured in Figure 7. This groove was the track for a sliding folding door that all small shops and some bars had.

Figure 7: Storefronts line a road in Ostia Antica.

Just as frequent as bathhouses, bars were everywhere in Ostia Antica and Pompei. Beautiful stone counters seen in Figure 8 had built-in basins lined with terracotta to keep cold drinks cold and the same for warm. Behind the counter, stone shelves would display the drinks and, just as today, a bartender would take orders. These locations were of importance for socializing, however, in Pompei, bars also had rooms in the back that hid illegal gambling games.

Figure 8: A bar in Ostia Antica with a track for a sliding door.

2.2 Squares & Markets

With no newspaper or blogs to spread news, squares were places of conversation, learning, sharing stories, and spreading rumors between all the different travelers that passed through. Since public squares were made for pedestrians only, carriages could not be used to carry goods across the large open area. For this reason, in Pompei, stores on either end of the square housed a service where slaves would carry recently purchased goods across the square. In Pompei, the main grandiose square as seen in Figure 9 once had a floor covered in large white marble slabs with statues providing shade, giving people a place to gather and hold meetings.

Figure 9: The main pedestrian only square of Pompei.

With the same function of socialization as squares, food and goods markets were also a key aspect of both ancient cities. A food market in Pompei had small booths lining the perimeter that were once covered with a slanted roof towards the center. As seen in Figure 10, the center was open air and had stands for the fresh fish brought in from the coast. Similarly in Ostia Antica, just outside of the theatre and to the side of a public square, a marketplace had goods for the public to buy as they browsed down the street. In Figure 11, mosaic tiles depicted what was sold at each booth and the columns indicate that it was once covered as well.

Figures 10 & 11: A food market in Pompei (left). A row of booths for a marketplace in Ostia Antica (right).

2.3 Water

Key to the functionality of a city, public access to water is essential. Water was used for drinking, sewage, fountains, cleaning the roads, and baths in both ancient cities. In Ostia Antica, the main aqueduct brought water into the city, now with one arch remaining as seen in Figure 12. This water was then distributed to public access points, homes, and numerous baths in the city. In Figure 13, the hole in the stone was where water flowed from the aqueduct to lead pipes. This intersection of the water flow allowed the public to gather water for personal use. Lead pipes were used to then distribute the water to ground levels of homes and baths.

Figures 12 & 13: One arch of an aqueduct in Ostia Antica (left). A hole in a short wall to the right of the tree was a water access location in Ostia Antica (right).

Similarly, an aqueduct supplied water to the inhabitants of Pompei with a network of lead pipes that branched out from distribution points to all the homes. The original lead pipes can still be seen as pictured in Figure 14. Almost all the buildings in Pompei were multi-story, however only the first floor had water access. This meant that the wealthy lived on the ground level while the slaves and workers lived on the higher floors.

Figure 14: The exterior of a residential building in Pompei shows a lead pipe that once carried water to the home.

Water that flowed from the aqueduct lost pressure as it traveled through the town. In order to regain pressure, simple structures were built with columns on either side of the road with a cross beam connecting over the road. The water was sent up one side of the column, over, and back down to then flow until it reached the next structure to repeat the process. Multiple of these systems lined the road in Pompei where the aqueduct met the town. These structures also had water storage tanks on the crossbeams that spanned the road. As seen in Figure 15, the groove where a pipe directed water can be seen in the stand-alone column on the curb. Also pictured in Figure 15, a public fountain was built right next to the newly gained high-pressure water. This was available to anyone in town and provided a place for the poorer to collect water for their homes.

Figure 15: One column of a structure that spanned over the road to carry water in Pompei.

3. Modern times

The public spaces of roads, squares, markets, and public fountains are all still visible in the city of Rome today. These key elements to the public functionally did not disappear from the ancient cities to modern times. That said, roads have smaller cobblestones and asphalt, crosswalks are not big stepping stones, most public squares have vehicle traffic, and water is now accessible to all floors of buildings. In the series of pictures in Figure 16  below, elements of the ancient cities can be identified. Starting from left to right, a crosswalk in Ostia is painted onto an asphalt road, a recognizable cobblestone road is lined by a curb in Rome, Piazza di Santa Maria provides an open space for the public, the market of Campo de’ Fiori is busy with vendors, and a public fountain near the Orto Botanico di Roma provides drinking water for any passerby.

Figure 16: A crosswalk, road, public square, market, and fountain can be found in modern Ostia and Rome.


Jashemski, Wilhelmina. Pompeii: Ancient City, Italy. Britannica. 23 Aug. 2022.

Pompei. History. 29 July 2022.

Steves, Rick. Ostia Antica: Rome’s Ancient Port. Smithsonian.31 Aug. 2009.,base%2C%20complete%20with%20a%20fort.

Consoli. Ostia. World History Encyclopedia. 10 May 2013.

Huissen, Gerard. The Last Stage of Roman Ostia Back to Life. Roman Ports. 22 May 2018.,Pius%20VII%20in%201802%205.  

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