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The area to the south and east


The area to the south and east of Ostia was studied by Bradford (1957) and more recently, in great detail, by Michael Heinzelmann (1998). A detailed map of the area to the east and south of Ostia was published by Heinzelmann (1998, Beilage I):

  • Map of the area to the east of Ostia, and of the north-east part of the Pianabella
  • Map of the south part of the Pianabella
  • Map of the north-west part of the Pianabella
  • Legenda of the map
  • To the north of Ostia was the Tiber. In antiquity the river continued further to the east than it does today. It reached the spot of the mediaeval borgo, where it turned towards the north. This arm was cut off during an inundation in 1557. It is now filled with earth and called Fiume Morto ("Dead River"). To the east was also a swamp, the stagnum Ostiense. Part of the swamp was taken up by salt-pans. The Via Ostiensis, leading from Ostia to Rome, traversed the swamp and therefore had to be raised and reinforced with supporting walls and special foundations. An aqueduct ran parallel to the road. In the swamp rubble was dumped of buildings that had been destroyed by the great fire of Rome under Nero. The swamp was drained in the late 19th and early 20th century.

    The area between Ostia and the swamp, and also the plain to the south of Ostia, are today called Pianabella ("Beautiful plain"). The size of the plain is approximately 1.5 x 2.5 km. The western border of this plain was the sea, with a sand beach and dunes. In the Middle Ages, and until the 19th century, the coastline moved several kilometres to the west, due to the depostion of silt by the Tiber. The present beach is four kilometres to the west. The location of the mouth of the Tiber in the years 14 AD, 850, 1569, 1774 and 1876 is indicated on Bradford's map above.

    The southern border of the plain is the present day Canale dello Stagno, that in the Roman period served as an outlet from the swamp to the sea. The salt water reached the salt-pans in the swamp through narrow channels below the Via Ostiensis.

    The plain to the south and east of Ostia ("Pianabella"). Bradford 1957, fig. 23.

    The "areas of crop-marks" on Bradford's plan, seen on Google Earth, May 2020.


    Excavations in the 19th and 20th century, and a study of crop marks, of undulations in the terrain, and of aerial photographs have led to the discovery of an orthogonal system of many Roman roads in this area. The system consisted of five roads running north-west / south-east, and many side-streets running south-west / north-east. They seem to have been created in the Augustan period. Along the coast ran the Via Severiana, that was built around 200 AD by the Severan Emperors. The roads were eventually all paved with basalt blocks, for the last time in the Severan period. Two of the north-west / south-east running roads and the Via Severiana led to a bridge across the Canale dello Stagno.

    One of five high ridges on the Pianabella, directly to the south of Ostia.
    In the ridges are the remains of north-south running roads. Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

    Christian buildings

    The Pianabella was Ostia's graveyard. The plain was used for tombs, and many sarcophagi, marble urns and hundreds of funeral inscriptions have been found here. To the south of the Porta Laurentina a small cluster of tombs can today still be seen (the area is fenced off and closed to the public). The necropolis reached the Canale dello Stagno.

    Near the entrance to the excavations is this mosaic of Oedipus and the Sphinx.
    It was found in a tomb on the Pianabella. Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

    In late antiquity Christian burials are documented, but an exclusively Christian zone has not been identified. Important Christian churches, related to martyrs, are:

  • The Church of Sant'Aurea. This church is located in the medieval borgo, which is built partly on the swamp and salt-pans, and partly on tombs.
  • The Church of Sant'Ercolano. A small church at the east end of the area. Many excavators of Ostia were buried here.
  • The Basilica di Pianabella. This church is not very far from the Porta Laurentina, on the other side of the modern road (the area is fenced off and closed to the public).
  • Isolated ruins

    The area was however more than a burial place. Along the beach were several villas (these are discussed on a separate page, about the Via Severiana, the road from Ostia to Pratica di Mare). Throughout the Pianabella farms (villae rusticae) have been found. A luxurious villa (villa suburbana) has been called Villa of Perseus, after a statue found in the ruins, now in the museum of Ostia. Through the unexcavated part of Ostia's regio V runs the Via del Sabazeo. At the south end of that road was a secondary gate in the city wall. Outside the gate a small shrine was found.

  • Villa of Perseus
  • Sacello

  • [jthb - 8-Nov-2021]