The theatre was built along the Decumanus Maximus. The outline could already be drawn in the early 19th century. It was excavated in the years 1880-1881, 1890, and in the early 20th century. The building was restored very extensively.
Fragments of an inscription tell us that a first theatre was built at the end of the first century BC by Agrippa, the right-hand man of Augustus (opus reticulatum and large tufa blocks). It could hold 3000 spectators. It was built together with a large square to the north, the Piazzale delle Corporazioni (II,VII,4).
The masonry of the present theatre has been dated to the late second century AD. In that period the theatre was enlarged, and could hold 4000 people. A large inscription from 196 AD (originally bronze letters inserted in a marble slab; found on the remains of the stage) tells us that this rebuilding was the work of Septimius Severus and Caracalla. Brick stamps however show that the work had been started by Commodus (176-192 AD).
Perhaps there is a relation with the curious re-founding of Ostia by Commodus as Colonia Felix Commodiana, probably in the years 190-192 AD (he also re-founded, with his own name, Lanuvium - where he was born -, and Rome). The theatre would have been a good location for celebrating the founding of his new colony. Commodus had close ties with gladiators, and he may well have appeared in the theatre as gladiator, or killing wild animals, as he did in Rome and Lanuvium. Commodus associated himself with Hercules, and in the theatre a stucco relief of Hercules, crowned by Victoria, was found. Did Commodus promise the rebuilding of the theatre at this occasion?
One ancient text probably refers to the Ostian theatre. In 197 AD Septimius Severus addressed the Senate in Rome and said: "For if it was disgraceful for him [Commodus] with his own hands to slay wild beasts, yet at Ostia only the other day one of your number, an old man who had been consul, was publicly sporting with a prostitute who imitated a leopard". This must be either a reference to the celebrations of the re-founding of Ostia by Commodus, or to the inauguration of the new theatre in 196 AD .
The new theatre was made of brick. The facade is turned towards the street (Decumanus). In front are two nymphaea (II,VII,6-7). This area had a travertine pavement and was surrounded by travertine piers, between which were chains. In the facade are sixteen shops with back-rooms. The shops had simple wall-paintings. They were behind a portico, entered through arches. Between the arches were brick pilasters with travertine bases. There were also arches on the second and third level (on the highest level with windows). In the portico, to the right of the main entrance, is a well with a travertine well-head from the period of Commodus.
The lower level of the seating area (cavea) could be entered from the Decumanus through a central corridor, and through two lateral entrances. The entrance in the centre of the row of shops had a pavement and wall revetment of marble. The vault was decorated with stucco reliefs. Four staircases between the shops led to the second and third level. The seating area could be shaded by an awning, suspended from poles inserted in travertine blocks. The seats themselves were probably covered with marble. On the third level were marble columns (now re-erected behind the stage; see the description of the Colonna con Genio).
The area in front of the seating area (orchestra) had a marble floor. In the front of the stage are five semicircular and four rectangular niches, decorated with marble, including a cornice and small columns. Holes in the stage were used to fasten the scenery. The back wall of the stage has disappeared almost completely. On the stage some marble theatrical masks can now be seen, that once decorated the building.
At the end of the fourth century AD the building was restored by a prefect of the grain-supply, Ragonius Vincentius Celsus. A statue of Roma was in this period erected to the south-east of the theatre. The orchestra and the stage were connected through steps in two of the rectangular niches in the front of the stage. In the central corridor benches and an arch were built with bases from the Piazzale delle Corporazioni; the square was no longer being used for commercial purposes. The south part of the central entrance corridor and the two flanking shops with back-rooms were blocked and converted to cisterns, with hydraulic mortar (opus signinum). The orchestra could now be flooded for aquatic displays. The water reached the orchestra through two holes in the side walls of the northern part of the corridor. The pool was not very deep, 1.40 meters at most. Naval battles were of course not re-enacted. We should imagine a choreography of the gods and goddesses of the sea and lakes, of nymphs and Nereids, presumably scarcely dressed.
At a later point in time the arches of the first level were blocked, so that the building could be used as a fortress. This may have been done in the fifth or sixth century, when Goths and others invaded Ostia and especially Portus.
Reconstruction drawing of the facade.
From the SE. From Calza 1927, p. 27.
IMP CAES DIVI MARCI ANTONINI PII FILIVS
DIVI COMMODI FRATER DIVI ANTONINI PII
NEPOS DIVI HADRIANI PRONEP DIVI TRAIANI
PARTHICI ABNEPOS DIVI NERVAE ADNEPOS
L. SEPTIMIVS SEVERVS PIVS PERTINAX AVG
ARABICVS ADIABENICVS PP PONTIF MAX
TRIBVNIC POTEST IIII IMP VIII COS II ET
MARCVS AVRELIVS ANTONINVS CAESAR
Imperator Caesar, son of the divine Marcus Antoninus the pious (= Marcus Aurelius),
brother of the divine Commodus, grandson of the divine Antoninus Pius,
great-grandson of the divine Hadrian, great-great grandson of the divine Trajan,
conqueror of Parthia, great-great-great grandson of the divine Nerva,
L. Septimius Severus, the pious, Pertinax Augustus,
conqueror of Arabia, conqueror of Adiabene, father of the fatherland (pater patriae), supreme priest (pontifex maximus),
having the tribunician power for the fourth time, imperator for the eighth time, consul for the second time and
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caesar (= Caracalla)
CELSVS V(ir) C(larissimus) PRAEFECTVS
ANNONAE VRBIS ROMAE
VRBI EIDEM PROPRIA
The base for a statue of Roma to the south-east of the theatre,
from the late fourth century AD.
CIL XIV S, 4621 and 4716 = AE 1910, 195 and 196.
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
 A remark in relation to the Sacello dell'Ara dei Gemelli (II,VII,3), to the north-west of the theatre. It may be noted that the collegium gladiatorii was also known as the collegium Silvani Aureliani, i.e. the guild of Silvanus Commodus, who unified characteristics of Mars and Hercules. See Hekster, Commodus (2002), 153 and passim. Cf. SHA, Commodus X, 9. The theatre and the altar may have had (re)founding and Silvanus in common.
Back to text