The beautifully preserved ruins of Ostia lie twenty miles from Rome, in the meadows between the Tiber River and the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was founded, probably in the 4th century BC, as a military colony to guard the river mouth against seaborne invasions. Later, during the centuries when virtually all imports reached the Capital via the Tiber, Ostia gained prominence as the domestic landing for cargo boats. By the 2nd century AD, it had become a flourishing commercial center inhabited by upwards of 100,000 people, whose apartment buildings, taverns, and grocery shops are still intact.
Although Ostia now sprawls over 10,000 acres, around a main street that runs for more than a mile, it is still easy to imagine the local shepherds who for centuries sheltered their animals amongst its ruins, for they are an integral part of the tranquil Roman countryside. No modern houses, roads or telephone wires are visible on the horizon. The streets are so quiet one hears only the crickets in the trees and perhaps the echoes of ancient children playing stickball. As you walk along Ostia's main street, the Decumanus Maximus, your feet settle into deep ruts left by carrucas, the four-wheeled carts used to ferry merchandise and baggage between Rome and Ostia. A fleet of two-wheeled cisia provided public transportation for commuters.
Once inside the Roman Gate, you visit the Baths of Neptune. Here, in a beautifully preserved mosaic measuring 55 feet by 36 feet, the sea god is seen riding a chariot drawn by four pawing horses. From here, you would be wise to go directly to the modern outdoor cafe, where you can buy a guide book that will greatly enrich your tour.
Ostia's amphitheater is next door to the bar. Erected in 12 BC, it is a quiet, wonderfully preserved series of steep semicircular stone bleachers that hold 3500 spectators. The tiny stage is still intact, and although the permanent scenery that rose three stories behind it is no longer standing, you can easily imagine what it must have looked like during the premiere of Ovid's Medea, a play that has since been lost.
Behind the theater is the Forum of the Corporations, so called because its great rectangular portico housed the offices of sixty-four maritime companies. This was where you would come if you needed to ship something to Rome, be it wheat from Spain, sugar from India, or African beasts for the Colosseum games. To find the most suitable shipper, you would examine the mosaic names and pictures still visible on the ground in front of each office. If you were pleased with the deal, you would then offer a sacrifice at the Temple of Ceres, which rises over the middle of the Forum.
A few yards away, you can climb the high podium of the Collegiate Temple. Despite its name, this was actually a social club for men of the poorer classes, who used it to hold the kind of sumptuous banquet the rich could afford to have every day. These dinners usually began at 3 p.m. and often lasted until dawn. No wonder the guests ate lying down! At another collegiate seat you'll find a triclinium, the semicircular couch upon which three men would have stretched, resting on their left elbows while they used their right hands to eat. The meals began with hors d'oeuvres, followed by seven courses. Then they started all over again, this time with entertainment and much more wine. Banquets were dedicated to the club's patron god or to newly deceased members, who needed food to sustain them on their journey to the afterlife.
Women were not invited. They would more likely have been next door, carrying their linens to the laundry-dye shop. Washing was done in the small terracotta tubs you'll see sunken into the brick counters. This work was performed by slaves, whose shaved heads distinguished them.
Logically enough, the laundry shop is next to the public baths. Walk through the main gate, where Ostians would have been met by a servant ready to help them change their clothes. In the meeting room, they would spend an hour or so chatting with friends or reading the newspaper. Then they would choose a combination of hot, cold, warm or steam baths. You can follow a winding underground passage, where servants lit boilers and emptied tubs without disturbing the clients. Above this you'll see the laconium, whose steam was provided by lead pipes still visible in the walls. Most Ostian buildings were heated this way, by hot air piped up from underground boilers.
Outside was the gymnastics field, where bathers practiced sports or calisthenics, or walked beneath covered porticoes. After a meal that might have included truffles, oysters, paté de fois, roast meats, "false fish" made of vegetables, or even a primitive kind of pasta, bathers could have a relaxing nap, use the library, attend a lecture, concert, play or circus performance. Little wonder that these ancient health clubs came to be the Ostians' favorite meeting place. At the height of the Roman Empire's glory, in the late 2nd century AD, men and women spent a good part of the day at these public establishments, mixing freely in the huge communal tubs that could accommodate up to 300 bathers at once.
Beyond the baths is a cluster of three and four-story apartment buildings. Many of them still have the groundfloor shops and dark, stuffy mezzanines where merchants and the lower classes lived. Climb the marble stairs to see the comfortable multi-room apartments that were inhabited by middle-class families. These dwellings would have had kitchens, with hot running water channeled through lead pipes in the wall.
Like this one, most Ostian apartment buildings had inner courtyards where second-floor balconies overlooked a communal cistern and swimming pool. Some properties were rented out by landlords, but the better ones were actually like ancient condos, with all the tenants sharing facilities and expenses. One important facility shared by all was the communal forica, or latrine. Each building had at least one for its tenants. The most astonishing example is a large airy room, where a marble bench with twenty holes runs the length of all four walls. Sit on the holes and suddenly it will be graphically clear just how much time the ancient Romans spent in public.
Ostia has a wonderful and blessedly small Forum. Sit on the marble fountain and picture what it would have looked like. Senators would be striding up and down the Capital stairs. At the Temple of Rome and Augustus, soldiers would be offering sacrifices to the gods. In the porticoes, which allowed citizens to congregate in good or bad weather, designers would be staging fashion shows and artists would be displaying their work.
Beneath the arches of another spacious portico, you'll encounter an ancient counterpart to the modern cafe. Near the door is a marble counter where customers could stop for a quick drink or a cold lunch, exactly as they do in modern Rome. On the wall, a fresco of salami, wine and vegetables depicts what might have been displayed on the marble shelves beneath. A large clay jar sunk into the floor held oil for frying, which would have been done in the tiny oven room next door. In warm weather, patrons sat around a small pool on a sunny patio. Only in public places like this would they have sat at a table to eat.
After about four hours of strolling through butcher shops, patrician homes, fish markets, inns, the Christian basilica, schools, and more, you'll come to the Marine Gate, which once stood by the harbor and is now more than a mile from the sea. Although you might be exhausted, muster the strength to see the Synagogue. Built by Jews who worked the barges plying the Tiber, it lay outside the city's protective walls, even beyond the cemetery.
At this point you have earned yourself a nice leisurely lunch. You can try Lo sbarco di Enea, an outdoor trattoria next to the entrance of the ruins (where all the tourists go), or, if you want only ice cream or coffee, sit under the grape arbor at the Bar Centro, in Piazza Gregorio II. But we recommend the Monumento, across the Via del Mare in the town of Ostia Antica. If it's too late to actually order a meal, select a colorful assortment of vegetables from the antipasto table. You can linger a while over this meal, a light snack by ancient Ostian standards, then walk next door to the fairy-tale castle, built in 1483 by Giuliano della Rovere, who later became Pope Julius II. As so often happened in papal Rome, Julius built his fortress using bricks pilfered from Ostia Antica, and lime obtained by burning the ancient city's marble. A kiln for this purpose still exists in the Baths of Neptune, near the triumphal arches on the Decumanus Maxima, where Ostia's Christians were martyred. One of them was St. Aurea, to whom the castle's simple chapel is dedicated.
The ruins of Ostia Antica are open seven days a week, from 9 in the summer and 9:30 in the winter (admission 5 Euro). To get there by car, take the Via del Mare and follow the plentiful yellow road signs marked "Scavi di Ostia Antica." By subway, take the Metro B from Termini Station, in the direction of L'Eur Fermi. Get off at Magliana and change subways, now heading for Lido. Get off at Ostia Antica. Allow at least four hours for a leisurely visit. Wear heavy shoes and socks - prickly weeds abound. You can also visit the ruins with National Geographic author Michael Brouse.
In summer, there may also be boat service on the Tiber, from the city center to the ruins. The fee includes round-trip transportation, an hour-and-a-half guided tour of the ruins (in Italian) and lunch on board. For information and reservations, call 011-39-06-446-3481 or 445-0284.
by Kristin Jarratt