My first view of Ostia Antica was from the air, as the plane came in to land at Fiumicino Airport. I could see its position in relation to the sea and the River Tiber. And I could see the size of the place, the ruins of an entire Roman town. This was going to be a good place to explore Roman history, a site to rival Pompeii.
A Forgotten Roman City
In classical times Ostia Antica was the main seaport for the city of Rome. It was built in 335 BC, at the junction of the river and the sea. Initially intended for military purposes, it soon became an important commercial hub, with ships arriving from every part of the known world. It eventually grew into a town of 50,000 inhabitants. However, Ostia Antica was destroyed by foreign invaders in the 4th century AD. The town gradually fell into decline and its function as a port disappeared as the coastline silted up (It is now around 4 km from the sea).
Excavations of the site began in the 19th century, uncovering well preserved buildings, mosaics and art works. Work continues, as more of the site is excavated, and as scholars learn more about the artefacts they find. However, although Ostia Antica is only a short train ride from Rome, it remains lesser known than sites such as Pompeii. This is good news for the visitor; when we went in early December we had the site almost to ourselves.
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Exploring Ostia Antica
We walked along the Via Ostiensis towards the Porta Romana, one of the original gates into the town. The road was lined with the tombs of the rich and famous; as was customary these were located outside of the city walls. Within the town we found everything you would expect of a Roman city, including the amphitheatre and the forum, rows of shops and several bath complexes.
But there is more: Ostia Antica was a seaport and the town is full of warehouses, workshops and other commercial buildings. The Piazzale delle Corporazioni (beside the amphitheatre) was a large open air marketplace surrounded by shops belonging to the various merchants, many of whom arrived from North Africa. You can still see mosaics in front of the shops with pictures of ships, dolphins and even an elephant. With so many foreign merchants and sailors coming and going this must have been a multicultural society.
Imagining Roman History
I started to get a sense of what it might have been like to live here. You get the occasional glimpse of a staircase to an upper floor, or the remains of a portico to shelter people (and goods) from the weather. I noticed the density of the housing, with several apartment blocks and houses packed tightly together. But there were homes for wealthier residents too, like the so-called “Decorated Houses” whose walls are covered with brightly coloured frescoes (these can only be visited by appointment so I had to content myself with a peek through the doorway).
When I visit a Roman site I am always struck by how advanced the civilisation was. Here a complex system of plumbing provided drinking water, and water for the baths, fountains and commercial operations. The buildings had underfloor heating and there was even a fire station. The town must have been visually splendid; there are remains of mosaics, frescoes and statues everywhere.
Near the forum we stopped by the remains of a large shop with a serving counter and an outdoor courtyard where citizens could sit and enjoy a drink beside the fountain. We lingered for a while and tried to imagine the chatter of the customers, the tinkling of the water and the sounds of the street outside. Perhaps it wasn’t that different from a bar in 21st century Rome.
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