Ostia Antica: Short Biography

The author, Ostia Antica, and her family spend a day in this fascinating ancient Roman seaport city.

We come to Ostia Antica on a day trip from 30 miles down the coast in Lavinio, a respectable if not completely endearing town where we are spending a week in a lovely villino near the town's beautiful beaches. Not having time to drive to Pompei and environs, we settle on Ostia Antica as our choice of ancient Roman town to explore. It does not disappoint, when we finally make it there. The Michelin map that seems to be at odds with reality, combined with the infuriating lack of signage that characterizes southern Italy, makes the trip infinitely longer than it should have been. Most tourists will be coming from Rome, however, and that is a piece of cake on public transportation: take the Metropolitana (subway) to Magliana station on Line B, then switch to the FS (Ferrovie dello Stato, the Italian national train system) to Ostia Antica. Ask the locals where the entrance is - again, there are no signs, not even when you get there.

At the entrance, a long tree-lined road leads up to a small stand. One or two cars are in the parking lot - yes, we could've parked right here, but who would know? There is a poster showing what the place looked like when it was a thriving Roman port, and beside it an Italian cashier. I ask her for four tickets, then think to ask if there is a discount for children. She wants to know what nationality we are, and when I say American, she says, "no, only for European children." Finding this odd, I tell her that they have European passports, to which she replies "You said they were American, so that's what they are. Sorry." And in that slightly irritating Italian way, she says this loudly, definitively, and with a big smile, knowing full well an American won't know what stance to take in response. Then I ask her for the map of the site (my Eyewitness Guide has offered this piece of advice). She rolls her eyes - map? There is no map! Was there ever a map? Not that she knows, and she would know, now, wouldn't she? Big smile. Grazie!

There are miles of things to see at this site. At the entrance to the main road is a sign warning people to be careful to preserve the site, but the whole city is there, open as can be, for you to scramble on, touch, feel, steal, whatever strikes your fancy. No preservation movement will ever cow the Italians into spending money to engage in serious protection of their antiques.

First along the main road, the Decumanus Maximus, is the cemetery, an elaborate series of buildings designed to hold tombs as well as urns with ashes. It is thoughtful, solemn, and practical. Sarcophagi are placed randomly around the buildings. There are plaques, also somewhat randomly placed, explaining the various buildings, but they focus on complicated architectural detail - it would be nice just to know what the building was used for, Mitch comments.

There is hardly anyone else about. It's a hot, dry Roman afternoon with a regular but tepid breeze wafting in from the Mediterranean. Aleppo pines and cedars wave lazily; the ancient port city that thrived until the 5th century stretches out before us in all its ruined grandeur. Easy to visualize here a bustling town. Close your eyes, ignore the birdsong that interferes with memory, feel the ancient two-way street beneath your feet, hear the cries of merchants, the arguments of ship builders, the constant burble of water from fountains and baths, the banter of children, the bustle of everyday life. Open them, and a man in a burnt-sienna-colored toga is passing you in one of those weirder-than-weird travel moments. He's just a waiter at the café you will later discover at the exit, but for a moment you are panicked, thinking you caught yourself in a time-warp.

The blocks of apartments astound - three-storey buildings with a bar on the ground floor that served food and drink (the mosaic on the wall still shows the offerings), other ground-floor shops, and apartments on the upper floors with richly painted scenes on the walls. The baths also astonishing - incredibly intricate tilework still well preserved despite no effort to do so. One bath - men's only, one presumes - has cartoons of Socrates and others designed into the mosaic, with descriptions of their attitudes toward fecal elimination. I'm spellbound by the mosaics, as well as the remnants of paintings on the apartment walls. You can feel the skill, and the patience, of the artisan who made these floors. It must have been so grand, so inspiring, so heady, to live here amid this explosion of quality workmanship.

The remains of the largest temple, the Capitol, are impressive as well. Romans thought big, very big, and the scale is large and bold. The columns that remain are in fairly good shape. The statues are almost all headless. Likewise, the restored amphitheatre is large - it's used now for productions in summer, though I never saw any mention of performances anywhere. The Romans seem to be content with Ostia Antica being found only by those who truly want to find it.

We round a corner and there is a large stone barrel for collecting water. It has spigots in it, and an urn is placed beneath each. It looks for all the world as though a Roman might wander by any minute to quench his thirst. There are other surprises, too, a plaque here, a bust there, a memorial stone over there, a lone column, an arch covered in a profusion of wisteria. You keep getting the feeling that if you tried really hard, willed it to, it would all spring to life again in an instant. But the bees drone and the sun beats down and the silence envelops.

We clamber over and around the ruins for almost two hours. The small museum is a treasure trove of the best stuff, but even it has the odd bit of column or sarcophagus just sitting haphazardly on the gravel outside - is it meant to be an artistic arrangement, is it purposely shambolic, or did the workman just decide he couldn't move it any farther? I think the Romans were far more organized than their descendants.

We head back to the entrance, stopping at an ancient fountain that has been resurrected, to scoop that excellent Roman water into our mouths by the handful. Statues look serenely down on us with their long, straight noses, their slightly curled full lips, their hair neatly coiled and arranged, their implacable opaque eyes, some looking decent, some looking spoiled, some looking serene, some looking wicked. So sure of themselves. They had it good; they had it made. They couldn't see into the future any more than we can. They have the look of wealthy investors, which they were. We see them at their proudest, at their apex, and they look fine and do impress.

At the café at the exit, we stop for cold drinks. The waiter and waitress are in togas, he being the fellow who interrupted my brief reverie earlier. The Italian impulse to cheapen experiences with this sort of schlock is as mysterious as their reluctance to advertise the place or put up a decent sign leading people to it. But the gelati are incomparable!

Practical information:

Ostia Antica excavations are at 717 Viale dei Romagnoli, Ostia Antica.

The site is open 9 a.m. to one hour before sunset daily. The site is closed Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and May 1.

The onsite museum is open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily

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