By Barbara Ireland
The New York Times
I arrived in Ostia Antica from Rome, where I’d been squinting at the grand ruins and trying to envision plutocrats in togas, grand processions of conquering generals, and tyrants with 100-foot-tall statues of themselves.
Now, a half-hour train ride away, here I was with the mule drivers.
Ostia Antica is a long-abandoned city and continuing archaeological dig at what was once the seaport of imperial Rome, about 20 miles down the Tiber River from the Roman Forum. Before it was buried under silt, dust and its own collapsing buildings, it was a prosperous hard-working town, the kind where the mule drivers’ union would have its own bathhouse (as it apparently did) with steam rooms, a pool and a gym.
In my first adventure off the 2,000-year-old main street, where cart tracks are still visible in the paving stones, I climbed over and around a complex of broken brick walls, some a couple of feet high and others too tall to see over. They were the partitions of the bathhouse, but I didn’t know that as I zigzagged from room to room, finding mostly grass and weeds. Then I stumbled on the drivers, broad shouldered and toned in natty tunics, going about their business on a black-and-white mosaic floor. One piloted a small cart. Another led a couple of well-fed mules by their reins. A third had a cart with a pair of rubbernecking human passengers. The emperors at the Roman Forum had been hard to channel, but these confident delivery drivers and cabbies looked like people I might encounter on the streets of New York.
It was the first in a day’s worth of discoveries at Ostia Antica, a human-scale counterpoint to the monuments of Rome. It sprawls over more than 80 acres, a landscape of ruined structures along a grid of narrow stone streets. With the help of signs in Italian and English, visitors can roam from one end of town to the other, poking in remains of homes, warehouses, shops and public spaces from the days of the Caesars.
Old Ostia is easy to get to from downtown Rome; the train ticket costs 1 euro, and then it’s a five-minute walk. Admission is only 6.50 euros ($8.50). But crowds are few. And although we were close to the modern beach town of Ostia, aside from the occasional roar of a jet at Rome’s main airport, we felt remote from modern sights and sounds.
Most of ancient Ostia’s 50,000 residents lived in densely packed apartment buildings four or five stories high. First-floor rooms are still there to walk into. Stairs that led to upper stories trail off into space. Eventually it dawns on you that you’re seeing not just how people lived in Ostia, but how the masses must have lived in Rome, too.
You can wander around the barracks of the fire department, which doubled as a police force with 300 men, rotated in from Rome for three-month stints. You can drop in at a restaurant with a stone countertop and faded frescoes advertising the food: fruit, carrots, lentils. Then there is Fortunatus’ wine bar, which angles for customers with a message in the floor mosaic roughly translatable as “Fortunatus’ Place. You know you’re thirsty – come on in and drink.” Ostians transacted legal business in their small forum, where steps take you up to the main pagan temple. Most worshiped in other buildings, including a synagogue with reliefs of a menorah and shofar. The excavated bakeries have millstones and ovens, and at the laundries you’ll see built-in tubs where human agitators jumped on the clothes to keep them moving in the first-century version of the wash cycle. Although the laundries’ use of urine as a bleach seems questionable, Ostians liked to be clean. If you have the patience, you can find the remains of 20 public baths, including the one where the mule drivers went to lounge.
Ostia wasn’t exactly forgotten after the encroaching silt and vegetation took over. Much of the marble facing from its concrete structures was dug up in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to be reused on distant new buildings. Kilns were set up to extract lime from its once abundant marble statuary. But the basics remain (concrete, brick and stone) along with artwork and columns buried too deep to be easily plundered. There is more than enough for a day of exploring, with a break for a sandwich or salad at the airy cafe, a visit to the small, well-designed museum, and some browsing at the bookstore.
We wanted to see Ostia in a wider context, so we stopped in Rome at the Via Ostiense Museum, a few steps from the Ostiense station where the train for Ostia Antica and modern Ostia departs. The museum is inside the Porta San Paolo, a fortified gateway in Rome’s old city wall, next to the first-century pyramid-shaped tomb that gives its name to the Piramide metro stop. In the imperial era, the gateway was the Porta Ostiensis, the entrance from the Ostia Road.
The museum is tiny, but Fabrizio Corsi and Franco Fubelli of the museum staff were eager to show off a large-scale model of Ostia in its heyday. Corsi explained that to today’s Romans, the gate is most significant as the site of a resistance battle during World War II.
One display in the museum showed how the original Ostia Road was constructed: heavy posts buried deep and cemented in as a base, then a layer of stones, more concrete and finally the paving stones. No wonder it was still there for us to stroll onto an hour later, at the other end, at Ostia Antica.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, serious excavation and preservation began at Ostia. A flurry of hasty rebuilding in the Mussolini era is considered now to have been insensitive, but we didn’t complain when we climbed up on the partly restored amphitheater for a view of the stage and a perspective on the town. In the summer, you may even catch a play or dance performance there.
Behind the stage is the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, a square and arcade built at the time of the Emperor Augustus. Its 60 storefronts were offices and headquarters for businesses and guilds of workers like rope makers and grain measurers. Thresholds remain, with mosaics illustrating their offerings: wine barrels, fish, ships for transporting goods. One showing an elephant with curly tusks probably indicated a dealer in goods from Africa. It’s easy to imagine deal-making on this trading floor.
High on the list of popular attractions at Ostia, though, is a much humbler artifact. We found it, deep in a warren of brick walls near yet another old bathhouse, after asking directions from an archaeologist. He sighed as if tired of the question. “The latrine?” he said. “Over that way.”
It was on a back street, hidden away, but there was no mistaking it. Who knew an orderly line of ancient toilets, laid out along a concrete bench for the sociable use of townsfolk, could still survive in such pristinely graphic display? But there they were, leaving little to the imagination. Water ran constantly beneath them, we read in our tourist guide, in an early approximation of a modern flush.
It was a long way from the glory that was Rome, but like everything else in Ostia Antica, it felt much closer to home.
IF YOU GO
Ostia Antica (Viale dei Romagnoli 717; 39-06-56358099; archeoroma.beniculturali.it) is open 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily except Mondays. From Rome, take the commuter train toward Ostia Lido from the Ostiense station. Admission, 6.50 euros, or $8.30 at $1.27 to the euro.
For a comprehensive printable 20-page guide, click on Tourist Guide at ostia-antica.org/visiting.htm. Guides are sold at the bookstore, but it is well into the site.
An informative video lecture by Prof. Diana Kleiner of Yale is at youtube.com/watch?v(EQUAL)8aJO3EfVjyk. For short videos by the American Institute for Roman Culture and Northeastern University, click on “AIRC movies of Ostia” at ostia-antica.org.
Walk just outside the excavations to Allo Sbarco di Enea (Via dei Romagnoli 675; 39-06-565-0034; ristoranteallosbarcodienea.com) for pasta or fish in an outdoor garden. Or walk left at the first street and head toward the looming castle, landmark of the medieval village of Ostia, with homes, shops and restaurants in centuries-old buildings. At the Ristorante Monumento (Piazza Umberto I, 8; 39-06- 565-0021; ristorantemonumento.it), look for dishes like fritto misto, a fried seafood combination, 12 euros.
The Museum of the Ostia Road (Via Augusto Persichetti, 3; 39-06-574-3193; archeoroma.beniculturali.it/museo(USCORE)della(USCORE)via(USCORE)ostiense), at Piramide subway stop in Rome, is free; Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday and Thursday 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.
By Barbara Ireland