Monday, September 7, 2015

Rome's Ostia Antica - For Travelers Who Like to Stray from the Typical Track

The Roman Road—Ostia Antica's
Main Street
To anyone who knows much about Italian history and Rome, there's so much to see that no journey could enable you to take in everything. Oh, I suppose if you changed your life and went to Rome to live for a few years, you might get to see all you wanted to see. I have a friend who did that for Paris about fifteen years ago. He's still there and he still complains that he can't see everything he wants to see. So maybe the trick is to seek out things beyond what tourists usually see.

One "secret" place in Italy is Ostia Antica, deliciously uncrowded (except for the occasional well-mannered school group). Ostia was the original fortified city built to guard the mouth (ostium) of the Tiber.  The place is well worth the short journey (a 30-minute train ride from Stazione Ostiense beside Porta San Paolo, plus a few minutes walk from the Ostia Antica station).

The remains at the site date to the 4th century BC, providing a picture of what life was like in a large commercial city (and not much later, a naval base). Ostia Antica served as the port for Rome, responsible for all of the capital's imports and exports and, in particular, supplying annona (produce—mainly grain—for Rome.

By the 4th century AD, Ostia Antica had become a residential town instead of a commercial city, and over the next few centuries Ostia went into decline from the loss of trade and the increase of malaria. In the 16th century Gregory IV tried to revive the place, but it didn't work, and as quoted in one text on Ostia Antica:
By 1786 the city which at the height of its prosperity had a population of some 80,000, had 156 inhabitants; half a century later only a few convicts of the papal government lived here. Augustus Hare, writing in 1878, speaks of one human habitation breaking the utter solitude.
The Ruins of the Ancient Granary
Of course the site had been pretty much covered over during the centuries, and excavations only began (on a small scale) in the early 19th century. Serious work did not get started until 1907, and in 1938-1942 Guido Calza and others embarked on a major excavation program (unbelievable given world events at that time).  The work continued after the war, and today, some 34 hectares (or some two-thirds of the city at its largest size) have been excavated. I read somewhere that the site is much larger but by my calculation that's still pretty big, some 84 acres and enough space to tire out a visitor coming for the day.

Saying Good-by: The Roman
Road Leads Out as Well
There's no question about it: Ostia Antica is an impressive site, with beautiful old packed-dirt streets, excavated ruins, masses of umbrella pines and cypresses, and thick grass just about everywhere, with statuary and building foundations all along the path. And since the ancient city seems to have been divided into five districts or regiones, there are more civic buildings, temples, baths, warehouses, and domestic dwellings than you could ever keep track of. The main street (an original Roman road with its stones still in place) cuts right through the city, as one would expect, and on both sides are blocks and blocks of ruins that in their original state would have been the lifeblood of the central city. The Via delle Corporazioni, with its apartment houses and central government buildings, gives a good sense of how varied and cosmopolitan it all was.

On one side of the street is the massive theater, originally seating 2,700 people in three tiers, though only two tiers survive. Beyond the theater is the Piazzale delle Corporazioni (Square of the Guilds), where offices of commercial associations were located, with their fascinating mosaics indicating from whence (whence?) foreign representatives from all over the ancient world came. And not only the origins of the foreigners but the trades of local citizens (such as ship repair and construction, dock maintenance, warehouses and embankments), all shown in the beautiful—and exceptionally well preserved—mosaics.

So it's worth the time, for a day out from Rome (some people who will be nameless here have been known to take the early train from Rome, planning to return by lunchtime. It won't happen. On that occasion the visitor had to be asked to leave the site when it closed at 7pm!). There is a lovely museum (more about that another time) and a tiny, not very special lunchroom. But it's Italy, after all, and even an informal luncheonette is going to provide you with a very tasty meal to keep your energy up while you're wandering about in the ruins.

A selection of Ostia Antica photos is here—or if the live link doesn't work: