The average honeymooner to Italy is probably not typically interested in ancient ruins, but when you’re newlywed archaeology students, the ruins can’t be ignored; and when you have limited time and resources, you must choose which day-trip ruins will deliver the most satisfaction. I had heard from one of my archaeology professors that, if forced to choose between the well-visited Pompeii and the more obscure ancient Roman town of Ostia, he would choose Ostia (even though Popmeii is indeed impressive).
So while in Rome on our honeymoon in 2012, Sam and I opted for Ostia. It was November, daylight was limited, and we had a late start to the day. After a quick brunch, we ran from our Termini-neighborhood apartment to the train station, where we grabbed the metro and rode it to the end of the line. We then hopped onto an urban train and took it down to Ostia Antica, which is a few stops before the coast. We got there around 1:30 pm.
In ancient Roman times, Ostia was a port town established by the military; it later switched primarily to economic functions (mostly milling grain, but imports and exports, too). Over the centuries, the mouth of the river silted up, and Ostia Antica is now a couple of miles from the sea. The walk to the ruins from the train station was brief and pretty. Everything was green and wet because of the season. We got into the ruins for free (thank you Roma Pass!) and wandered around. I had printed off a basic tour guide from Rick Steves before we came, so we used that to guide us as we walked around.
We wandered through the extensive necropolis first, which was really fascinating. There were broken sarcophagi littering the whole area, and partial urns sticking out of the ground (for cremated bodies, of course). What I loved was that we could walk in and around and through, and jump over walls and walk through lower areas and everything (carefully, keeping preservation in mind – we are trained as archaeologists after all). Also, there were only a handful of people at the site the whole time, so we mostly had the place to ourselves.
We kept walking down the old Roman road through the town and saw the ruined city gate, and several old shops lining the way. At first I was a little disappointed because I remembered the buildings being significantly taller when I learned about it in one of my classes. By the way, the Roman military had a town layout grid plan that they used to map new towns in conquered territories. Ostia was either one of the first instances — or the first instance — of the implementation of this pattern, and other town plans that came after followed this pattern. Also Ostia was the first Roman colony (founded in the 7th century BC), and this fact is proudly stated in the inscription on the city gate.
Soon we walked into the greater part of town and saw that the buildings were much taller, about 60 feet high (Ostia building code). The sun started going down (in November, the sun goes down a little before 5:00, and on this day it was scheduled for 4:44 pm exactly), and I got nervous because archaeological sites in Italy close about an hour before sunset, so we started to rush a little, which was frustrating because I knew we would be missing a lot of cool things.
One other disappointing thing was that several of the mosaics were covered in weighed-down tarps for the rainy winter, including the supposedly sensational Baths of Neptune. Quel dommage. But there was one striking black and white mosaic of Amphititre (that’s Neptune/Poseidon’s wife) that was uncovered and easily viewed from the overlook.
We then came upon a theater that could seat 4000 people! Apparently concerts are still sometimes held in there. Pretty neat. We were going to walk up to the top, but there was a woman sitting there sketching, so we refrained. Instead we moved on to spend some time in the Square of the Guilds, which had some excellent mosaics of the different activities the various guilds did or sold back in the day (these were mostly covered in tarps, too). Next to that was the main Forum – a late addition to the city, having been built during the first century AD. There were also several single-family homes and middle-lower class apartment buildings. That’s another reason I wanted to come to this site instead of Pompeii: Pompeii mostly reflects the life of fat, comfortable, rich people, while Ostia (being an industrial port town) is more indicative of life for “real” Romans. There were a few apartment buildings with stairs still intact enough for climbing, so we went up to the second/top floor of each one and had a great view of the whole site and surrounding area. It was beautiful.
Near that apartment building was a fairly well-preserved tavern with more black and white mosaics; you could even walk on these ones, uncovered. There were also frescoes on the walls (in fact, there were several partial frescoes all throughout the town, even in the necropolis), a marble bar (Sam pretended to serve drinks), and a built-in shelving unit with frescoes above it showing wares for sale that would have been shelved there for purchase. It was an impressive setup.
Down the road a bit was a gigantic building known as the Capitolium, the main temple dedicated to the gods that protect the Caesar: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. It was a hugely important building back in the day, and although the marble facing was all gone (carted off as a prize during the Medieval days), it was still an impressive building. Romans sure knew how to build huge things with brick, let me tell you. We got to walk up all the stairs to the top and see the main altar, which was fun to do.
Across the street from that was an old temple to Roma and Augusta. A few of the statues were still there, and a couple of them were nearly complete (no heads though). Near that were the Fora baths, Ostia’s public baths. We walked through the caldarium and saw exposed piping in some degraded walls. We wandered into a courtyard with some huge Corinthian columns stacked on top of each other, as well as a statue of some (headless) Imperial dude in the middle of a meadow. Around the corner from that were the toilets. In the doorways you could still see the post hole where the pivot for the spinning doors would’ve been. Cool! The toilets were cool, too. I guess when Rick Steves was there, you could sit on them, but on the day we went they were fenced off with chicken wire.
We dodged a small group of archaeology students mapping part of the site (for practice, I assume) and went around to a grassy side path and saw stairs leading down into an old tunnel. We went into it and realized we were inside an old under-floor heating system. We went pretty far, but then the vault roof became more solid, and it was incredibly dark, so we went back in order to avoid dead bodies and creepy vermin. It was an intriguing little detour.
We walked back down the main road toward the exit, and just in time, because the park had closed and they were about to start herding people out. In case you’re wondering, I have absolutely no reservations about skipping Pompeii for Ostia. It was a better experience as far as learning about Roman life, as well as being able to interact with the ruins. My only though was that Pompeii may not last much longer because it is disintegrating from too much exposure to tourists, and I might miss it before we get to come back to Italy again.
Upon leaving the park, we hopped back on the train to go down to the beach in modern Ostia (or Ostia Lido) to watch the sunset. From the station, we walked in the general direction of the sun, but appeared to get no closer to the sea, and it also appeared that the sun had gone down already. We were about to turn back to the station and go home, but felt instead that we should go up a huge set of stairs to look at random giant church. Directly down the street from the top of the stairs, we saw the water. So we kept going.
On the way, we were about to pass a couple of guys sitting on a bench. ust as we passed in front of them, they glanced at each other and hopped up. My immediate reaction, other than my heart stopping, was to grab tightly to Sam, ready to run. Sam’s reaction was his stomach sinking, his arm half-way to hitting someone, and the urge to yell “Aiuto!” which means “help,” which he learned last night while watching an old Robin Hood movie on tv, while I was writing an email (I can’t stop laughing about that). Anyway, it turns out they were just jumping up to get on the bus, which pulled up right as we passed. Sam and I laughed about it for several minutes. Mugging averted.
We finally got down to the end of the road, but there was no way down to the water, just a huge long line of changing huts blocking the view behind a locked fence. Eventually we walked far enough that we came to a little pedestrian plaza where some teenagers were playing street futbol or whatever. Extending out from the plaza was a short stone pier. We walked down the pier and paused on a little railed platform to the side. The sun had already gone down, but the clouds were lit up a bright reddish pink. An old man busker was playing his guitar a ways away, and it was melodious, romantic, Italian-sounding music. He played the song on a continuous loop for several minutes, much to my liking. A steady cool breeze was coming in off the sea, the waves were low and gentle, and men stood on small boats, presumably fishing, a few hundred yards away. It was incredibly quaint.
Sam was equally interested in some algae growing on a rock, the graffiti on the railing, and an assortment of other things that were not the sea, the sunset, the breeze, me, or the fact that we were in Italy watching a Mediterranean sunset. I reminded him of this. He said the graffiti was really interesting. I looked down and saw a drawing of a person picking his nose. Very interesting. Anyway, Sam diverted his interests, we had a romantic Italian sunset smooch, and then we walked back to the station in the semi-darkness.