Ostia: Like Pompeii, but closer (Part 2)

Tonight we return to Ostia Antica. It is one of those places, where you should pay a visit during your weekend break in Rome, even if you have scarce time for anything else. Almost as well-preserved, as the famous victim of Vesuvius, it is not half as widely publicized, so you are unlikely to find yourself in a crowd of tourists.

Last week, we saw Ostia’s legacy as a city of many faiths (from Persian cults to early Christianity) and a melting pot of many ethnicities. We saw its fallen temples and splendid mosaics (that also functioned as ads for the local vendors). All that the Roman Empire had to offer, from Egyptian grain to exotic animals and Sri Lankan sapphires, passed through its famous port. However, this bustling hub had to be supported by unending, ant-like labour of thousands of people.

The statue of Fortuna. Judging by the size of a villa she stood in, she bestowed on her worshiper quite a fortune indeed...

The statue of Fortuna. Judging by the size of a villa she stood in, she bestowed on her worshiper quite a fortune indeed…


It is a natural temptation, of course, to look first at the elegant villas (or, rather, their ruins). There, we’d see remains of spacious rooms and household statues (the statue of Fortuna still stands proudly above the desolation). We’d conjure up the visions of small indoor pools, constructed to cool the rooms down during hot Italian summers; of elegant banquets, that took places in these halls; of bright mosaics, which adorned their walls (and some are still there to be seen). But these were domains of the prosperous few (only prosperous few, in fact, could afford to have their own baths and kitchens). Usually, powerful merchants, like long-gone owners of the villas, tend to dominate historical narratives, as they leave us much more material and written evidence of their lives. However, the miraculous conserving mud of Ostia somewhat evened the situation out and preserved the dwellings of the other 99% of the population just as well. It infused the archaeological site with a kind of eerie, post-mortem egalitarianism.

We can, then, see the many-floored insulae, the ancient condominiums. They never had glass windows – too costly – and simply opened their shutters during the days of oppressive summer heat. Now, however, the whole buildings – windows, rooms and staircases – are wide open to air and sunlight. Bu they still stand, and if you are brave enough, you can try to run up the remaining stairs. I really, really tried to bring myself up to it, but I couldn’t. Sorry.

These staircases weren’t really renowned for their stability even in the city’s heyday. Actually, they were part of the reason, why only the poorest of the poor rented the flats on top floors. The insulae were notoriously prone to conflagrations, and everyone understood, that, in the event of a fire, these staircases could very easily collapse. Therefore, the higher you lived, the higher chance you had to die in flames. A rather dear price to pay for a rent discount.

On the brighter side of things, living in the insulae, you always had an excuse for eating out. And this was an excuse no one can easily counter: you simply had no kitchen. Same was true for the majority of the population, except the villa owners we’ve already visited. As a result, snack bars abounded. Now they stand, surprisingly well-preserved, although half-conquered by the flowers. In fact, on the walls I could still discern drawings of fruits and small dishes – an ancient menu or merely a stimulating ornament?

Another facility, sadly absent from even relatively well-to-do insulae apartments, were bathrooms. Therefore, visits to the public baths were an everyday necessity. Speaking about Roman baths, we tend to imagine something ornamented and luxurious – and, in some cases, it really was so. In Ostia, you can see the remains of a spacious bath complex, targeted at more high-end customers. Marble floors, endless rooms, plenty of space for socializing – everything was there. However, there are also much humbler and smaller Baths of Neptune, used by dock workers in the end of their shifts. Keeping one of the busiest ports in the Empire alive is a sweaty job, after all. Not that the Baths of Neptune were entirely frugal: they contained a gymnasium for recreational sports, for example.

Another place of accessible entertainment, beloved by the coterie of either bathhouse, was the amphitheatre. Hoards of exotic animals from the African shores got transported to this Roman port for the sole purpose of being slaughtered in the combat on this famous arena. Now, the amphitheatre is used for less bloody spectacles. On warm summer evenings, you can attend a classical Greek play there, and sit where the elegant villa owners once sat. The restoration of Ostia amphitheatre was commenced under the patronage of Mussolini; now it continues thanks to the efforts of less controversial sponsors.

You can catch a train to Ostia Antica on Ostiense/Piramide metro station. The commute takes about 20 minutes; after that, it is a matter of a short walk. The site is opened daily.


Alberto Angela, The Reach of Rome (UK edition)


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