A Day in Ostia Antica: the ancient port of Rome
NB: The site of Ostia Antica is open almost every day of the year, EXCEPT Mondays
I first visited the site of Rome's ancient sea port one summer afternoon when I was a sixteen-year-old high school student on a study-tour from California. Like almost everyone I know who has visited Ostia, I fell in love with it. I wanted to go back in time so that I could wander its streets, watch a play in the theatre, visit one of its many baths complexes. That afternoon in Ostia was one of the experiences that prompted me to study Classics and become a Latin teacher. A few decades later, when I began planning my series of children's mystery stories set in ancient Roman times, I decided to have my main characters live in Ostia.
In Roman times Ostia would have been a busy port town, exotic and lively, brimming with people from all over the Roman empire: Greeks, Egyptians, Nubians, Jews, Syrians and Gauls. In the first century AD, Ostia's main function was to receive grain from Egypt and Sicily and to ship it on to Rome and its one million inhabitants. This grain was stored in Ostia's many warehouses and sometimes made into bread before being transported by barge along the winding Tiber to the capital city, fourteen miles away. In addition to the usual residents of a first century Roman town there would have been sailors, stevedores, ship-owners, storehouse managers, customs officers, rope-makers, sail-makers, and plenty of unsavoury types. When I asked one Classical scholar what ancient Ostia would have been like, he replied 'nowhere to bring up my child if I could avoid it!'
Although Ostia is not as well-preserved as Pompeii, it's much more accessible (a single one way ticket will take you all the way from Rome) and much less crowded. If you are based in Rome, an excursion to Ostia is the perfect day trip. Wear a sunhat and trainers, and dress in layers. Ostia can be cool and foggy in the morning and blazing hot by the afternoon. From Rome, take the metro's Linea B to the stop called Piramide, then change by going up the escalator and down the steps into Porta San Paolo station for the 'light railway' to Ostia Antica. The last station on the Rome-Ostia line is Cristoforo Colombo. (Ostia Antica is the stop after Acilia and before Ostia Nord.) Get off at Ostia Antica and go out of the station and over the blue footbridge. Continue straight along a residential street (there is a B&B here) and carefully cross the busy road on a blind curve opposite the restaurant called Allo Sbarco di Enea. Go past the restaurant (which will be on your right) and follow the road to the parking lot and ticket kiosk. For more detailed instructions go HERE.
Parents travelling with children might enjoy THIS ARTICLE by Nick Trend, a dad who took his children to Ostia.
Allo Sbarco Di Enea - The first thing you notice on your right, after crossing the main road, is a restaurant with chariots parked in its vine-shaded courtyard. Peer through the fence and you'll also notice statues, frescoes and a fountain. This is a touristy but fun place where all the waiters wear tunics. It's called Allo Sbarco Di Enea, which means 'Where Aeneas Got Off'. Aeneas was the Trojan hero who fled his burning city and eventually settled in Italy to become the father of the Roman people. The food is mediocre and the place only comes alive after 9.00pm - Italians eat late - but it can be a fun experience if you go with a big group.
The umbrella pine - pinus maritimus - was a striking feature of the Italian coast even in Roman times. Pliny the Younger says the cloud emerging from Vesuvius looked like an umbrella pine, ie. a trunk-like column of smoke rising up and then flattening out at the top. Of course there are other trees in Ostia: cypress, poplar, oak, mimosa, myrtle, oleander and other species of pine, but for me the umbrella pine is Ostia's trademark. In my first book, The Thieves of Ostia, Flavia, Jonathan and Nubia catch their first glimpse of Lupus when he is trapped up one of these Ostian pines by some wild dogs. Today you can still see (tame) dogs lolling in the dappled shade among the tombs.
The Tombs - Romans were not allowed to bury their dead within the city but to made sure their departed relatives and friends were as close as possible, they placed tombs along main roads right up to the town walls. So tombs are the first thing you'll see when you enter the site of Ostia. They are fascinating, but leave them for later. Lupus, the youngest member of Flavia's gang, lived wild among the tombs of Ostia for two years after he escaped the clutches of Venalicius the slave-dealer.
The Assassins of Rome.
The Assassins of Rome, you'll know what their names mean: Pudes (Modest), Podagrosus (Lame), Barosus (Dainty) and Potiscus (Tipsy).
The Assassins of Rome when he is trying to catch a cart and he almost knocks over a slave carrying a jar of urine. This liquid was very useful in the cleaning and bleaching of cloth, so ancient laundries (known as the fullers') would not have smelled very pleasant.
The Theatre - This was the one of the first buildings in Ostia to be excavated, over a hundred years ago, because its ruins were visible, poking up above ground. It has been heavily but accurately restored. As you enter beneath a cool arch, look up to see the elegant stucco decorations on the ceiling. In Flavia's time, the theatre held 2,500 people. Today it attracts cats, doves, wood pigeons and tourists of all nationalities. I was sitting here in May of 2000 eating pistachio nuts and an apple when I saw a party of Italian schoolgirls skipping rope on the grassy disused stage. One of the girls reminded me of Flavia. The mosaic portrait of Flavia on the front of the British editions is based on a drawing I made from my photo of Francesca. Plays are still performed here in the summer. Plays are still put on here in the summer months. Information and tickets can be obtained from the Ostia ticket kiosk at the entrance to the site. For more information check the Official Ostia website.
The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina.
The Forum - Go back to the Decumanus Maximus and into the forum, the main business centre of ancient Ostia. Here the dominating landmark is a big brick building atop a stepped platform. This temple to the Capitoline triad - Jupiter, Juno and Minerva - would have been faced with marble to cover the brick. Called the Capitoleum, this temple would have had a treasury in its basement. It is in the shadow of this temple that the evil slave-dealer Venalicius parades his slaves -- including the beautiful young Nubia -- in The Thieves of Ostia.
The Basilica - to the right of the Capitoleum - if you are standing on its steps looking out - is the Basilica of Ostia. Every Roman town had a basilica to house law-courts and magistrates' offices. Ostia's junior magistrate Marcus Artorius Bato works here. Flavia first meets him in The Thieves of Ostia but he appears again in later books to help the four with their investigations.
The Temple of Rome and Augustus - opposite the lofty red-brick temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva you will see the remains of the temple of Rome and Augustus. Flavia and Nubia come here in The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina and find a clue in the face of the cult statue of Rome, personified as a beautiful Amazon with her foot on the globe of the world.
The Museum - Ostia's museum only opens in the morning but doesn't take long to explore, so make sure you have a quick look before lunch. Ostia's finest statues have been brought here to keep them safe from robbers and from the elements.
The Bakeries - near the museum you can find a relatively well-preserved bakery. Ostia was the bread-basket of Rome. Huge shipload of grain from Egypt and Sicily were stored in beautiful red-brick warehouses before being towed on mule-powered barges up to Rome. Sometimes the grain was made into bread before it was transported, hence the many bakeries in Ostia. Notice the distinctive hourglass mills (grain grinders.) These would have been operated by blindfolded donkeys going round and round for hours. You can still see the circular trace of their hoofprints in the herringbone pattern of the brick floor. The Code of Romulus is a Roman Mystery short story partly set in an Ostian bakery.
The Thieves of Ostia. Later, in The Gladiators from Capua, the friends 'borrow' a disused cube of marble from beside the synagogue to make a tomb.
The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina: inscriptions mentioning Cartilius Poplicola, a covered fountain, a many-spouted fountain, baths, stables and - near the Capitoleum - the wonderful Inn of Diana, just like the one where Lupus games with some men in a little courtyard.
The Man from Pomegranate Street, when the friends sail away for new adventures.
Caroline Lawrence on the beach at Ostia Lido (a few miles from Ostia Antica)
Some of the photos on this site are from The Roman Mysteries TV series. The rest are mine!
[The Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]