Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Day in Ostia

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!'

Today, Ostia is no longer bustling and dangerous, but quiet and peaceful. Over the past two thousand years the mouth of the Tiber has silted up, pushing the coastline away from Ostia. The site is landlocked and long deserted. Wandering around its ruins, you will find the remains of baths, temples, houses, shops, taverns, latrines and even a theatre. You can see traces of frescoes on the walls, half standing columns, marble thresholds and millstones from bakeries. One of the most distinctive features of Ostia are its black-and-white mosaics. They are everywhere.

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 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 Thieves of Ostia, first in the Roman Mysteries series

Umbrella pines - Something else you notice about Ostia even before you enter the site are the pines. With their rough textured bark in shades of caramel, nutmeg and honey, their lofty fragrant canopies provide homes to chittering birds in winter and spring, chirring cicadas in summer and autumn. These trees offer cool shade in the summer and shelter from rain in the winter. Today, there are thousands of these beautiful trees in and around Ostia, making it one of the greenest suburbs of Rome.

The umbrella pine - pinus pinea - 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 Roman Gate - There's not much left of the Porta Romana. In Flavia's time it would have been an impressive arch, faced with marble and flanked with statues of Victory and Minerva. Once you are 'inside' the town walls, look ahead and to the left. Beneath some umbrella pines, you can still see a long water trough for the thirsty mules that pulled carts to and from Rome. It is under the shade of those very trees that Flavia approaches two gaming cartdrivers to arrange transport from Ostia to Rome in The Assassins of Rome.

The Baths - The Romans loved their baths. In Flavia's time Ostia had a population of about 20,000 making it a relatively small town. But it was served by no less than 18 public baths complexes. Before you carry on down the main road, have a look at my favourite baths in Ostia: the Cartdrivers' Baths. You'll find them on your right, opposite the mule trough. Walk behind the remains of storehouses until you reach the modern tree-lined road giving access to archaeologists and site workers. Also known as the Termii Cisarii, the Cartdrivers' Baths were exclusively for the muleteers who drove carts to and from Rome. Look for the delightful black-and-white mosaic of four mules with their names written beside them. If you've read The Assassins of Rome, you'll know what their names mean: Pudes (Modest), Podagrosus (Lame), Barosus (Dainty) and Potiscus (Tipsy).

The Decumanus Maximus - Go back to the main road and carry on past the ancient shopping arcade towards the Baths of Neptune with their impressive black-and-white mosaics of tritons and sea-nymphs. A platform here gives a wonderful view not only of the mosaics but of the whole site. This road is the main road of Ostia and it's called the Decumanus Maximus. As at Pompeii, you can see the ruts made by a hundred thousand carts which carried grain and other goods to and from the port. (The round wishing-well in the centre of this road is medieval. Ignore it.) The Decumanus Maximus will take you past brick granaries and the marble theatre to Ostia's forum. Lupus runs down the Decumanus Maximus in 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. Sometimes, 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.

This elephant marks the office of beast importers of Sabratha
The Forum of the Corporations - located directly behind the theatre, this large complex was built on several storeys around a temple of Ceres. This is where guilds (or 'corporations') of ship-owners, marine-suppliers, importers and grain-traders had their offices and did business. Shaded by ancient umbrella pines, the delightful black-and-white mosaics illustrate the different offices. Elephants, boar, tigers marked the offices of wild beast importers, ships and images of Ostia's famous lighthouse indicated ship owners, and baskets with their leveling rods were for the grain-traders. Flavia and her friends come here in search of clues and interview a wild beast importer in 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.

Roman Toilets - while you're in the Forum, don't miss Ostia's most amusing landmark, the twenty-four seater forica or public toilets, near the Temple of Rome and Augustus by the Forum Baths. Ancient Romans did their business right next to each other, with no doors or dividing walls. They sat chatting, gossiping, even extending dinner invitations. The holes on top of the cool marble bench are for the obvious thing. The holes at the front are for the sponge-stick, ancient Roman toilet paper. When you finished wiping your bottom with it, you put it in a basin of water for the next person to use! Lupus has obviously never been here, or he'd know a sponge-stick is not for beating a drum as he thinks in The Dolphins of Laurentum.

Shrine of the Crossroads - just past the Forum, the Decumanus Maximus ends in a fork. Crossroads were sacred places in Roman times and there was a temple here, where two lofty cypress trees stand today. Lupus comes here one cold December dusk during the festival of Saturnalia, and he makes some exciting discoveries.

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 Synagogue - Built in the middle of the first century AD, this one of the oldest in the world. You will find it at the edge of the site, near perimeter fence. See the modern highway? That's where the ancient shoreline would have been. In fact, as you pass Ostia in a car, the synagogue is the building you can see most clearly. All that's left of it today are a few pillars and blocks of marble, but you can see Latin inscriptions in some of the marble paving stones. In spring swifts and swallows swoop in the warm air feasting on tiny bugs, and you can see butterflies fluttering among the columns and minuscule red spider mites on the coloured marble floor. Jonathan and his friends seek refuge in the synagogue when they are being chased by slave-dealers in 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.

Flavia's house - Use your map to find your way through the long grasses from the synagogue towards the Laurentum Gate. Here in a quieter residential area of Ostia (these houses date from the time of Julius Caesar) you'll find the residence of Cartilia Poplicola, a young Roman widow who fancies Flavia's father. Moving back towards the entrance of the site, parallel with the Decumanus Maximus, you'll find a fullers', a mithraeum and more storehouses. What you won't find is Flavia's house, or Jonathan's, or even Green Fountain Street. I made a conscious decision to have my characters live in an unexcavated part of the town. One day I hope they'll build a life-sized reconstruction of their houses - complete with Roman frescoes, fountains, mosaics, furniture and fittings. Until then, you can sit in the shade of an umbrella pine munching olives, cheese and bread. Imagine that you are sitting in the tablinum (study) of Flavia's father, looking into the inner garden. (Another route to the site of Flavia's house is the little side road leading off the Decumanus Maximus just before the theatre.)

If you haven't brought a picnic lunch you can go back to the new snack-bar near the Museum. Here you can eat a delicious pasta or salad at parasol-shaded table on a pleasant terrace only a stone's throw from the Tiber River. Just the other side of this sunny courtyard is a bookshop where you can buy guide books and souvenirs, including a kit to make your own black-and-white mosaic of a dolphin. Oh, and the (modern) toilets are here! After lunch, explore the site. Let your feet guide you. Lose yourself in Flavia's world. Look out for landmarks from 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.

Ostia Lido - After a day exploring Ostia, treat yourself to an ice cream and orangina down by the sea. Lido Centro (Central Beach) is only one more stop on the train line. Walk from the train station down to the seafront where you'll find dozens of beachside caf├ęs with roofs of slatted bamboo and further north a marina with shopping. In the summer months its very lively here in Lido Centro, this is where modern Romans come to cool off. Off-season it's deserted, but you can still find somewhere to sit and wonder at how brave Roman sailors were. On blustery spring days the wind marches whitecaps across the brown water and makes the canvas awnings flap and crack. It was on this beach, or its ancient equivalent, that Flavia and her friends rescued Pliny the Elder, and received a Latin riddle that would set in motion an exciting adventure in The Secrets of Vesuvius. And of course the port plays an important part at the end of the last book of the series, 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. Viewers in some regions can watch season one of the Roman Mysteries on iTunes. For more fun things to do in Ostia, Rome and Pompeii, download the Roman Mysteries Travel Guide to your Kindle or tablet. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.] 


  1. Anonymous7:39 PM

    I love all of this. I love the Roman mysteries and I love Flavia's world and her adventurous exotic life and I hope to go to Italy and do all of that and more in the wonderful port of Ostia.

  2. Everyone I know who's been to Ostia falls in love with it. I hope you do, too! {-)

  3. Anonymous10:34 PM

    I love everything to do with Italy but the Romans are my favourite. I love their life and have loved it for years. I want to carry on Latin for my options.

  4. Anonymous10:40 PM

    I practically live and breathe ancient Roman life. I wish England was as interesting and lively as Ostia, Rome.

  5. I work at a school near Ostia and the kids LOVE your books. So nice to see boys in particular crowded round in the library discussing each book!

    1. Tell me the address of your school, Catherine, and I'll send some signed posters! You can email me at flaviagemina [at] hotmail [dot] com!

    2. Will do thanks! They'll be thrilled!

  6. Hello Caroline, I am doing a book report on the Assassins of Rome and have two questions for you: one, what do you think it would have been like for kids running around the streets of Ostia in the first century AD? And two, are you planning on writing more books based in roman times? Thank you in advance, Oliver Moore, year 8, from Copenhagen.

    1. Salve, Oliver! Most kids in Ostia would be working by the time they were 12 or 13. The lucky ones would probably be studying rhetoric. I have written 17 Roman Mysteries, 2 volumes of Mini Roman Mysteries and 4 spin-off books about an Ostian beggar boy named Threptus. Check them out: Caroline Lawrence Author Page

  7. Thank you very much my class will enjoy knowing that.
    From Oliver