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
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 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|
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 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).
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 - 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 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.)
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.]