Spring has finally sprung in the Caput Mundi and, to celebrate, the Upstairs Vegetarian, the Morgster and I headed out to Ostia Antica. Ostia was Ancient Rome’s seaport and is about 20 miles northeast of the city. This is one of my favourite day trips out of Rome. It’s a huge and sprawling site, covering 80 acres and because it’s not as well known as, say, Pompeii, it often feels like you have the place to yourself, at least once you get off the main thoroughfare.
Yesterday, for some reason, most of the visitors seemed to be French, including several groups of French schoolchildren who toured the site waving flags and singing. Most odd. Ostia Antica is a great place for a picnic and they welcome dogs.
Back in the day, Ostia lay at the mouth of the Tiber. Now, due to silting, the sea is a mile and a bit away. Legend has it that Ostia was originally founded by Ancus Marcius, the 4th King of Rome in the 7th century BCE, although the oldest archeological remains on the site date to the 4th century BCE. The town was sacked by pirates in 68 BCE. The pirates set the port on fire, destroyed the consular fleet and kidnapped two senators. The sacking prompted a law granting 39 year old Pompey the Great tremendous power: he was placed in charge of a naval task force to solve the pirate issue, which he did inside of three months. I just love a good pirate yarn, don’t you? Here’s some other things about pirates you may not know:
- When he was 25, Julius Caesar was captured by Sicilian pirates, who wanted to ransom him for 20 talents of silver (about $600 000 nowadays). This was before he got into politics. He laughed at them and demanded they ask for 50 talents, which they did. Caesar hung out with the pirates for about a month, while his buddies were rounding up the money. He bossed them around, read them poetry and played games with them. It was all very buddy-buddy. After he was released, he came back and had them all crucified. He also got all the money back.
- 19 September is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Aaarrrr!
- One of the language options available on Facebook is Pirate English.
- One of Morgan’s nicknames in the dog park is the Little Pirate (Il Piccolo Pirata). That’s because of his swashbuckling manner and also because of Captain Morgan’s rum, named after the 17th century Welsh privateer.
Now where were we? Ostia was further developed by Tiberius, Claudius (who rebuilt the harbour) and Trajan in the 1st century CE. At its height in the 3rd century, Ostia had about 50 000 inhabitants.
Eventually, Ostia was eclipsed in importance by a newer port (quite reasonably known as Portus). For awhile, the city became the place for rich Romans to build their summer houses but it declined after the fall of the Empire, got sacked some more and was finally abandoned in the 9th century. Abandoned but not forgotten: for centuries, the marble facades of Ostia Antican buildings were stripped, the marble used in Roman palazzi and various cathedrals around Italy. After that, foreign visitors came searching for statues and inscriptions to grace their private collections. The first excavations started in the 19th century and picked up pace in the 1930s under Mussolini (of course), who wanted to showcase Ostia Antica in the 1942 World’s Fair. The Fair never occurred, Mussolini being otherwise occupied.
Today, walking along Ostia Antica’s narrow stone streets gives you a real sense of what it must have been like to live way back when.
People lived in multistory apartment buildings, transacted business, shopped and worshipped in various fora (Ostia has 20), hung out at the public baths (and in communal latrines), drank in wine bars, where pictures of the offerings were posted on the walls for the benefit of the illiterate.
You can see the remains of restaurants, shops, bakeries and the oldest synagogue in Europe. The site has a decent cafeteria, nice little museum and souvenir shop featuring a very grumpy non-dog friendly cat.
It’s easy to get here by taking from the Ostiense station to Ostia Lido. Here’s a great website and a reconstruction of what Ostia Antica would have looked like in ye olde times. And just for fun, some footage of the 1938 excavations, complete with a visit by Mussolini.