On the 5th day of our Rome trip, we headed out of the city again, this time to the sea.
Our destination was Ostia, the ancient city that used to sit as the mouth of the Tiber and through which flowed all shipments to Rome (since writing this I discovered that Ostia comes from the Latin word for ‘mouth’. I swear I didn’t know this before I wrote the previous sentence). Even though the coast and the river have since moved, the ancient streets, shops, warehouses, apartments and temples remain, worn but in many cases amazingly intact.
Our journey to the coast took us through parts of Rome that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, the outer edges beyond the suburbs, even including what looked like a bayou, complete with rotting trees and similarly decaying shacks. The trains themselves also got more graffitied as we went further from the city, until at last we pulled into the Ostia Antica stop and stepped out among a crowd of other tourists heading for the ruins.
Appropriately, the approach to the ruins is via the ancient road, which still has clusters of graves and memorials, more intact than the ones I’d seen on the Appia, though on a smaller scale. The paving stones throughout the town were the same that I’d seen in the Forum, along the Via Appia and around the Colosseum, and I wonder now whether that’s due to some more modern preservation work rather than all being ancient remnants. In any case, it does make it all nicely Roman and orderly.
We were soon wandering along the main street, with ruins of warehouses and a huge public bath complex on either side. Enough remains that we could imagine how it would have looked, as a visitor entered through the gates and peered around at the bustling hub of commerce. Not very far up the road we took a right and found the Forum of the Corporations, a large rectangular area with the base and pillars of a temple in the middle, with the ruins of arcades surrounding it. Along the ground of the arcades are intricate mosaics, mostly in black and white, with fix, ships, wheat and amphorae, perhaps illustrating the stalls that once stood there. Facing onto the Forum was the theatre, which is very well preserved, though sadly closed at time. It was interesting to see for myself the real heart of a Roman town, commerce and business gazing up to a temple and with a theatre backing onto it.
Further down the road, we managed to get lost among ancient streets, finding ourselves suddenly in the residential areas among fancier villas and street-side shops. Many still had mosaic floors and enough of the walls remained to make out the rooms and imagine what it must have been like living in them.
Lunch, when our hunger finally overcame our curiosity to explore every single house we came across, was basic and carby, just the sort of food that had been keeping us on our feet all day for the past week. Fortunately the carbs and exercise balanced out, else we would have returned significantly more spherical.
Re-energised and slightly heavier we headed back out, and soon found another eatery. It had an impressive marble bar, a nice area around the back to sit and enjoy a meal in the sun and some nice paintings on the wall. It would also have gone out of service about 1.5 thousand years ago. It was astonishing how intact it was, from the mosaic flooring, arched ceiling and broad bar, including a little shelving unit and even a fountain in the courtyard. We spent a bit of time posing on the bar as helpful and pushy bar-keeps, and then even longer just staring about at the place, as the space under the bar for washing dishes and the cosiness of it all.
It was a perfect example of what I love about exploring historical sites; an everyday place where people lived, relaxed and that we can recognise today. In the corner perhaps three labourers from the harbour, having enjoyed a show at the theatre, would have sat at a table snacking on olives and pastries. A barmaid brings them a top-up of wine and then continues to the next table, where a young couple sit close together, flirting and too preoccupied to notice the offer of a top-up. The bar-keep is watching from the bar, checking that a particularly rough looking customer, a slave extending the time given for an errand, doesn’t make off with the bowl he’s furtively emptying of lentil soup.
All imaginary lives, obviously, but standing there I could feel the echoes of lives like them, still chattering on amid the ruins.
Across the street from the bar stands an apartment building, which to my delight was intact enough to explore and climb. Three floors remain, each floor getting slightly less neat as you climb the stairs, until you find yourself on the open space at the top. From there we could see out over the whole town and beyond. We also had a good view of the bar. Perhaps someone living here could have watched the customers coming and going, smelt the food on sale and yelled down an order before descending down to the street. I suppose once more floors would have stood above, getting still more crowded but with better views if you could afford the rooms by the windows.
After this we tried to head towards the exit, with a brief attempt to enter a part of the city that was closed off, and much sidetracking into interesting sites we’d missed. As with Pompeii, or the Villa of the Quintilli, you need at least a day to properly explore Ostia.
Back in Rome we headed to the Museum of the Ara Pacis, the altar built by Augustus the celebrate the peace of his principate. I’d somehow missed it the last time I was in Rome and was looking forward to rectifying that. The museum building itself is grand and open, with glass walls and spotless white floors. The building almost seemed to dwarf the monument, huge though it is. It’s made of beautifully carved, white marble (the bright paint has long since gone), with details of tiny lizards among lush vines and processions of ancient VIPs.
Elsewhere around the museum there were other fragments of statues and altars, and reconstructions of the altar. It was all very grand and well presented, with a loop of an Einaudi tune giving the room a sense of mystery, but the sense I got was more related to the intention of the construction, rather than the beauty of the art. Both the altar and the museum that housed it emanated self-aggrandisement, the first of Augustus and the second Mussolini. Yes, pretty much all Roman monuments are a testament to someone, but the open, white space of the museum seemed somehow less graceful than the Pantheon and less laced with history than the Forum.
This isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine piece of art and history, but for me, there is no comparison between a masterpiece of marble and a bar in downtown Ostia.