First port of call
Take a day out of your planner and swap the noisy traffic of metropolitan Rome for the ancient streets of Ostia, an ancient Roman port town just outside the city. Nearly all of the old town has been fully excavated; you will probably need a day to properly explore the astounding ruins.
This site is a great example of an ancient Roman town with shops, taverns and a theatre for ordinary citizens; while it may not display the same kind of grandeur as the temples and monuments of the Roman Forum, it is full of beautiful art and architecture that offers a real insight into daily life in the Empire. Ostia was extremely important to Rome from the time of the Republic, and retained that importance throughout the Imperial period. Located at the mouth of the Tiber, most imports to Rome passed through its port (ostium means ‘mouth’). Remnants of the striking structures of the port can still be viewed in the town today.
The first thing visitors encounter when they enter the old town is a necropolis of brick and marble tombs and what remains of the Porta Romana, one of three main gates framed by the 1st century BC walls of Sulla. Some of the most impressive remains are the large public baths with their spectacular mosaics, which have survived astoundingly intact. Just a few hundred yards from the entrance on the right are the Baths of Neptune, beside a colonnaded courtyard for exercising. There are also the Baths of the Cisiarii, the mule drivers who brought goods from Ostia to Rome, denoted by their mosaics of long-eared donkeys; the Baths of Seven Sages which bear instructions for using the bathroom; and the Baths of the Marine Gate, with their elaborate mosaics of athletes, philosophers and a woman who bears a remarkable resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, as well as the frescoed tomb of a Roman patrician.
The sound of mosaic
Just beyond the Baths of Neptune is an ancient wine shop, with an ancient advertisement: a mosaic of a large cup proclaims ‘Fortunatus says: if you are thirsty, have a cup of wine.’ There are plenty more beautiful mosaics all around; be sure to see in particular the shipbuilders’ School of Trajan and the commercial Piazza delle Corporazioni.
Ostia’s theatre dates from 12 BC and is one of the best preserved buildings on the site. Its stage, once set among high walls, columns, arches and statues, faces onto a large semi-circular seating area which can hold 3,000 people: amazingly, it is still used today. In the summertime concerts and plays are held here as well as the International Festival of Ostia Antica.
The town has its own Forum flanked by two imposing temples; the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, called the Capitolium, and the Temple of Roma and Augustus where a statue of the female deified Rome marks the spot of the shrine. You can also see examples of typical Roman houses, named for the statues found there, like the House of Cupid and Psyche or Casa di Diana.
In addition to all this you can see the workshops of ordinary people; a cleaner’s, an oil shop, a grain mill and the Thermopolium, precursor to the snack-bars and cafés of modern Rome, which was used by common people who had no kitchens. If all this isn’t enough there is a museum in the town displaying further artefacts found here, which is free with a parking ticket. Ostia offers an unmissable trip back in time.