To see what a real Roman city looked liked, rather than its grand imperial sights, I spend a day at Ostia Antica about twenty miles from Rome, the former port on the Tiber that was founded in the fourth century BCE.
It is easy to compare Ostia Antica to Pompeii but that does it an injustice as it is much better preserved. The warehouses and apartment blocks still stand, up to two stories, as well as the tiered seating of the theater.
The town was left high and dry when the Tiber changed its course but its former importance can be judged by the wealth of mosaic floors advertising the 60 businesses in the Piazzale delle Corporazioni. Looking to send goods to or from France? Then just find the sign for Navi Narbonenses with its picture of a sailing ship. Narbonne, a major French Mediterranean port in Roman times, is now as landlocked as Ostia Antica itself.
The Bath of Neptune – so-called from a large mosaic of Neptune in a chariot – is on a much smaller, but more complete, scale than Caracalla. The bath’s Temple of Mithras was overlaid with an early Christian church in the 4th century, although another church nearby is even earlier, one of the world’s first. The walls of a villa bear frescoes of the four teams involved in chariot racing, their colors of Red, White, Green, and Blue faded but still clear.
On the main street, a restaurant – or rather a fast food outlet – still has the menu on the wall and massive storage jar for olive oil. Archaeologist Marco Mancini starts identifying the different marbles that make up the bar: “This is Serpentine – see the pattern like a snake? – from Libya, this sand-colored one is from Paros in Greece, this one is from Iran – the Romans knew it as Persia...”
Were all these expensive marbles brought here just for this tiny workers' restaurant? “No,” says Marco. “They were recycled from other buildings. In Rome, even history has a history.”
Located about twenty miles from Rome, Ostia Antica makes for a perfect day trip from the Eternal City. Looking for a Truly Wonderful hotel in Rome? We've got you covered!