Ancient Ostia Antica Day Tour from Rome
Published on Viator Things to do Rome on July 28, 2014
Our tour guide, Rebecca, told us, ‘Ostia Antica is the better Pompeii,’ which is not as farfetched as it sounds. Just 19 miles west of Rome, Ostia Antica is certainly more accessible. Our small group tour of Ostia Antica from Rome met at the Ostiense train station for the easy 30-minute train ride to the site. The tragic story of Pompeii is more compelling with the violent eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, but the city of Ostia Antica actually does a better job of presenting a typical Roman town. Unlike Pompeii, Ostia Antica suffered no natural disaster. The inhabitants left Ostia Antica voluntarily to avoid malaria and a dwindling economy. Eventually, the ghost town was buried (intact) beneath tons of silt from the nearby Tiber River, creating a dream dig for archaeologists. Ostia Antica is also more tranquil than Pompeii and much greener with lots of shade from numerous umbrella pines (aka ‘broccoli trees’).
In its 9th c. heyday, Ostia Antica was the main port and trading center for the city of Rome, a cosmopolitan place with 50,000 residents including many Jews and foreigners. Although modeled after Rome, this was a town of middle class business people, prosperous and comfortable but not ostentatious.
We walked down the main thoroughfare, the Decumanus Maximus, which was lined with paving stones, some exhibiting wheel ruts made by thousands of Roman carts. We visited the theater, one of the most popular spots in Ostia Antica, where the dramas were so realistic that during the murder scenes, they actually killed criminals on stage (switching out the actor for the criminal at the last moment). And we think our reality TV is shocking!
Rebecca was an excellent and enthusiastic guide who led us to many of her favorite corners of the 120+ acre site making the tour very personal and unique. She led us to the Tavola Calda (hot table) that looked like a cafeteria-style eatery still in use today. Here, a selection of hot dishes was placed on a heated tile countertop for the patrons. Strangely, the best hidden gem was the laundry, virtually intact with large rinsing basins. It is believed that children agitated the clothing via foot power (similar to stomping grapes). This was bone-breaking work made even more distasteful because the Romans used urine to bleach their togas sparkling white!
One of the loveliest structures was an early apartment house called the House of Diana, built of fashionable red brick. The Romans actually invented the apartment as a way to house their burgeoning population. Nearby, what looked like a garden of buried amphorae contained dozens of clay vessels used to store wine. The Romans experimented with ways to preserve wine, even adding blood and lead to prevent spoilage. But wine literally saved their lives. When the Romans conquered other parts of the world, they brought their wine with them and mixed it with the local water, killing any deadly foreign bacteria.
The Forum was the most impressive part of town with a temple raised on a hill and an elaborate bath complex that even included a steam room. An estimated 300 gallons of water were pumped into the city every day to support the baths. These baths, that were available to everyone at no charge, were much more than just a place to wash up. Patrons could get a massage, a haircut, and most importantly, get caught up on the latest gossip. Our most amusing stop was the communal toilet room, a place where Roman men would come to chat and conduct business.
At the conclusion of our tour, we were given our return train tickets with the option to catch a later train back to Rome if we wanted more time on the site. Back in Rome, I ate a late lunch at a Tavola Calda that looked remarkably similar to the ancient one I had just seen in Ostia Antica. As French journalist Alphonse Karr once said, ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’
-Contributed by Anne Supsic