We arrived in Rome late Tuesday night, but didn’t have to board our cruise ship until 3 pm on Wednesday. The question, of course, was what to do with our morning. We elected to pay a small fortune to hire a private driver so that we could squeeze in a visit to Ostia Antica. The money was well spent.
During Rome’s heyday, Ostia Antica was the major port, situated at the mouth of the Tiber River. When the river moved (and my shaky memory is saying this happened in the second or third century A.D.), the city simply died. Mud covered it, and it remained immured for centuries. It is the ancient Roman equivalent of a ghost town.
Unlike any ruins I’ve seen before, Ostia Antica is remarkably complete. Over the centuries, time and scavengers stripped the town of its marble, wood and every single portable object, but a surprisingly large number of walls remain. For example, a tenement building’s walls rise three stories, and the tavern across the street still has its counter, shelves on which the tavern keeper could display his wares, and a lovely mural showing examples of the fine food the tavern offered.
There are black and white mosaics everywhere. Some are beautiful abstract designs, but others boast incredible images, both real and imaginary. At the Temple of Neptune, a vast floor mosaic shows Neptune on his chariot, pulled by four horses, as the waters around him team with ferocious sea creatures. In the adjacent courtyard, where businesses related to the port had their offices, the pavement before each office has a black and white mosaic advertising the business. One, which either dealt with goods from Africa of traded in rare animals, had a lively elephant mosaic. Many businesses had elaborate ship images or bushels of grain.
We spent three hours picking our way through these remarkably complete ruins. Although I’ve visited the ruins of other cultures, this was the first time I’ve ever been to a place with remains so complete I could easily envision a long lost world. Should you ever find yourself in Rome, I urge you to take the time and spend the money to visit Ostia Antica. And if you’re as lucky as we were, the place won’t be crowded, which meant there was a quiet, spacious feeling that added to the site’s timelessness.