OSTIA In this port city of ancient Rome, SUKANYA RAMANUJAN finds the remains of a perfectly planned township with baths and dining rooms
Few cities of the ancient world reached the magnificence or fame of Alexandria, but Ostia, the ancient harbour town of Italy, has its own place in history.
Located about 30 km west of Rome, it's a perfect destination for a day trip. A short walk from the railway station brings us to the archaeological site. Tombs line either side of the road leading to the old city gate — the lavishness of their decorations indicating the social status of the occupants. Further down, I’m surprised by the sudden appearance of wells in the middle of the road — apparently settlers have conveniently tapped the old underground Roman lead pipes supplying water from the aqueducts.
The roads aren’t the only things to be admired in Ostia. Once inside the city walls, we spot the relatively well-preserved insulae — structures similar to modern apartment blocks. The ground floors were often given over to shops and the floors above served as residential space.
Being a port town, Ostia would have had a diverse population. One of the most impressive glimpses of this diversity is the series of mosaics in the square to the rear of the old theatre building. The space originally accommodated offices of merchants who traded in Ostia, coming from far-flung parts of Roman territory and beyond. And in front of and inside their workspaces they made unique mosaic decorations to differentiate one from another and call out to passersby. I spot combinations of anchors, ships, sails, sea animals and even a very unique elephant — was the merchant from North Africa? Maybe India?
Further down is the oldest part of the city — the central military camp or castrum, laid out in a perfect rectangle. The old temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva stands at the central intersection. The gods were never too far away in a Roman town, and Ostia is no exception. Religion formed a central aspect of daily life and, apart from the central temple to the triad, one can find numerous small shrines in the city and also a number of temples to God Mithras (called Mithraeum). True to its cosmopolitan nature, Europe’s oldest synagogue was also located at Ostia and its remains can be seen even today.
There are signs everywhere that entertainment was aplenty. Apart from the large theatre that could seat about 3,000 people, I come across communal baths, restaurants and even lavish dining rooms with their typical Roman three-bench arrangement — the triclinium. The custom was that Romans would lean on these couches and eat from the dishes placed on a central table during formal dinners. Most of these spaces are decorated with a white-and-black marble mosaic design, and the themes — especially in the baths — are often those of men and gods with sea animals, referring to the status of Ostia as a marine town. The quirkiest sight in Ostia is that of the common latrine space with a row of toilet seats with no separation from one another. An opportunity for socialising? Guess some questions are just funnier left unanswered!
The glorious days of Ostia were not to be forever. With the decline of the Roman empire, Ostia was eventually abandoned by its people. This explains why the city is so well preserved — it was never built over or destroyed. With its nostalgic ruins and swathes of umbrella pine trees, Ostia makes for a wonderful picnic site even for the tourist not interested in history.
Ostia remained for centuries the gateway from the sea to the nerve centre of one of the world’s most powerful empires, and the remains give us an impression of the grandeur of the Roman Empire.