Hello all! Gnarled bust of dead men, bloody combats between enslaved brutes, and languid nights of velvet sofas and sex excite me in the historical sense. I am in love with Ancient Rome. Bedsheets of Suetonius, aphrodisiacs of ancient Mediterranean seafood, and collarbones kisses of Julius Caesar have seduced me more than any ignorant male ever will. This summer, I traveled to my shoulda-been homeland of Rome and spent a glorious five days at the Colosseum, Vatican, Pantheon, and Largo di Torre Argentina. Day Five was consumed with Ostia Antica, the vital port city of Ancient Rome that was the watery connection between the Mediterranean and Tiber.
To reach these underrated ruins, a network of trains had to be decoded to carry my aching soles from the epicenter of Rome to its grassy outskirts. One rail line switch later, and my family and I were rattling along to Ostia Antica in a car full of greasy, chattering, and leather-tan beachgoers. A few stragglers left the crowded train at our stop, but the “station” (a glorified sidewalk by the side of the road) was deserted except for my family and an English couple in dire need of dental care. A blue pedestrian bridge carried us across a two-lane highway and down into a valley of brown grasses, dangerous cobble stones, and abandoned pizza restaurants (it was a Sunday). We were originally supposed to visit Pompeii, but the sweltering heat of a three-hour train ride didn’t pique our interest as much as a half hour one. The port city of Ostia Antica is Pompeii’s little sister, hardly known but rich in beauty and history. Latin for “mouth,” Ostia was the exit channel for the Tiber, the winding river that threaded its way throughout Ancient Rome. Although it was inhabited in the early BCs, it didn’t become commercially prominent until the 2nd century BCE when Rome’s population and military success exploded. From then, its importance skyrocketed as the throbbing heart of trade fed into its jaws and into the Ancient hub of Rome.
Because I am undersized and childlike, my admission to the ruins was free, although normal fees are 8 euros for an adult. Flies were swarming and heat was skin-deep, but running wild and alone amongst crumbling stones was an indescribable happiness. The letters “S.P.Q.R” were plastered everywhere, from the plinths of statues to marble plaques on low-lying brick walls. The first ruins I encountered were the remnants of a cemetery; imagining imposing headstones and libation jars wasn’t difficult given the intricate passageways and semi-circular niches. Flying up ancient stairs and feeling the adrenaline of 1) potentially falling down and 2) Roman bones beneath me was a high not easily forgotten. The main street of Ostia Antica— the Decumanus Maximus—was paved with rickety stones long since dislodged from their original tightness. Tripping on their smoothness and playing a sort of leap frog with them was a Mackenzie Delight of the first rate. After the deadened thrills of the cemetery, the Terme dei Cisiarii (a bathing complex) revealed itself in a mess of mosaics and barrel vaults. An elaborate floor of galloping horses, muscular mermen, and Mediterranean Sea creatures was revealed from the top of a viewing deck, the rest of the baths sprawled below. The Baths of Neptune were further up the road, although I recommend exploring hidden crannies rather than strictly following the Decumanus. Typical Roman Cyprus trees littered the grounds, their unreal greenery weaving among the dusty brown stones and offering protection from the unbearable sunlight. Past the Magazzini Republicani, around the Square of the Guilds, down a few cleverly concealed footholes, and finally…. Agrippa’s theater. Built from 18-12 BC, this Greek-style theater tiered to infinity (well, a few hundred feet) and spun a million fantasies of Sophocles and Euripides in my head. Stealing the sandy stage for myself, I shouted into the polished marble void and realized just how affective and powerful the acoustics were. The Ancients didn’t need fancy clip-on microphones—they had pure physics, mathematics, and applicable knowledge of sound waves. This theater—with a 3,000 spectator capacity—was my favorite part of Ostia Antica, for it was a marble pool of everything I love: Roman history, architecture, and the poetical words of ancient masters.
The House of the Millstones, House of the Wine Bar, and the imposing Forum besieged the snaking Decumanus (as well as a quaint Museum and cafeteria behind them–**order a caprese and fruit salad from the café; it was the best snack I’ve ever gobbled down**). The Forum had the typical whitewashed columns of the Corinthian order as well as a temple dedicated to Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno (The Capitolium). Of course, I waltzed up the uneven steps and crossed my legs seductively, surveying the remnants of the Forum and the Temple of Rome and Augustus before me. For a split second, the searing heat, a burgeoning hive on my cheek, and my sweaty socks disappeared—the grandeur of 2,000 years barreled me over like a gasoline truck and I was helpless to resist. More temples dotted the complex, but speed-walking to the Shops of the Fishmongers (with exquisite mosaics of sealife) and random streets with tucked away apartments drew me away. Exploring the indoor Snack Shop, complete with images of drying fruit, olives, and vegetables (?), made my stomach growl louder but my mind burst with architectural terms I learned about in a static, darkened classroom. Experiencing with your own hungry hands and craving eyes the culture of a fallen civilization is perfection, at least for a history geek like me.
My final destination on this quasi-archaeological adventure was the Termi de Porta Marina (Baths of the Marine Gate). A mile+ away from the necropolis and softly burning under the sun, this bathing compound used to be on the cusp of the ancient sea. Licking my chapped lips and touching every ruined stone within reach, I dragged my dad across sketchy bridges and through weeded sidewalks to gaze on the beach. A stirring sound of—was it the distant echo of water? —drew me forward, although what I thought was the Mediterranean turned out to be an Italian highway. Either way, the Baths were desolate but beautiful, growing amongst uncut grass and sadly looking out at the parched valley of modernism. And thus ended my playground of ancient games and history, my afternoon of drugless ecstasy and imagination.
Who needs the overcrowded, overpriced Disney of Pompeii when Ostia Antica is in your backyard?
Read this comprehensive tourist guide here: http://www.ostia-antica.org/touristguide.pdf
Read a brief history of the port city here: http://www.ostia-antica.org/intro.htm#1