Every traveler we know has a Bucket List, and that list will most likely include the fascinating city of Rome, Italy. Ours did. And we’ve loved all the weeks we’ve spent in Rome over the years, wandering the ancient streets, exploring the ruins and trying to envision the lives of early Romans.
If you love to imagine what life was like in an ancient Roman city, then there’s no place better than Ostia Antica, the ancient seaport for imperial Rome.
We decided to take a break from Rome’s noise and hustle, so we took the Metro to the Porta San Paolo train station, managing to jump aboard just as the train pulled out. A 30-minute ride through Roman suburbs and countryside brought us to Ostia Antica.
At first glance you might think that Ostia is just a jumble of old brick and stone, but then you realize that it’s a treasure trove of antiquities, striking in detail.
Incredibly well preserved, it’s one of the most spectacular ruins we’ve ever seen. That’s saying a lot.
Ostia was a vibrant city, full of real people leading normal lives. Nowhere else can you get a feel for how ancient Romans really lived. There are ruins of shops, bars, houses, cafes, amphitheaters – even public toilets and baths! It used to be at the mouth of the Tiber River, but over time the course of the river has changed, so now it’s high and dry!
Ostia got its start in 620 BC, but really came into its own by the 2nd Century BC. The job of the city was to keep Rome well supplied, and that meant everything from grain to perfume!
It was a cosmopolitan mecca, full of people of many cultures, ranging from the very rich to working class folks. There were sailors, traders, cart drivers and slaves from conquered lands.
Housing was similar to current life – with one big exception (I’ll get to that in a second). Wealthy people built lavish, elaborate homes for their families. They were eager to display their sophistication so they used imported marble and built niches in the walls for statues of the gods they worshipped.
Merchants, on the other hand, lived in areas with other merchants. They built multi-storied shops with mosaic floors out front to denote the nature of their business. They lived in apartments above their shops and rented out the apartments above them. If you were poor, the higher up you lived, and the more stairs or ladders you had to climb. But, and here’s the exception, all the baths and toilets were public. Some were for specific professions, like the Cart Driver’s Bath. Others were for the common folk in the neighborhood.
Baths were a big part of life in Ostia Antica. This was where people came to exercise, socialize, gossip, hear the news … and bathe. In Ostia, people used olive oil rather than soap to wash. Water was heated by furnaces below the baths, and steam was pumped up through the walls via hypocausts – an ingenious system of terracotta ductwork.
Then there were the public toilets – or as we call them, outhouses on steroids! Some were 40 seaters! Every neighborhood had its own public toilet where people of all ages and genders went to … well, go! Urine was collected separately because it was used by the laundries for the bleaching of clothes. (I know … pause for thought!) Then you went into the latrine to take care of your business. They didn’t have toilet paper in those days, so the cutout below the seat was to accommodate the washable sponge on a stick they used instead. Rushing water (brought in by aqueduct) below each seat did the flushing. And going to the community latrine was considered a social event!
On a more highbrow note, Theater was big – and it was one of the first things you saw as you entered by the sea. This entertainment venue came complete with marble seating, orchestra pit, stage, and could hold thousands of people.
With the fall of Rome, the port was abandoned. We were so impressed with Ostia Antica – it topped off our Rome visit and gave us a feel for ancient Roman life like nothing else ever has.
P.S. Many thanks to James at Plus Ultra for expanding my vocabulary for Roman urban planning (one of my favorite topics). He mentioned the “insulae apartments” and I had to look it up. My description was spot on – now I have the right terminology. Thanks James.