A short metro and train ride from Rome takes you to the 4th-century B.C. ruins of Rome’s first colony, Ostia Antica. Once a port city sitting at the mouth of the Tiber River, she served as a protector of Rome against any water invasion. The main industry in Ostia was salt, taken from nearby salt flats, whose use was important in preserving meat in ancient times.
By the year 150 B.C., Ostia shifted from military watchdog to commercial port, becoming a key warehousing center for most of what was consumed in Rome. As this transition occurred, Rome built a larger port where the city’s airport now stands, further changing the face of Ostia.
At the beginning of the Dark Ages (around 500 A.D.) when Rome fell, the Tiber River changed course and Ostia Antica was abandoned. This once thriving port of 60,000 became a malaria-infested swamp, buried by mud over time. The silt that moved into the port most likely protected Ostia from scavengers and the ravages of time. It also moved the port from the mouth of the river and today Ostia sits two miles from the sea.
A study of Ostia Antica shows a grittier side of Roman life (dating from 1st and 2nd century A.D.), although that is not evident in the magnificent frescoes and mosaics mostly intact still today. The Square of the Guilds (Piazzale delle Corporazioni) has some of the most well-preserved mosaics throughout this 73 acre property. It is a huge square lined with 60+ ship owner and traders’ offices, which was once the bustling center of Rome’s import-export business.
Ostia Antica did not enjoy the wealth seen in both Pompeii and Herculaneum, but rather represented a working-class community, with several multi-storied tenements (insulta) where the lower class lived. These apartment complexes were usually cramped with no kitchens. Heating and plumbing were non-existent and garbage was typically tossed out the windows.
The public baths were government-subsidized and functioned as both a business meeting place and a place to gather socially. Roman engineers were radiant heat experts. Water and air flowed through pipes under the floors and in the walls, heated by a huge furnace. Just like a high-end spa, staffers attended to a bather’s every need, including the skimming of the water, as olive oil was used instead of soap for cleansing. Three pools, a sweat room (laconicum) and rubdowns by a masseuse (tepidariae) were also available to the clientele.
Across the street from the baths were the public latrines (forica), where modesty was not an option. Perhaps this was the time when friends had the chance to reconnect while literally rubbing elbows with each other. A washable sponge on a stick was used instead of tissue and aqueducts brought in rushing water below each seat to do the flushing. Thank goodness times have changed.
Ostia’s small museum, sitting on the back of the property, offers a look at some of the city’s finest statues, almost all 2nd and 3rd-century AD Roman pieces.
The beauty in a visit to Ostia Antica is that you will leave the crowds behind, unlike Pompeii and Herculaneum.
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