The thing that most fascinates me about the Roman period is just how much like us they were. A city such as Ostia would have had a diverse, bustling economy and anything you might have wanted from anywhere in the known world was available. Any food, any entertainment could be had for a price, with buyers and sellers for every known commodity. They were also very different from us of course, with their strange and often brutal pastimes, their pantheon of colorful and aloof gods, and their easy acceptance of slavery. But I believe that our days and theirs were more alike than they were different. Many of us would feel quite at home in their sandals–the cities, bars, stadiums, theaters, and homes both elegant and humble. When they could, well-to-do Romans lived in opulent country villas with enormous rooms and sprawling gardens, but just as today even the most wealthy city dwellers would have lived in apartment buildings. It was these apartment buildings that brought me to Ostia.
Before Ostia’s remains were uncovered only 70 years ago, there was no physical evidence of what ancient apartment buildings looked like, but there were a few references in ancient literature. The most famous of these is the satirist Juvenal’s description of what it was like to live above a noisy bath house in Rome. In Ostia there are the remains of many such blocks of apartment buildings, some with shops and taverns located in the ground floor with apartments above–just as you commonly see in cities today. These apartment buildings were home to countless individuals about whom we know little. Children played in these courtyards among statues and fountains, men went to work each day, and their wives sewed, cleaned, prepared meals. I like to imagine colorful swaths of linen and wool hanging from every window, and the old nonni watching the bustling life in the streets below, just as they do today in Italian towns. The upper floors of these buildings have vanished, as has nearly all evidence of the beautiful interior and exterior finishes ancient Romans lavished on their homes. Ostia’s long dissolution left scant evidence of the marble, paint, frescos, or even the plaster used to cover the meticulous brickwork. But as the reconstruction above shows, Ostian apartment buildings would have been strikingly modern in their appearance.
As I wandered through one of these ancient homes, I left what seemed to me to be a living room to go down a long hallway to the street outside, long entranceways used then as now to keep the noisy outside activities as far as possible from the living space. And at the end of this hallway near the street was a small room which in its size and location looked like a hall closet, in just the spot where you would expect to find it in a modern home. You would come in from the street, and immediately to your right was a place to put your stuff down, or hang your toga up, before proceeding into the home. It was a small moment of recognition of the ordinary, one of many I had in Ostia that erased the 1,800 years separating these ancient lives from my own.