Category Archives: archaeology

Ostia Antica, Rome’s Ancient port city: Apartment Buildings

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 Ostia apartment buildingcommodity. 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.

Recreation of Casa dei Dipinti, 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.

_MG_5738WEBAs 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.

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Ostia Antica, Rome’s Ancient Port City: First impressions

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time
-Keats

What makes us want to know about the past?  Not in a cold intellectual way—the way that history books know about the past—but in the sense of actually experiencing it. We turn to what poor substitutes we have, as though sorting though fragments of some lost play. There is a script, we know the names of some of the characters and the crumbling sets are available for our inspection. But it’s the performance, the music, that we are really after, and this we are forever denied. We fill in the gaps as best we can.

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Last fall we took a trip to Ostia Antica, ancient Rome’s seaport, which is a short train ride from the center of Rome. Following the advice of a well-known TV travel guide, I chose Ostia over the better-known Pompeii, with the understanding that Ostia was the less well preserved of the two. The trip to Ostia was our last stop in a week of travel throughout Italy including stops in Siena, la Cinqueterra, Florence and Rome.  At the last minute I had considered cutting Ostia from the itinerary, because I thought that by then I’d be absolutely exhausted—a well founded concern I later found out—but that hot afternoon among Ostia’s still-impressive ruins turned out to be the most memorable part of the trip for me. I’m glad it stayed in our plans.

Like Pompeii, Ostia is one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world; an entire ancient city preserved in the earth for 1,700 years, much decayed but otherwise little changed from the height of ancient Rome’s empire in the late 2nd century AD. Unlike Pompeii, it vanished slowly rather than suddenly, buried by silt from the Tiber river and abandoned over a period of decades. Also unlike Pompeii, Ostia was a busy commercial center and transportation hub rather than a smallish seaside resort. Much of Ostia lay buried until Mussolini’s massive efforts to uncover the city in the 1930s. Today, about 60% of the town is uncovered.

Today, Ostia can be a lonely place, with few tourists in the off season. There are few barriers to entering the buildings; you can walk into most of them, sometimes taking stairs to upper floors. You can literally get lost in the jumble of ruined homes, apartments, warehouses, temples, shops, and taverns. Without some familiarity of Roman building, it is not easy to identify what sort of structure you are in without the help of a guidebook or the occasional informational sign. But you can walk for blocks down stone streets rutted by ancient carts and not see another visitor, alone with your thoughts of the long-vanished people who once lived here.

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