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