Forget attempting the punishing trip to Pompeii during your Rome stay ,and do a comfortable day-trip to the ancient port of Ostia Antica instead – just as good a site for getting a feel for everyday life in a working Roman town.
Legend says that Ostia was founded by Ancus Martius, the fourth king of Rome, in the second half of the seventh century BC, although the oldest remains date ‘only’ from c330 BC. Ostia was Rome’s main port for over 600 years, until its decline in the fourth century AD. Abandoned after sackings by barbarians in the fifth century, the town was gradually buried by river mud.
Admission gives you access to the remains below, and the Museum; ideally, visit on a sunny weekday. (Admission is also free the first Sunday of every month.) Purchasing a site plan at the ticket office (€4) is a good idea.
The decumanus maximus (high street) runs from the entrance at the Porta Romana (Roman Gate) for almost a kilometre (half a mile), past the theatre and forum, before forking left to what used to be the seashore (now three kilometres/two miles away at modern-day Ostia). The right fork, via della Foce, leads to the Tiber. On either side of these main arteries is a network of intersecting lanes, where the best discoveries can be made.
Undoubtedly one of the grandest structures at Ostia is the theatre which once housed around 5000 spectators. Behind the theatre is the piazza of the Corporations. Here the various trade guilds had their offices, and mosaics on the floor of small shops that ring the open square refer to the products each guild dealt in – shipowners had ships on the floor; ivory dealers had elephants. Further along on the right is the old mill, where both the grindstones and the circular furrows ploughed by the blindfolded donkeys that turned them are still visible. In the tangle of streets between the decumanus and the museum, don’t miss the thermopolium – an ancient Roman bar, complete with marble counter, a fresco advertising the house fare and a garden with a fountain.
The Forum is dominated by the imposing brick skeleton of the Capitolium, once clad in marble and the seat of the veneration of Rome’s three major deities: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Located off the forum to the south-east are the Forum baths – the terracotta heating pipes are still visible. Nearby is the forica, or ancient public latrine. In mostly residential districts off via della Foce, the House of Cupid and Psyche is an elegant fourth-century construction; the House of the Dioscuri has beautiful mosaics; the Insula of the Charioteers still has many of its frescoes. The wealthy lived in the garden apartments at the western end of the site, set back from the busy streets; recently restored, these can be visited on tours on Sunday morning at 10.30am by booking on 06 5635 2830.
The Museo della Via Ostiense (open 9.30am-1hr before sunset Tue-Sun) has a model of Ostia Antica in its heyday, and a good collection of artefacts from the site, including bas-reliefs of scenes of ordinary life; there’s a café and bookshop next door.