Rome was the center of a vast empire, stretching to the limits of the known world. Its communications with much of that empire were by sea, but Rome is not on the sea, it’s on an itty-bitty river that isn’t appropriate for seagoing vessels. Thankfully for the Romans, it’s not far from the sea, and if you follow that itty-bitty river just a few miles then you hit the blue waters of the Mediterranean. The place where the Tiber meets the sea was therefore quickly recognized as a crucially important spot and early in the history of the Republic, a port was built there, named Ostia.
As Rome grew in importance, so did its port. Vast quantities of goods flowed through Ostia, brought by seafaring vessels that unloaded them onto smaller boats for the trip up-river to the world’s most stupendous city. In fact, the great majority of Rome’s provisions came through Ostia, which became a bustling center of commerce, housing people from all over the empire in a great mix of cultures, religions and businesses.
Shortly after the fall of the Western empire, Ostia fell into disuse as Rome itself declined in importance. The sea gradually retreated a few miles thanks to the river’s deposits, leaving the former port a port no more. Even the Tiber abandoned the city when one night in 1557 it decided to change its course after a flood. By then, though, no one was there to lament its departure, the ancient city having largely disappeared under dirt and silt and centuries of neglect.
During the last hundred years or so, the city of Ostia has been discovered and uncovered, its streets and houses and temples and meeting places exposed for all to see. This is a very, very good thing for those of us who love old ruins, because now there is an entire city to explore, in much the same state as it was left at the empire’s demise—minus its top floors and its roofs. You see, major Roman centers like Marseille, Ravenna, or Rome itself are still cities, they have always been cities, so whatever was there ended up underneath something else. Ostia, though, lost any semblance of importance at about the same time it was abandoned, so except for a very nice castle built a bit down the road, it was just left there, under the dirt.
I had never been to Ostia. With a free day in Rome, I had thought about taking the fast train down to Naples and then visiting Pompeii, but it’s a hike all the same, and one foreshortened day doesn’t do justice to Pompeii. It was then that I heard that the legendary port was just as good and is only a short subway ride away from the center of Rome, so I hopped on the metropolitana and walked off thirty minutes later into the second century.
There are so many things to see in Ostia, but like all truly interesting cities—modern or ancient—the one most important thing to do is just to walk around aimlessly. This is perhaps why I have no patience for tour groups; they’re always going from thing to thing, when sometimes it’s the in-between that just gets you. You need to stroll, you need to peek, you need to discover, and Ostia is a place to discover Roman life as it was. There are myriads of houses, for instance, and apartment buildings, most of which you can enter as you like. You can check out their rooms, their kitchens, their toilets. Many have mosaics still on the ground. In fact, you find yourself walking on a lot of mosaics, or even more surprising, walking on some dirt when you come upon a patch of mosaic and realize that underneath the rest of the dirt there are probably more mosaics, it’s just that no one’s got around to uncovering it all.
And what mosaics! The most famous include the floors of the baths of Neptune, which you can’t walk around on (thankfully) but which you can appreciate from the second floor of the baths. Neptune rides a chariot pulled by big seahorses (as was his habit). In the adjoining room, his wife rides a seahorse in naked and sensuous anticipation of their meeting. The Romans loved their baths, and they loved their sex, and often the designs on baths are a bit suggestive.
Behind the baths of Neptune is the barracks of the vigils. Vigils were kind of a combination of firemen and cops, and Ostia had about XXX of them. The barracks are quite different from the houses in Ostia; for one thing, there’s only one entrance, small windows, communal latrines (one of which has a small altar to Fortuna, the goddess of luck… I suppose that was for the constipated vigils). If you close your eyes you can almost hear the snores of hundreds of men.
My very favorite part of Ostia is the forum of the guilds. There were a couple of forums (fora, actually) in Ostia, which is not surprising. Remember that a forum was essentially a marketplace as well as a social gathering spot, and Ostia was all about commerce. The forum of the guilds, though, was something else… it was a place to make deals. Around the forum (which is behind the very impressive theater) are small stalls, each of which has a beautiful mosaic in front of it demonstrating who, exactly, used the stall: ship-owners from various cities around the Mediterranean; ivory traders (indicated by an elephant); rope-makers; grain merchants… all of the important types of merchants and businessman that came to set up a headquarters in Ostia.
I’m a businessman, and an entrepreneur. I can easily imagine having a stall here, which in the ancient world was probably like having a headquarters building on 5th avenue—you hade made it. If you owned a line of ships, having representation at the forum of the guilds in Ostia was the Nec Plus Ultra and as I walked along, I imagined the fevered discussions, the negotiations: “you can’t be serious, I’d never pay that much to move five tons of chick peas”. You can visualize the businessmen themselves, in their expensive clothes and their varied complexions: Romans, Africans, Egyptians, Greeks… all of them, or at least the richest of the merchants, came to Ostia.
They also all brought their religions. Ostia has a number of temples dedicated to Eastern gods, notably Cybele and Mithra. The Romans were extremely tolerant of other religions. They didn’t see their pantheon as exclusive and didn’t really give a hoot about who you worshipped, as long as you didn’t cause civil trouble. A couple of emperors even dabbled in other religions. It’s true that one, Elagabalus, went too far, but he wasn’t deposed because he worshipped a Syrian sun-god, he was deposed because he came to believe that he was a Syrian sun-god.
Which comes to a fascinating fact about Ostia… there is a synagogue. One of the oldest in the world, in fact, dating to the mid first-century. It may have been built just after the destruction of the second temple and would therefore represent perhaps the oldest synagogue of the diaspora.
Of course, Jews had long been present throughout the empire and of course there must have been a Jewish community in Ostia, just as there was a community from most major people with a shoreline. The Romans had no more issues with the Jewish religion than they had with worshippers of XXX, although the Jews did piss them off to a degree—not because they had different beliefs, but because they steadfastly refused to incorporate Roman beliefs as well. Most polytheist societies didn’t really have much of an issue adding a god or two to their system of deities, particularly since they figured the Roman gods must have a kick-ass thing going for them, since they had conquered the world. The Jews, though, thought there was only one god, at least for them, and he got angry as hell if you even drew pictures of any other gods, let alone worshipped them. Now, the Romans didn’t give a damn if you rejected Apollo, Jupiter, Juno and the lot, but as of Augustus, they began to consider former emperors as somewhat divine, albeit on a lesser and rather complicated level. You could talk trash about Poseidon, but it was a very bad idea to badmouth emperors, alive or dead. The refusal of the Jews to honor deified emperors in Jerusalem eventually gave rise to the Maccabean revolt, and the destruction of the temple, after which the Jews were less of an issue: they continued to worship their strangely unique god but they no longer had a city in which they could refuse to put up statues. It was only once a bizarre quasi-Jewish cult sprang up that not only badmouthed emperors but tried to get everyone else to do the same that religious persecution arose in the empire.
Anyway, I digress. The synagogue in Ostia is way, way out on the edge of the excavations. It is reached by following a seldom-travelled path overgrown with grass and small purple flowers. It is peaceful, it is remarkable. There is a continuity here, there is a real link between past and present.
Who worshipped here? Who worshipped in the other temples, for that matter? Walk through these streets, ask yourself who walked in them, what deals were made? There is a very well-preserved tavern: the bar still stands, a small courtyard with pretty mosaics once held tables where patrons discussed… what? The athletes depicted on the mosaics? The latest shipment of figs from North Africa? Probably. Maybe. But whatever they discussed, they discussed it there, right where you’re standing.
Ah, this is why I love to travel and to see where history was made, because in some obscure sense, by so doing, we become part of it.