Visiting Ostia Antica
Very few tourists around today as the sky is overcast and there's a persistent though warm breeze. That suits me fine! Brown needles from the gnarled umbrella pines swirl and whisper around my feet as I walk carefully along what was once The Main Road. Tripping would be easy as the cart-ruts left in its cobbles are still there after nearly two thousand years. You have to take your time in ancient places.
I'm back in wonderful Ostia Antica, not to watch a play in its ancient theatre, nor explore the houses, stores, temples and tombs. Today it'll just be the black and white mosaics.
By 150 A.D., Ostia Antica was a vital port for Rome. It served both as a naval military base to protect the coastline and the mouth of the Tiber and also as a commercial centre for trade with all the countries of the known world. At least seventy thousand people lived there and they have left their mark.
First I go to a huge square. Around its edge are the remains of little "shops" where the tradesmen would sit, ready to make deals. In front of each is a doorstep with a lively black and white mosaic on it telling possible customers what the booth-owner can bring them from overseas or what is already stored in the vast warehouses already set up a few metres away. All have pictures, many with no Latin inscription as the foreign traders who made them spoke only their own languages. I can see there are many that I could expect such as fish, wheat, leather, and rope but there are also some which show deer, lions and even one with an elephant with the valuable ivory of its tusks clearly visible. It is reminder of how exotic animals were prized for various uses by the Romans, and not least as "entertainment" in their Colosseum.
I love the art of all these ancient mosaics, but I don't like to think too closely about what those animals must have suffered, so I move on to the great communal bathhouse, built for the military and top-level traders. How noisy and enjoyable it must have been for those men to get clean in there! Many of the rooms are huge and one has a spectacular mosaic over its entire floor showing Neptune hurtling along in his chariot drawn by four massive sea-horses under the seething waves. Dolphins and other sea-creatures swirl about him and there are not only other fish-tailed gods but also muscular human figures which link the scene so amusingly and perfectly with the baths.
I spend so long looking at all the bathhouse mosaics that I have to rush to my last visit, the muleteers bathhouse that was exclusively for the men who drove the heavy carts to and from Rome. It would have been hard work for both men and mules but there are signs that these animals were well cared for. Right by the baths is a mule-trough, so the animals could be refreshed as soon as their journey had ended. In the baths themselves there is a lovely mosaic showing a driver and his mules. Their names are written above them – my favourite is PUDES ("Modest").
It's nearly 4pm and then the Ostia Antica site will close! I hurry to the exit, thinking how virtually everywhere you look in Italy you can find something beautiful, fascinating or heart-touching - and often all three. What a privilege to visit this country that reveals its long and complex history so generously.
The wind is picking up as I go through the gate. A few turns down the road and I see a small group of little houses. One, with a brightly painted blue door, has a hand-written sign on it: in vendita. A sudden gust of wind sends the old pine needles rushing and whispering around my feet ...