Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Most people, looking for the remains of the Empire in Rome, head for the Flavian Amphitheatre and the Forum. Queuing for ages in the former, and surrounded by crowds of fellow visitors in the latter, it is frankly impossible really to imagine what life was like when these places were in use. In any case, all you see are the remains of public buildings - mostly temples and triumphal arches.

The site of Ostia Antica, a 20-minute train ride away (1€ single fare) provides a huge contrast.

There are temples and baths here, of course (rather a lot of baths). There is a theatre too. But there are also ordinary houses, and taverns and snack bars. And they are very well preserved.

Young Wenlock was particularly taken by this caupona by the Marine Gate (towards the top left of the aerial view. Like many of the buildings in Ostia (but like few Imperial Roman buildings anywhere else) the Caupona of Alexander and Helix has intact walls and a ceiling. It dates from the early 3rd Century AD, and standing inside it one can almost imagine what it was like in its heyday - not unlike some contemporary Italian drinking establishments, I suspect.

The theatre at Ostia ("not as big as the one at Caerleon," according to Young Wenlock, who went there on a school visit) has been restored somewhat, and is used for dramatic productions. Behind the theatre lies the Forum of the Corporations (the tree-filled area just to the right of the theatre in the aerial view). This is a wonderful place. It was, apparently, where one would go to find somebody to transport goods. It consisted of an open square with a collonade or cloister around it. The cloister had a mosaic floor, and each patch of mosaic reflected the goods that the shipper, whose little office was behind that part of the cloister, dealt in, or the part of the world with which they traded.

Apparently the "MC" on the amphora in the picture has been interpreted as meaning that this was the office of traders from Mauretania Caesariensis (modern Algeria). Whether the fish signify that they dealt specifically in fish products, I do not know. Since the staple ingredient of all Roman dishes is dormice garum, a fermented fish sauce, this would certainly be possible. Perhaps MC salsamentum was the HP Sauce of its day.

The barely legible inscription above this creature reads STAT SABRATENSIVM. Sabrata is modern Libya, and this is suggested to be a dealer in wild animals or ivory products from there. There is a second elephant mosaic, but the beast is the wrong way up for good photography. He may well have been advertising wild animals from Egypt.

I didn't take as many photographs as I might have done, given the need to keep an eye on the Wenlock Heir, so I cannot show you the apartment blocks, the mausolea, the comfortable houses with frescoed walls still in place, the several other baths with spectacular mosaics which it was quite possible to walk on, or the public toilets. All I can do is recommend that if you are interested in Roman ruins, this is better than the Forum in Rome, and possibly better than Pompeii. It is certainly less crowded. Once you get past the theatre and the baths of Neptune next door, the site seems almost deserted, even in the middle of summer.


Anne Weale said...

Rather concerned about Mrs Wenlock.
Emailed you privately to enquire after your previous post, but maybe it didn't reach you.
Hope all is well. Delightful shot of Young Wenlock.
Like GOB, you were missed during your absence.

Stephen said...

Anne - your e-mail came through safely, but my reply bounced at your ISP, as did a second attempt when I received this comment.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Thanks for your travelogue, especially the description of Ostia Antica, which is now on my list of Places To See Before I Die. When visiting historic sites I'm always more drawn to the remains of ordinary people's lives than those of the toffs. In stately homes, I always make a beeline for the kitchens, for example. And I guess it's one of the reasons for my enduring fascination with Vindolanda. It must be the unreconstructed peasant in me.

I hope Mrs Wenlock is recovering well.

Julie Cohen said...

Nice elephant, dude. (I've got one on my blog today, too.)

I hope Mrs Wenlock is all right.

Good to see you back.

Gabriele C. said...

I have a scene set in Ostia, so the pics come very handy. Thank you.

I've changed my travleogue for next years England tour that now includes Vindolanda and the Hadrian's Wall (and York). It fits my financial frame better than the southern tour which would have left me with a feeling of discontent since I'd not managed to see everything I wanted.

And I can go by ferry and escape the nuisance that is airport security right now. :)