Departing Civitavecchia, our Viking motor coach offers views of Italy’s scenic central coast and chaparral-covered foothills. Approaching the mouth of the Tiber River, excursion guide Sophia introduces our destination: ancient Ostia. “Beginning as a fort in the 7th century BC, Ostia evolved into Rome’s main seaport and flourished from the 1st to 3rd century.”
Inside the archeological site, Sophia explains how citizens were obliged to bury their dead outside city walls. “This Necropolis reflects Ostia’s early prosperity. Those large redbrick columbariums stored urns of well-to-do families,” she notes. “Ornate sarcophagi interred the most wealthy.”
Standing beside the crumbled Porta Romana, she points out a replicated statue of the winged goddess Victoria, once topping the city gate. We also see rutted chariot and wagon tracks on the paved marble roadway that led to Rome.
Remnants of former shops line Decumanus Maximus. Ambling on, our tour group arrives at Baths of Neptune. From an elevated platform, we behold its spectacular black-and-white mosaic floors. Horse-like sea creatures, hippocampi pull Neptune’s chariot amid swirling dolphins, sea nymphs, armed tritons and freakish serpents. On an adjacent floor, wife Amphitrite rides another hippocampus. An adjacent gymnasium floor pictures naked wrestlers and boxers with spiked gloves. And just beyond, marble columns of a former portico embrace a sporting area.
A side street’s wall mosaic shows a flask and Latin text encouraging thirsty customers to stop for a drink. “That thermidor served wine and hot food. Customers paid at this marble counter. That decorative food mosaic may have been an early menu. Served, many enjoyed their meals stretched out on stone benches lining the courtyard,” Sophia suggests. “The proprietor must have prospered, likely renting second story rooms.”
At the amphitheater, we pass through a tunnel corridor and emerge near center stage. Three levels of seating rise behind us. “Finished during the reign of Augustus, it was enlarged in the 2nd century to accommodate over 4000 spectators,” recounts Sophia. “An awning suspended from poles shaded the seats.” Alongside the fragmented back wall of the stage, theatrical masks extol ancient productions.
Exiting toward the Tiber’s former waterfront, we examine the floors of several warehouses. Their mosaics reflect maritime themes: triangular-sailed galleys, sea creatures, palm trees and Ostia’s famous lighthouse. “Grain, olive oil and other goods were unloaded and stored here,” Sophia says. “Slaves later reloaded these products onto barges towed by oxen to Rome.”
Our group next heads to a bakery, one of several in Ostia. The laneway passes under Roman archways supporting high thick walls of former buildings. House of the Millstone is clearly an industrial sized bakery, boasting ten basalt millstones for grinding flour. Hoof prints still mark the stony floors where mules walked, rotating conical grinding caps. In an adjoining hall, we see lava bowls slotted for blades used in kneading the dough. Basins line the walls providing water needed for the dough.
Behind these walls, we learn a huge wood-fired oven baked the daily bread for 2,000 people. A small adjoining room includes a shrine’s mural of gods. Perhaps bakers prayed here for divine culinary aid.
Like other Roman cities, Ostia’s citizens met in the Forum. Dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, the lofty redbrick Capitolium dominates the Forum. At the opposite end of this large public space, Hadrian’s temple exalts Emperor Augustus and goddess Victoria. Dressed as a powerful warrior, her statue stands on top. Foundations of the city council’s hall and a courthouse basilica border the sides of the forum. Our map indicates further places of worship, including a synagogue and Christian chapel. Other temples revere Anatolians’ mother goddess Magma Mater and Attis, god of vegetation
“For centuries Ostia boasted many apartment buildings and guildhouses. After constructing a larger new port, these buildings were abandoned,” said Sophia. “Reusing structural materials, villas were enlarged and redecorated. Ostia thus became a resort for wealthy and aristocratic Romans.”
The onsite museum displays some of this neighbourhood’s artwork, including several frescos, murals, coloured glass mosaics and portraits of distinguished citizens. One terra cotta relief depicts the Persian god Mithras. Amid the statuary, a bronze Perseus grasps Medusa’s severed head, squirming with fearsome snakes. Portraying divine youths in a loving embrace, white marble Cupid and Amor wins us over as Ostia Antica’s favorite sculpture.
A roadway takes us back past the warehouse district and amphitheater toward our bus. This route also reveals another bathhouse displaying wonderful mosaics of mule-drawn cabs. Looking back, lofty umbrella pines frame the ancient site’s rosy brick and white marble structures. Ostia proves remarkable…and beautiful!
IF YOU GO:
• Visit www.vikingcruise.com to see Viking Star’s Ancient Civilization itinerary, sailing dates and cruise amenities.
PHOTOS by Rick Millikan:
1. Mosaic Floors of Neptune's Baths
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