Brett’s stomach was still in a bad way this morning and, although he drank a little at breakfast, he didn’t eat very much. Nevertheless, he still wanted to come along to Ostia Antica to see the ruins there. So we set out at a gentle pace to the Metro station to go find Ancient Rome-by-the-Sea.
It is actually really easy to reach from central Rome; you take a Metro a couple of stops down from Colosseo, change to a suburban train (Piramide, for Roma-Lido) which drops you off an easy walk from the gates of the archaeological site. The Metro travelcard takes you all the way there.
Once again, despite them being advertised, no audio guides were available, so I splashed ten Euros on a guidebook for the site. It had a somewhat useful map but, despite listing “itineraries” around the ruins, turned out to be largely one archaeologist’s musings on the significance of it all and a not-terribly-clear route around the excavations.
Still, it did help us navigate and get something from what we saw. Ostia was a small port town for much of its existence. The scale of it is much more approachable than the bits of old Rome you can visit. It was eventually abandoned and, unlike Pompeii or Herculaneum, was buried quite slowly and, as a result, is relatively poorly preserved. However, unlike the city of Rome itself, the site has not been built on, so the ancient floorplan and much of the material is still there to be reconstructed and you can easily visualise the town as it once was.
We had a pleasant morning (the sky was partly overcast, so the day was quite temperate) strolling through the necropolis along Via Ostiensis to the gates and then along the Decumanus Maximus through to the heart of town.
There are a number of substantial ruins in evidence amongst the everyday shops and apartments. The auditorium of the town’s theatre is still largely intact and there is a large mosaic floor in the Baths of Neptune which made me recall the frequent refrain of the audio guide in the Vatican’s Rafael Apartments; “The mosaic floor is Roman, from the excavations at Ostia.” I wonder how much more there was to see here before the architects of antiquity came along.
There are still little flashes of what the colours and artistry that might once have been visible; an elaborately tiled and carved niche in a shop near the forum, the partially reconstructed statue of a youth near the baths, much ornamental brickwork along the main road.
We didn’t get down to the port side of town as Brett was beginning to run out of steam so, having done a circuit of the area around the forum, we retraced our steps to the station. At Piramide we broke our journey for a light lunch in a café near the station and then took the metro back towards home. I got off at the Colosseum to take advantage of my still-valid entry ticket (it allows a single entry at each gate over two days) while Brett went home to put his feet up.
As expected, the queue for entry was several hundred metres long but I noticed there was no queue at the parallel “Ticket Purchase” entrance. Sure enough, once through the bag-check at the gate, the two lines are only separated by a rope, so I ducked under and got through within a couple of minutes, avoiding what would otherwise have been a half-hour queuing in the now bright sunshine. Terribly un-British of me, I know, but as one ancient Roman wrote, “Fortune favours the brave.”
I’ve struggled with what to write about the Colosseum though. It’s the single most iconic image of Ancient Rome. It’s on every tourist’s “Must See” list. Yet I found it oddly anticlimactic.
The audioguide (yes, finally!) talks about the construction, the games and the back-stage workings but, for the premier historic attraction of Rome, it felt dry and perfunctory. There were none of the interpretation and visualisation aids that you’d find in major attractions elsewhere, no opportunity to pursue some detail that caught your interest. There were plaques around the site with basic explanations (in English as well as Italian – I’m grateful for small concessions!) They have even reconstructed a section of the arena floor, along with one of the lifts and trapdoors used for bringing scenery and animals up from the holding pens below – but you can’t go down there as a regular visitor.
I may have been expecting too much. I came having watched a couple of documentaries on Ancient Rome and listened to a lengthy podcast on the Empire’s history. I probably arrived better informed and with more background context than the large majority of tourists. However, I’d hazard a guess that someone who had seen the movie Gladiator would already know most of the information in the commentary.
I think the Colosseum lets down even the uninformed tourist who wants to broaden their horizons. Once you have marvelled at the undeniable engineering skill of building the place, once you have been horrified by the number of people and animals slaughtered for entertainment, there is nothing else to explore. It all feels like a missed opportunity for both the visiting tourists and the Roman authorities alike.
They could get so much more from this site!