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This little-known 'Pompeii' delights in some big ways

Great views, few crowds at Ostia Antica

By Rita ColoritoSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 30, 2002


After three days under the scorching sun, dodging zooming motor scooters and standing skin to sweaty skin near fellow tourists eager to see Rome's restored sites, my fiancé and I needed a break. We would soon be leaving my cousin's home for Florence, so we wanted a day trip nearby.

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We ruled out Naples. We didn't want another big city. Ditto for quaint towns in Tuscany; we would soon be there anyway.

We wanted grassy spaces, few crowds, and some ancient ruins. We wanted Pompeii. But we didn't want the six-hour round-trip train trek to it. After reviewing the limited suggestions in our guidebooks, we finally settled on Ostia Antica, an excavation of a once-thriving Roman river-port town, barely an hour west of Rome by metro.

Our guidebook said it was "the next best thing to Pompeii" but offered only a few descriptive sentences. So Bret and I didn't have high expectations, and frankly, we were too exhausted to care. After trying to cram in every historic, religious, and conceivably interesting site in Rome, we figured if Ostia was a bust we'd just go back home.

But Ostia proved to be another of those places that guidebooks don't always get right.

As we passed through the entrance, known as the Porta Romana or Roman Gate, we weren't impressed. Much of the ruins were knee-high redbrick mounds, barely recognizable as a customs house, which is one of the first "buildings" we passed.

But the view seemed like a Titian painting – wispy clouds, azure skies, and dozens of cypress trees – so we reserved our judgment a bit longer. Our reservations turned to awe when we came upon a mostly intact theater some 20 meters ahead on our right.

The theater, built during the reign of Augustus Caesar and restored in the early third century AD, had a large semicircle seating area once capable of holding some 4,000 spectators. This was a fabulous picture spot from any angle. Unlike the much larger Coliseum in Rome, this theater did not have scaffolding or construction workers obstructing our view. Like the Coliseum, the theater's orchestra area was once flooded for mock sea battles.

Ostia doesn't offer official tours, but we ran across a local woman who was offering tours in English and German. To get a better perspective of what Ostia once looked like, it's worth buying the "Ancient Ostia" guide at the museum shop. The guide features several reconstruction overlays. Bret and I flipped to these pages to make sense of the piles of sometimes-incomprehensible bricks.

Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome, founded Ostia as a fortified camp to maintain military and commercial command of the Tiber River and Mediterranean Sea. Under Julius Caesar and other emperors, Ostia continued to play an important commercial role.

Although Pompeii was destroyed in the late first century AD, covered under the volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius, Ostia's history ranges from the 4th century BC to the 6th century AD. While Pompeii's ruins are mostly white-colored marble, Ostia's ruins are a mix of red brick, white- marble colonnades, and ballast-stone pathways. Archaeologists are still determining why it became a ghost town.