Tag Archive: ostia


Hubby and I gave up cable TV a few years ago, so when we channel-surf, we depend on old-fashioned free-to-air entertainment. Recently, on Cozi TV, an old Rock Hudson movie called Come September caught my eye, because it was set in Rome, and you know how I love Rome. 😉 In one of the opening scenes, Gina Lollobrigida was even speaking Italian.

Picnic at Ostia Antica from the Rock Hudson film Come SeptemberHudson’s character is a filthy-rich American who owns a villa outside of Rome that he only visits one month out of the year (September). Lollobrigida is the Italian girlfriend whom he neglects as much as his villa. One year he shows up in July, surprising both the girlfriend, who’s about to marry another guy, and the villa caretaker, who has been running the property as a hotel eleven months out of the year. Adding to the fun, a group of college co-eds that includes Sandra Dee is staying at the hotel, and a group of young guys whom Hudson won’t allow in his house decides to pitch tents outside the gate. (Take that as you will.)

If you’re an archaeology buff like me, the key scene is when practically the whole cast stops to picnic among Roman ruins. The setting looked familiar to Hubby and me, and at first we thought it might be the Palatine Hill, but we soon recognized the area as the main Forum at Ostia Antica outside of Rome near Fiumicino airport. They also show a little (we think) of the baths area off the Forum of the Heroic Statue.

If you’ve read my archaeological mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig, you may remember that in it Chaz wants to get to Ostia to study temples there for his PhD thesis. I’ve also posted here before about the ancient city, which is almost as well preserved as Pompeii, though not quite as extensive. Ostia doesn’t have bodies like Pompeii, but unlike its more famous rival, some of its multi-story buildings have survived the millennia.

To learn all about Ostia, visit ostia-antica.org. (I’ve spent hours on this site, clicking around the interactive map of the city, which the site somewhat confusingly calls a “Topographical Dictionary.”) For Come September on DVD, click here. Lollobrigida won a Golden Globe for her performance.

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Like Chaz in The Five-Day-Dig, I like to leave little offerings at ancient temples to show the old deities they’re not forgotten. On our recent visit to Ostia outside of Rome, Hubby and I left a few coins at the temple of Cybele (one of the goddesses known as Magna Mater or the “Great Mother”), as well as a little somethin’-somethin’ for her consort, Attis.

Back in the town’s heydey, both of these temples stood near the ancient shoreline, but centuries of silting of the Tiber River have moved the sea miles away, and they’re now a little off the beaten trail. While trekking from one lonely ancient holy place to the next, my husband began to notice a pattern: pinecones sitting upright on the altars. Someone had visited not long before us and made a little offering of their own.

To the Romans, the pinecone was a symbol of rebirth. It was sacred to Dionysus, and also to Attis. The pinecone-topped thingy seen in the photo to the right is an elaborate example of a scepter called a thyrsus, most commonly carried by Dionysus and his followers. This one was found in the temple of Attis at Ostia and is now displayed in the on-site museum.

Attis is a resurrection deity, whose death was mourned around the spring equinox each year, followed by a celebration of his rebirth. Myth has it that he went mad and killed himself (by castration!) out of guilt over breaking a promise of faithfulness to Cybele. The goddess took pity on him, though — or maybe felt he was too pretty to lose — because she fixed it so his beautiful body would never decay. He was associated with the pine tree, with its evergreen quality; thus the pinecone connection.

You will make your own judgment about how much of Easter (or Christmas) has passed down to us through rites dedicated to Attis. It’s a good thing, in my opinion, that castrating oneself in a religious frenzy has gone out of style, but we still have people whipping themselves and nailing themselves to crosses. :/ Standing in front of Attis’ sanctuary in Ostia, though, I did feel a little tug of magnetism from him. So he lives on.

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Among many things the ancient Romans popularized (until the Dark Ages came along) was the concept of bathing. On some level, bathing epitomized civilization for the Romans, distinguishing them from their barbarian neighbors. Though only the ancient one-percenters could afford private baths in their homes, every town worth its salt had several public bathing complexes like the one the archaeology team finds in The Five Day Dig.

When you went to the baths (afternoon, the warmest part of the day, was preferred) you began your routine in an outside exercise area called a palestra. After you worked out, you moved on to the changing room and left your toga or tunic in a locker. Bathers then chose from hot, cold and lukewarm pools. (Gotta love the tepidarium — the name for the latter.)

Floors and walls of the bathhouses were heated through hollow ceramic pipes emanating from a central wood-burning furnace — which definitely would have made them more comfortable than my bathroom on a cold January morning!

The complexes were also equipped with latrines like the multi-seat one shown here from Ostia, outside of Rome. Toilets like these were flushed continuously with rushing water below. Modern visitors tend to be shocked by the proximity of the seats to each other, but I like to think there once may have been curtains between them, which isn’t much worse than the set-up in today’s public restrooms!

Roman plumbing is a fascinating subject in itself, and there’s at least one book out focused specifically on latrines: Latrinae Et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World by Barry Hobson.

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Dunk’s medieval hotel suite in The Five Day Dig is based on the place where Hubby and I stayed outside of Rome a couple years ago. Actually built into the city wall of the Borgo in Ostia Antica, the Delfina Suite at Hotel Rodrigo de Vivar provides an adventure in itself.

I’ve never heard spookier noises anywhere than in this centuries-old two-bedroom apartment reputed to have once been the home of a noblewoman. Was it haunted or just old water pipes and pigeons in the chimney? Admittedly, on our second night there, a pigeon landed in the hearth — luckily with no fire burning. My husband had to pick up the little guy in a newspaper and put him outside.

The TV had no reception, adding to the sense of isolation or even time-travel that we felt. Whether that’s a plus or minus, you decide. Other positives, however, were the affordable pizza shop down the block (in The Dig, Winnie gets dinner there one night), the fabulous bakery around the corner, and the fresh spring water fountain practically outside the door. The place is also just a few blocks from the amazing ruins of ancient Ostia or the regional train that takes you into Rome for just one euro.

Other possible caveats: In online reviews, some travelers who visited in summer complained of mosquitoes, but in mid-March, we didn’t encounter a single bug. The Borgo seemed to get noisy in the evenings, but not late into the night, and nearby church bells rang in the morning.

All in all, recommended. Website here. (We booked through Expedia.)

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Two thousand years ago, the town of Ostia thrived as Rome’s main port on the Tyrrhenian Sea. But heavy silting of the Tiber River gradually moved the sea away, and with it went the trade that provided a living for Ostians. Later, earthquakes and political chaos added to its demise. Malaria outbreaks didn’t help. Though the town survived into the early Middle Ages in smaller incarnations, eventually the silt of the Tiber buried it.

Like the volcanic ash that stored Pompeii away in a time capsule, Ostia’s silt covering preserved temples, baths, apartment buildings and tombs. Though fewer valuables got left behind than in Pompeii, it doesn’t make much difference when you consider that the biggest finds from both towns have been moved to museums, anyway. While Pompeii does have more frescoes (paintings on wall plaster) left in situ, the upper floors of some Ostian buildings have survived, unlike in its better-known rival. You can even climb to the third floor of an apartment building and get an awe-inspiring view that Pompeii can’t compete with.

No wonder Chaz in The Five-Day Dig wants to visit Ostia. You can, too — very easily and cheaply, if you happen to be in Rome. Take the B line of the Metro (subway) to the San Paolo stop; follow the signs that say “Lido” to the regional train track, and take that one to the Ostia Antica station. The trip takes 30 minutes and will cost you just one euro (about $1.50 U.S.). From the station at Ostia Antica, the walk to the ruins is five minutes through a quaint and safe suburban neighborhood.

If you won’t be in Rome anytime soon, you can still explore the town virtually through interactive maps on www.ostia-antica.org. After Hubby and I visited a couple years ago, I was obsessed with the town and spent days on the website.

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