My latest novel, The Unkindest Cut of All, centres on a stage production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar - a play set in ancient Rome.
As one who has always been fascinated by Roman history, I was thrilled to discover that it is possible to visit the remains of several towns dating back to the heyday of the Roman Empire. Indeed, there can be few people anywhere in Europe who have not heard of Pompeii and its near neighbour Herculaneum (Ercolano) - the two towns on the Bay of Naples which were destroyed in AD79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. These two towns, now painstakingly excavated and carefully preserved, are amongst the most visited sites in the whole of Italy.
But what many people may not know is that Pompeii and Herculaneum also have a distant cousin. Less well-known, but no less impressive, is the ancient Roman town of Ostia Antica, situated about 16 miles (25km) south-west of Rome.
Ostia is generally believed to date from the second half of the 4th century BC, and was originally built as a military post to control and defend the mouth of the River Tiber. It takes its name from the Latin ostium, meaning river-mouth. In its heyday, Ostia was the principal port for the city of Rome and also a thriving commercial centre in its own right, with a population of around 100,000 people. Its decline began in the 2nd century AD, when much of the commercial traffic was redirected to the newly-built harbour at nearby Portus. By the 4th century AD the harbour at Ostia was beginning to silt up, and an epidemic of malaria eventually caused the town to be abandoned.
Ostia might be less spectacular than Pompeii or Herculaneum because it died a gradual rather than a sudden death, but it gives visitors a much more complete picture of life in a Roman town. Streets, forum, capitol, theatre, bathhouses (many still with their original stunning mosaics), temples, market, shops, offices, workshops, warehouses, grain stores and private residences - they are all here, and all remarkably well-preserved.
Ostia was home to all social classes. The wealthy enjoyed the sumptuous comforts of spacious detached houses (domūs), whilst the working-class people lived in the three- or four-storey apartment blocks (insulae) which varied considerably in their levels of comfort and decoration. One of the smarter ones is the House of Diana, which boats a private bath-house and a central courtyard.
The bar on the ground floor still houses the marble counter where the customers bought drinks and hot food.
The cosmopolitan nature of the town is reflected in the diversity of its places of worship. In addition to conventional Roman temples, there are also a number of temples to the Persian god Mithras, as well as a first-century Jewish synagogue and a Christian basilica.
The site museum is home to the many exhibits which have emerged during the excavations of the town. Sculptures, statues, pottery, jars, amphorae, glass or alabaster bottles – all offer great insight into the everyday lives of Ostia’s inhabitants. A more recent addition to the site is a modern visitor centre which houses an excellent café.
Ostia is easy to reach from the centre of Rome – the journey takes about half an hour by suburban train.
The modest admission charge to the excavated site (scavi) is an absolute bargain. Allow at least half a day for your visit, but you may well find the place so fascinating that you’ll want to stay a lot longer!