Relatively few visitors to The Eternal City take advantage of this impressive archaeological resource
just a brief train ride away. While tourists crowd the major Roman venues of the Colosseum and the Forum, and some on short
itineraries even go to the inconvenience of long coach rides to Pompeii, many are unaware that a well preserved Roman city
lies just beyond the edge of Rome itself.
The best way to reach Ostia Antica is by using Rome’s metro system.
From the center of Rome, ride the metro to Piramide station and transfer to the Roma-Lido station. Get off at Ostia Antica
station. One ticket will cover the entire trip suffice for the entire journey. From there a short walk leads to the site entrance.
There is also plenty of free parking should you arrive by car.
Ostia is quite close to the sea,
as it was once the vitally important commercial port of Rome itself. Today it is landlocked due to gradual shifting of the
coastline and silting of the harbor. The Tiber River still runs quite close to the site, though its course has also changed
over time. The site was first developed in the 3rd Century BC and became a commercial port shortly thereafter, though much
of what the visitor sees today dates to the Imperial era and especially the 2nd Century AD. With the addition of two new major
harbors constructed nearby, Ostia became a boom town. All the agricultural products of the Roman world, such as olives and
olive oil, wine and dry goods (see the transport amphora offered for sale on our website: http://www.clioancientart.com/catalog/i85.html ) as well as raw materials for construction, animals for Colosseum, and much more flowed through this port
and up the Tiber to Rome itself. With a large population of merchants, slaves and sailors the city would have been just as
cosmopolitan as the capitol.
Today the main entrance to the site is the Porta Romana, from which
the visitor follows the Decumanis Maximus (main street). Among the impressive remains one almost immediately encounters are
the Baths of Neptune, the Theatre and the Square of the Guilds.
Neptune Mosaic, Baths of Neptune
Built during Hadrian’s reign, the Baths of Neptune are famed for the large black-and-white Neptune Mosaic,
featuring the god of the sea, his wife Amphitrite and tritons, nereids, dolphins and other sea creatures.
The Theatre, Ostia Antica
The Theatre dates to the 1st Century BC but was expanded upon several times. In its final form that the visitor
sees today, it could accommodate 4,000 spectators. It is known to have remained in use at least through the 4th Century AD.
Just beyond the now missing stage backdrop of the Theatre is the square of the Guilds. Here, in a three-sided portico
arranged around a large square with a temple in the center, were arranged the store front offices of merchants and shipping
agents. In these small offices they conducted business with ship captains, travellers seeking passage and commodity buyers.
Many of these professions had organized themselves into guilds (“corpora” or “collegia”), hence the
name of this square. The maritime nature of business conducted here is reflected in the floor mosaics, including a depiction
of a lighthouse, ships, and inscriptions mentioning the names of prominent guild members.
Square of the Guilds, seen from the Theatre
Floor Mosaics, Square of the Guilds, Ostia Antica
|Unlike Pompeii or Herculaneum, which were frozen in time by the eruption of Vesuvius, Ostia gradually slipped
into obscurity. Stung by the economic and political decline of the late 3rd Century and later impacted by earthquakes, Ostia
slowly declined. Buildings were recycled for stone and marble burned in lime kilns. By the early Middle Ages, the site was
nearly forgotten. The result is that while the state of preservation is not as ideal as at the major sites around Naples,
the sheer scale of the site offers much to see. Excavations, controlled or otherwise, began by the 16th Century and the site
is still not fully excavated.
There is much more to see at Ostia Antica, including many well preserved private
homes with mosaics, public bath buildings, shops, gardens and a well preserved Forum with fine temples. The site is very large
and the visitor should allow for most if not all of a day to fully experience the site. The relative lack of tourist crowds
makes Ostia Antica even more appealing. There is an excellent site museum, well worth a visit, displaying fine sarcophagi
and figural sculpture, mosaics and small finds of all types from the still ongoing excavations. The site also has every type
of amenity for the traveller.
Here are a couple of links that may be useful for those planning a visit –
A general but useful information page from the modern municipality of Ostia Antica: http://www.ostiaantica.info/excavations.phpAn excellent review of a visit to the site by travel guide Rick Steves: http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/destinations/italy/ostia.htm
When in Rome, most visitors focus on the major monuments clustered in and around the Capitolium, Forum
and Palatine. Yet many Roman neighborhoods are home to very important monuments of the ancient past and it can be well worth
the effort to get off the beaten path to visit these. This writer’s favorite such neighborhood is the Aventine Hill,
located along the eastern bank of Tiber, south of the Palatine.
Compared to the frenzy and traffic found in much
of the city, the Aventine is a relative island of calm. Most of the area is residential, with several large green open spaces,
and it is connected to the equally quiet Trastevere neighborhood across the Tiber by just two bridges. Getting there is easy,
with major transit stops at Circo Massimo and Bocca della Verita. Alternately, one may take a long leisurely stroll along
the Tiber from central Rome, starting where the Ponte Fabricio connects to the Tiber Island.
Most of the neighborhood’s
major monuments, and those with the most charm in this writer’s view, are to be found in a small area centered on the
Piazza della Bocca della Verita. This Piazza is so named for the famous “Mouth of Truth” located inside the portico
of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which has foundations going back to the 6th Century. According to a many centuries
old tradition, the visitor would insert their hand in the mouth and the mouth would snap shut if the visitor had told lies.
The Mouth was made all the more famous by a scene in the 1953 film ‘Roman Holiday” with Gregory Peck and Audrey
Hepburn. In fact, this huge white marble disc with the face of a river god may simply have been a large drain cover during
the Roman imperial period.
Bocca della Verita, Portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
Just around the corner is the Arch of Janus. Dating from the first half of the fourth century, probably during
the reign of Constantine the Great or one of his sons, the Arch today is almost completely stripped of its original decorative
elements, giving it a strangely stark and modern look. It is an imposing structure, just the same.
Arch of Janus, Piazza della Bocca della Verita.
Alongside the Tiber, just a couple of hundred steps away from the Arch of Janus, shaded by umbrella pines,
are the temples of the Forum Boarium. These two small temples are famed for both their remarkable state of preservation and
for being almost unique in the repertoire of Roman architecture as survivors from the Roman Republic. Both buildings date
from the 2nd Century BC. The more conventional of the two is the Temple of Portunus, dedicated to the god of rivers and ports,
as there were once docks and related facilities here for the unloading of goods coming up the Tiber. Set on a high podium,
the harmonious façade features simple lines and beautiful Ionic columns. The more unusual of the two, due to its circular
format, is dedicated to Hercules and features elaborate Corinthian column capitals.
Temple of Portunas, Piazza della Bocca della Verita.
Among the many churches with ancient foundations in this area, one stands out – San Giorgio in Velabro.
Dating mainly to the 7th Century and incorporating many ancient Roman columns, along with a Roman “mini-arch”
of the Severan period, a charming 12th Century bell tower and 13th Century frescoes in the apse, the church also incorporates
numerous inscribed ancient fragments in its portico and in the walls of the nave itself. This building is a sort of palimpset
of Rome itself and is well worth a visit.
Late Roman funerary inscriptions, San Giorgio in Velabro.
While there is much more to see in this small area, one more spot at the southernmost end of the Aventine is
also worth visiting. Very close to the Pirimide Metro station is the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius. This is actually a tomb constructed
for Roman official of the same name who died in 30 BC. This was the time when Egypt had come under Roman control with
the death of Cleopatra VII and “Egyptomania” was all the rage in high end Roman artistic circles – some
things never change! Unlike the true Egyptian pyramids of over 2,000 years earlier, this structure was encased in white marble.
In the late 3rd Century AD it was incorporated in the Roman defensive walls completed by Emperor Aurelian.
Pyramid of Gaius Cestius on the Aurelian Walls at Porta San Paolo.
Just across the street from the Pyramid – and watch out for the traffic here – there is an island
of peace at the Protestant Cemetery, so called because during the many centuries of Papal rule non-Catholics could not be
buried inside the walls of Rome, the same walls built by Aurelian. Here one finds the final resting place of many famous visitors
to the Eternal City, including the great English romantic and poets and lovers of antiquity Percy Shelley and John Keats.
Watch for the next installment in this series – a visit to Ostia Antica, just outside Rome.
Among the news items of archaeological or art historical interest to collectors
of antiquities in 2010, none could have been more alarming than the collapse of several structures at the Unesco World Heritage
site of Pompeii.
News on November 7 that the House of the Gladiators had
collapsed set off a storm of political finger pointing in Italy. Opposition politicians and commentators accused the government
of neglect and mismanagement. La Stampa newspaper ran a story headlined "Pompeii – the collapse of shame.”
Conservative business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore said the only solution for Pompeii was private sponsorship, allowing corporate
entities to place logos at the entrance!
On November 30, a 12 meter long
wall around the House of Moralist collapsed and on December 1 news came that 2 more walls had collapsed, followed on Tuesday,
December 7 by violent protests outside Teatro alla Scala in Milan over cuts to Italy’s funding of cultural institutions,
a concern echoed by renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim in very public remarks made before conducting “Die Wälkure”
in La Scala’s season-opening performance.
Pompeii draws 2.5 million
tourists every year and Italy’s archaeological and other cultural sites generate many billions of Euros annually for
the country’s coffers. Archaeologists and art historians have complained for years that Pompeii, Herculaneum and countless
other sites have suffered from poor management and general neglect.
This writer can certainly attest to serious
neglect at these sites. A few photos taken just a few years ago will serve to highlight this.
1 above one can see a frescoed wall from a private residence in Pompeii that has been completely covered with scratched-in
graffiti. Most of this damage was obviously inflicted by Italian school children who were left unsupervised to wander the
ruins during school visits, though foreign tourists should not be ruled out as another source.
Figure 1, Graffiti damage to frescoed wall, Pompeii
Figure 2 shows a locked and
roofed but otherwise open air storage area at Pompeii. Several storage lockers of this type are scattered around the site
and like the one shown here many contain stacks of crates containing excavated pottery shards, architectural fragments and
large numbers of large, often intact, transport amphorae and other utilitarian ceramic vessels. Though roofed, these storage
areas are essentially open to the environment, allowing the materials held in them to suffer damage from rain, dramatic temperature
changes and even theft and vandalism.
Figure 2, Storage area, Pompeii
shows a close up of another such storage area. Note that at least 5 varieties of transport amphorae are visible in the background,
intact or nearly intact. In the immediate left foreground is a decorated lead cinerarium. This was situated alongside the
gate, allowing rain that was falling that morning to land in it. Additionally, it was being used as an ashtray by site staff!
Figure 3, Close up; another storage area, Pompeii
The presence of large numbers of obviously duplicate and un-cared for antiquities such as the amphorae and cinerarium
in these photos makes a very powerful argument in favor of limited and controlled commercialization of antiquities in Italy,
generating much needed revenue for the maintenance of cultural heritage sites. This would involve a controlled process of
marketing some of the countless thousands of documented duplicate antiquities recovered from controlled excavations that will
never be called upon for any further scholarly research and would otherwise molder away in dark storerooms (or open air storage
areas like those illustrated above!). The revenue generated from sale of these objects could be targeted specifically towards
offsetting the cost of maintenance at excavated sites such as Pompeii.
Many other coordinated approaches are needed
to address these problems, and this writer will certainly not attempt to all of these with such limited space. Italy’s
Archaeological Superintendency, which is inefficiently organized, is in need of reform. Even the casual visitor to sites like
Pompeii, Herculaneum or even the Roman Forum will have noted that most employees responsible for basic supervision of the
sites spend their day simply killing time, chatting and smoking. Higher employee training standards are required to avoid
vandalism and neglect of the type illustrated here. Calls for privatization of site management miss the point that these cultural
gems are far too valuable to be left in the hands of those motivated entirely by profit. And out dated nationalistic sentiments
must be put aside if generations to come are also to enjoy the marvels of Pompeii.
The desert necropolis of Saqqara, about 15 miles south of modern Cairo, offers the
visitor the opportunity to take in the entire sweep of ancient Egyptian history, from the very early dynastic period through
the Coptic era. Many excellent sources document in detail the Saqqara necropolis and the Step Pyramid of Djoser, so I will
not attempt a detailed review here. Rather, I will attempt to motivate armchair travelers and prepare those planning a visit
for the marvels awaiting them.
The major monuments dominating the site,
in particular Djoser's magnificent Step Pyramid, date to the Old Kingdom but Egyptian officials of all types were buried at
Saqqara for the next 2,500 years along with their family members and dependents. In the Greco-Roman and Coptic-Byzantine periods,
ordinary Egyptians were laid to rest here as well, often utilizing robbed out tombs or recycling monuments and sarcophagi.
As one drives south from Cairo and approaches the Saqqara plateau the stark contrast between
the green cultivated area along the Nile and the dry, monotonous sand color of the desert stretching off to the west becomes
apparent. Just beyond the edge of cultivation, on the very edge of the plateau, runs a string of Archaic period mastabas.
Just south of these is the modern visitor's entrance to the plateau, where one pays a modest admission fee and passes the
pyramids of Userkaf and Teti.
It is quite incredible to think that virtually
overnight Pharaoh Djoser (2,630-2,611 BC) and his famed official Imhotep developed a comprehensive and successful program
for building truly massive buildings entirely out of cut stone blocks. In contrast, the most sophisticated architecture to
have preceded the Step Pyramid, while sometimes of great size was always constructed of mud brick with perhaps a few key elements
of cut stone. Surrounded by its vast enclosure wall, measuring 277 x 544 meters, the enormous bulk of the Step Pyramid is
made all the more impressive by the emptiness of much of the courtyard and the low slung subsidiary buildings framing part
of the enclosure's interior.
Djoser's Step Pyramid seen from the south
Djoser's colonnade entrance and courtyard seen from atop south enclosure wall
Interior of colonnade entrance to Djoser's complex; columns made to resemble bundles of papyrus
Standing on the south side of the enclosure wall, above Djoser's South Tomb Chapel,
one has a very clear view of the nearest of 10 other pyramids at Saqqara, that of the 5th Dynasty Pharaoh Unas (2,356-2,323
BC). Like so many pyramids and other buildings at Saqqara, the outer casing of this structure was stripped away at some point
in the past, either for re-use as ready-made construction material or to be burned in lime kilns. The result is a slumped
core with rounded sides, resembling a natural hill or mound, though significant remains of the associated funerary temple
and causeway remain.
Largely ruined pyramid complex of Unas, seen from atop Djoser's south enclosure wall
A short distance to the north of Djoser's complex one may see the
pyramids of Userkhaf (2,465-2,458 BC), first Pharaoh of the 5th Dynasty, and of Teti (2,323-2,291 BC) first Pharaoh of the
6th Dynasty. The best view of these is from very near the public entrance to the plateau. What remains above ground of both
are largely ruined cores but these are still impressive.
Pyramids of Userkaf in near distance and Teti in far distance, seen from inside Djoser's complex
Step Pyramid with Pyramid of Userkaf in the distance
Although not readily apparent due to the seemingly endless monotony
of small undulating mounds and featureless sand, the tombs of both people and sacred animals of later periods in ancient Egyptian
history stretch for roughly 4 miles north to south along the Saqqara plateau. Beyond the large scale monuments of the Old
Kingdom, many finely decorated tombs of officials are located at Saqqara. Some are open to the public.
Here one may view outstanding examples of carved tomb decoration, including figural and narrative
scenes, hieroglyphic inscriptions and false doors located at the rear walls of most tombs, for use by both the spirit of the
deceased and offerings by the living. Photography is generally not permitted inside the tombs.
For a thorough review of the Saqqara plateau, the Step Pyramid and other major monuments at the site, I recommend
Mark Lehner, THE COMPLETE PYRAMIDS, Thames & Hudson, 1997.
The archaeological site of Segesta lies in the midst
of lush green agricultural lands and rolling hills in the northwestern corner of Sicily. It is typically reached by car from
Palermo, a pleasant drive though groves of olive, fruit and nut trees, and vines as this corner of Sicily is a major wine
producing area. From Palermo the drive is just over an hour. The site may also be reached from the port of Trapani.
Segesta was not one of the better known Greek colonies in Sicily in spite
of having most of the accoutrements of a Greek city, including a Greek-style temple and amphitheatre, and adopting both Greek
and Phoenician alphabets for their inscriptions. In fact, its population was Elymian, an apparent hybrid of indigenous Sicanians
and immigrants from other non-Greek localities, and later including Greeks who intermarried with the locals. The great "mystery"
of Segesta is why the City's magnificent Doric temple was left unfinished.
Segesta Temple, view from the northeast
Segesta Temple, view from the southeast
Unlike most other indigenous settlements
in Sicily, Segesta readily adopted Greek influences. The city's main commercial and political rival was the Greek colony of
Selinunte, ultimately destroyed by the Carthaginians, with whom Segesta had allied itself. At various times, Segesta allied
itself with both Athens and Carthage and was briefly conquered Syracuse on two occasions before finally allying itself to
the rising power of Rome in 260 BC.
It is this complex series
of relationships that is at the heart of the most popular explanation for the temple's unfinished condition. As the story
goes, Selinunte had allied itself with Syracuse. In a bid to counter this alliance and make a play for a leadership role among
the cities of Sicily, Segesta sent envoys to Athens seeking aid. The Athenians approached this request with caution and sent
ambassadors to Segesta to investigate. The temple, intended to awe the Athenian delegation into believing Segesta worthy of
aid, was nearly finished. When the Athenians left, construction on the temple came to an end.
The temple, built around 430-420 BC, is missing many key features. The Doric columns lack fluting.
Most blocks used in the lower courses of the building still retain projections, normally cut away upon completion, used in
transporting and placing them. Most obviously, the cella (the internal walled building housing the cult image) is missing
entirely. Yet it is this emptiness, in a quiet pastoral setting, so different from many urban archaeological sites, that lends
a calm grandeur to the structure. Excavations in the residential core of Segesta are ongoing so much more may be learned about
this curious ancient city of hybrid culture.
Segesta Temple showing projections used in
transporting construction blocks
Segesta Temple, view from the southwest
The country around Segesta offers many
worthwhile stops for the traveler. From a purely historical standpoint, it is worth viewing the modern town of Trapani from
above. This port, with its adjacent salt pans, sits at the northwestern corner of the triangle that is Sicily. It is claimed
that on a particularly clear day one may see the Tunisian coast, just 160 kilometers (100 miles) away from the high ground
at Erice (750 meters above sea level). True or not, this claim underscores the easily navigable distances between ancient
Carthage (today's Tunisia) and western Sicily. The lush nature of the surrounding country helps explain the intense competition
among local and regional powers for control of the area in antiquity.
Trapani, looking west from Erice
The nearby charming town of Erice may
be reached by a funicular in Trapani (though this does not run on windy days) or by driving up a road consisting of hair raising
twists and turns. The town was known as Eryx in antiquity and had an Elymian population heavily influenced by Carthage. It
contains fleeting traces of its Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Norman past. Much of the year the town is only sparsely
populated and is entirely dependent on tourism for its continued survival. One architectural highlight of the town is the
14th Century "Mother Church" and its much older tower.
Medieval church tower, Erice
For this traveler, the main attractions
were the incredible pasticcerias (pastry shops) and the local enoteca (wine shop). The intensity of flavors produced by the
multi-colored marzipans, exquisitely rich crèmes and heavenly pastry dough were beyond description! Erice is also quite
close to Marsala, an important wine growing region.
are countless marvels to experience in this part of Sicily, especially for the archaeological traveler. These include the
Greek site of Selinunte, the Arab-Norman monuments of Palermo and the Byzantine-style monuments of Monreale. And, of course,
no shortage of excellent food and wine! This writer encourages all readers to visit the region and experience this for themselves.