Roman Gems

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Last month I went on my third trip to Rome, and it was absolutely heaving with tourists. Noticeably, they all seem to be concentrated in certain areas, while other equally, or more, impressive sites slightly off the tourist trail go unnoticed. Our hotel was alongside the Trevi Fountain so we walked past it every day and there was a barely any room for anyone else to fit into. I did start to wonder though how many people were really looking at the fountain, admiring the skill or design (not that it’s to my taste) or considering its history, and how many were there just because you “have” to go there. By contrast, at other sites, we almost had them to ourselves. Not that I’m complaining of course, because it’s nice to enjoy them in relative peace and quiet, but  I do think people are missing out.

For instance, how many people have heard of Pompeii? Oodles. How many have heard of Herculaneum, a few miles away? Probably considerably fewer. Well I’m betting that even fewer have heard of Ostia, which was ancient Rome’s port, a short and easy train ride away from the city, and which is just as much of a gem. In fact it’s amazing. I’m not going to try to compare it with Pompeii and Herculaneum because it’s not really fair. But it’s certainly interesting that the vast remains are there because they’ve just been left alone – it’s not that the town came to a sudden halt and was frozen in time for two millennia. Unfortunately we were beginning to feel the effects of the climbing temperatures so we didn’t see all we could have (I doubt we would have got all the way round in any case). But I loved what we did see. I’m a sucker for a good mosaic (more of them later) so those of a cart driver and in the Baths of Neptune were right up my alley – huge floor coverings with pictures of wonderful quality and in great nick. Going up the stairs at the baths also gave a great vantage point from which to view the layout and expanse of the surrounding buildings. There were streets with at least two storeys of their apartment blocks, windows giving you views to wall paintings still inside and original road surfaces (though rather in need of maintenance!). Talking of which, if you do go you should definitely wear suitable footwear, not high heels like some we saw! The other potential hazard was the falling pine cones – huge they were, and likely to do a bit of damage with a direct hit. But I digress.

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One of the gems is the theatre. There’s been some work done to it, but as this was my first time in a full size, complete Roman theatre, it certainly made an impact. The view from the top of the seats over both the theatre and the town was stunning, and the view up from the stage was just as good. I think my highlights though were the remains of some of the businesses, and this is certainly one area where Ostia has the edge over the Vesuvian towns (OK, I’ve done it). Firstly there was the bar with the counter (so far, so Pompeii), but this was a two-roomed affair, with menu painted on the wall, a great amphora sunk into the floor, and a courtyard for your al fresco dining. Then there was the presumed fishmonger, with fish mosaics, counter and oven. And then the best bit. Behind the theatre is the Forum of the Corporations, an open-ended rectangle around the Temple of Ceres. It’s the ancient equivalent of a shopping parade I suppose, three perfect lines of shops. Only the foundations and floors survive, but that’s the best bit, because outside the front of each one was a mosaic advertising what the business was. There were elephants for ivory traders, ships and lighthouses for the ships for hire, grain traders and various animals. Some were just pictures; others also noted where the traders came from. They were featured in Mary Beard’s TV series a few months ago and I feared it was the usual special access for a TV crew, but happily all visitors can get up close to them.

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The other knockout of the trip was the Baths of Caracalla. They’re in the city centre, but enough of a walk from the main sites that they obviously get overlooked by the tour groups and a fair amount of independent travellers as well. The remains are huge. Huge. Most of the layout remains, and many of the walls stand 30m high, giving you the chance to walk through the rooms as they would have been. Sadly, of course, the architectural features and fittings have long since been plundered, but what remains is the impressive shell of a facility that would have catered for 6-8,000 people a day. We know the Romans liked their baths and that the state provided them, but this really was a public service on a grand scale. Happily for the mosaicist there are plenty of examples of the floor coverings left. Some of the smaller rooms still have their complete floor and there are large chunks of others propped up against the walls for a good look at the design and structure. All sorts – black and white, colour, geometric patterns and scenes from mythology, there’s a great variety. You can also go underground to see some of the service tunnels, which contain examples of the stonework, and which are wonderfully cool on a hot day.

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I really enjoy going to Rome, and I have no doubt I’ll go back again. I tried to resist the superstition, certain in this knowledge, but couldn’t help throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain just in case. The trouble is, I think each trip might have get longer. We saw a lot of new things this time, but there’s still a lot to do, and I can’t help visiting some old favourites again. I have a real soft spot for the Pantheon (not sure why, although it seems quite cosy to me, nestled into the small piazza), and I love sitting in the Forum surrounded by so many ancient buildings, where there’s always a new nook and cranny to find. Then there are the things that have been seen, but have to be revisited for a better look, like the Theatre of Marcellus (and while there, might as well go back to the very cute 1st and 2nd century BC Temples of Portunus and Hercules Victor, the oldest surviving marble building in Rome). Of course the rest of Ostia needs to be explored. And the things we couldn’t get into this time, like the Colosseum’s underground tunnels, the lower level of Trajan’s Market and the houses on the Palatine. All of which could fill a holiday quite nicely, except there are so many brand new sites to visit too. As this last trip was a week, up from five days, maybe the next one will have to be ten days. Or maybe that’s a bit excessive really – after all, if it can’t all be fitted in, there’s always the next time.

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