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The Ostia Catastrophe

Vast wealth from a great empire flowed through this ancient port near Rome. Warehouses and shipyards and chandleries were filled to the limit. Work went on day and night for centuries. The fleets that swept Carthage from the sea sailed from this place. People from Spain and North Africa and Persia lived here.

Today, Ostia Antica (Ancient Ostia) is a huge archaeological park where you can wander through an abandoned Roman city. More than the ruins of any other place, to me, these help you feel what it must have been like to live and work in those times.

Our modern good fortune is the result of a headache for the Roman Empire. Ostia lay at the mouth of the Tiber river and had been the port of Rome all the way back to its Etruscan Kings. But, by around 30 AD, intense human activity over 700 years had caused the port to silt up so much that it was too expensive and inefficient to operate. However, being Romans, they just built a new harbor city to the north and kept right on with that whole empire business, barely generating a footnote in even their own history books. Stuff happens and you fix it. Very practical. Very Roman.   

Today, of course, the story would be different. We would hear 24/7 that the problem with Ostia was a civilization-toppling C.A.T.A.S.T.R.O.P.H.E. caused by some evil politician the media didn’t like and the ever-lurking Wall Street Fat Cats. And you know it would be a truly awful C.A.T.A.S.T.R.O.P.H.E. like the reactors at Fukushima, or the Gulf Oil Spill, or Chandra Levy’s murder – all the ones with Cosmic Significance that will never leave the front pages. But back in the day, Romans just solved their smaller problems and moved on. If you know the history of Ostia, it can give you a little perspective on what might really count as a disaster and what is just more ignorant, blithering hype.

Last fall, I spent a lovely, sunny day in Ostia. After four tries in seven visits spanning more than ten years, it felt like a victory over fate itself. Up until then, the Dark Trinity of modern Italian culture had worked its evil will, thwarting all attempts to go. As you may know, the Italian calendar and clock are not driven by astronomers who note each time the sun is at its zenith then divide the interval by 24. Nosiree, Italy runs by the random astrological alignment of three capricious local deities: Union Negotiations, Employee Whims and bureaucrats’ Unpublished Changes in Operating Hours.

For us, the fifth time was a charm that managed to ward off the Dark Trinity. At last, my bride and I had lots of uninterrupted archaeo-geek time in Ostia on a beautiful, warm day.

There we found that, in addition to being a fascinating, well-excavated and well-presented ancient site, Ostia is also one of the loveliest public parks that that it’s been our pleasure to experience. Big, spreading trees, beautiful, grassy vistas, out-of-the-way flowered nooks and sun-dappled 2,000 year old courtyards greeted us at every turn.

The only esthetic drawback might be that the Popes and other super-rich folks in Rome used the place as a marble quarry for centuries. So a visitor is presented mostly with brickwork that was underneath the glorious original marble sheathing. As an engineer, though, I was fascinated by the just how good the Romans were at building with brick – as good or better than 99+% of modern brickwork I would think. Do you know how hard it is to build a lintel with bricks? You probably don’t, but no one else in history did it, even though it was a routine thing for Roman builders. And their lintels came with a 2,000 year workmanship warranty! Incidentally, for non-engineer-types, a lintel is the flat piece at the top of an opening in a wall like a door. It has to hold up the part of the wall over the open space.

In Ostia, you can stroll for hours down broad streets and small side passages, never setting foot where you’ve already been. Many times that day, it was just the two of us, surrounded by our own, private Roman city, birds singing and flitting in the trees and squirrels skittering around here and there busily preparing for winter. It was Archaeo-geek Nirvana to be sure.

At Paestum or Agrigento, a visitor sees the massive temples in all their partly-restored glory and little else. In Pompeii you see the remains of a small, upscale resort town. But in Ostia, you see where real people lived and worked and ate. You see the city fire station and the shipwrights’ guild hall, the corner fast food shop and the upscale sports bar owned by a retired gladiator. For me, that kind of real-people stuff brings the past truly alive.

If you get the chance, and Italy’s Dark Trinity is looking the other way, a walk through Ostia Antica on a pleasant day could be one of your best walks ever.

It sure was for us.

  1. June 5, 2011 at 7:33 am

    I can see why you write – you are good at it. It is a most interesting piece of work. Takes a lot of research to get so many details. Ron and I have been to Italy but never to this place.Do you travel a lot? Wherer is the next big trip?
    I am ‘only’ going to Norway and will meet my family – which, of course, is nice too.

    • June 5, 2011 at 8:57 am

      Thanks again! We travel as much as we can. The US economy and the dollar-euro exchange rate are the main limiting factors. Our next trip, “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise” as my grandmother used to say, will likely start at Bellagio on Lake Como, then to Genoa, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta and Tunisia (if they are not overrun with Jihadi bleeps by then). Timing will be as soon as we see some significant reduction in economic insanity in Washington DC. So, it may be awhile. In the meantime, I’m hard at work on my novel.

  2. June 8, 2011 at 1:40 am

    You make the place sound so inviting and peaceful. Who knows – I might get there one day! After all, we live in Europe and the continent is close.
    This morning we’re off to our jazz group. Each person brings a CD and tells the others why it was chosen. I am taking a Sidney Bechet tune. I just love his mellow and pleasing tones.We meet every two weeks duing the summer months and weekly autumn and winter. It is really a very nice get-together at a local pub – which also sells coffee (I hasten to say). Elin

    • June 8, 2011 at 1:20 pm

      You are a serious jazz fan! I enjoy what they call here: smooth jazz. My tastes aren’t quite elevated enough to handle the atonal or melody-free types. You must have an amazing collection courtesy of your club mates. Pubs sell coffee? What a novel idea! Do you think it will catch on?

  3. June 9, 2011 at 2:06 am

    Yes, they serve coffee AND food in English pubs. In fact, the main income comes from just that – and obviously wine and beer sales. Pubs in this country are regular meeting places for people, not just for drinking, and they are all smoke-free and cozy these days. On summer days people gather in the pub-gardens around and enjoy life. It is something they are really good at here, and the UK gets more and more Continental during the summer.
    Last week our son and daughter-in-law came for a few days, and we took them to a lovely place up in the Peak District, where we sat outside for lunch, which has great view, and then the two of them, + dog, set off for a 3 hour long walk!! We did the dinner preparations at home – like sensible ‘old’ folks!!.

    • June 9, 2011 at 7:59 am

      I was just kidding. I like the outside-for-lunch-in-a-pretty-place option as well. And a long walk afterward means I can eat more!

  1. October 15, 2011 at 7:59 am
  2. January 13, 2012 at 8:50 am

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