Roman History Road-Trip: from Ostia Antica to Pompeii
Hail, history fans! I've had a busy fall season with lots of travel, for work and for play. My latest trip was a ten-day voyage with my parents to visit as many Ancient Roman sites as we could between Rome and Naples. It was their first overseas trip since the pandemic so we were all so grateful to be able to travel together again. ❤️
Ostia Antica used to be the main port for the city of Rome but was eventually abandoned as the mouth of the river silted up, closing it off to the sea. The long cobbled "decumanus" road runs the whole length of the city, and you can see the large theater as well as incredible mosaics from the floor of the baths:
There's a whole section dedicated to shipping companies, each with their own name and "logo" -- some even advertising what type of cargo they carry, like elephants!
Best of all, it's super close to Rome and easy to get to if you're visiting the city (click here for more info). It's also near a sandy beach so you can end your day with a spritz by the sea 🌞
Here's a map of the route we took:
Our next stop was the hilltop town of Tivoli, which is famous for the lavish Renaissance Gardens of the Villa d'Este, but it also has a lovely Temple to Vesta, goddess of the hearth.
And in the valley just below the town, you'll find the extensive ruins of Hadrian's Villa! It was a sprawling and lavish affair decorated with reflecting pools, statuary, and the usual suspects (baths, party rooms, theaters...). Here below is a reflective pool with a nod to the Nile River in Egypt (complete with crocodile statuary and papyrus!), the main baths (middle), and the exquisitely tiled floor of the guest rooms.
I was already impressed, but then I saw this: the "Maritime Theater" was Hadrian's "villa within the villa," a quiet and private space where he could swim, rest, and explore his own private island. Everybody needs one! 😄
Here's a model of what it used to look like:
Back towards Tivoli, the Aniene River flows through and once provided a lot of the water for Rome's aqueducts, so you find bits and pieces of it throughout the countryside.
We made a day-trip to Lake Nemi, one of the many volcanic crater lakes near Rome:
Our main reason for going was to see the museum dedicated to the once glorious "party barges" that Emperor Caligula used to have floating on the lake. They sank to the bottom long ago and were eventually brought up in an engineering feat ordered by Mussolini whereby the lake was drained to allow better recovery of the wooden structures. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, they were completely destroyed during a fire during WWII!
It's still an interesting museum as some of the bronze and metal elements survived, and there are photos of what they looked like before the fire (below, men lined up to see them -- there were two of them. They were huge!
The museum also had a fascinating collection of devotional items that were found at the important Temple to Diana nearby. The ancient custom (still used around the Mediterranean today!) was to present a devotional item to the goddess in the hopes that she could cure what ails you. There were feet, eyes, and intestines on display as well as boobs, a thumb, and genitalia of both sexes:
Plus one I had never seen before: an open mouth exposing the throat! Say Ahhhhh....
After Nemi we drove over to Palestrina, where there are some really old pre-Roman ruins. Unfortunately the road was washed out and we were getting tired, so we had a tea and just checked out the Roman ruins below the town's main church. It was common that Christian churches were built over Roman temples as it was quite handy to have a pre-existing structure; but it also allowed one culture to gradually assimilate another.
In fact, the Roman religion itself was mostly an appropriation of the Greek one (you can read all about it with a simple Google search), so we found references to the Greek pantheon and mythology (like Ulysses and the Odyssey) everywhere!
The next day we packed up and moved south along the coast to the beautiful hilltop town of Sperlonga. The beaches below were gorgeous:
It's an ancient port town that was also important during the Middle Ages, so it was fun to wander the narrow cobbled streets.
But the real draw was the "Grotto of Tiberius," where the Roman Emperor had his summer villa complete with "party cave" that was open to the water.
The cave was only found in the 1950s (read more about it here) and there were only broken pieces left from the monumental statues that stood in the central pool. But an imagined reconstruction was done of this striking scene from The Odyssey, where Ulysses/Odysseus blinds the giant cyclops Polyphemus. They based it on other statues found of the subject.
The detail is incredible! The original foot (left), the re-imagined torso and musculature, and the head with one central eye!
A short drive north of Sperlonga is the port town of Terracina, which was a Roman city and then a small Medieval town. There are Roman ruins in the middle of the old town:
But what drew us there was a massive temple dedicated to Jupiter that sat high on a bluff above the town. Normally the Romans didn't build at elevation but this was placed over a previous, pre-Roman temple (not sure by whom or to which deity!).
The temple is in ruins but the lower supports (which held a sacred cave) are still there and are very cool! It would have looked like this (pic from Wikipedia):
Heading southward again, we stopped at the small archaeological site of Minturnae. It was once a bustling trading town with all the usual elements (theater, baths, and an extensive "shopping mall").
Eventually we reached The Archaeological Site, par excellence: Pompeii. My parents hadn't been since the 1970s and so much has been rediscovered since then that they wanted to see it again.
The site is so extensive that I still didn't see that much of it (area-wise), but it's all pretty spectacular:
We only had one day of rain on our trip, and it just happened to be when we were near Naples, which meant we got to spend a day at the marvelous Archaeology Museum! I could do a whole post about it (as I did for the MET in New York and the museum in Athens) but I'll just put a few here, from the Gabinetto Segreto, or "secret room," that contains some of the ribald images found in the Pompeii brothels and private homes. You have to be 14 years old to enter but I didn't see anybody carding. 😉
On our final day we had a free morning before I had to drive back to Rome, so we went to explore two fascinating sites in what's called the Phlegraean Fields ("Campi Flegrei" in Italian, or "fiery fields" due to past volcanic activity) west of Naples.
The first was Cumae, the first Greek settlement on the Italian mainland, c. 800 BC (before that they had a colony on the nearby island of Ischia). One of the first things you see is this mysterious "Cave of the Cumaean Sibyl," where the ancient soothsayer or oracle supposedly had her lair (lots to say about here here):
And the last site was a vast villa and bath complex in the area called Baiae (recent attention has been given to sunken ruins nearby that you can scuba-dive over).
One of the most stunning features is this so-called "Temple of Mercury," which isn't a temple but was an enclosed cold pool as part of the baths. Built in the 1st c. BC, it was the largest dome in the Roman world prior to the construction of the Pantheon! It's also the oldest surviving dome made of concrete (and the echo inside is fantastic!).
It was an amazing trip for so many reasons. I'm so grateful that I was able to travel with my parents again, especially since the pandemic has disrupted so many lives. I also loved having the opportunity to do some "slow travel" in areas of Italy that I had never been to. I imagine you could do trips like this throughout the country: just pick a start and end point, grab a map, open Google, and Go!
For more tips about touring in and around Rome, see my previous post where I talk to my friend and colleague Manu, who's proud to call Rome home.
The tour season is over for me now but the travels continue, and I'm off in a few days to do some scouting in Sicily. I've already got requests for 2023 so contact me soon if you're interested in joining a tour or setting up something for you and your friends. If you'd like to support my history habit, you can toss some old Roman coins into the temple well (see "tip your guide"). Otherwise, come over and say Hi in person!
Grazie e alla prossima! 🙂
Thanks and see you next time