Among the ruins, Russell Maclennan-Jones imagines life in ancient Ostia.

"It's just a lot of ruins," moaned one visitor to Ostia Antica just outside Rome, but the people in my group smiled because our guide Massimo had been bringing a whole city to life for us.

In fact, some ruins are impressive on their own account - a theatre capable of seating thousands, bath complexes, a forum with a host of shops. But you need a bit of help to imagine the 50,000 people from all over the world who thronged the city at the height of the Roman Empire.

For that reason it's worth taking a tour (I chose Viator) and if you are lucky you will get someone as knowledgeable and enthusiastic as Massimo.

He explained how the city had grown up at the mouth of the Tiber and became one of the most important ports in the world.


Over centuries, the mouth of the river shifted and the area became malarial, which led to it being abandoned and its buildings, particularly marble, plundered for other projects.

At its height it had 800 taverns and sailors were welcomed by throngs of prostitutes. Some of the city is yet to be excavated but even now it takes days to explore in detail.

Because few of the buildings have roofs it is hard to get a sense of how grand it must have been but a line of shops, each with a mosaic on the path outside to show its speciality (fishing equipment, elephants for construction work, grain imports), makes the busy commercial aspect of the city easy to appreciate.

If you don't have time to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum near Naples then Ostia is a great introduction to the way the ordinary Romans lived.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has daily flights from Auckland to Rome with a stopover in Hong Kong.

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