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J.W. Burgon

Letters from Rome to Friends in England: How to see Ostia with Comfort

London 1862, p. 10-12


Mr. Thomas, (whom you know,) announced overnight that he had a rare treat in store for me. Miss Howard had lent him her carriage, and he proposed a day at Ostia, (the ancient port of Rome,) where there had been some recent excavations. So next morning, at an early hour, we started, - Thomas, Major Oldfield (and his beard), Mr. Combe, and I.

Winding our way across Rome was all pleasant enough. So was the exit from the city, which afforded a glimpse at the pyramid of Caius Cestius, and the temple of' Vesta. But after that, it began to rain hard; and we were in an open carriage; and the scenery grew more and more hopelessly uninteresting every mile we went. I am not slow at finding beauty; but really there was none to find. Heaved up on our left was the waste campagna, - diversified only with an occasional swell in the ground, or by a herd of bullocks, or a flock of sheep: shrubs rare, - trees rarer, - dwellings rarest of all. On the right, the muddy Tiber was to be seen gliding slowly between muddy banks skirted by muddy meadows. There was nothing else to break the singular monotony of the long joyless drive. A leaden sky over-head, and a steady rain. Of course we took care to twit Thomas with the "rare treat" he was giving us. At last I took refuge in the thought that we were beholding the very sight which must have saddened the heart of every Roman soldier who in ancient days turned his back on the joys of the capital to start for Greece or for Africa, for Britain or for Gaul; the sight which must have been seen by every one who in ancient days came to visit Rome. This speculation amused me; and it grew more vivid as occasional traces of the ancient pavement of the Via Ostiensis came to view. I am sure one needed amusement: for the road at last grew so execrable that it seemed problematical whether we should be able to prosecute our journey, - and certainly whether we should ever get to Ostia. It was a relief to one's feelings to hear the driver objurgate every peasant we met: but unhappily all the objurgation in the world was powerless to fill the holes in the road, into which every few minutes our wheels went with a bump which plunged them into the mire above the axle. I kept a sharp look-out all the time in order to ascertain how far it would be possible to walk back to Rome, in case of grand crash. However we got to Ostia at the end of 3 or 4 hours.

When we arrived there, we found an "Antica Osteria" of the humblest description, in which we despatched our viands; and now, a bright thought struck Thomas. Some half-a-dozen rough fellows were drying themselves and drinking, before the fire; whose huge jack-boots he proposed that we should hire, in order to see the excavations at Ostia (as he said) "with comfort". We bargained for the use of these machines, at the rate of two pauls a-pair, and proceeded to get into them. But it was like putting one's leg into a vast ram's horn. "Thank you," I said, (as my friends strode past me, with the air partly of Italian brigands, partly of Cromwellian soldiers) "you all three look very imposing, to be sure; but I would rather risk the mud as I am". O if you could but have seen their faces, at the end of twenty minutes, - so cruelly puckered up with something between the affectation of high antiquarian enthusiasm, and the reality of ill-concealed anguish resulting from a galled instep and tortured heel! They limped about, and hung out their tongues, quite piteous for to behold. However, we were all thoroughly delighted with what we witnessed, and which far surpassed our expectations. It quite made amends for the drive. Next to Pompeii, nothing more curious is to be seen anywhere. Whole streets had been excavated, and we stood amidst the remains of an ancient palace, with its baths in excellent preservation, and its mosaic pavements in perfect order; though with an indented surface, as if by the superincumbent pressure of the fallen masonry, now cleared away. There were bases of columns on every side; and the ground was strewed with bits of precious marble, which sparkled after the recent rain.

We made a short visit to Castel Fusano, hard by; a noble château, surrounded by a pine forest, and commanding from the summit a view of the sea. Than we pushed our way back to Rome, after having enjoyed ourselves immensely. As we went along, Thomas made us retract all our impertinences, and confess that the journey to Ostia had been a "rare treat" after all. . . . . . So soon does one learn to forget the petty annoyances of travel! So vividly, at the end of many months, does one retain the incidents of a joyous day like that!

Your loving uncle.


[jthb - 19-Jan-2007]