It was the first day of our family holiday to Rome and things were not going according to plan. We'd hired a guide to show us around the Colosseum, the city's 2,000-year-old amphitheatre, but 30 minutes into the tour he was boring the children senseless with the intricate details of how it was built.
Our eight-year-old slid to the ground behind a pillar. "Mummy," he hissed, "what about the gladiators?" We ditched the guide and I tried to fire Luke's imagination.
"This is as big as Wembley stadium but it took three minutes for 60,000 spectators to get through the gates."
"The emperor sat there and, look, lions entered through a trap door, there, and the injured were carried out here, through the Gate of the Dead."
His face lit up with enthusiasm, but when we headed across the road to the Forum our (slightly older) daughter dismissed the ruins of the heart of ancient Rome as "piles of old rubble".
Bringing the children to Rome had seemed a great idea – they had enjoyed studying the Romans at school – but it occured to me that at the time, when they were just eight and 10, they still didn't have the patience for all these sights. Time for a change of plan.
Next day we headed 20 miles out of town to the excavated ruins of Ostia Antica, once Rome's harbour city. You may not have heard of it, but I bet children over eight would know where I meant because it is the setting for the popular children's novels (and now TV series) The Roman Mysteries.
"We're going to where Flavia and Jonathan lived," Emelye told her brother excitedly on the train.
Ostia, possibly founded as early as 4BC but abandoned hundred of years ago, is similar to Pompeii in that many of the buildings are still intact, having been preserved over the centuries by mud and silt from the Tiber, but it is much less touristy. It's only 30 minutes from the centre of Rome yet we didn't see a single visitor as we enter the site.
Wandering down the Decumanus Maximus (the main road) we passed houses, shops and apartment blocks which have survived the centuries. In the Baths of Neptune, there was a large black and white mosaic of the sea god riding a chariot; the town's bakery still has an oven and millstones; in the Thermopolium, a taverna, we could see the original stone benches and make out paintings of vegetables on the wall above a fireplace.
"You can really imagine what it was like here hundreds of years ago," whispered our daughter in awe.
There were no signs warning visitors to "keep off". Our kids relished running down shady passages, finding hidden rooms, scrambling up worn steps to the roof tops, giggling on the old latrines. In the forum, we stood where traders from all over the Roman Empire would have gathered to arrange the carriage of goods to Rome: wheat from Spain, sugar from India and, our son was thrilled to hear, live animals from Africa to fight in the Colosseum.
Two thousand years ago Ostia, once home to about 100,000 people, would have been heaving, but as we ate our picnic on the steps of the partially restored amphitheatre, the only sound was the constant chirp of crickets – until an Italian tourist down below strode to the centre of the tiny stage and belted out O Sole Mio.
"This place is so coool," said Emelye.
They were slightly less enthusiastic about spending the next day at the Vatican, so we hurried past amazing artworks to reach the Sistine Chapel before their attention span ran out. It was worth the sprint as both were, surprisingly, mesmerised by Michelangelo's paint job on the ceiling.
Bribing them with gelato, we also managed to coax them up the dome of St Peter's. That was fun, they conceded, but not nearly as much as hiring a four-man go-cart in the Villa Borghese gardens later that day and careering round the park.
Having ticked off all the main sights, splashed our hands in the Trevi Fountain and raced each other up the Spanish Steps, we let the children decide how we would spend our last day in Rome.
"Let's go back to the Colosseum," said Luke.
"Really?" I was impressed. Who says kids and culture don't mix?
"Yes," he said. "They sell the best ice-cream there."
Trains to Ostia run four times an hour from Piramide station (get there on metro line B). Entry to the ruins (archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en) costs €6.50pp, free to EU citizens under 17 (closed Mondays)