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OSTIA Italy.

A city on the W coast at the mouth of the Tiber. By tradition it was first settled by Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome, to supply Rome with salt, but no such settlement has yet been found. The earliest Ostia known to us was built ca. 350 B.C. some 200 m S of the Tiber near its mouth and occupied only a little more than 2 ha, providing for some 300 families. Its original function was to guard the coastline and the river, and it was protected by strong walls of large tufa blocks quarried near Fidenae. Within the walls, which had four gates, the area was divided by narrow streets in a grid pattern. The colony increased in importance when Rome began to need imports from overseas, for the river mouth had to serve as Rome's harbor. During the wars against Carthage, Ostia also became an important naval base. In the 2d c. B.C. the growth of Rome's population increased the demand for imports from overseas, particularly grain. During the resulting increase of population in Ostia to service the growing volume of shipping the town expanded beyond its walls. By the early 1st c. B.C. the small fort had become a substantial town and the new walls that were then built enclosed 64 ha.

By now the main lines of the town plan were established. The centers of the original colony became the forum of the enlarged town where the two main roads crossed. The decumanus maximus continued in a straight line E to the Porta Romana by which the Via Ostiensis entered the town. To the W it forked a little W of the colony's wall, the main branch proceeding to the seashore, the other (Via della Foce) to the river mouth. The cardo maximus ran in a straight line to the river; southwards it turned SE after leaving the forum. The most important area for trade and commerce was the land between the river and the decumanus—Via della Foce, whose development was strictly controlled and reserved mainly for warehouses and public buildings. The most attractive residential area was in the SW towards the sea. The least impressive was the SE quarter which shows little sign of considered planning.

Ostia was neglected in the late Republic, but felt the benefit of Augustus' approach to social and economic problems. The expansion of trade in the early Empire showed that the river harbor was too restricted for the shipping now needed to maintain Rome, and the larger merchantmen could not negotiate the sand bar at the river mouth.

About 3 km N of the Tiber mouth Claudius built a large artificial harbor, and two canals were dug linking the new harbor with the Tiber and thus with Rome. In A.D. 62, however, 200 ships were sunk within the harbor according to Tacitus: the expanse of shallow water was too large to provide shelter except near the moles. It was not until Trajan added a large hexagonal basin, excavated from the land, that Rome's harbor problem was satisfactorily solved.

Though the new harbors were directly linked with Rome they brought increased prosperity to Ostia for a hundred years. The Ostian council and magistrates controlled the area, though imperial officials were responsible for the harbors themselves, and the majority of the harbor workers lived in Ostia. During the first half of the 2d c. Ostia was transformed. Her population was more than doubled, her housing was revolutionized and her public buildings and amenities reflected the new prosperity. These dramatic developments were made possible by the energy and initiative of Ostia's own citizens but they were also encouraged and aided by the emperors at Rome. Hadrian was almost certainly the emperor to whom Ostia owed most. In an inscription of 133 he was honored by the city “for having preserved it and enhanced it with all indulgence and generosity.” Nearly half the Ostia we now see was built while Hadrian was emperor and the new work is notable for the coherent planning of large areas. Two of these building programs probably derived from imperial initiative. The first comes from the beginning of his reign and involved the building of a series of large warehouses NW of the forum, the remodeling on a more handsome scale of the cardo between the forum and the river, and the building of a new Capitolium to dominate the forum. The second, on the N side of the W decumanus, comes from the last years of Hadrian. At the center of this plan are two large public buildings, to the N the barracks of the Vigiles, the fire-fighters detached from the cohorts at Rome, and to the S of the barracks a large set of public baths, handsomely appointed. An inscription records that Hadrian paid for the building and that his successor added what was needed to complete the work after Hadrian's death. On the E and W sides of these two buildings, blocks of apartments and shops form part of the comprehensive plan.

The rebuilding of Ostia was needed to provide for a sharply increasing population in an area restricted by the town walls and the necropoleis lining the roads outside the gates.

Ostian architects profited from the experience of Rome's rebuilding after the great fire under Nero. There had been changes in the use of building materials since the Republic, when tufa had dominated. Buildings that had to be either strong or impressive were then built with large blocks of tufa; after concrete had been developed in the 2d c. B.C., houses and secondary walls of public buildings normally had a core of concrete faced with small blocks of tufa, at first of irregular shape, opus incertum, and by the end of the Republic of regular squares set diagonally, opus reticulatum. Travertine from the Tivoli quarries, stronger but more expensive, was used economically; Italian marble was introduced on a small scale under Augustus. By the 2d c. A.D. the brick industry, based on the rich clay fields near Rome, was competing successfully against tufa, at first in association with large panels of small tufa blocks, opus mixtum, but alone by the end of Hadrian's reign. Travertine was now used in place of the cheaper tufa for columns and thresholds, and marble was freely used in public buildings—Italian marble for large surfaces, but a wide range of foreign marbles, from Greece, Asia Minor, and Africa for columns and paneling.

The most interesting feature of the rebuilding of Ostia is the type of housing adopted to meet the increase in population. Down at least to Augustus there were still many houses of Pompeian type with a series of rooms surrounding an atrium, sometimes with a second set of rooms surrounding a garden court, the peristyle. These houses looked inward for their light, and could expand only horizontally. With the increasing pressure on space it was necessary to build high and the private house gave way to the apartment block. These blocks had strong walls and could have as many as five stories. Some were purely residential, others combined shops on the ground floor with apartments above. The shopkeeper often lived in a mezzanine floor above his shop, reached by a staircase with its first treads in brick and the rest in wood; for the other tenants of the block there were separate staircases from the street. These multiple dwellings are either built round an open court, drawing light from outside and inside, or they have no court and draw their light exclusively from outside. The apartments vary in size and elegance, but many of them conform to a common plan, in which the rooms open off a wide corridor-hall, replacing the atrium, with the two largest, for reception and dining, at either end and the secondary rooms between. This plan is found with a varying number of rooms and is used in the cheapest as well as the most expensive blocks. In the better apartments the floors, except in kitchen and latrine, were covered with mosaics, usually in simple geometric patterns; figured scenes are more rare. The poorer apartments had to be content with herringbone pattern brick or cocciopesto. The painting on the walls is normally the work of house decorators rather than artists and depended for its effect primarily on contrasting masses of color.

The elevations of these blocks on the streets are plain and effective. The brick is rarely concealed behind plaster and there is no superfluous decoration. The main effect comes from the size and spacing of the windows. Doorways framed by columns or pilasters and pediment add distinction without fuss to some blocks.

The revolution in private accommodation was accompanied by an impressive improvement in public building and amenities. In the Republic the population had to rely on wells. In the Early Empire an aqueduct was built to bring a constant flow of water from the high ground 6.4 m to the E. The supply of water to private houses was limited but public fountains, and cisterns were provided in the streets. The aqueduct also made possible the extension of bathing facilities. The proliferation of public baths in a harbor town is one of Ostia's most engaging features. In the first half of the 2d c. A.D. three sets were built which must have dwarfed their predecessors. The bath by the seacoast outside the Porta Marina were built under Trajan, the Baths of Neptune on the N side of the E decumanus under Hadrian, and the forum baths off the SE corner of the forum under Antoninus Pius. From an inscription we know that the Baths of Neptune were paid for by Hadrian and his successor; there are also reasons for believing that the other two sets were imperial benefactions. All three sets covered large areas and were handsomely decorated with statues and fine mosaics, and the forum baths heralded a change in architectural fashions, from rigidly rectangular planning to the curving lines of apse, niche, and round temple. In addition to the three “imperial” baths, there were at least 14 smaller establishments.

The large number of public baths shows that a large proportion of the population must have attended regularly. The theater on the other hand was small. The original building under Augustus cannot have held more than 3000, and when it was rebuilt and enlarged at the end of the 2d c. there was room for not more than 4000. It is probable that gladiators and wild beasts attracted much larger audiences but no amphitheater has yet been found. There may have been one S of the river.

To match the reconstruction in so many parts of the town it was important to give more dignity to the civic center. Hadrian was probably responsible for the building of a new Capitolium at the N end of the forum. In order to dominate the tall blocks in its neighborhood, the new temple was built on a high platform, approached by a monumental marble stairway. The walls were originally lined with Italian marble, the fluted columns of its fronting portico were of pavonazetto marble from Asia Minor and the massive threshold stone of the wide doorway was a single block of African marble weighing some two tons. At the same time porticos were added to the E and W side of the forum.

Before the imperial harbors were built, Ostia's primary function was to provide the essential services for ships carrying cargoes for Rome and storage capacity for Rome's reserves. Ships up to ca. 150 tons could make the passage to Rome by a combination of sail and oars, but larger ships and especially ships carrying corn had to unload at the harbor and their cargoes had to be transferred to smaller boats that could be towed up river. During the summer months the volume of shipping was so large that it would have been impossible to keep the harbor open had it been necessary to send all cargoes to Rome when they arrived. The imperial harbors eased the problem but they did not ease the congestion on the Tiber route to Rome, and the problem became more acute when ships that had previously unloaded their Roman cargoes at Puteoli now came to the imperial harbors. How much storage capacity was provided by the Claudian harbor we do not know, but Trajan's harbor was almost entirely surrounded by warehouses. Storage capacity for Roman corn and perhaps other goods was still needed at Ostia, for it is certain at least that the number and capacity of horrea increased dramatically in the 2d c. Earlier warehouses, to judge from surviving evidence, were limited to a single floor; in the 2d c. there were normally stairs to one or more upper stories. The grandi horrea N of the W decumanus, near the forum, which had been built under Claudius were completely remodeled shortly after the middle of the 2d c. with stronger internal walls and stairways to additional storage above. In another warehouse, W of the Piccolo Mercato, only one wall was left, and the rest entirely rebuilt. The new granaries marked an improvement on the old, not only in their increased capacity, but by raising the floors on low brick walls to facilitate the circulation of air underneath.

Another type of warehouse can be recognized by large earthenware jars sunk in the ground, dolia defossa. Four such deposits can be seen and the largest, NE of the forum, has more than 100 jars with a total capacity of more than 84,000 liters. These jars contained oil or wine and since Roman supplies would have been stored in their containers we should regard the operators of these horrea as Ostian wholesalers supplying local demand.

The most interesting illustration of Ostia's importance to Rome is the double colonnade behind the theater, off which in the 2d c. were 61 small rooms, many fronted by mosaic designs, some accompanied by inscriptions. In one an elephant with the legend, STAT(IO) SABRATENSIUM, signifies that this was the office of the traders whose main trade was in ivory from Sabratha in North Africa, for which there was a brisk demand in Rome. Another mosaic, set up by the shippers and traders of Cagliari in Sardinia, shows a merchantman between two grain measures. The shippers of Narbonne show a merchantman approaching the famous lighthouse at the entrance of the Claudian harbor. The rooms behind these mosaics, too small for the sale of goods, were offices where representatives of overseas shippers and merchants, and also of Ostian business firms could take orders and supply information.

Ostia's main importance was the service she rendered to Rome, but a considerable part of the labor force was needed for the maintenance of Ostia herself. Her own resources were limited. There was enough good land to the S of the city and across the Tiber to produce all the vegetables and fruit that were needed and there was plenty of oak and ilex in the woodland to the S, but grain, most building material, and the raw materials for her industries had to come from outside. Most production seems to have been on a small scale, and it was common practice for goods to be sold from the premises on which they were made. The number of shops in Ostia (over 800 are known) is one of the most striking features of the town. They line nearly all the streets and even the rich could not resist the economic attraction of using the street front of their houses for shops. In the whole excavated area only two bakeries have been found; both are very large. Most of the fullers' premises are small, but one, which is built round an arcaded court, has three big rinsing tanks in the court, sunken jars in the arcade for dyeing, and fixtures in the brick piers for hanging cloth. Some of the trades are illustrated in terracotta or marble reliefs inserted over the entrance to a tomb to show the occupation of the deceased. Probably the two biggest employers were the building and the ship-building industries.

Most of the main trades of Ostia had their guilds which were primarily social institutions. They had their own guild centers and elected a grand hierarchy of officials. The largest of them could afford to use expensive sites. The builders' premises, for example, immediately adjoined the forum on the S side of the E decumanus. It is significant that five of the rooms on the ground floor were permanently equipped as dining rooms with stone couches on which the diners reclined.

Religious patterns in Ostia reflect the town's history. The earliest established cults are those shared with the early Roman Republic and they remain prominent in the town plan. The greatest of them was the Capitolium. The earliest surviving temple is dedicated to Hercules and was built in the first half of the 1st c. B.C. on the N side of the Via della Foce leading to the river mouth. A relief found by the temple shows that this Hercules delivered oracles and suggests that the archaic cult statue was dredged from the sea. But the most important of the colony's cults and the most deep-rooted was the cult of Vulcan whose pontifex was the chief religious authority in the town. The restoration of Vulcan's temple is recorded in an inscription but the temple has not yet been found. Two temples of Bonn Dea, whose fertility cult was reserved for women, have been excavated; both were built in the imperial period but they continue a cult which doubtless was established in the Republic. The Ostian games of Castor and Pollux were celebrated by magistrates from Rome and attracted distinguished entrants; a temple to the twins is recorded but not yet identified. Other cults which are of Augustan origin or earlier include those of Venus, Ceres, Fortune, and Hope.

Most of these cults were maintained in the Empire and their temples were restored, but it was inevitable that a population of such mixed origins as Ostia, including old families of Roman stock, newcomers from other towns of Italy, traders from overseas, slaves and ex-slaves from E and W, should increasingly feel the influence of the oriental cults that spread so vigorously through the empire. The cult of Kybele, the Phrygian Great Mother, was officially established at Rome towards the end of the 3d c. and Ostia is likely to have followed the capital. In the great rebuilding a large area by the walls near the Laurentine Gate was reserved for the goddess. In front of a small tetrastyle temple there was a large triangular field, flanked on its S side by a marble colonnade. This was the scene of the taurobolium in which a bull was sacrificed in honor of the goddess, and blessings were invoked for the emperor and the Roman senate and for the magistrates and council of Ostia. At the E end of the area was a temple for the associated cult of Bellona, and a guild house for the hastiferi who performed ritual dances in her honor; nearby was a shrine of Attis, Kybele's consort. Towards the W end of the town a temple was built, also under Hadrian, to Egyptian Serapis and inscriptions record a Temple of Isis and her priestesses. The discovery of a large and handsome synagogue near the seashore shows that in the Empire there was a strong Jewish community in Ostia. But the cult which has left the most widespread evidence is Mithraism. No less than 15 shrines of Mithras, none very large and some very small, can still be seen, built between the middle of the 2d c. A.D. and the end of the 3d. Mithraism seems to have made little or no impact on the ruling classes at Ostia, but it had wide appeal among the common people. During the 3d c., however, it found an increasingly strong rival in Christianity.

The archaeological evidence for Christianity in Ostia before the 4th c. is very slight. Ostian bishops attended church councils in the early 4th c., and Constantine is said to have endowed a basilica dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul. But the only 4th c. church so far found within the city is on the W decumanus: a small and unpretentious basilica which reused old walls. More impressive is a very handsomely decorated hall near Porta Marina. The walls are lined with bands of elaborate design in colored marbles (opus sectile) including two portrait heads, one of which represents a bearded Christ. This hall was violently destroyed and the last of the series of coins found in the building dates from the time when Rome's pagan aristocrats made a final bid to bring the old gods back. This movement must have evoked some sympathy in Ostia for it was at this time also that the Temple of Hercules was restored. The Christian hall was almost certainly destroyed by Ostian pagans.

Christian opposition to Mithraism was not always passive. In the Late Empire a Christian basilica was built in the W wing of a set of public baths N of the Via della Foce. Beneath it, in what had been a service corridor of the baths, a Mithraeum had been built and here the excavators found a marble sculpture of Mithras slaying the bull. The sculpture was found in scattered fragments, deliberately broken.

By the time Christianity was firmly established at Ostia the city was in decline. Ostia had lost her importance to Rome because the settlement by the imperial harbors could now service the reduced flow of shipping. The new situation was made explicit when Constantine gave the harbor settlement its own charter as Civitas Flavia Constantiniana Portuensis. In Ostia the population had shrunkconsiderably. After the early 3d c. there was very little new building and some large buildings destroyed by fire were not replaced. Most repairs were carried out with old material and necropoleis were rifled for paving stones. In the Late Empire a new social pattern emerged. Private houses, which were eclipsed during the expansion, now became prominent again while the large multiple dwellings decayed. Many of the new houses made use of old walls but they shared common features. They expanded horizontally rather than vertically, fountains became a fashionable extravagance and marble was lavishly used to line floors and walls. These houses were occupied by rich men, among them Roman senators; for with trade concentrated at the harbors, seaside Ostia was more attractive to residents. That is why St. Augustine, returning with his mother to Africa, stayed at Ostia rather than at Portus. But with the collapse of Rome's power, Ostia soon became vulnerable to invaders and pirates. From the 5th c. conditions deteriorated until in the 9th c. the town was evacuated and Pope Gregory built for the survivors a small fortified settlement E of the ruins which took his name, Gregoriopolis. Nature gradually buried the ruins of the old town. Through the Middle Ages it became a quarry for building materials and lime; in and after the Renaissance it was a hunting ground for treasures. Systematic excavation was begun in the late 19th c. and sharply accelerated between 1938 and 1942 until roughly two-thirds of the town was uncovered. There is an excellent museum on the site.


Scavi di Ostia, Libreria dello stato, Rome: I. Topografia generale (G. Becatti et al.) 1953; II. I Mitrei (G. Becatti) 1954; III. 1. Le tombe di eta repubblicana e Augustea (M. F. Squarciapino) 1958; IV. Mosaici e pavimenti marmorei 2 vols. (G. Becatti) 1961; v. 1. I ritratti (R. Calza) 1964;VI. Edificio con opus sectile fuori Porta Romana (G. Becatti) 1969; L. Paschetto, Ostia colonia romana (1912); R. Calza & E. Nash, Ostia (1959)P; R. Meiggs, Roman Ostia2 (1974)MPI; J. E. Packer, The Insulae of Imperial Osda, MAAR 36 (1971)PI; “The Horrea of Ostia and Portus” in G. E. Rickman, Roman Granaries and Store Buildings (1971)PI.


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