Public space in the late antique city
Until recently, the late antique city was seen largely in negative terms – as a feeble continuation of classical Roman urbanism. However, in the last thirty years, new fieldwork has led to a revision of negative stereotypes about the period. New excavations have shown that during the 4th-6th centuries AD cities in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean flourished. Although the general picture of urban development in this period is becoming clear, there has been little research into how buildings and public spaces were used in everyday life. Topographical studies have tended to concentrate on houses and churches, whilst the later history of public space, of streets, fora and secular public buildings, has been neglected. In the last few years this has started to change, with some interest in the monumental epigraphy of the period, and a number of articles on public space at Rome and Constantinople, based largely on texts. Yet so far no archaeological study has been undertaken to re-examine the public spaces of extensively excavated classical cities in the West, although recent work at Sagalassos in SW Turkey, has tested new methods appropriate to this task, such as spoliation studies, repair survey and stone surface archaeology.
Ostia: a case study
The site of Ostia is one of the most extensively excavated Roman cities in the West, and certainly the most accessible. Although the city is dominated by buildings dating from the first three centuries A.D., there is much evidence for continued occupation and repair of public and private structures from the 4th to 6th centuries AD when it served as the focus of Rome’s harbour district and as a representative elite-resort of the senatorial class (Gering 2004/2007). The decline of the site in subsequent centuries, and a constant raising of the levels of the site means that the late antique archaeology of the city is well-preserved, so that buildings were uncovered of several storeys in height, and statue remains were often discovered lying around the city, in their last display contexts of antiquity. Unfortunately, modern excavations, beginning in 1924, were somewhat primitive, especially those carried out under the fascists, and many of the traces of the late antique period were brushed aside, in the hunt for more visually impressive remains of the early imperial period. Nevertheless, their work did leave many patches of intact stratigraphy untouched, and uncovered such a large area that it offers considerable scope for the application of methods used at Sagalassos. Recent studies of the site have suggested a great deal of secular public building in the 4th and early 5th centuries, which demands to be investigated more closely.
Streets and Squares in Late Antique Ostia
The recent habilitation thesis of Axel Gering suggests that one area of great potential is the street system of the late antique Ostia, which underwent considerable changes during the period. The main part of this transformation saw the monumentalisation of the Decumanus and the creation of two big new plazas, one Exedra and one almost rectangular Forum at the end of the 4th century A. D. At the same time minor avenues were closed and walls built along insula boundaries, dividing the city up into gates cantonments, each focused on a large house. Similar developments have been seen elsewhere in the East, but they have never been studied on the scale possible at Ostia, and understood in the systematic manner which the city permits. In the West, such monumentalisation of major avenues is extremely rare, and seems to show the extraordinary status of late antique Ostia as Rome’s ‘showroom’ to the outside world, and to reflect an adoption of urban trends popular in the East, especially at Constantinople. Furthermore, it has the only late antique Forum so far known in the West of the late Roman Empire, which was built anew in the late fourth century, and still is well-preserved. Possible examples of such complexes are suspected at Rome itself but, like its street system, are buried under modern buildings and cannot be analysed. Yet in the reorganized late antique city centre at Ostia, so extensively excavated we can very probably see the representative aspirations of the – now lost – urban form of 4th and early 5th century Rome.
i) to publish new research on streets and public space at Ostia in Late Antiquity.
ii) to develop innovative field methods appropriate to the re-investigation of extensively excavated urban sites in the West.
iii) to assist in the enhancement of the presentation and interpretation of the site to the public.
The main focus of new fieldwork at Ostia would be to try to produce better records of already excavated squares, street porticoes, fountains and street blockings (late antique street surfaces themselves usually having been lost). This would involve both the production of new plans from large-scale cleaning work and small-scale excavation of strategic deposits, to recover dating and use information. These methods were shown to be extremely productive for the site in 2008. Because of early clearance excavation, intact occupation deposits are rare, though foundation fills are common: this makes it unlikely that deep excavations will be carried out, and that rather large areas will be cleaned in order to retrieve architectural phasing and other information. This programme of works will be supplemented by architectural survey of related late antique walls, a study of spolia and surface archaeology across the city, and archival research on the records of early excavations