Ostia in Late Antiquity: An Introduction


Ostia, the most important harbour city of ancient Rome, is characterised today by huge imposing trees, the ever present sound of nature and a complete variety of Mediterranean smells, ranging from the pleasant to the not so pleasant. However, other than the archaeology itself, what is most striking about Ostia is the overwhelming silence that surrounds it for the majority of the year – such is the fate of a city that lies in the shadow of Rome. The ancient buildings – many of them amazingly well preserved for centuries under dunes of wind-blown sand – are constructed in beautiful natural surroundings. In these buildings, upon careful observation, visitors are able to trace signs of the everyday life of the ancient Romans. The city has been the subject of intense archaeological work for over a century, most notably under Mussolini, whose excavators rapdily cleared the largest part of the centre of the city, in preparation for the ill-fated world exhibition of 1942.


For many decades the focus of archaeological work at Ostia has been to recover the city of the early imperial period, especially that of the time of Hadrian. This has tended to lead to not only the discarding of late antique and early medieval stratigraphy, but also a failure to recognise and correctly date late antique building phases, which are often assumed to belong to earlier centuries. The only late antique features to have been well-studied at Ostia have been its churches & synagogue and private houses, both fairly easy to identify. Ostia has been assumed to have declined as a political centre in favour of the imperial harbour city of Portus, becoming a town of holiday villas for the senatorial aristocracy. However, recently, the habilitation thesis of Axel Gering has highlighted the rich epigraphic  evidence of public building for the fourth and early fifth centuries, under Prefects of the Annona, and then Prefects of the City of Rome, and his own survey work and sondages has started to pick up evidence of repairs and even the construction of new public buildings.


Aside from repairs to major monuments, Axel had also identified examples of the blocking of minor roads and the construction of fountains and street porticoes on the main avenue within the late antique period. This work attracted the attention of Luke Lavan, a specialist on public space in the late antique city, who is currently working on streets. He observed that many of the phenomena seen at Ostia look rather more like the cities of the late antique East Mediterranean, rather than anything seen in the West. In particular, the tendency to develop the main monumental avenues of a city at the expense of minor roads is a key development seen elsewhere, which Ostia offers than chance to study holistically: as so much of the city has been uncovered. Thus has the present collaboration developed.


The end of the late antique city and beginning of the middle ages is marked by a number of development. These include a raising of the level of the streets, the definitive blocking of the main avenue with a chapel and the disuse of some its major public buildings, notably the foro della statua eroica. Building was now of a much poorer quality, and monumentality restricted to small churches. The city was eventually abandoned, for the adjacent borgo, named Gregoriopolis by Pope Gregory IV.


Luke Lavan & Axel Gering 18/04/2009



Ostia in Context: Rome in the 4th and 5th c. AD


Rome, although no longer the imperial seat of government was still the spiritual heart of the empire in late antiquity. Well into the fifth century the senatorial elite provided it with efficient government and a new elite, the clerics of the Roman Catholic Church, provided it with spiritual leadership in an increasingly Christian world. To provide a context for the structural integrity of late antique Ostia we cannot ignore the still enormously wealthy and influential city only a few miles away: Rome, the only other major settlement in Lazio about which we are well informed, save for Ostia’s sister city of Portus. The decline model prevalent in late antique studies until recently has allowed us to view the city of Rome only as a static high classical, pagan city with many imposing well-maintained public buildings and temples. There is no doubt that the city by the fourth and fifth centuries AD was in material decline; decreasing imperial and senatorial spending had seen a marked fall in the frequency of repairs and new structures being built. This phenomenon began in the third century, however, and was a symptom of the general economic malaise the empire experienced from that time. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that the city endured a more general decline, indeed good governance continued as did some material repairs and many new buildings did appear, just ones of a different type, namely Christian churches.


The relatively new, now imperially favoured religion of Christianity enjoyed a great deal of patronage from the early fourth century and various emperors, Constantine especially, provided Rome with several large basilicas outside the city walls at the burial places of the Christian heroes of the preceding centuries, who had died for their faith. The Christian sect favoured by Constantine, Catholicism, flourished under his reign, and the Roman church was granted land outside the city and some public properties within it. This gave the bishop of Rome some considerable wealth and influence, something confirmed by Ammianus (Amm. Marc. 27.3.14). Such wealth allowed the bishop to build smaller Christian meeting places, commonly called  ‘tituli’, inside the city for more localised worship. The bishop seems to have led most of these building schemes, with private sponsors and individual priests occasionally  contributing. By 499 there were 26 or 27 of these ‘tituli’. Most new buildings in this period were therefore Christian basilicas, so the construction of a new forum in Ostia has to be seen as exceptional even for this wealthy region. It shows great willingness to provide for a clearly bustling town that was still intimately connected with Rome. The creation of new public spaces do not even occur in Rome in this period (the ‘new’ forum in Rome, later known as the ‘forum palatini’, created in 374, is more likely a repair of an existing space – CIL VI 1177).


Repairs were, however, still being made to some buildings in Rome, albeit on a smaller scale, and presumably elsewhere in Lazio, although no records of these remain outside Ostia. Priority seems to have been given to well-used or important structures. Indeed, a few pagan buildings were restored in the fourth century, and a new Mithraeum was built in the same century. These were generally carried out by individual senators while in the office of praefectus urbi, so with state money, but with the Temple of Saturn in the forum the whole Senate was named as the donor. The vast majority of repairs took place on secular edifices, however, usually, once more, under the auspices of the praefectus urbi, but occasionally the Senate as a whole took a prominent role. Bridges, aqueducts, statues, baths and the ‘colosseum’ were repaired. In some larger projects the emperor seems to have been involved, at least according to the inscriptions. New building was confined to two arches, a portico and possibly a bridge. With the arrival of the Ostrogothic kingdom the situation for Rome’s buildings actually improved. One king, Theodoric, was especially generous towards the city, his most notable contribution being the extensive repairs he made in the Roman Forum and to the Aurelian Wall. When the Roman governmental system collapsed in the West, the elites no longer had the incentive or funds to continue to administer the city’s material infrastructure. At this point the job fell to the bishops of the city, Gregory the Great (590–604) being the first to take on this role with relish.


Michael Mulryan 27/10/2008

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