Fig. 4 – The apsidal hall of the Domus della Fortuna Annonaria.

Ostia in Late Antiquity

Author:
Carlo Pavolini
A serious crisis seems to have descended upon Ostia in the mid-third century C.E. Under the reign of the Severan emperors (195-235) the urban expansion of the city had begun to slow down, but it did not stop altogether. In regard to housing, some mid-luxury architectural forms such as the colonnaded courtyard houses found on the ground floors of insulae (that is, housing developments with rental apartments) were no longer included in building designs. Workshops in the city had not been able to export their products in the Mediterranean market and had been reduced to a size sufficient only for the local market. At least one large fullonica (a plant for washing and recycling of fabrics which also worked with the export market) had already been abandoned under Commodus (180-192 C.E.).

Nevertheless, up until the end of the Severan period, these signs of crisis were not terribly obvious. One writer of the period was able to describe Ostia as amoenissima civitas (“a most pleasing city”). Public structures with service and commercial functions were still being restored, and one last large religious building (the Tempio Rotondo, a sort of Pantheon or a sanctuary of the imperial house) was built in the city center between the end of the Severan period and the reign of the Gordian emperors (238-244 C.E.).

But at this point several factors emerged which suggest real change. After about 250 there is no trace in the epigraphic sources of civic institutions for self-governance. Ostians ceased to set up statues dedicated to people associated with trade and the annona, which was the government office that oversaw the grain supply of Rome. They completely ceased to build and expand the large-scale horrea, the grain warehouses which were probably managed by public authorities in association with the annona. Even restorations to these horrea were limited.

The silence of the literary sources makes it especially difficult to determine the reasons for such sharp decline of a settlement that had been flourishing since the late Republic. It is however possible to establish a close connection between this phenomenon and the general economic and political crisis of this period, namely military anarchy. Military anarchy is the result of a confluence of negative events that afflicted the empire for almost the entire second half of the third century. Conflicts with the people along the borders of the empire became more fraught as the “barbarians” managed to push their incursions past the borders. The Roman military commanders were often at war with one another, even to the extent that the legitimate powers were forced to deal with usurpers in addition to foreign enemies. Most emperors were able to stay in power for only very short periods. On the economic front, inflation constantly worsened, partly because of exorbitant military costs and excessive bureaucracy. As a result the burden of taxation became less and less bearable for the poorer classes.

Fig. 1 – Topography of the area around the Tiber mouth in late antiquity (from Keay, Paroli 2011).

Fig. 1 – Topography of the area around the Tiber mouth in late antiquity (from Keay, Paroli 2011).

In this situation, the central government must have realized the impossibility of maintaining and defending two commercial centers at the mouth of the Tiber, that is, Ostia and Portus. Already during the first and second centuries the Romans had solved the major problem of transporting goods to the City. This process had previously been very difficult due to various factors such as the irregular flow of the Tiber. This limited Ostia’s ability to function as a river port. First Claudius (41-54) and then Trajan (98-117) created the great Imperial basins to the north of the river mouth, linking them up with the natural course of the river—and therefore to Rome—by means of an artificial waterway known as the Fossa Traiana (Trajanic canal) which created an island, known ever after as the Isola Sacra (Sacred Island).

A new settlement called Portus grew up around the harbors, which was under the jurisdiction of Ostia from an administrative point of view. The colony of Ostia remained the center of religious and civic life for the new settlement. Portus represented the “service sector” of Ostia, and it soon featured large docks and areas for ship storage and repair.

For one hundred and fifty years, a period that corresponded with the maximum population growth and urban development of Rome, Portus and Ostia were not in competition; the growth of one did not result in the decline of the other. Indeed the opposite was true, for the enormous quantity of goods imported from all over the empire had resulted in the continued growth of the storage capacity of both sites with the construction or expansion of horrea. But from the middle of the third century this simultaneous growth was evidently no longer possible. We must keep in mind that Ostia—situated only about 30 kilometers from Rome, and thought of as the city’s “maritime district”—had always been closely tied to the central government affairs. It is not therefore surprising that the third-century political crisis had brought about inevitable and immediate repercussions for the destiny of Ostia.

To understand the bigger picture, we cannot overlook the demographic considerations. In the second century, when Rome had expanded to include one million inhabitants, it was easy to justify the existence of two centers for grain import at the mouth of the Tiber. But by the reign Decius (249-251) the plague had again reared its ugly head. This was, perhaps, the beginning of the decline of the Roman population, a situation that would continue throughout late antiquity. As a result, with fewer mouths to feed in the capital, the extensive system of horrea (and their associated costs) was no longer necessary.

Then there was the military factor. The walls of Ostia, built around 60 B.C.E., quickly lost their defensive function. They were overwhelmed by the expansion of the city during the early centuries of the empire, and their restoration was apparently deemed unnecessary or simply cost-prohibitive. Thus when Aurelian (270-275) promoted the great reconstruction the walls of Rome, he did not concern himself with the walls of Ostia, save for a few small sections. Portus was naturally less exposed to attacks from the sea because of its protected, internal hexagonal basin.

What emerges is a confluence of factors that may have led to the decision to strengthen and consolidate the commercial and urban center of Portus (see Fig. 1 for the late-antique topography), rather than that of Ostia. The guilds, which in a port and manufacturing city like ours had played an important role during the period between Trajan and the Severans, went into a sharp decline (along with their collegial offices, or scholae), and their functions were partially transferred to Portus. The mint that Maxentius had established in Ostia worked for only a few years (308-313). It was Constantine who bequeathed upon Portus that administrative autonomy which it had always lacked, giving it the name Civitas Flavia Constantiniana Portuensis. He may have done this to punish Ostia, who had sided with his rival. It is however notable that, perhaps in compensation, Constantine favored the Christian community of Ostia, promoting the creation of a large basilica in the southeastern sector of the city. But from the perspective of commercial growth and grain distribution, there is no doubt that Portus occupied the place of privilege beginning in the fourth century. A number of factors support this conclusion: Portus’ warehouses remained in operation until at least the sixth century, in contrast to those of Ostia, and—albeit belatedly—Portus was provided with a wall, which it had never had before. This fortification, according to recent research, may have been promoted by an official of the Gothic king Odoacer (476-493). Later, during the Greek-Gothic War (535-552), several fierce battles were fought over possession of Portus and its holdings, but certainly not for the control of Ostia, which had been reduced to a small village of little importance. We also know that from the first decades of the fifth century the original section of the Tiber that ran through Ostia had silted up and was no longer navigable.

How does this (brief) history of the city in late antiquity play out in the urban landscape? To get the whole story, we must return to the period that we see as the beginning of the crisis at Ostia—the middle decades of the third century. The effects on estate building within the city were almost immediate. A considerable public or semi-public bath facility, the Terme di Nuotatore, was abandoned between 230-250. Later, around the years 280-300, some large blocks of flats for rental apartments suffered fire or collapse, but were not rebuilt (see Caseggiato Molini, whose ground floor was occupied by a large bakery, and the Insula di Ierodule). Other blocks affected by destruction were reoccupied in the lower storeys, but these were unsafe and precarious habitations. The front streets and ground floors were filled with debris of the collapse and demolition (see the Caseggiato dei Dipinti, Caseggiato del Sole, and the insulae of the complex known as Case a Giardino). At the same time numerous tabernae were abandoned or converted to other uses. This is a very telling occurrence, because the small trade represented by tabernae had previously been a major pillar of the Ostian economy.

It is significant that these phenomena affected all districts of the city, but a state of general abandonment is particularly notable in the neighborhoods of the Decumanus and the Tiber. It was here that the public buildings were concentrated, and the largest and grandest of the grain storage magazines were constructed (presumably associated with a river port, which has not yet been identified in the archaeological record).

On the surface, this picture might appear to contrast with the construction of twenty domus replete with elite decorations such as opus sectile wall and floor mosaics, nymphaea or fountains, peristyles, and rooms with colonnaded entrances. These residences, constructed and occupied from 230-250 up until about 420, were located mainly in southern districts of Ostia, an area that had always been densely inhabited. In reality there is no contradiction, because the owners of these new homes (perhaps members of the remaining urban élites, but especially members of the senatorial urban class) would have found it advantageous to buy “on the cheap” vacant or half-empty property, into which they could invest considerable sums to renovate. They could have chosen to live in these properties, rent them, or even sell them. In fact the late domus occupied, almost without exception, the ground floors of previous insulae or of pre-existing structures.

Fig. 2 – The western district of Ostia in late antiquity  (C. Pavolini e Studio Zeit).

Fig. 2 – The western district of Ostia in late antiquity  (C. Pavolini e Studio Zeit).

The owners may have occupied these homes for only part of the year, when they were obliged to undertake the duties of their offices (the presence of the important praefecti in late antique Ostia is discussed further below). They could also have been able to keep track of the trade activity at Portus from the luxury of their own homes—at a convenient distance from the hustle and bustle of the extremely profitable business endeavors in which many Roman senators were extensively involved. In fact, a primary feature of this late-antique “luxury residence phenomenon” was the tendency for the later houses to be concentrated along the Via Severiana, the western Decumanus and the Via della Foce (Fig. 2), a road that begins in southern Latium, crosses directly through Ostia to the mouth of the Tiber, then on to Isola Sacra and Portus.

The evolution of the architectural forms that characterize the Ostian domus of the later empire is a complex study. They might be seen as miniature reproductions of the great urban residences of the aristocracy. The earliest such constructions date to about 230-300. A fine example is the Domus della Fortuna Annonaria (Fig. 3), which revived the typology of the porticoed courtyard, or central peristyle. In Ostia the porticoed courtyard had occupied a place of honor among the construction techniques in luxury homes at the height of the second century, but was then temporarily abandoned in Severan period.

Fig. 3 – The peristyle of the Domus della Fortuna Annonaria.

Fig. 3 – The peristyle of the Domus della Fortuna Annonaria.

However, the architectural plans that revolved around the peristyle were in turn replaced with a new architectural style between the second half of the fourth and the fifth century. This new design incorporated two long narrow rooms, in the center of the house, set side-by-side. These rooms served to control access to the adjacent rooms. The surrounding rooms were often used for entertainment purposes (in which case then they are often equipped with an apse: see Fig. 4), or they were employed for various family activities.

Fig. 4 – The apsidal hall of the Domus della Fortuna Annonaria.

Fig. 4 – The apsidal hall of the Domus della Fortuna Annonaria.

A good example of this type is the Domus dei Tigriniani (Fig. 5), perhaps the latest of the prestigious residences of Ostia (approximately 420 C.E.). We have already seen that, along with other domus, it is adjacent to the western Decumanus, the arterial road that continued to thrive far into the later centuries of the city’s life (Fig. 2). The House of Tigriniani illustrates certain characteristics of this late period. These later, much larger houses—unlike those constructed in the third century—no longer occupy only the space corresponding to the ground floor of the existing insula, but encroach onto adjacent blocks and spill over onto stretches of public roads which were apparently no longer in use. They even incorporate all the shops that had previously formed a part of these blocks, while the upper floors, which had been accessed by independent staircases leading to rental apartments, are now being transformed into sumptuous single-family residences. Finally, we might hypothesize the existence of different passages that would have been designed for the different classes of people moving through the homes, some for the dominus and his family, others for the servants and visitors or clientes (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5 – The Domus dei Tigriniani (from Pavolini 2011).

Fig. 5 – The Domus dei Tigriniani (from Pavolini 2011).

Of course, domestic architecture does not represent the only field of construction in late ancient Ostia. Also during this period public construction projects are attested, but these are limited almost exclusively to beautifying and enhancing a specific path through the city. Dubbed the “Promenade” by Axel Gering, this path consists of the east-west stretch of the Decumanus from Porta Romana to the Forum, and, later, the junction outside the west gate of the ancient castrum. Here, with an abundance of marble revetment, they either restored or constructed elegant fountains, colonnaded squares, exedras, and monumental facades. These structures served to adorn the Decumanus while masking the deterioration of the surrounding neighborhoods, now largely abandoned. This architectural renovation culminated in the construction projects funded by some of the urban prefects and prefects of the grain supply during the last decades of the fourth century, a period of urban recovery. Other renovation projects included the restoration of some pagan temples as well as important entertainment facilities and utilitarian buildings, more or less overlooking the Promenade: The theatre, the three great imperial baths, and a macellum (meat market) whose location cannot be identified with certainty, but whose existence is attested by an inscription. This is one of the latest public constructions known to us (418-20 C.E.).

It is difficult to offer a historical explanation for this impressive phenomenon. However, it might be connected with the presence in the city of the aforementioned elites of the senatorial class who, in the absence of colonial magistrates old, could now offer themselves collectively as the patrons of the remaining population. This could also explain why the volume of imports of various goods at Ostia is not much decreased until the mid-fifth century. These oligarchs acted through the channels of the highest officials such as the aforementioned prefects, which belonged to their own order and social class.

Recent research of the German and British archaeological teams (the Berlin-Kent Ostia Ausgrabungen project) has documented many aspects of this late renaissance of the old monumental center of Ostia. Through excavation and detailed documentation research (e.g. Fig. 6), they have discovered that in the Forum marble slabs were used for repaving at least until the mid-fifth century. These activities were perhaps undertaken for the purpose of festivals, markets, outdoor shows and other activities that also would have employed wooden structures, traces of which can no longer be seen today.

Fig. 6 – The forum of Ostia. Detail of the pavement of the eastern portico of the fifth century, with some slabs reused from older structures (from Gering 2013).

Fig. 6 – The forum of Ostia. Detail of the pavement of the eastern portico of the fifth century, with some slabs reused from older structures (from Gering 2013).

As of yet there is no evidence that these late instances of public benefactions and community life in Ostia’s center continued much beyond the mid-fifth century. This period coincides with the final abandonment of some of the elite domus, as recent stratigraphic evidence has shown (Danner, Vivacqua, Spagnoli, 2013).

Translation by Mary Jane Cuyler

RECENT ESSENTIAL REFERENCES

  • M. Danner, P. Vivacqua, E. Spagnoli, “Untersuchungen zur Chronologie der spätantiken Wohnhäuser in Ostia – Vorbericht zu einem Kurzprojekt im Oktober 2012”, in Kölner und Bonner Archaeologica 3, 2013, 217-39.
  • S. Falzone, A. Pellegrino (a cura di), Insula delle Ierodule (c. d. Casa di Lucceia Primitiva: III, IX, 6), Scavi di Ostia 15, Roma 2014.
  • A. Gering, “Plätze und Strassensperren an Promenaden. Zum Funktionswandel Ostias in der Spätantike”, in Römische Mitteilungen 111, 2004, 299-381.
  • A. Gering, “Mit oder ohne Alarich”, in J. Lipps, C. Machado, P. von Rummel (a cura di), The sack of Rome in 410 AD, the event, its context and its impact, Wiesbaden 2013, 215-34.
  • A. Gering, L. Lavan, “Das Stadtzentrum von Ostia in der Spätantike. Vorbericht zu den Ausgrabungen 2008-2011”, in Römische Mitteilungen 117, 2011, 409-509.
  • S. Keay, L. Paroli (a cura di), Portus and its hinterland: recent archaeological research, London 2011.
  • M. Medri, V. Di Cola, Ostia V. Le Terme del Nuotatore. Cronologia di un’insula ostiense, Studi Miscellanei 36, Roma 2013.
  • C. Pavolini, “Un gruppo di ricche case ostiensi del tardo impero: trasformazioni architettoniche e cambiamenti sociali”, in O. Brandt, P. Pergola (a cura di), Marmoribus vestita. Miscellanea in onore di F. Guidobaldi, Città del Vaticano 2011, 1025-48.
  • C. Pavolini, “Rileggendo le domus delle Colonne e dei Pesci”, in Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome (on line) 2014, http://mefra.revues.org/1989.
  • C. Pavolini, “Per un riesame del problema di Ostia nella tarda antichità: indice degli argomenti”, in A. F. Ferrandes, G. Pardini (a cura di), Le regole del gioco. Tracce Archeologi Racconti. Studi in onore di Clementina Panella, Roma 2016, 385-405.

This text has been published under a Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Feel free to publish it on your websites, blogs… under the following conditions: You must give appropriate credit, mention the author and provide a link to this original publication and to the license indicated above. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.