The ancient Romans were masters of brick and concrete construction techniques. A walk through the streets of Ostia certainly reinforces that idea. The ruins of the old city highlight many phases of brickwork from the late Republic through the late antiquity. In our own work in historical archeology in Texas, we have come to appreciate the importance of bricks to the interpretation of archeological sites. We watch for the revealing marks on old bricks that might give us a clue to the date of construction of specific structures. So, when we were in Ostia this past spring, we paid attention to the brickwork in the ancient port city. On a day when we were on the west side of the castrum, our diligence was rewarded. In the Temple of the Ship Carpenters, we saw the imprint of a brick stamp in a section of exposed mortar on top of a low wall. A clear impression of the letters MARIANI could be seen. As usual, we took photos of the brick stamp so that we could review it later and attempt to identify the manufacturer.
Later that afternoon, our interest rose to a high level. While we were inspecting the Mithraeum of Fructosus, located south of the Decumanus Maximus, we encountered the same brick stamp again. The Mithraeum of Fructosus has a layout that is slightly different than the other mithraea in Ostia. The mithraeum is built under the podium of a temple and the ritual chamber is relatively small. A wall separates the mithraeum from a fairly large vestibule in front, and a narrow access corridor passes around the wall and goes down into the mithraeum.
With that, we became very curious about these brick, and on our return to the hotel in Rome, we began to search the lists of ancient Roman brick stamps on the internet. To our dismay, there was nothing. As far as we could find, there was no record of the MARIANI brick stamp. How could that be?
A few days later, we had a clue. On that day, we were walking through Ostia with archeologists Mary Jane Cuyler and Philipp Markus to see the synagogue on the far southeast corner of the site. On our way back to the Decumanus, we took the south route along the edge of the field. I suggested that we take a quick look at the Mithraeum of Fructosus, and we turned up the Via del Palmerio to the mithraeum. While we were at the mithraeum, I remembered the brick stamp matter that had puzzled us. I pointed out the bricks with the stamps lying on the top of the vestibule wall to Philipp and explained our dilemma.
Philipp stood there silently for a minute, carefully surveying the wall of the vestibule. Then, a wry little smile seemed to come to his face, and he began to explain: “You will notice that the bricks and masonry of the wall has two distinct layers. The mortar in the top layer is a darker shade than the lower layer. The bricks, too, are different in color than the bricks in the lower part of the wall. That suggests that the wall has been restored recently. Probably in the twentieth century. The bricks on top are modern bricks, not ancient ones.”
It turns out that the Mariani bricks were made near Rome. The Mariani brick factory (Fornace Mariani) was situated on the west side of the Tiber River about fifteen kilometers north of the Forum Romanum in the Castel Giubileo area. The kiln operated from about the 1940’s until the early 1970’s. After the factory closed, it became somewhat famous in the Italian cinema industry as a site location for several crime movies, including: Il trucido e lo sbirro (1976), Squadra antiscippo (1976), Squadra antifurto (1976), Paura in città (1976), Il grande racket (1976), Squadra antitruffa (1977), La banda del gobbo (1977), Quel maledetto treno blindato (1978), Speed Cross (1980) and Il giorno del cobra (1980) [see footnote 1].The ruins of the Mariani factory can still be seen from the bike trail along the Tiber near the Castel Giubileo bridge (Pista Ciclabile Ponte Milvio-Castel Giubileo). The closest access to the trail is across the street from Via del Ponte di Castel Giubileo, 29, and the ruins are about 100 meters to the south [see footnote 2]. The dates in which the Mariani factory was in operation correspond well to one period of restorations in Ostia. These restorations can be identified by the small plaques that were placed on the reconstructed walls. One example, marks the restorations that were done in 1962.
Much of the fascination with Ostia and its fabulous ruins comes from the ability to recognize different building phases from the construction materials and techniques used. Although we know that there were a number of restorations and reconstructions of the structures in Ostia during antiquity, we should also be aware that restorations also occurred in the twentieth century. We can see the signs of those modern activities if we are observant.
1 “La Fornace Di Castel Giubileo.” Il Davinotti, accessed June 13, 2017,
2 “Pista ciclabile / Ciminiera della vecchia fornace Mariani.” FZ Foto, accessed June 15, 2017,
Louis F. Aulbach, Linda C. Gorski
Louis F. Aulbach and Linda C. Gorski are members of the Texas Historical Commission Archeological Stewards Network. Gorski is the president of the Houston Archeological Society, and Aulbach is the vice-president of the Houston Archeological Society. They are writing a series of walking guides to the archeological ruins of ancient Rome. The first two volumes in the series, Along the Aurelian Wall and Campus Martius and Its Ancient Monuments, are available from Amazon.com and its European affiliates. The third book in the series will be a walking guide to Ostia Antica.
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