The Context: Ostia, an urban model

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Ostia is the port city of Rome. It is located approximately 30 km to the south west of Rome, at the mouth of the Tiber river (Ostium being the latin word for “mouth”), on the ancient coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The archaeological site of Ostia is one of the most famous of the Roman world, by virtue of its exceptional state of conservation and its considerable extension, with more than 34 hectares of excavated area. The first extensive excavations took place in the 19th century, but most of what we see today was discovered between 1938 and 1940, during a massive excavation campaign ordered by the fascist regime and directed by Guido Calza on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition that was supposed to be held in Rome in 1942 (Calza 1938, 605-608; Santa Maria Scrinari 1987, 179-188; Olivanti 2001, 56-65). Although conducted with a method that is no longer usable today, these excavations allow us to appreciate the only Roman city of which we know almost entirely the plan, with its extent street network, its public, religious, commercial and residential buildings and the two harbour basins, considered as the largest port structure in Antiquity. All of this makes of Ostia one of the most significant archaeological sites in Italy and in the world, not only due to its extension and state of preservation, but also for the possibility to study the evolution of a Roman city through a very long period of time. Indeed, the area remained occupied for almost a thousand years, from the 4th c. BC to the 6th c. AD. Afterwards, the city of Ostia was relocated a few hundred meters away and became a small medieval village. The village still stands today under the name of “Ostia antica”, and has become one of Rome’s local districts, with ca. 12 000 inhabitants. The longevity of Ostia is indeed striking: born as a Roman colony, it has been able to transform itself over the centuries in order to survive all significant environmental, historical, political and cultural changes.


 

The archaeological, historical, epigraphic and environmental research undertaken at Ostia since a little more than one century has been able to document the long-term changes and transformations that affected the city in relation to these fluctuations of the natural-environmental, political, social and economic conditions. The major milestones of this urban transformation, as well as key research questions that have been neglected, partially examined or left unanswered in previous research, can be summarised as follows:

  • 4th to 2nd century BC : foundation of the primitive nucleus of the city, the so-called castrum, which consists of a military fort to control and defend the mouth of the Tiber and the salt pans (Calza et al. 1953, 63-77; Martin 1996, 19-38); shops, houses and temples have been built around it since at least the 3rd century. B.C., a sign that the area was frequented right from the start and that the military function was no longer predominant (see in particular Carta, Pohl, Zevi 1987, 9-164; Van Haeperen 2019, Ostia. Aire sacrée des Quatre petits temples; II, VIII, 2-4, n. 6; Van Haeperen 2019, Ostia. Aire sacrée de la Via della Foce; I, XV, n. 2); in the 2nd c. BC, Ostia should have appeared as a fully-grown city, whose extension outside the castrum and general organization can be determined. In fact, the parcelling of land in well-organized blocks, that will remain in place during all of the Ostian history, was already well-established in that period and followed perhaps an even earlier subdivision of land (Mar 1991, 81-109). The growth of the role of Ostia in the 2nd c. BC is confirmed by the intervention of the praetor urbanus Caius Caninius who, at the request of the Senate, delimits the ager publicus of the city with inscribed stone bollards (still visible today) in order to consecrate this public area to the loading and unloading of goods destined for Rome (Cébeillac-Gervasoni, Caldelli, Zevi 2010, 88-89). This operation clearly reveals the close relationship between Rome and Ostia and the definitive transformation of Ostia, who loses its military function to become the supplier of Rome.
    In the late Republican era, Ostia experienced a phase of intense urban development which, however, remains very little known. Our knowledge on the 2nd c. BC Ostian buildings is mainly due to the studies of G. Becatti (Calza et al. 1953, 97-99; Becatti 1961). Although his works are still essential today, recent studies have shown that some of the buildings dated by Becatti in the 2nd c. BC have to be dated instead to a more recent era (see in particular Angelelli 2016, 391-392). This consideration reveals the need for an overall re-examination of the Republican buildings analysed in the past in order to determine the correct chronology of the structures and to update our knowledge of Ostia’s 2nd c. BC urban fabric and architecture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • The 1st c. BC is a troubled century for Ostia as it is for Rome, characterized by civil wars and political instability. Only Octavian's victory against Mark Antony in 31 BC will bring a period of peace. We know from historic sources that Ostia was occupied and sacked several times, by Marius in 87 BC and by the pirates in 67 BC ca. In this delicate moment, the Ostian ruling class carefully follows the political events in Rome, siding first with Sylla and then with Octavian. In 63 BC, the famous orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, then consul of Rome, ordered to build a new city wall, with the aim of protecting existing constructions located outside the castrum, delimiting a safe space for new buildings and safeguarding the Roman identity of the city (Zevi 1998, 61-112; Zevi, Manzini 2008, 187-206; Glogowski 2020). In the same period, Ostia faces its first clear acceleration of its urban development, with the construction of new temples, storage buildings and a large number of prestigious houses (domus), especially in the western district (Zevi 2012, 537-563; Pavolini 2006, 54-56; DeLaine 2012, 327-354). These houses follow the traditional atrium-based plan and are very richly decorated (Falzone 2010). The level of these houses could rival with the richest houses on the Palatine in Rome, both in terms of dimensions and of decoration. One of the richest houses, and certainly the largest found so far, is the sc. Domus del Portico di Tufo, located in the western district of the city, along the decumanus, the main street of the city. The excavation of this house, whose existence was attested by limited surveys of the 1940s, started very recently under the direction of two promoters of the OsTIUM consortium, Marco Cavalieri and J. Richard, with M. Marano and P. Tomassini. The architectural organization and the decoration (paintings, mosaics and coloured concrete floors) of the domus show that, at the end of the Republican era and the beginning of the Empire, Ostia was inhabited by a very rich élite, close in terms of taste and economic capacity to the richest senators in Rome. Regarding this élite, many questions remain unanswered: by whom and how was it composed and structured? What can be concluded on its way of life?  What was the relationship between the Roman ruling class and the Ostian one in this crucial moment of Roman history? Besides the élite, how did the less-wealthy social classes live?

    At this stage of the research, it is not always possible to answer these important questions and we miss many crucial aspects of the social life of the time. We also note the lack of specific bibliography concerning late Republican Ostia in general. The main general source for this period, the study of M.S. Arena Taddei, which proposes the data already presented by Becatti (Arena Taddei 1977; Calza et al. 1953, 97-99; Becatti 1961), is indeed considered as outdated. As a result, a contrasted pattern emerges: there are, on the one hand, some buildings that have been well studied (see for example the Four Small Temples; Cuyler 2019, 127-146 with bibliography), whereas the majority of them has, on the other, remained widely neglected. In fact, the 1st c. BC archaeological structures, in particular the domus, discovered in different areas of the city below the excavated level (belonging globally to the 2nd c. AD phase), are only partially known and published (an exception is the Domus dei Bucrani, published in Perrier 2007, 15-109, and more recently the structures below the Caseggiato delle Taberne Finestrate, published in Tomassini 2020). Furthermore, no general research has ever been carried out on the 1st c. BC Ostian architecture. Therefore, the details of this early phase of intensive urbanisation escape our understanding, to the point that it is not clear whether the walls are the cause or the consequence of this early urban development. The only certainty is that the wall doubles the size of the city and, in a short time, almost all the territory within the wall is urbanized. As said previously, a re-examination of all known Republican and early imperial structures would be necessary in order to clarify unequivocally the chronology of the buildings and carry out a broader study on the whole urban fabric.

 

  • In 64 AD, Emperor Nero inaugurates the new port built by his predecessor Claudius (Morelli, Marinucci, Arnoldus-Huyzendveld 2011, 47-65); with the relocation of the port infrastructures to the north of the city, Ostia becomes the main supply centre of the capital and an important administrative and residential centre. As a result, the city undergoes a new significant phase of urban restructuring, with the construction of commercial and store buildings (Bukowiecki, Rousse, Monteix 2008) protected probably by a fire station (Zevi 1970), baths (Pavolini 2006, 61) and houses (DeLaine 2012, 327-354). The emperors' desire is to monumentalize the city and make it an appendage of Rome, a phenomenon already introduced by Augustus at the end of the 1st c. BC. A clear indicator of this building development is the important number of fragmentary wall paintings dated to the half of the 1st c. AD (the sc. “Fourth Style”) found in secondary position in later archaeological layers, which are an indirect evidence of newly built and/or decorated buildings (Marano, Tomassini 2018, 503-512). If we know in broad terms the construction activities undertaken in this period (with particular regard to the north-eastern sector of the city) and the historical premises from which they originate, we know nothing about how these constructions (public and private) were built, which authority promoted its realization, to which part of the population they were addressed.

 

 

  • Years 70-90 AD: due to flood problems, caused by the rising water from the subsoil and the frequent flooding of the Tiber, the level of the city is raised more than a meter in several areas. This leads to the general reorganisation of the urban fabric, with the reconstruction of a large number of buildings and the probable reassessment of the sewer system. The phenomenon of level-rising has received little attention in the past (Mols, van der Laan 1999), but it was much more widespread than we thought before; therefore it still needs to be considered on a broad, urban scale, as we know nothing about its extension and its nature, nor about the promotors of this initiative. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • 112 AD: emperor Trajan inaugurates a new hexagonal port basin, built by the famous architect Apollodorus of Damascus (Keay, Paroli 2011). This makes of Ostia the biggest harbour in the world. The emperor and his successor, Hadrian, invest a huge amount of economic resources and energy as never before on the port, but also on the city. The first half of the 2nd c. AD was again a pivotal period for Ostia during which the process of urban transformation undergoes an impressive acceleration (DeLaine 2002, 41-102; Heinzelmann 2002, 103-122). In a very short time span, the city completely changes its face, as entire districts are destroyed and rebuilt. New housing types appear, with the development of multi-storey residential complexes, conventionally called insulae, hosting several residential units, whose dimension, plan and decoration are adapted to different social strata of the population (Packer 1971; DeLaine 1999, 175-189; DeLaine 2004, 146-176). The commercial and industrial space is also increased (Rickman 1971; Schoevaert 2018), a clear sign that there is greater demand and greater attendance in the city, probably also by external and passing visitors. New baths are built, some also financed by the emperor and people close to the Imperial court (Cébeillac-Gervasoni, Caldelli, Zevi 2010, 148-149), whereas new, large temples, covered with marble, contributed to the renewed image of the city (in particular the Capitolium; Albo 2002, 363-390).

    The diversification of residential architecture and the developing of a wide variety of decorative solutions are clearly indicative of a series of transformations in the social organization of the city, with the development of a “middle-class”, perhaps composed of rich merchants and freedmen (DeLaine 2012). Moreover, the epigraphic and osteological remains found in the city show the arrival of a new population of very different ethnic, cultural and geographic origin (Licordari 1977; Pavolini 1986a). Despite this clear evidence, the socio-economic context of this boom has never been properly investigated. Was it a public initiative of the Ostian administration? Or, a project organized by the central imperial power? Alternatively, were the renovation works the results of a large speculation of private entrepreneurs, who wanted to make profit of the arrival of a new type of population?

 

  • Between 150 and 250 AD, Ostia sees a phase of stabilization after the boom of the years 110-120. The Ostian building activities of this period show some interesting and contrasting aspects: the large architectural projects tend to slow down, whereas the population continues to increase, as many shops are transformed into houses (Heres 2001) and new storage buildings are built. Moreover, some traumatic events, as one or more earthquakes at the beginning of the 3rd century (Fig. 9), may have caused the inhabitants of Ostia to rebuild and strengthen the walls of their houses. This phenomenon remains practically unknown in Ostia and it deserves more in-depth studies (Pecchioli, Cangi, Marra 2018; Tomassini forthcoming). More generally, aspects of Ostian daily life in Antonine and Severan eras are little known and little studied. It seems that there is a shift of activities towards the coast, where the Via Severiana was built, but little attention has been paid to the study of the social life of the population at this crucial moment, preceding the 3rd c. AD crisis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • From approximately the half of the 3rd c. AD and until the 6th c. AD, Ostia is strongly affected by the general crisis that strikes Rome and the rest of the Empire. The city gradually loses its cosmopolitan function of “door to Rome” and becomes almost an autonomous city: the gateway to Rome is now Portus, the city grown around the basin of Trajan. Ostia becomes a mere provincial town, less open to the outside world. Entire areas of the city are no longer occupied, which shows a significant decrease in the population, in favour of other neighbourhoods that are enjoying a new liveliness, especially along the decumanus, the Via della Foce and in the neighbourhood outside of Porta Marina (Pavolini 2002, 325-352;). The forum and the main roads continue to be renovated until the 6th century, even if it is only the facade and the decor of a city which, behind the scenes, is dying (Gering 2018). Within this reality, private owners buy several blocks together to build new houses, called domus, that are richly decorated and largely use recycled materials (Becatti 1949; Pavolini 2011, 1025-1048; DeLaine 2012; Danner 2017). Around these houses, an active but very limited local life develops, where the private sector takes precedence over the state, which no longer seems to intervene even in the maintenance of infrastructures (Pavolini 1985, 15-22; Pavolini 1986b, 239-283). The neglect of the city will lead to the progressive abandonment of the ancient core of the city, also caused by the withdrawal of the sea, the continuous floods and the progressive silting of the city. The remaining population of Ostia will gather around the Christian church of Saint Aura, a few hundred meters at the east of the city (Pannuzi 2008; Pellegrino, Raddi 2014). A large attention has been given to the architecture and the decoration of the late-antique houses (see supra) or the public and commercial areas (Gering 2018; Pavolini 1986b, 239-283), but other manifestations of the daily life of the Ostian population, as the renovations of existing buildings, the abandonment or destruction of others, are still less studied and we lack, once again, of a broad general picture. At this moment, in some areas of the city we can observe an interesting phenomenon: the closure of public streets which seems to become private or the encroachment of public streets by private building (see in particular the case of the closure of the Via della Casa del Pozzo; Boersma et al. 1985, 191). This reassessment of the urban area, with the privatization of public areas and the reallocation of spaces, seem to begin in the 2nd c. AD already (Spanu 2012, 31-51), but it is still largely unknown and deserves therefore an in-depth study.

 

As we can see in this overview of the major milestones in the evolution of Ostia, many shadows persist in the history of the city, and the picture delineated is still too flat and imprecise, with many aspects neglected or even left partially or totally unanswered. The general trend in Ostian studies is to follow rigid historical models that help better understand the macro-phases of the city life, but the reality, be it architectural, material, social, economic, cultural, was without any doubt more complex and more nuanced, and cannot be enclosed in a rigid model. During its long life, Ostia and its population have had to change many times in order to survive; every circumstance, positive (economic boom, demographic increase, investments of central power…) or negative (as floods, earthquakes…) produced effects on the urban development of the city and on the society. Not only could these circumstances affect different realities, such as the urban fabric or the various levels of population, but these effects could also undoubtedly vary in time, intensity or even spatial extent. It seems obvious that the “traditional” historical reconstruction in terms of global cycles (economic “boom”, crises, abandonment…) is not completely valid from a scientific point of view, because it does not take into account the fluctuations and the complexity of the phenomena that determined the transformation – but also the survival – of a bustling and transforming city as certainly was the port of Rome.


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