Back to menu

Ostia, Port City of Imperial Rome: Current Projects, Recent Research

The 105th Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America
San Francisco, California
January 3, 2004

Colloquium Overview Statement

Joanne M. Spurza, Hunter College, The City University of New York
Session organizer

Panels on ancient cities routinely appear on the AIA Annual Meeting Program, but never has there been a session devoted solely and specifically to Ostia, port city of Rome. This is an opportune time to redress the balance. A broad spectrum of projects is currently underway, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici di Ostia, under the direction of Prof. Anna Gallina Zevi. This colloquium aims to present important new results in Ostian studies to a wider North American audience perhaps unfamiliar with this work.

Viewed thematically, the seven papers fall into two broad categories: topography and monuments (papers 1-4), and society and culture (papers 4-7); the proposed order of presentation shows the bipartite division. There is even greater contrast in methodology, however, and my goal has been to strike a balance between old and new. The DAI-AIA Urbanistic Project employs modern technologies, including geophysical survey, the results of which revolutionize our knowledge of the unexcavated parts (i.e., the majority) of the town. New applications of computer modeling and statistical analysis revise our estimates of Ostia's population. More traditional approaches to urban topography characterize two papers that "revisit" the forum and the synagogue neighborhood: one challenges our interpretation of the city center, conventionally thought to be well understood; the other explores the Ostian periphery and extramural development.

Ostia remains a vast (and largely unstudied) repository of nearly all classes of ancient material remains, as three of the other papers attest. The study of public slaves/freedman relies on epigraphy, that on Augustales uses inscriptions with other evidence, while the third surveys the entire Ostian ceramic corpus. The session's discussant is a longtime Ostian researcher, whose scrutiny of architecture and the building trade makes her well qualified to reflect on the state of work at the site.

Since the 19th century, Ostia has had an uneven record of exploitation, excavation, and study, culminating in the massive archaeological campaigns under Mussolini (1938-1942). Major publications of this work, especially those of Calza, Gismondi, and Becatti (in Scavi di Ostia, 1954-), and later, Meiggs' Roman Ostia (1960/73), still stand as landmarks in 20th-century scholarship on Roman archaeology. In the sequel, these papers present some of the best of a "new generation" of Ostian studies that extend, deepen, and refine the understanding of "our primary archaeological source for the working life of a Roman city in the High Empire" (J. Stambaugh 1988).

Rediscovering a 'Well-Known' City: Final Results of a Joint DAI-AAR Urbanistic Research Project at Ostia

Michael Heinzelmann, Technische Universitaet Darmstadt
Archer Martin, American Academy in Rome

Because of the large-scale excavations in the 19th and particularly in the early 20th century and of the relatively good preservation of its ruins, Ostia, the ancient port of Rome, is one of the major archaeological sources for the Roman imperial period. It is often forgotten, however, that only about one third of the original area of the city has been uncovered so far, and that part is concentrated in the city center. Important questions as to the urbanistic structure of the outlying zones or the location of single buildings known only through literary sources remained open. Furthermore, in older excavations, which searched for the early- and middle-imperial city, the less attractive late antique or early mediaeval remains often were destroyed without documentation, so that important information on the late development of the city was lost forever.

Since 1996 the Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut and the American Academy in Rome have jointly dedicated an interdisciplinary project to the investigation of previously unexcavated areas of Ostia. Through the combined use of geophysical surveying, systematic evaluation of aerial photography and selected stratigraphic sondages, it was possible not only to make extensive additions to the city plan by locating previously unknown large structures (Constantinian episcopal church, river harbor with navalia and temple), but also to gain much greater insight into the long-term development of the city and its economy up to its final abandonment in the 7th-8th century. The project is now in its final study phase, and therefore definitive results can be anticipated.

UT-OSMAP: Mapping and Masonry Analysis in the Neighborhood of the Ostia Synagogue (IV.14-17)

L. Michael White, The University of Texas at Austin

Overlooking the ancient shoreline, the extramural quarter of Ostia's Porta Marina shows considerable development commencing in the latter part of the 1st century CE and lasting throughout the city's later history. The extent of this extra-urban development was largely unknown until new discoveries in the 1960's and '70's revealed a line of buildings stretching down the coastline along the Via Severiana below the monumental Porta Marina Baths (IV.10.1-2). Among the new buildings was a Jewish synagogue (excavated in 1961-62) and another small bath complex, known as the Baths of Musiciolus (excavated in 1981-85). Neither complex was fully excavated, and no final publications were issued. The UT-OSMAP project is a multi-year survey and masonry analysis of this neighborhood along the Via Severiana.

Having completed two seasons of field work, the project has established formal plans for all buildings relative to the GIS survey for the rest of the city. By means of masonry analysis, a detailed, multiphase architectural history of each complex is beginning to emerge. These findings are tested and correlated further by means of strategic soundings in unexcavated areas of each complex. In the light of other recent work in and around Ostia, the architectural history seems to correspond with the burgeoning of Ostia's "new" urban landscape of the late antique period (3rd - 5th centuries).

Topografia Particolare: Re-evaluating Ostia's Forum from the Inside Out

Genevieve S. Gessert, Hood College

The publication of the first volume of the Scavi di Ostia (G. Calza and G. Becatti et al., [Rome 1953]) codified the perceived link between Ostian urban development and imperial initiative. Calza and Becatti largely interpreted the monuments of the colony as miniature manifestations of trends and policies in the capital, at times downplaying the relevance of internal evidence. As a result, Ostia's primary role in the study of Roman architecture has been as a repository of building types lost in Rome (Ward-Perkins 1992). Uniquely Ostian buildings have frequently been excerpted from their own social and visual contexts (such as the Casa di Diana or Horrea Epagathiana) for inclusion in Rome's urban design. In addition, civic structures perceived to have a superior counterpart in the capital (such as the cosidetta Curia) have received only cursory consideration.

This paper seeks to deconstruct this Rome-centric view and re-establish the Ostian urban context by giving primacy to internal evidence. Concentrating on the monuments of the forum considered emblematic of Hadrianic intervention, such as the south porticoes (I.XI.4 and I.XII.11) and the Capitolium, this paper revises the stark traditional phasing of the forum development through detailed masonry analysis. This evidence, combined with additional epigraphic and archaeological indications, in turn reveals Ostia's forum not merely as an opportune locus for Roman expression, but rather as a uniquely Ostian civic space guided by local impetus. Using these centralized findings, this paper finally suggests new directions for the interpretation of Ostia's urban plan in toto.

Pottery Studies at Ostia

Archer Martin, American Academy in Rome

Ostia offers arguably the broadest spectrum of Roman pottery of any site in the Roman world, not surprisingly for the port city of the imperial capital. Normally, any ceramic ware or amphora traded in the Mediterranean will be attested by at least a stray example at Ostia. Pottery studies at Ostia began with publications in the 1970s and 1980s (particularly those of the Terme del Nuotatore) that have become standard reference points for pottery of the late 1st to the 4th-5th centuries. More recently, our knowledge of pottery at Ostia in both earlier and later periods has increased greatly. The evidence for the later centuries comes particularly from the joint DAI-AAR excavations in the previously unexcavated areas of the city, where the latest layers had not been eliminated by the clearances of the early to mid-20th century. The early evidence is provided by the examination of material from trenches excavated at various times and also of storeroom holdings. Both the early and the late evidence from Ostia itself is complemented by data from research in the surroundings of the city (e,g., the cemetery church at Pianabella and Portus for the late periods and villas in the hinterland of Ostia for the early ones).

Peopling Ostia: Reviewing Population Estimates for the Imperial City

Glenn R. Storey, University of Iowa

Population estimates for imperial Ostia continue to appear, and as with the question of the population of the city of Rome, there is likely to remain little agreement as to what is the correct figure for the population of either Rome or Ostia. This paper will review the history of population estimates for Ostia, and will present the results of recent work based on defining minimum residence units (referred to as architectural/residential units) from which a profile of high-occupation "spot densities" as well as average- and lower-density urban population contours for the rest of the city (and the oft-neglected "suburbs") have been modeled and mapped, and to which population-estimating parameters are then applied. The results derived from this computer mapping project are then considered in light of a new concept of the structural profile of the urban fabric of Ostia, one in which buildings are not considered to be of uniform height and profile, and whose construction history suggests a more haphazard evolution than that normally accepted in the context of Roman urban studies.

Using archaeological, iconographic and documentary data regarding Roman urbanization, I suggest that Ostia's skyline was more irregular and "jagged" presenting a significantly more jumbled profile than the traditional reconstruction offers. The demographic implications of this view will then be assessed and added to the conclusions reached from consideration of the urban demographic contours analysis.

Public Slaves and Freedmen in Ostia

Christer Bruun, University of Toronto

Ostia provides more information on the town's own slaves and freedmen (servi and liberti publici) than any other Roman town (except Rome, but in the capital the public slaves were state-owned). This provides an important opportunity for studying the condition of public slaves/freedmen in general, but also, specifically in Ostia, the interaction with other townspeople and the social mobility of the servi rei publicae Ostiensium and of the Ostienses (the characteristic family name born by freed town-slaves). A comprehensive study is lacking, but the material is there: a unique list of some eighty members of the familia publica (CIL XIV 255 = Dessau, ILS 6153 partially; Meiggs, Roman Ostia 335), probably from the second century, references in many individual inscriptions, and, again something special for Ostia, a massive presence of Ostienses among the lead pipe manufacturers of the town.

The size of the familia publica was, to judge from CIL XIV 255, not negligible, and many public slaves received their freedom. Did they and their families continue their social ascent? It is remarkable that few Ostienses can be found in the many large inscriptions of professional collegia and corpora in Ostia. Still, some Ostienses were active in manufacturing, as the lead pipes testify. Nor ought they to have been socially isolated, as their own "guild roll" indicates, for under the heading familia publica also some 25 men with other family names are listed. These seemingly contradictory pieces of evidence should be reconciled.

Augustales, Seviri Augustales and the Imperial Cult at Ostia

Margaret L. Laird, University of Chicago

Augustales and Seviri Augustales were present in the towns of the western Roman empire from the first through the third centuries C.E. Comprised primarily of freedmen and other outsiders, the organization is traditionally described as a priestly body in charge of the imperial cult. Recent examinations of Roman emperor worship, however, have downplayed the role of the Augustales and seviri Augustales, seeing them as members of a municipal collegium which constituted a second municipal ordo, and whose functions could include imperial honorific activities (Gradel 2002; Beard, North and Price 1998).

These studies overwhelmingly privilege epigraphic evidence over archaeological remains. Ostia, with its rich record of nearly two hundred public and funerary monuments and a building maintained by the order, provides a unique opportunity to examine the monumental habits of the organization. This paper examines the archaeological evidence within the context of imperial honorific activities in the town, considering official municipal temples, collegial shrines, and public dedications. It identifies an organization whose publicly-displayed alba and fasti, assembly hall and civic commissions emphasized their conformity with the visual rhetoric of the decurions, to whom they were often tied by familial and patron-client bonds.

Imperial honorific activity more frequently occurred within the context of the professional collegia, in which individual Augustales and Seviri Augustales participated, or in the cult of the Lares Augusti. The paper's conclusions archaeologically support the epigraphic findings as they further our understanding of the material remains of imperial honorifics at Ostia and throughout the Roman empire.

Janet DeLaine, University of Reading