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Porta Romana necropolis


The Porta Romana necropolis consists of some sixty tombs. It was unearthed by Pietro Ercole Visconti in the years 1855-1859, by Dante Vaglieri in the years 1909-1913, and by Guido Calza in the period 1919-1923. The necropolis continued further to the east, but this part has not been excavated systematically. In recent years the necropolis has been studied in great detail by Michael Heinzelmann.

Burial places are always situated outside Roman cities. They flank roads leading to the city gates, over a long distance. The road that connected Ostia and Rome was called Via Ostiensis. It reached Ostia at the Porta Romana. To the south of the road, outside the gate, many tombs were excavated. The tombs also flank another road, to the south of and running parallel to the Via Ostiensis. This road is today known as the Via dei Sepolcri. It reaches Ostia at the so-called Porta Secondaria. Near the gates the two roads are connected by the Via di Hermogene. In the course of time tombs were modified and placed on top of each other. The necropolis not only contains tombs, but also various utilitarian structures, that will be described first.


C. 200-25 BC | Augustan to Flavian | Trajanic to early-Antonine | C. 150-300 AD (Heinzelmann 2000, Abb. 15-18).

Utilitarian structures

The masonry of building A15 is unique. It is opus mixtum that has been dated to c. 140-150 AD. However, not only small tufa blocks were used, but also small basalt blocks. The basalt is the same as that which was used to pave streets. The beautiful polychrome masonry was later covered with a thick layer of plaster. The structure was entered from the Via Ostiensis through a vestibule with a wide entrance. It could be closed off with beams at the south end. It is flanked by two shops with shop-thresholds. Behind the vestibule is a hall with two windows that were later blocked. The roof was supported by brick piers, one of which has been preserved. A staircase was placed against the west wall. In the north-west corner may have been a water basin. Clearly this was a utilitarian building. Heinzelmann suggests that it was a stable. However, the unique masonry and polychromy may also point to an office of those who built and decorated tombs. Inside are some sarcophagi, but these may have been placed there by the excavators.

A15 is surrounded by other utilitarian structures. To the east, hall A17 was added in the years c. 150-160 AD. Room B15, added still later to the south of A17, may have been a shop, facing Via dei Sepolcri. To the east of B15 is the Hadrianic structure B16b, also accessible from Via dei Sepolcri. A staircase leads to the first floor. It is flanked by two rooms. The western room or corridor leads to an irregular hall. Both the corridor and the hall may have been covered by cross-vaults. On the upper floor may have been apartments. Further to the east is the Antonine hall B17. In the Severan period a room was added in front of the entrance in the west wall. This too was not a tomb.

Another utilitarian cluster is found at the west end of the necropolis. The north part consists of shops. One shop (A5b), accessible from Via di Hermogene, was built in the later second century AD. A row of three shops behind a porticus is to the south of the Via Ostiensis (A6). There is a staircase leading to an upper floor. These shops were built in the first half of the second century AD. Complex B2 is on the intersection of Via dei Sepolcri and Via di Hermogene. It was accessible from the latter road. It was built in the second half of the second century. It consists of three small rooms to the north of a courtyard. In the westernmost room a door was hacked out later, connecting it with shop A5b. According to Heinzelmann this may have been a hotel, a hospitium. In the third century part of B2 was incorporated in B3, another utilitarian structure. It contains a well in a rectangular floor-niche. The north-west part had a pavement of basalt blocks. Between the two utilitarian clusters are two further shops, B9 and B10.

Some of these utilitarian structures may have been used by the undertakers. The workers belonging to this organization were not allowed to live inside the city. Their living quarters should be looked for amongst tombs, where they also stored various materials that were used during funerals.

The utilitarian cluster

The utilitarian cluster

Tomb types

The oldest burials are a group of approximately 35 cremations, that have been dated to the second and first century BC. Many of these are older than the two gates and the city wall to which the gates belong, constructed in the second quarter of the first century BC. Therefore it is not surprising that one of these burials (Z41) is located inside the later gates, but outside the much older wall of the earliest Ostia, the Castrum. In other words, part of Ostia was built on top of burials from the third and second centuries BC. In some of the urns (ollae) small bone objects were found of high quality, often with dionysiac motifs. Presumably this had been decoration of funerary beds.

In the middle of the first century BC, not long after the building of the city wall, the first funerary monuments appear with architectural decoration. The monuments are impressive, and on prominent locations, for example near a city gate. They are made of large tufa blocks (opus quadratum). In the Imperial period one or more sides could be decorated with travertine or marble slabs. In each monument only one person was buried. In the early Imperial period a very simple type of tomb is seen first. These tombs consist of an open area enclosed by a fairly high wall of opus reticulatum. Urns were placed in the ground of the area. The walls did not have a door, so that the areas could only be reached with a ladder. Also in the early imperial period the columbarium emerges. This is a rectangular building, with niches in the walls in which the urns were placed. The funerary chamber was often preceded by a small courtyard, the walls of which could also contain urns. Sometimes the columbaria had an upper floor.

In the second century AD inhumation replaced cremation. The bodies were usually placed in arched recesses in the walls (arcosolia) of the funerary chamber, sometimes in sarcophagi made of marble or terracotta, or in fossae in the ground. Sometimes the funerary chamber was an imitation of a temple. At the end of the second century AD the Christian author Tertullian wrote (Ad nationes I,10,26-27): "You build temples for the gods, you erect temples also to the dead; you build altars for the gods, you build them also for the dead; you inscribe the same superscription over both; you sketch out the same lineaments for their statues - as best suits their genius, or profession, or age; you make an old man of Saturn, a beardless youth of Apollo; you form a virgin from Diana; in Mars you consecrate a soldier, a blacksmith in Vulcan. No wonder, therefore, if you slay the same victims and burn the same odours for your dead as you do for your gods". Many statues as mentioned by Tertullian were found in Ostia, both in the necropolis and in the city, the latter near lime-kilns from late antiquity and the Middle Ages, to be burned.

A short description of some of the tombs

To the south of the Via Ostiensis are structures A1-A25. To the east of the Porta Romana are tombs A1 and A2. Both are monumental tombs from the first century BC. A curse tablet (tabula defixionis), made of lead, was found in A2. Former female slaves are mentioned (ornatrices, hairdressers; CIL XIV, 5306). Another curse tablet was found in tomb A18a. In this one at least twelve persons are cursed, slaves and freedmen (Solin 1968).

Near the two city gates the Via Ostiensis and Via dei Sepolcri are connected through the Via di Hermogene. It was named after tomb A3b to the east of the cross-road, on the intersection with the Via Ostiensis, a prominent location. The tomb was a high, square monument, perhaps decorated with marble (only part of the core has been preserved). The sarcophagus must have been placed in a room in the upper part, that was reached along a narrow staircase. Next to the tomb a long inscription was found (CIL XIV, 4642), that informs us that it was the last resting place of C. Domitius Fabius Hermogenes. The city council had honoured him with an equestrian statue on the Forum, the base of which has been found (CIL XIV, 353), and with a public funeral. Fragments were found of a marble architrave on which the name of Hermogenes has been preserved.

To the north of the Via dei Sepolcri are structures B1-B23. To the north of the west end are the scant remains of a round funerary monument from the early first century AD ("Tomba del Pretoriano", B4). According to an inscription (CIL XIV, 4494) it is the tomb of a soldier from Rome (his name has not been preserved) who died when fighting a fire, and was given a public funeral by the city. In this period there were no regular fire-fighters (vigiles) in Ostia, but Augustus had sent a Praetorian Cohort to the harbour for this purpose.

A bit to the east is a beautifully decorated tomb from the first century AD, with later modifications ("Tomba degli Archetti", B6). This tomb is famous because of its north facade. It is divided in sections by red brick pilasters. Between the pilasters are red brick arches. The lower part of the arches is filled with opus reticulatum. In the upper part are polychrome intarsios of rays, made of red and yellow bricks, and pieces of pumice. In this tomb a polychrome mosaic was found, that has disappeared. Depicted were a boar-hunt and parts of a ship. The south facade is interesting because of the decoration of two doorways and a window. One doorway and a window have thick travertine frames. On the lintel of the doorway is the inscription H(oc) M(onumentum) H(eredes) N(on) [S(equetur)]. A doorway to the right has a red and yellow decoration.

The columbaria B11 and B12 ("Colombari Gemelli") have an identical plan. They are particularly interesting because they contain staircases that led to a terrace that was used for funerary banquets. The area in between was originally an ustrinum, i.e. used for burning bodies, but later converted to a tomb (B13). In B12 a red brick aedicula for urns was added later. The upper part of its niche is decorated with small, polychrome pieces of terracotta. Many inscriptions from B11 mention the family name Cacius.

At the east end are the funerary temples B20 and B22. B20 was built in the second century AD. It was preceded by a small courtyard with a staircase. B22 may be Severan. In the back wall is an apse.

To the south of the Via dei Sepolcri are structures C1-C6. At the west end two rows of shops flanking a secondary street were built to the south of the Porta Secondaria, in the second century AD. C1-C5 were funerary temples. C3 was built around 200 AD by Vibussia Sabina for herself, her son T. Flavius Verus and her husband Gn. Ostiensis Hermes. In the facade was a large marble relief of Verus and his mother (width 1.81 m., height 1.12 m.).

On the intersection of the Via dei Sepolcri and a cross-road leading to the south is a huge marble sarcophagus, resting on a travertine base (C6). It belongs to the third century AD. An inscription on the front informs us that the monument was made by Sextus Carminius Plotinianus for his brother, Sextus Carminius Parthenopeus, and the wife of his brother, Carminia Briseis. Parthenopeus had been a member of the city council and had played a important role in the guild of the builders.

To the north of the Via Ostiensis four tombs from the early first century AD have been found (D1-D4). These were replaced by a row of shops in the Trajanic period. The Tiber must in antiquity have been very close.

Photographs and drawings

The east part of the utilitarian structure A15, seen from the Via Ostiensis.
To the left is a shop, to the right the vestibule. In the background is a hall,
with a brick pier that supported the roof. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The outer south wall of the utilitarian structure A15, seen from the west.
Note the thick layer of plaster. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Utilitarian structure B2, seen from the south-east.
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Utilitarian structure B3, seen from the south-west.
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The niche and well in utilitarian structure B3, seen from the north-west.
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Fragments of the bone decoration of funerary beds, from burial Z23.
Second half of the second century BC. NSc 1913, fig. 1 on p. 47.

The tabula defixionis from tomb A2 (0,105 x 0,105).
NSc 1911, fig. 6 on p. 87.

The tomb of C. Domitius Fabius Hermogenes (A3b). Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Formae for inhumation (A23). Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The north facade of the Tomba degli Archetti (B6). Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Detail of the north facade of the Tomba degli Archetti (B6).
Photograph: Laura Maish - Bill Storage.

A doorway in the south facade of the Tomba degli Archetti (B6).
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Detail of a doorway in the south facade of the Tomba degli Archetti (B6).
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

A columbarium with niches for urns (B8), seen from the south.
In the back wall is a large, central niche for urns.
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

A columbarium with niches for urns (B12), seen from the south.
Note the first steps of a staircase in the left part of the back room.
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

An aedicula for urns that was added in B12, seen from the south-west.
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Funerary inscription in tomb B14b:
("Marcus Saenius Aristo made it for himself and his freedmen and freedwomen
and their children; length and width 20 x 25 feet").
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker

The sarcophagus of Sextus Carminius Parthenopeus (C6).
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

A marble door of a tomb or funerary temple, found in 1916 on the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, and probably from the
Porta Romana necropolis. Each slab measures 1.80 x 0.80. The four seasons are depicted, between fasces.
The photograph was taken in 1963 by Arthur Fear. See NSc 1916, 140-141.

[jthb - 3-Nov-2007]