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Regio II - Insula VII - Oratorio cristiano (II,VII,1)

To the south-east of the theatre are the scanty remains of a little Christian chapel, excavated in 1910 by Vaglieri. The area in which it was built, marked E on the plan, had a long and complex history. Nymphaeum II,VII,7 (B) was a decorative feature from the first three centuries AD. Other constructions in the area (C, D) were razed to the ground. In the late fourth or early fifth century a roughly triangular area was created, flanked to the south by columns, to the west by the theatre, to the north by two columns (on of which is on top of a street), and to the east by block II,VI. The level of this area was raised considerably and covered with many small pieces of marble.

Plan of the chapel

Plan of the chapel and its surroundings. Vaglieri 1914, Tav. IV.

The chapel (A) was built at a very high level. Part of an apse and a bit of wall to the east have been preserved, made of pieces of tufa, travertine and marble. It must have been approximately nine metres long. Some masonry (opus vittatum) has been dated to the sixth to eighth century AD. The chapel was built on top of nymphaeum II,VII,7 and on streets. Human bones, sarcophagi and fragments of sarcophagi were found around the chapel and below the floor. The sarcophagi are all from an earlier period. All these remains were found rather confused, but according to the excavator at least some of it belongs to proper burials on this spot, in reused sarcophagi.

One Christian sarcophagus has a central relief of Orpheus as Pastor Bonus (Good Shepherd), reliefs of a man and a woman on the corners, and on the lid the inscription:


Translated: "Here Quiriacus is sleeping in peace". The sarcophagus, still in situ, was made in the third or early fourth century. The inscription on the lid, now in the storage rooms, might be from the fifth century. Who was this Quiriacus? During the reign of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus, in 269 AD, a bishop of Ostia, Cyriacus, was executed in Ostia, together with seventeen converted soldiers. The soldiers were beheaded ad arcum ante theatrum, "near the arch in front of the Theatre". This is clearly the Arch of Caracalla of which the remains can be seen in front of the theatre. Cyriacus was executed on the same spot as the soldiers, or in prison. The sarcophagus with the relief of Orpheus must have been transferred to the spot of the executions in late antiquity, to hold the bones of the martyr, who had been buried outside the city. At that time the lid with the inscription referring to Cyriacus was added.

The triangular area mentioned above may have been a forerunner of the chapel, an earlier monumentalization in honour of the martyrs. The chapel was visited for many centuries. As late as 1162 AD the faithful went to the ecclesia Sancti Ciriaci extra villam, the church of Saint Cyriacus outside medieval Ostia. They came from Gregoriopolis, modern Ostia Antica to the east of the excavations, and followed the old Via Ostiensis and Decumanus Maximus. But by now the tombs and buildings flanking the road were half-buried ruins. From some point in time the chapel was forgotten and neglected. Perhaps the bones of Cyriacus were eventually transferred to Rome.1


The remains of the chapel seen from the Decumanus, from the south-east.
Two modern commemorative inscriptions are in and to the right of the apse.
Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

The outer west wall of the chapel, seen from the west.
The column belongs to the nymphaeum below the chapel.
Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

The sarcophagus of Cyriacus.
Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

The two northern columns of the late-antique triangular area.
They are still standing at the high, late-antique level.
Seen from the south-west. Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

(1) For the Christian tradition built up around this area see F.A. Bauer, "Stadtbild und Heiligenlegende. Die Christianisierung Ostias in der spaetantiken Gedankenwelt", Die spaetantike Stadt und ihre Christianisierung (G. Brands - H.G. Severin edd.), 2003, 43-62.

[jthb - 26-Jul-2020]