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Regio III - Insula IX - Case a Giardino

The Garden Houses (III,IX) were excavated in the years 1938-1942. The area to the north-west and south-west has not been excavated. To the south-east is a street (Via delle Volte Dipinte), to the north-east is an unpaved strip and then a row of shops flanking the Cardo degli Aurighi (III,IX,23-26). The date of construction of the Garden Houses can be established fairly accurately. Brick stamps have been found from the years 123-125 AD. The oldest wall paintings and (geometric black-and-white) mosaics have been dated to the years 130-140 AD. In the Hadrianic period the level of the area was raised considerably.

Plan of the complex. Cervi 1998, fig. 2.

Little is known about earlier buildings in the area. Buildings III,IX,25-26 were built during the reign of Trajan. In front is part of a porticus of thick travertine columns, perhaps from the first half of the first century. In 2006 a trench was open to the south-west of building III,IX,15, containing travertine drums of columns and a wall in opus mixtum (Trajanic?), with a different orientation than the Hadrianic buildings. In the walls of the trench was much charcoal, suggesting that the earlier constructions have been destroyed by a fire (the Fasti mention a large fire in Ostia in 115 AD).

The Garden Houses were a luxurious residential complex, with expensive apartments. It is located near the attractive ancient shoreline. The main, ornamental entrance (vestibule) of the "compound" was in the south-east side. Above an entrance in the north-east side is a brick relief of a stick, a parallel for which is found in the Caseggiato dei Misuratori del Grano (I,VII,1-2), where it is accompanied by a grain measure. The complex is made up of 16 medianum-apartments, a domus, and many shops. The apartments were shielded from busy streets by open spaces and rows of shops.

In the centre of the complex is a pair of two times four apartments (III,IX,13-16 and 17-20), back-to-back. These apartments were surrounded by an unpaved court, presumably a garden. On all four sides of the garden are further apartments. The apartments have a ground floor area of c. 220 square metres, but the use of two apartments by one family was planned: there are doorways between the apartments; with a simple blocking two regular, single apartments could be created. The apartments have the usual representative rooms with a height of two storeys, flanking the medianum. In several of the apartments extensive remains of paintings can be seen.

There are inner staircases, leading to the first upper floor. Outer staircases led to further floors. The thickness of the walls is 60 cm., suggesting a total of four storeys (c. 17.70 metres or 60 Roman feet) and perhaps 1200 inhabitants. The quality of the floors of the storeys varied: fragments were found of opus spicatum and mosaics.

In the garden are six large water-basins. Presumably they were originally covered. Water came from two spouts. Around the basins were gutters with depressions, in which buckets could be placed. According to Stevens the upper floors of the central apartments were supplied with water: rectangular verticular recesses contained terracotta pipes for drainage and lead pipes for the supply of water. The latter recesses are 30 cm. deep and contain a sediment resulting from leaking water. The recesses for drainage are smaller, and contain no sediment. Stevens also suggests that toilets were a standard facility on the upper floors. In most of the buildings of the perimeter there was no such water supply. The inhabitants of these buildings must have used the six basins in the garden.

In the garden a free-standing structure was built, between III,IX,1 and 13. On the floor is an irregularly shaped mosaic (preserved measurements 2.90 x 3 m.) from the Severan period. The central panel is black-and-white, the border is polychrome. A Nilotic scene is depicted, with crocodiles, pygmies, and flying amorini, the latter at a slightly higher level. The mosaic was surrounded by a wall of opus latericium. It seems to have been a basin, possibly with fountain niches. A sculptural group, found in a nearby room, may belong to it. The group is made up of a seated, naked fisherman and of fish in the sea. It has two large holes, through which water must have passed.

At a later date, perhaps in the later third century, shops and workshops were installed in many apartments, especially the central apartments,Shop-thresholds appear and wooden shelves were inserted in L-shaped grooves, for example in the central apartment III,IX,17. Some units (the Domus delle Muse, Casa delle Pareti Gialle and Casa del Graffito) remained luxurious dwellings. There mosaics were still repaired with polychrome marble, and paintings imitating marble were made.

The Garden Houses were largely destroyed by an earthquake, triggering also a fire. Traces of fire were found in the destruction layer and can still be seen in re-used fragments of upper floors. Torsion-cracks testify to the earthquake (masonry was lifted by the earthquake and then fell back, but sometimes the upper part of a wall came down not precisely on the lower part, so that a crack resulted that was a few centimetres wide). The latest coins found in the destruction layer belong to the reign of Aurelian (270-275 AD). They were found below collapsed ceilings in buildings 3-7. Some buildings were then rebuilt at a higher level, others at the old level.

The Domus dei Dioscuri (III,IX,1), Casa delle Ierodule (III,IX,6), Casa delle Pareti Gialle (III,IX,12), Casa del Graffito (III,IX,21) and Domus delle Muse (III,IX,22) were an integral part of the complex, but are described on separate pages. Here the "anonymous" apartments are discussed.

Click here to open a separate page about the paintings in the other apartments.


The Garden Houses seen from the north.
Image: Bing Maps.

The ornamental main entrance in the south-east side, seen from the south-east.
Note the blockings in opus vittatum and latericium, to the left and right.
Photo: Klaus Heese.

The entrance in the north-east side, seen from the north.
Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

Detail of the relief of a brick stick above the north-east entrance.
Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

View of the central apartments.
Photo: Klaus Heese.

View of the central apartments.
Photo: Klaus Heese.

Examples of recesses with lime sediments, resulting from leaking lead pipes, with which water was taken to the upper floors.
Stevens 2005, figs. 7-8.

The central basin at the south-east side, seen from the south.
Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

Detail of the central south-east basin: a gutter with holes for buckets.
Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

Artists's impression of the basin.
Image: Parco Archeologico di Ostia (M.A. Ricciardi).

The Nilotic mosaic from the garden.
SO IV, Tav. CXV.

The sculptural group of a fisherman and the sea.
Photo: Wikimedia, Lalupa.

A trench to the south-west of house 15.
Travertine column-drums from the first century, Trajanic (?) wall, Hadrianic foundation.
Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

[jthb - 24-Feb-2021]