The Synagogue is situated at some distance to the east of the Terme di Porta Marina, to the south of the Via Severiana, near the ancient sea-shore. It was discovered in 1961 and excavated by Maria Floriani Squarciapino. The oldest phase (opus mixtum) has been dated to the middle of the first century AD. It was modified extensively in the early fourth century (opus vittatum; a coin of Maxentius provides a terminus post quem). Also, perimetral walls were reinforced, perhaps in relation to the earthquake that struck Ostia in the late third century.
The Jewish community in Ostia is mentioned in an inscription found in Castel Porziano, to the south-east of Ostia. We hear of the [universitas] Iudaeorum [in col(onia) Ost(iensi) commo]rantium, and of the gerusiarches ("president of the elders") Caius Iulius Iustus. In the necropolis to the south of Ostia, on the Pianabella, the funerary inscription has been found of an archisynagogus, Plotius Fortunatus. Note that these Jews have adopted Roman names.
Plan of the Synagogue. From White 1997.
The Synagogue is oriented towards the east-south-east, i.e. Jerusalem. The building was entered from the Via Severiana through a porch. Two treads led down to vestibule or corridor A (length c. 23.60 m.). Near the entrance is a well with a marble well-head. In the west wall of the vestibule are five doors. Two steps led down to corridor B, with a mosaic floor. In the room to the north is a shallow basin (for ritual washing?). Through room C, which has four marble columns in the corners, the main room of the building was reached: aula D. The latter room is rectangular with a curved back wall, in front of which is a podium (bimah) for the reading of the Law (the first five books of the Old Testament, Torah). There seem to have been wooden seats. The floor is decorated with polychrome marble. In the walls were high windows.
A few steps led to an apse next to room C. Here the scrolls of the Law were stored. A Greek inscription from the building mentions the donation of a chest (ark) for the scrolls, by Mindus Faustus, at his own expense. The inscription begins with the Latin words Pro Salute Aug(usti) ("For the well-being of the Emperor"). It has been dated to the second half of the second century AD. In front of the apse are two small columns supporting consoles with gilded reliefs of Jewish symbols: the seven-branched candelabrum (menorah), the ram's horn (shofar), the lemon (ethrog) and the palm-branch (lulav). A fragment of a stucco relief of a lion was found in the building, and may well belong to this shrine, forming part of a pair flanking the Law. The room may have been called simma, i.e. the Greek letter sigma, written as C (the shape of the apse).
Reconstruction drawing of the Torah-shrine.
From Floriani Squarciapino 2001.
The seven-branched candelabrum.
Photograph: Eric Taylor.
To the south is the large room E, with benches set against two of its walls (depth 2.05 m.). In kitchen G are a furnace and a marble table, for preparing the unleavened bread. In and on the floor were amphorae for fluids (wine, olive oil, ...). On the floor are geometric black-and-white mosaics. In the room lamps decorated with the seven-branched candelabrum were found. To the west of the building is corridor J, behind which is structure K, which is the northern part of IV,XVII,2.
Drawing of the remains. From Zevi 1972.
The Ostian Synagogue was located outside the city walls and near the beach. Runesson and Mitternacht explain this as follows. First, Jews avoided worshipping within city walls that contained pagan sanctuaries. Secondly, the beaches of seas and especially of the Mediterranean Sea were regarded as pure spots for ritual ablutions.