Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.38

Christer Bruun, Anna Gallina Zevi, Ostia e Portus nelle loro relazioni con Roma. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae, 27.   Rome:  Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2002.  Pp. 305.  ISBN 952-5323-04-8.  EUR 45.00.  

Contributors: Anna Gallina Zevi, Christer Bruun, Fausto Zevi, J. Michael Rainer, Janet DeLaine, Michael Heinzelmann, Joanne Spurza, Olli Salomies, Nadia Agnoli, Claudia Valeri, Roberta Geremia Nucci, Filippo Marini Recchia, Daniela Pacchiani, Francesca Panico, Paola Olivanti

Reviewed by David Noy, University of Wales, Lampeter (
Word count: 2145 words

These papers were first given at a conference in December 1999 at the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae. They make another contribution to the currently flourishing field of Ostian studies. The fundamental question addressed according to the introduction is whether Ostia (including Portus) was part of Rome or a city in its own right, but it has to be said that not all of the contributors seem to have much interest in this. The papers are arranged by topic: the origins of Ostia, building activity, demographic and administrative links between Rome and Ostia, art and architecture at Ostia, and the excavation of Ostia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are mainly in Italian, with two in German and three in English.

Fausto Zevi, "Origini di Ostia" goes back to the supposed foundation by Ancus Marcius and hopes (perhaps rather optimistically) that new discoveries will resolve the differences between literary and archaeological evidence. There are differences within the literature too: Livy thinks Ostia developed through salt-panning rather than as a port, as Ennius states. The moving coastline must have had a large effect on the location of ancient as well as modern habitation, but Romans in the Augustan period were unaware of this and wrongly imagined continuity from the legendary foundation stories to their own day. The mouth of the Tiber was already under Roman control when Greeks were settling in the Western Mediterranean. The archaic cult of Vulcan at Ostia probably belonged to the "pre-Hellenic" period, and the Dioscuri cult seems to be a local one going back to the establishment of the "castrum" in the 4th or 3rd century BC.

J. Michael Rainer, "Aspekte des römischen Baurechtes und Ostia", gives a survey of private building law, with some suggestions at the end about how it might have applied at Ostia.

Janet DeLaine, "Building activity in Ostia in the second century AD", shows how a very close analysis of building techniques and brickstamps can yield unexpectedly detailed information about the dating of buildings and about how Ostian builders worked. She takes this approach further than she has done elsewhere, for example in her contribution to "Roman Ostia" Revisited (London, 1996). In Insula 1.ix, three buildings dated to c.114-118 prove to have been designed separately from each other and built by different contractors and workmen, even though they all used the same bricks; she takes this as clear evidence of rapid but piecemeal development. One building in this insula, the Caseggiato del Larario, has distinctive L-shaped door jambs which seem to be the "signature motif" of one contractor and can be found in buildings elsewhere in Ostia. Some of these buildings use different materials, suggesting that it was the patron not the contractor who was responsible for providing or at least sourcing these. She calculates that each of the buildings could have been built by a contractor with eight to ten men and about the same number of day labourers in a period of between two and five years, and she is thus able to reconstruct the unknown contractor's activities over several decades. The range of brickstamps found in some public buildings such as the Forum Baths suggests that the sources of bricks were closely related to the patron's personal contacts; her assumption seems to be that obtaining sufficient bricks for a project was potentially problematic. A comparison between brickstamps from the Caseggiato del Serapide and Case a Giardino in Region III suggests that the former had a patron from outside Ostia while the materials for the latter were acquired by the contractor himself (not a patron), perhaps for a speculative development. Close examination of the Piccolo Mercato shows significant variations in techniques and materials, indicating that at least two teams of builders were at work although it was a single project; this could have been planned, or the result of bringing in an extra team, perhaps because the first one was sacked or defaulted. There is much more in the article than can be summarized here. Although the evidence used is very specialized, the conclusions are potentially wide-ranging for the understanding of business and employment in early second-century Ostia. Appendixes give full details of brickstamps from the buildings discussed, and investigate the chronology of the "Capitolium" group of buildings previously dated to c.120. Some text seems to have disappeared on p.97.

Michael Heinzelmann, "Bauboom und urbanistische Defizite -- zur städtebaulichen Entwicklung Ostias im 2. Jh." begins with a general survey of the building development of the "Kleinstadt" up to the early imperial period. There was an unparalleled building-boom from the time of Domitian and especially in the first half of the second century. The expansion led to the creation of an Ostian "Trastevere", with a range of buildings, and the city's old population quickly became a minority among new arrivals. The redevelopment relied on private capital and land, giving it a largely unsystematic nature and restricting the course and breadth of the streets and the homogeneity of the buildings along them. Many new storage buildings were erected in the second century, most apparently by private enterprise and many with adjacent shops, showing that Ostia's commercial importance was not diminished by the creation of Trajan's harbour at Portus. Ostia was not only the port for supplying Rome but also a focus of central Mediterranean commerce in its own right. The second-century building boom in the centre of Ostia was the result of private speculation based on heavy commercialization and seems to have pushed out the owners of earlier small and medium-sized properties. While all this was going on, there was a significant lack of new public building. The infrastructure did not keep up with the rapid impact of the building of Trajan's harbour, perhaps because the wealth was in the hands of newcomers who did not yet identify with the city.

Joanne Spurza, "The emperors at Ostia and Portus: imperial visits and accommodation", finds a correlation between emperors' visits and imperial acitivity there in the first century, but not later, when there is no longer literary evidence for specific visits by emperors. The Ostian building traditionally known as the "Palazzo Imperiale" was probably the headquarters of a collegium. The nature of the possible "Palazzo Imperiale" on the north-west side of Trajan's harbour at Portus is still uncertain, but it could have been designed for housing important people who were passing through.

Olli Salomies, "People in Ostia. Some onomastic observations and comparisons with Rome", compares names from Ostia with those from Rome and (briefly) Aquileia, using a database of 6,900 Ostians with an identifiable nomen. Numerous tables provide a great deal of raw data, not all of which is explained (he repeatedly points out that he is not an Ostian specialist): according to Tab.2, Egrilius was the second commonest nomen at Ostia but extremely rare at Rome, but there is no discussion of this. Salomies highlights some surprising differences between Ostia and Rome, both in the prevalence of particular nomina and in the preferred combinations of praenomen and nomen. Over fifty nomina are found at Ostia and elsewhere but not at Rome, and another fifty are found at Ostia and nowhere else. The praenomen Decimus and the cognomen Mercurius were surprisingly common at Ostia. Names suggest substantial immigration to Ostia from Africa. Twenty-three Ostian magistrates have praenomen/nomen combinations which are not otherwise attested at Ostia, suggesting that their freedmen are not recorded in the city because the magistrates themselves were not resident there. These are particularly interesting examples of how onomastics can give insights into aspects of social history which would not otherwise be recoverable.

Christer Bruun's "L'amminstrazione imperiali di Ostia e Portus" is based mainly on the evidence of stamped water-pipes. A newly published one shows the grant of a water-supply to the praefectus annonae of c.AD 62-70, suggesting that the prefecture already had an established presence at Ostia by this date. In the second century, numerous officials are known with some variation of the title procurator annonae. Those entitled procurator portus utriusque functioned at the harbours of Claudius and Trajan but not in the urban centre of Ostia. Tab.2 lists the pipes which are stamped with the names of imperial functionaries, and Tab.3 those with emperors' names, a total of about thirty-five (about 45% of all stamped pipes at Ostia, a much higher proportion than at Rome). These show, contrary to what Meiggs believed, substantial activity by the Severan emperors. A lack of imperial stamps from the Flavians to Trajan may suggest that local initiatives predominated for the water-supply of that period. Officials of the imperial financial administration were subsequently active in the Ostian water-supply, presumably overseeing public building projects as they did at Rome. Although it is not discussed, this seems consistent with Heinzelmann's arguments, suggesting imperial involvement in the provision of an infrastructure which could not be left to local initiative.

Nadia Agnoli, "Officine ostiensi di scultura funeraria", shows in a very well illustrated paper that sarcophagus production at Ostia was independent of that at Rome. Some pieces found at Ostia are clearly unfinished, and must come from local workshops. Some items of apparently Ostian production were found at Rome and in Sardinia, Sicily, Spain and Africa, where they were presumably taken by ships which had delivered grain and oil to Ostia.

Claudia Valeri, "Arredi scultorei dagli edifici termali di Ostia", sets out to contrast groups of statuary found in baths at Ostia and Rome. The Porta Marina Baths had statues of Trajan, Hadrian and their relatives, but other statues such as a series of Labours of Hercules which may be from the baths are of less certain provenance. The Baths of Neptune contained a high-quality statue of Septimius Severus, made at Rome. The Forum Baths had statues of Asclepius, Hygeia, Fortuna and Isis, which Valeri thinks could come from one workshop. Later restorations there added statues of Valens and, probably, Ragonius Vincentius Celsus, praefectus annonae. The Ostian baths have an unexpectedly high number of portrait statues of private individuals (usually unidentified), who were presumably benefactors.

Roberta Geremia Nucci, "Decorazione frontonale del tempio di Roma e di Augusto di Ostia", records an attempt to reconstruct the arrangement of figures on the pediment of the Tiberian-era temple, with a representation of Augustus's clupeus virtutis and corona civica at the centre, held by one or two figures of Victory.

Filippo Marini Recchia, Daniela Pacchiani and Francesca Panico, "Scavi ad Ostia nell'Ottocento. Dalle escavazioni pontificie alle indagini di Rodolfo Lanciani", study through documentary sources the nineteenth-century excavation of Ostia. The original plans of Abbot Fea for systematic investigation and local display of the finds were replaced by treasure-hunting and licensed private activity. Marini Recchia is able to identify from the records some unprovenanced sculptures in the Vatican as Ostian. Cardinal Pacca was responsible both for legislation in 1820 for the protection of "Belle Arti" and, ultimately, for the dispersal of many of the most important finds from Ostia, which he had taken into his own collection, only some of which can now be traced. The labour for the Vatican excavations of P.E and C.L. Visconti in 1855-70 was done by prisoners working in the non-malarial season between December and June; after 1870 the excavations of the new state Soprintendenza were partly a job-creation scheme for the unemployed who were flocking into Rome. Proper documentation (although not as full as could be desired), and the study of Ostia as a whole, only began with the work of Lanciani in 1877-1889.

Paola Olivanti, "Dante Vaglieri alla direzione degli scavi di Ostia Antica (1908-1913)", continues the history of the excavations, which only resumed seriously with Vaglieri's appointment. Vaglieri's improvements included the establishment of a photographic archive, and the article includes fourteen photographs from his period in charge. Olivanti argues vigorously for his importance in the development of Italian archaeology.

The book has been very carefully edited, with a detailed general index and comprehensive cross-referencing between papers. There is no separate bibliography for the whole book or for the individual papers, and a general plan of the site would have been useful. The illustrations are plentiful, even running to colour photographs for DeLaine's paper and coloured maps for Heinzelmann's. The title of the book and the aims set out in the introduction prove to be slightly misleading, because few of the contributors deal either with Portus (which appears on only one plan, with no indication of its location relative to Ostia) or with relations with Rome. Nevertheless there are some very substantial contributions to the study of Ostia, particularly the methodological advances of Delaine and the new perspective of Heinzelmann. Other contributors provide important discussions or data for more specific areas of study. It is to be hoped that potential readers will realise that the book is a significant contribution to the general history of Ostia, and will not be misled by the more limited scope implied in the title.

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