Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.10.39

Hanna Stöger, Rethinking Ostia: a Spatial Enquiry into the Urban Society of Rome's Imperial Port-town. Archaeological studies Leiden University, 24.   Amsterdam:  Leiden University Press, 2011.  Pp. 315.  ISBN 9789087281502.  €45.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Mary Jane Cuyler, University of Sydney (

e text

No buildings were harmed in the creation of this book. Joining the growing trend of non-destructive archaeological enquiry, Hanna Stöger’s 2011 Leiden University doctoral thesis Rethinking Ostia employs Space Syntax software and GIS to explore three spatial aspects of Rome’s closest port: its street system, its guild seats, and a city block. She also makes a profound contribution to Ostian archaeology with an in-depth architectural analysis of the structural phases of Insula IV ii, a previously understudied block located near the Porta Laurentina.

Every visitor to Ostia has the opportunity to wander its basalt-paved streets and explore the ruins, stepping from room to room, climbing up stairs for a peek from the second storey, wandering in and out of adjacent buildings. Yet it is difficult to imagine how people would have moved through the city at any given period in antiquity, because the buildings were constantly being constructed, torn down, and renovated. It is not always easy to tell where doors would have been, or to discern “public” from “private”. Stöger demonstrates that we can begin to do so by a careful sequencing of the building phases and by using archaeological finds to determine the function of a space. She then employs Space Syntax to answer the question of how humans interacted with the spatial structure of the buildings, the block, and the city streets.

Space Syntax theory is based on the observation that social and cultural patterns are imprinted on spatial layouts, and that spatial layouts can enforce social and cultural patterns. In the 1970s, a team of architects developed Space Syntax theory to detect, describe, and analyze the influence of social factors on the construction of spatial patterns and to explore how these spatial patterns affected social life.1 Today, Space Syntax consists of a number of tools that are used to model different aspects of spatial configurations, based on observations of how people actually respond to, and move through, space. Although developed as a tool for architects, Space Syntax theory is useful for archaeologists because it provides interpretive models for the spatial configurations we encounter in ancient buildings and cities. Stöger’s application of this theory builds on work already done in Pompeii, Roman Emporiae, and the medianum apartments at Ostia.

After a literature review (chapter 1) and an overview of this previous work (chapter 2), Stöger devotes her third chapter to describing the three Space Syntax tools she uses in her study. The first, Access Analysis, analyses how spaces within a given structure relate to each other. This can guide us in understanding how difficult or easy is it to access a given space, based on the number of rooms opening onto it, and the number of rooms you have to walk through to get to it. The second is axial analysis, which looks at probable lines of movement through a structure or city based on various factors, such as straight lines (people tend to avoid turning onto side streets or doors if continuing straight is an option). The third is visibility graph analysis, which looks at the inter-visibility between spaces. A space that can be seen from a number of other places has high visibility and therefore is likely to have a lot of foot traffic, because people tend to move toward places within their line of sight. This three-pronged approach to her data ensures that different but coexisting aspects of space are given equal attention.

In chapter 4, Stöger details the methods and techniques used for data collection and spatial analysis . Ostia lacks a sufficient number of reliable geo-referenced points, and no completely accurate plan of the site exists. Stöger, as a member of the team from the University of Leiden, undertook a Differential GPS (DGPS) survey in 2008, concentrating on Insula IV ii and the surrounding area as well as some of Ostia’s local reference points. They produced a digital site plan based on the 1995 plan published in Mannucci’s Atlante di Ostia Antica, geo-referenced Insula IV ii, and aligned it with an aerial photograph. Stöger then used a geo-referenced database for recording details of each standing structure in Insula IV ii, and the maps and database were linked using ArcGIS. All of this work was necessary to create reliable data for the Space Syntax analysis, and demonstrates Stöger’s commitment to precision and accuracy.

Chapters 5 through 8 provide the spatial analyses of three areas of Ostia, each chosen to “address the ancient city at different scales” (p. 51): the street system (the macro-scale), Insula IV ii, (the medium, “local neighborhood” scale), and select individual guild seats (scholae) to represent the micro-scale. The bulk of the analysis focuses on the Insula.

.In chapter 5 Stöger provides a detailed analysis of the structural remains of each building of Insula IV ii, creating a nuanced history for this frequently overlooked and understudied city block. And what a city block it was! It boasted 14 buildings in its heyday (the early 3rd century CE), including tabernae and a hostel, the mithraeum “of the animals” (Mitreo degli Animali), extensive baths, inner courtyards and private homes. Stöger eloquently tells the “story” of the Insula and each of its buildings, from their construction and renovations in antiquity (1st century BCE - 3rd century CE) and the history of their modern day excavations and reconstructions.

Such a thorough examination of this little-studied Ostian neighborhood is no small feat. Insula IV ii underwent a series of excavations and reconstructions that were only partially documented, so Stöger relied upon a combination of archival photographs, scattered publications, notes from the Giornale degli Scavi and her own architectural expertise. Her persistence with archival material hits pay dirt in the analysis of a door in the Caseggiato dell’Ercole (apartment of Hercules) that opened between a street front room and an inner room that led to an internal courtyard. An archival photograph taken during the 1939-1940 excavation campaign shows a walled-up door (Figure 5.38), but all traces of this wall had been removed by excavators and it was recorded nowhere on any plan. This ancient renovation may have seemed a trivial detail to the original excavators, but is crucial for understanding the changing functions of these rooms and buildings. During her research on the Terme del Faro (the Lighthouse Baths), Stöger also discovered that these baths frequently had been confused with the great Terme del Foro (Forum Baths), both in the literature and in the archival system of the Soprintendenza di Ostia. In the process of untangling the two bath complexes, she was able to “repatriate” a number of statues to the Terme del Faro, which are now in preparation for publication. The “archaeology of archaeology” can be very fruitful at Ostia!

This detailed reconstruction of the Insula resulted in a number of interesting observations. For example, the buildings were so closely linked to each other that every act of construction or renovation on any structure within the Insula had an effect on its neighbors. A unique feature of this Insula is the total absence of structures converted into a private luxury domus in the 4th/5th centuries, at a time when Ostia had become something of a resort town. Stöger suggests that this could have been due to the interdependent nature of the buildings of the Insula, which would have limited the renovation potential of individual plots.

Results of the structural analysis show that heyday of this Insula was the Severan period (190-225 CE), when the baths were enlarged, a private dwelling was converted into a hostel (Caupona del Pavone), a number of the buildings were refurbished, and all the commercial structures were fully functional. Stöger observes that this reinforces Pavolini’s theory that during the 3rd century CE Ostia shifts from “boomtown” to “consumer city”.2 Most important for the present study is that the Severan period of the Insula provides the best “time slice” for the Space Syntax analysis, because all of the existing buildings were functionally and spatially related.

Chapter 6 analyzes the spatial organization of the Severan period insula. This chapter is highly technical, but since Stoger does not assume any prior knowledge of Space Syntax theory, this amply illustrated chapter can serve as a good introduction for novices (such as myself!). Access Analysis proved especially useful for studying the Insula. Stöger is able to make a number of interesting observations about life in and around this bustling city block and its individual buildings. She found that the Insula shared a feature in common with domestic architecture in the way it controlled access and movement of residents and visitors in different ways. The commercial structures interfacing with visitors coming in from the street maintained only shallow access to the building, and access to inhabited areas was much more restricted. The baths were designed in such a way that “the flow of movement seems to almost reflect the thermal flows” (p. 167). The mithraea of Ostia always seem to be hidden away in buildings, and Access Analysis confirmed that the Mitreo degli Animali exhibited low integration and control values at its presumed entrance area (thus it did not promote interaction with casual visitors).

Chapter 7 begins with an overview of the development of the streets of Ostia and a review of scholarship before moving into an analysis of how Ostia’s streets were negotiated in antiquity. Stöger chose to use the map attachment from Scavi di Ostia I (1953), pianta delle regioni e degli isolati, as the base map for her analysis of Ostia’s street network. Although useful for the representation of most known streets at Ostia, it precedes the 1961 discovery of the synagogue and the Via Severiana and thus excludes this important road from the analysis. Surprisingly, Stöger does not provide a labeled plan of the street network, so readers unfamiliar with Ostia will have some trouble following the arguments in this chapter.

The most integrated and accessible streets were the eastern and western decumanus and the Via della Foce, which leads from the forum to the mouth of the Tiber. Interestingly, the Via Sabazeo might have been the prime route to and from Ostia’s southern areas, and not the Cardo or the Semita dei Cippi, as has been thought. Areas of discontinuity were identified in the urban grid, where blocks seem to have grown over existing streets and restrict the flow of movement through the city.

In the final chapter, Stöger analyzes the relationship between five contemporary 2nd century guild buildings (scholae) and the street network of Ostia. Four of the scholae were integrated with the public street space and maintained a strong exterior presence. Interior spaces such as courtyards were not immediately accessible from the building entrance, maintaining a level of privacy for internal activities. The guild buildings were placed in parts of the city that were easy for people to access (along or near the most integrated streets), and they enjoyed a high level of visibility and interaction with passers-by.

Rethinking Ostia could benefit from some editing and revision. It has no index and contains numerous typos. Nevertheless, it is a must-read for anyone working on Ostia. The detailed reconstruction of Insula IV ii in Chapter 5 is an excellent case study of the life of an Ostian city block. Stöger’s application of Space Syntax will be of interest to most archaeologists in opening up new lines of enquiry in Ostia and elsewhere. It is also affordable (and free digitally) as well as amply illustrated (with the exception of the missing street plan). Thus, what it lacks in polish it makes up for in its clear prose, insightful observations, and of course, its immediate availability to the scholarly community.


1.   B. Hillier and L. Vaughan, “The City as One Thing,” Progress and Planning 67 (2007), 205-294, p. 207.
2.   C. Pavolini, “La Trasformazione del Ruolo di Ostia,” in Villes et Avant-ports: l’Exemple de Rome et Ostie (Rome 2002), pp. 325-352.

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