Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.06

Douglas Boin, Ostia in Late Antiquity.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xix, 287.  ISBN 9781107024014.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Brent Nongbri, Macquarie University (


When the second edition of Russell Meiggs’ Roman Ostia appeared in 1973, The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown had been out for just two years. It is thus unsurprising that the post-Severan phases of Ostia did not command as much attention from Meiggs as did the republican and early imperial remains of the city. It is equally understandable that Meiggs’ study was not shaped by that cluster of interests centering on identity formation (especially Christian identity formation) that has marked the study of Late Antiquity. The appearance, forty years after Meiggs’ magisterial work, of Douglas Boin’s Ostia in Late Antiquity is thus a very welcome development and begins to fill an important gap in the study of ancient Ostia. Boin skillfully weaves together material and textual evidence to show theories that Ostia experienced “decline” or rapid Christianization in the third and fourth centuries are generally unfounded.

A short introduction provides an overview of the history of modern excavations at Ostia and demonstrates the academic and political reasons why the evidence for late antique Ostia has been neglected for so long. The subject of the book is identified as “the daily life, religious transformation, and urban change at the old Roman harbor town between the third and the eighth centuries” (10).

The study is then divided into two sections, “Background” and “Foreground.” The first section contains two chapters. Chapter 1, “New approaches to daily life in late antique Ostia,” lays out Boin’s methodological and epistemological commitments. A discussion of recent developments in the study of Ostia’s early republican castrum walls (whose large blocks continued to be used at the site for centuries) serves as an entrée to a summary of recent work in post-processual archaeology and memory studies, fields that inform the book’s overall approach to the Ostian evidence. Along with a survey of the present state of study on “Roman religion,” Boin introduces the sociological concepts of “passing” and “covering” as useful for the study of changing Ostian identities. He also voices his discontent with problematic concepts such as “Christianization” and “paganism” and concludes that they are best eschewed in his project. The chapter draws to a close with reflections on the difficult concept of religion. In this instance, Boin retains the term for his study and settles on Clifford Geertz’s notion of religion as a cultural system of signs and symbols as the most helpful for narrating “religious transformation.”

Chapter 2, “The new urban landscape of Rome’s ancient harbor,” provides a topographical overview of Ostia, integrating the results of recent archaeological surveys and excavations with a broad swath of scholarship on Ostia’s late antique houses, apartments, bakeries, warehouses, forum, ceramics, and street plans. The chapter synthesizes a large amount of information and will be useful for anyone wanting an introduction to the current state of Ostian studies.

The second section of the book contains four chapters arranged chronologically and uses selected monuments and artifacts to illustrate various aspects of life and change in late antique Ostia. Chapter 3 (“The third century: Roman religion and the long reach of the emperor”) opens by summarizing the once-popular narrative of the third century as a time of general crisis for the Roman empire. Boin then highlights recent studies that undercut this narrative and shows how third-century Ostia fits into this revised story. An examination of Ostia’s so-called Round Temple (likely constructed in the mid-third century) and the artifacts probably found there provides occasion for a discussion of imperial portraiture and memory. A little-studied bronze amulet discovered at Ostia provides a link to the wider Mediterranean phenomenon of magic, and Ostia’s many mithrea are contextualized within recent Mithraic scholarship. In the absence of substantial material evidence for Christians at Ostia in the third century, Boin offers reflections on relations between Christians and non-Christians in the city by way of the apologetic dialogue known as the Octavius by Minucius Felix, which takes as its narrative setting a seaside walk at Ostia. The chapter ends with a discussion of the synagogue at Ostia. Although the building was long thought to be a first-century construction, Boin notes that recent excavations (not yet published) suggest that “it cannot date any earlier than the mid- to late second century” (120).

The fourth chapter (“The fourth century: Proud temples and resilient traditions”) again begins by first summarizing and then problematizing an old narrative, this time the fourth century as the “triumph of Christianity” under Constantine. The Ostian evidence marshaled to complicate this picture includes Boin’s reassessment of the place of Hercules in fourth-century Ostia and the continued use and upkeep of the city’s forum and capitolium. Boin then turns to Jewish and Christian evidence, first discussing the major renovations to the synagogue that took place in the fourth century.1 Boin reads these architectural and decorative changes as marking a “shift in the desire to assert a more communal Jewish identity at Ostia,” perhaps as a response to the more prominent expressions of Christian identity visible in the fourth-century remains of the city. The latter is then illustrated by a discussion of the churches of Ostia, including the large church just inside the southeastern section of the city wall discovered in the 1990s. The chapter quite effectively shows that older traditions persisted at Ostia even as a Christian presence took root in the urban landscape.

Chapter 5 (“The fifth century: History seen from the spaces in between”) continues the story of Jewish-Christian relations at Ostia through an examination of renovations of the city’s synagogue and churches datable to the fifth century. Recent study suggests further large-scale renovation of the synagogue in the fifth century.2 The Pianabella basilica outside the city also saw important architectural changes at this time. After noting that the baptistery of the basilica inside the city walls is datable to this period, Boin offers an extended discussion of the name of this church (two literary traditions disagree on the name of Ostia’s urban basilica—one opts for Peter, Paul, and John the Baptist, the other for St. Lawrence). Boin then turns to the sanctuary of Magna Mater at Ostia, where numerous statues and dedications dating between the first century BCE and fourth century CE have been uncovered. Boin sets these sculptures in the context of other similar collections around the Mediterranean and argues for an increased appreciation of the “resonances” of these pieces: “In short, the statues were both static snapshots of the Roman past, representing the world as it once was, and a vibrant reminder of the world as it could continue to be: a world still filled with gods, or at least representations of them” (192).

The final chapter (“The sixth and seventh centuries: A city in motion, shifting traditions”) lingers in the fourth and fifth centuries, using the Codex-calendar of 354 and the calendar of Polemius Silvius to give an idea of what celebrations in Ostia may have looked like prior to the sixth century, before suggesting ways in which stories of Ostian martyrs (redacted in the fifth and sixth centuries) both built upon and transformed the older rhythms of city life at Ostia. Boin gives particular attention to the narratives surrounding the martyr Aurea and proposes that her story can reveal fissures among the Christian communities at Ostia. The chapter concludes with a look at epigraphic evidence (including a copy of an epitaph for Augustine’s mother Monica found at Ostia) for a concerted effort in the seventh century to generate a connection with a specifically Christian past. The book closes with a brief “Postscript” that situates the transformations of Ostia between the fourth and seventh centuries in the context of the stories of other cities in the Mediterranean during that time period.

Ostia in Late Antiquity will certainly be valuable to students and scholars for its wide-ranging collection of data and up-to-date bibliography. The book’s arguments about Christian identity and the persistence of traditional Roman beliefs and practices, while not always convincing to this reader, provide stimulating food for thought. The attempt to describe the “religious transformation” of Ostia using Geertz’s notion of religion as a cultural system of signs and symbols is an illuminating test-case for pushing the limits of this theory when working with ancient and non-textual evidence. In Geertz’s theory, a symbol is “a vehicle” for “a conception,” which constitutes the symbol’s “meaning,” which may be “ideas, attitudes, judgments, longings, or beliefs.”3 As Boin properly notes, we often lack the ancient written sources that are thought to be the most direct conduit to such inner sentiments (45), and, moreover, when dealing with messy historical evidence, one quickly finds that there is no one-to-one correspondence between “symbols” and “meanings.” An informative treatment of Ostian bronze rings carrying the chi-rho monogram leads Boin to conclude that “it is hazardous to infer anything about personal belief from archaeological evidence” and that “symbols stand to mean precisely the opposite of what they could mean” (39-43). Applying this insight consistently to other parts of the book would cause some of Boin’s illustrations to take on a rather different color. If the collection of statuary in the sanctuary of Magna Mater were put into dialogue with, say, some of the epigrams of Palladas that deal with the fate of surviving statues of traditional gods, the Ostian sculptures might look less like “vibrant reminders” of a proud past and more like bitter symbols of a deeply unsatisfactory present.4 Boin is of course aware that he has not exhausted all interpretive avenues (192), but had he explored more of these alternative paths, his own narrative might have become less tidy, but more textured.

The volume is attractively produced with excellent illustrations and clearly labeled maps. While Boin does not aim to provide a comprehensive treatment of every monument of late antique Ostia or every aspect of life in the post-classical city, the book nonetheless serves as a good snapshot, bringing together a wide range of evidence and presenting this material with considerable methodological and theoretical sophistication.


1.   In his discussion of this phase of the synagogue, Boin describes the funerary inscription of the archisynagogos Plotius Fortunatus without comment as “fourth-century.” While Boin may have access to information unavailable to me, I should note that this inscription is generally assigned to the first or second centuries. The latest suggested date known to me is the rather open-ended “mid-second century C.E. or later” proposed by L. Michael White his entry s.v. “Ostia,” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010), 1011-1013 at 1012.
2.   One point of fact should be clarified. On pp. 167-8, Boin refers to a coin uncovered by archival work carried out by the University of Texas OSMAP project (in which both Boin and I have participated). Boin cites information from a tag now known to be an abbreviation. The recently recovered full tag reads “Sinagoga 4-6-1962: vari frammenti in stucco dipinti, rinvenuti nel riempimento sotto il pavimento a mosaico tardo nel ambiente dietro l’Aron. Un frammento bronzeo, forse appartenente a un elemento di serratura. Una lamina di piombo, una monetina bronzea di grosso spessore, rinvenuti nello sterro dello strato di battuto sottostante al mosaico nel ambiente centrale frá la grande porta e le colonne grandi.” The coin in question, which has now been identified as an issue of Leo I (457-474 CE), was thus not found “in the room behind the Torah Shrine,” but rather “under the mosaic in the central room between the main entrance and the large columns.” The stratigraphic connection to the synagogue’s opus vittatum Torah Shrine is thus less direct than Boin suggests, but his larger point remains valid. The corrected information pushes the date for ongoing substantial renovation of the synagogue even later—into the third quarter of the fifth century.
3.   See Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System” in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. Michael Banton (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), 1-46, esp. 5.
4.   See Kevin W. Wilkinson, “Palladas and the Age of Constantine,” The Journal of Roman Studies 99 (2009), 36-60.

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