Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.12

Axel Gering, Ostias vergessene Spätantike: eine urbanistische Deutung zur Bewältigung von Zerfall. Palilia, 31.   Wiesbaden:  Reichert Verlag, 2018.  Pp. 440.  ISBN 9783954902101.  €29.90.  

Reviewed by L. Bouke van der Meer, Leiden University (

Axel Gering’s book is a successful attempt to partially reconstruct ‘Ostia’s forgotten late antique period,’ that is the time between c. 250 and c. 700. It consists of his Habilitationsschrift (Berlin, Humboldt-University, 2006) and the results of his recent excavations, test soundings and surveys including summaries of investigations made by Luke Lavan (see AJA 116 (2012) 649-691), based on the Berlin-Kent-Ostia- Excavation Project with Gering during 2008-2010. It took Gering fourteen years of study (2000-2014). Some results were published before 2018, also online.

As is well known, Ostia underwent a gradual crisis after c. 250. The last temple, the so-called Round Temple, had just been built, no more cohorts of firemen came from Rome to garrison the Caserma dei Vigili, bakeries damaged by fire were not restored, grain horrea lost their function, exports came to a halt, and Portus probably became more important than Ostia, certainly after it became independent during the reign of Constantine.

During Guido Calza’s hasty excavations in 1938-1941 many late remains were cleared away in order to show the public how the city looked in its most prosperous period, the second century AD. Calza’s choice was influenced by Mussolini’s ideology (p. 81). Much material had already been lost. From the Middle Ages until Italy became a state in the second half of the nineteenth century, building materials, especially marble, had been robbed, reused, removed or burnt in lime-kilns. All these losses stimulated Gering to recover part of Ostia’s material history. His work is ‘an urbanistic interpretation of coping with decay.’

Chapter I explains Gering’s methods for reconstructing Ostia’s late antique cityscapes. As the starting point he uses Raffaele Finelli’s unpublished excavation diaries (Giornale degli Scavi, 1907-1924, and abstracts from these in Notizie degli Scavi), further maps (1913-1949), most of them by Italo Gismondi, archival photographs (until 1924), L. Wickert’s Supplementum of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) XIV (Berlin 1933) and Gering’s own stratigraphic research. As for chronology, he pays meticulous attention to such factors as: the differences in terrain and surface levels, often Severan levels; traces of earthquakes shown by wall- and pavement-cracks; fires and Tiber floods; building renovations; wall construction techniques (p. 19; often based, though not without reservations, on Thea L. Heres’ Paries [1982] and her later publications); marble revetments, statues and statue bases; mosaics, wall paintings, ceramics, coins, coin hoards (most of which are to be published, see pp. 183, 190, 209, 245, 277); and spolia, some of which were used up to three times. Inscribed marble slabs were taken from nearby cemeteries from the end of the fourth century onwards (p. 177), often to be reused upside-down as floor, wall or bar counter revetments. Funerary statues and columns were repositioned along the sides of the eastern part of the decumanus to create beautiful façades. The embellishment of the new plazas in Ostia with funerary material is a widespread but little-known practice, which opens a new field of research on habits of late antique sculptural display. The eastern decumanus was used for pagan processions moving from the Porta Romana to the forum or beyond, even in the fifth century, which implies that the Christian religion was not yet dominant. In addition, the Constantinian basilica was situated in a peripheral location, near the south-eastern part of the city wall. Gering combines micro-histories of areas and buildings in order to create a picture of Ostia’s late antique urban developments, and more broadly, late antique urbanistic tendencies in and outside Italy.

Chapter II (pp. 21-321) is called ‘the exemplary phenomena of reutilization.’ Gering starts his virtual walk at the Porta Romana. I will provide a short summary. Section 1 deals with modifications along both sides of the eastern decumanus, for example the late antique houses with apses, the nymphaeum on the Piazzale della Vittoria between the decumanus and the parallel Via della Vittoria, and the porticoes that were privatized and filled with shops and bars, or renovated. The nymphaeum was an eye-catching feature, as were the other nymphaea, water basins and fountains along the main street. Section 2 focuses on the theater area that became a center of representation, amusement, and festivities, as may be deduced from pagan water spectacles during the period c. 380/400-450.1 Particularly interesting is the enlargement of the Caupona of Fortunatus into a bar-restaurant with a cascading fountain. For safety reasons some side-streets leading to the area to the south of the decumanus that remained inhabited, and other side-streets leading to the ruinous area to the north of the main street, were (partly) closed. Section 3 presents research on the area between the theater and the main forum; it pays much attention to the new exedra (for tribunals) and the adjacent, new forum, the Foro della Statua Eroica, that appears to have become a macellum, probably the macellum reparatum of Aurelius Anicius Symmachus (418-420). In the central, main forum, for the period c. 300 to 500, the spoliation of the Temple of Roma and Augustus, the adjacent workshops that recycled marble (10,000 fragments found), several lime-kilns, and the final decoration with statues are dealt with in great detail. After c. 450 the forum became a real market for building materials. The Piazzale in front of the Round Temple, an area comparable to the Foro della Statua Eroica, was transformed into a market. Section 4 is called Jenseits der ‘Schokoladenseite’ (‘beyond the best side’); it deals with the city quarter with its rubbish dumps and the recycling activities of squatters amid the ruins behind the Baths of Neptune. The Insula dell’Ercole Bambino and the Insula del Soffitto Dipinto opposite the Theatre and the Piazzale delle Corporazioni (which had lost its commercial role but was used for entertainments) rendered services to visitors until c. 450. It appears that inhabitants went to live and work on the ground level instead of the damaged higher floors. Section 5 focuses on the city quarter outside the center between the cardo and Via della Foce, especially the bivium with its façade-nymphaeum (3rd-4th century) which became a commercial center again after 450. Gering also examines the effect of collapses around 442-443 (see below), and discusses Via della Foce, which was narrowed by buildings along its façades (for example by tabernae [(work)shops for production and selling]), thus becoming a traffic-less, commercial street with nymphaea and bars, and the Terme Piccole (built between 450 and 500). Then the subsidiary urban center just outside Porta Marina gets attention, particularly the ‘forum’, which may have had a cultic function (in honor of Vulcan?)2 if the central base with front steps made of spolia was an altar or a small temple.

Chapter III compares, on the basis of publications of others, the deluxe buildings, streets and neighborhoods of the late antique city centers of Aphrodisias and Ephesus, already often hinted at in previous chapters, with those of Ostia. It appears that the areas behind the monumental streets were often in decay. The pagan Maiumas (May) festival with water spectacles in the theater of Aphrodisias continued until c. 500.

Chapter IV lists catastrophes (fires and collapses) around 275/280 (in 275, p. 249, n. 824), 350, and 442/443 that triggered rebuilding. Gering assumes that earthquakes at Ravenna and Rome in 442/443 also damaged Ostia (p. 160). He mentions other earthquakes that took place in the late 4th or 5th century, verified by coin hoards and stratigraphic evidence (p. 50, n. 112), and in 484 or 508 (pp. 160 and 293), in their possible relation to the material evidence. The very readable, less technical chapters V and VI contain a German and an Italian summary. As for the Bibliographic References, with very few exceptions the titles of publications date to before 2014.3

This impeccably edited book is a very important, highly technical contribution to the safeguarding of Ostia’s cultural heritage. The internal and external comparisons of urban phenomena (in Rome and Asia Minor) provide a clear picture of what happened in large parts of Ostia, particularly during the period of its final flourishing c. 380-450, when Maecenas-like officials from Rome such as the annonae praefecti Ragonius Vincentius Celsus (385-389), [Hir]tuleius Herculius, Publius Attius Clementius (same period) and Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (418-420) embellished the city. The 228 figures showing maps, drawings, photographs, photo-mosaics and 3-D models, all made or adapted by Gering, are of excellent quality. The book does not intend to give a complete picture of late antique Ostia but rather presents work in progress. Consequently, not all parts of Ostia are discussed.4 The city was larger than the area inside the late Republican city walls, as appears from Michael Heinzelmann’s unpublished map based on geophysical prospections and aerial photography (p. 317).

Some criticism can be offered. The book gives little information about the sixth and seventh centuries (see pp. 26, 67, 79, 98, 109, 124 (fig. 96), 127), which can be explained in part by the fact that the stratigraphy, possible structures, and walls from this period had been removed almost completely by 1941. It seems that the last new and renovated buildings remained intact until the eighth century when the last inhabitants abandoned the city. The book is not always user-friendly. The text frequently refers to regio, insula and address numbers as numerals, for example III ii 3 (p. 284), but there is no map to show these standard Ostian location references. There is only one map of the city (p. 40, fig. 15). It has no captions, but the meaning of the numbers and colors can be found on pp. 41-42. The abbreviations s.o. and s.u. (see above, see below) and references mentioning sections instead of page numbers make consultation time-consuming. Some inscriptions are not cited in the footnotes (for example the one mentioning a restoration of the Tiber bridge in 476 [p. 351]). Without foreknowledge readers will not understand a passage about Wundergeschichten (p. 166; see R. Meiggs, Roman Ostia [1973], 399 about the graffito on a replaced column: lege et intel[le]ge mutu[m] loqui ad macellu[m] [‘read and understand that a mute man speaks near the meat market’]). Quoted Italian texts are not translated. An English summary, indices, and a table of abbreviations (though announced on p. 23, n. 27) are missing. It remains to be seen whether contemporary urban architects coping with shrinking city centers will be inspired by Gering’s study.

Though the content is presented as a virtual walk, this large and weighty book cannot be used as a tourist guide. It will be a goldmine for Ostia specialists, though, and of further interest to classical/Mediterranean archaeologists, classicists, scholars of art, ancient (social and economic) history and religion, and practitioners of Space Syntactical Research. Students and laymen should first study R. Meiggs, Roman Ostia (1973), J. P. Descœudres (ed.), Ostia. Port et porte de la Rome antique (2001), C. Pavolini, Ostia (2006) before reading or consulting Gering’s opus magnum.


1.   It refutes Bruun’s statement that there was no permanent venue for public spectacles. See C. Bruun, ‘Civic Rituals in Imperial Ostia’, in: O. Hekster, S. Schmidt-Hofner, C. Witschel (eds.), Ritual Dynamics and Religious Change in the Roman Empire. (Leiden; Boston: Brill 2009): 123-142, especially 131.
2.   Zevi now identifies the Tempio dell’Ara Rotondo in the republican Sanctuary of Hercules as the temple of Vulcan. See F. Zevi, ‘L'iscrizione del tempio di Vulcano a Ostia (CIL XIV, 4724)’, in: C. De Ruyt, Th. Morard, F. Van Haeperen (eds.),Nouvelles études et recherches sur les quartiers occidentaux de la cité. Actes du colloque international (Rome-Ostia Antica, 22-24 septembre 2014). (Bruxelles; Rome: Brepols 2018): 239-246.
3.   As for more recent studies, see M. Danner, Wohnkultur im spätantiken Ostia. Wiesbaden, Reichert Verlag 2017 (for a review, see C. Pavolini, JRA 31, 2018, 786-793); C. Pavolini, and K. Bolle, ‘Inscriptions between Text and Texture: Inscribed Monuments in Public Spaces – A Case Study at Late Antique Ostia’, in: A. Petrovic, I. Petrovic, E. Thomas (eds.), The Materiality of Text: Placement, Perception, and Presence of Inscribed Texts in Classical Antiquity. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019): 348-379.
4.   Additional information can be found in D. Boin, Ostia in Late Antiquity (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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