Two Roman Towns Part 2 | Pompeii and Ostia | Roman Architecture | Second edition |

Two Roman Towns Part 2 | Pompeii and Ostia | Roman Architecture | Second edition |

Two Roman Towns | Pompeii and Ostia | Roman Architecture | Second edition | (Part-02)

Housing was changing too. A large two-storey dwelling, the villa of M. Fabius Rufus (VII Insula Occidentalis 16–19), with panoramic saloons and a private bath was terraced out over the old city wall and faced the sea. The House of D. Octavius Quartio near the amphitheatre (II.2.2), an old atrium house with a large garden, was entirely remodelled at the rear (Figure 6.10). A small mosaic fountain with a biclinium in front (two banks of couches for al fresco dining), poured water into an ornamental canal which ran almost the whole width of the house. Halfway along a dining room faced onto this pleasant terraced area, decorated with delightful wall paintings and shaded by vines. Opposite, the water cascaded into an ornamental euripus (canal) which ran the entire length of the garden. Shaded walkways (ambulationes tectae) ran along each side of the canal which was edged with pots for ornamental plants and shaded by tall oak and plane trees. Houses such as these must have echoed the spacious country and seaside villas which so often form the subject matter of wall paintings. Life improved too for those who lived a more humble existence in the city. By the first century ad the Via dell’Abbondanza, now the main shopping centre of Pompeii, was lined with shops whose owners lived upstairs in comfortable apartments with balconies and loggias.

Figure 6.10  Pompeii, House of Octavius Quartio, fountain, biclinium and ornamental canal.


During the Augustan period Marcus Holconius Rufus, the most eminent citizen in Pompeii at the time, financed an extensive rebuilding programme in the Large Theatre at Pompeii (Figure 6.11).4 An inscription (CIL 10.833–5) reads: ‘Marcus Holconius Rufus and Marcus Holconius Celer built at their own expense crypta, tribunalia and theatrum’. The word crypta must refer to the annular barrel-vaulted passage built around the top of the cavea (Figure 6.11). It supported the seats of the new summa cavea and provided a façade for the theatre, with staircases and passageways leading to the new seating. Near the top of the façade wall are corbels which held the poles for the vela, the awnings which shaded the spectators from the sun. At the same time tribunalia were built over the passageways at the sides of the cavea. The word theatrum sometimes refers to the theatre as a whole, but sometimes, as here, refers to the cavea as opposed to the scene building. Explorations by Maiuri5  revealed that the cavea had been consolidated at this time by four massive curved walls mainly of lava and over this had been laid a bank of volcanic trachyte mixed with tufa and Sarno in mortar, 0.15–0.20 metres thick. New seats were built on top of this. The brick-faced scene building is not mentioned in the inscription, but it seems to have been built at this time or a little later.

At the south end of the forum the three rectangular buildings, tentatively identified as the meeting place for the decuriones (local magistrates), the offices of the duoviri (the two chief magistrates) and the tabularium (records office), belong to this period. As in Rome the forum was paved at this time, and arches built at the sides of the temple of Jupiter, echoing the arches flanking the temple of Deified Julius Caesar in the Roman Forum. The Temple of Fortuna Augusta was built, as well as the Eumachia building on the SE side of the forum which imitated the great public porticus buildings in Rome. In terms of domestic architecture it may be noted that the first century ad marks the beginning of a move away from the atrium

Figure 6.11  Pompeii, Large theatre looking SW. At bottom left is the tribunal, and higher up is the wall dividing the summa cavea from the media cavea. The wall behind is the outer wall of the theatre with the corbels for the vela masts near the top.


and tablinum.6 An example of this is the House of the Stags at Herculaneum, where the atrium has almost disappeared, and the House of the Vettii, which has no tablinum. This new pattern, already visible in the peristyle of the House of the Menander with its large reception rooms (Figure 6.8), one of them covering an enormous 87.5 metres, is particularly evident at Ostia and in the Roman provinces.


In the Augustan period a branch of the Serino–Naples aqueduct system entered the city near the Vesuvius Gate at the highest point in the city. The water distributor (castellum aquae) split the flow into three and the water was carried downhill in large lead pipes (Figure 6.12). At intervals smaller pipes took it up to lead water tanks at the top of a series of 6-metre-high water towers, which can be seen all over Pompeii (Figure 6.13). There are public drinking fountains at the foot of many of these towers, providing water for even the very poorest. Richer residents paid for water to be piped into their houses, so as to create a constant flow for the fountains in their atria and peristyles, and perhaps for private baths, 22 of which have been found at Pompeii. Running water fed the large pool in the middle of the large palaestra next to the amphitheatre. Water was also a great boost to agriculture and to the baths, particularly the Stabian Baths, where the new swimming pool (natatio) must have been a very welcome addition (Figure 2.6). Perhaps the most splendid baths in Pompeii were the magnificent Julio-Claudian Suburban Baths. The apodyterium has a shelf instead of niches for the bathers’ clothes. The 16 numbers indicating where the clothes are to be placed are accompanied by erotic images, perhaps as an aide memoire. The frigidarium with its stuccoed ceiling is particularly fine. Opening off it is a large plunge whose walls are painted with Nilotic scenes and pictures of boats and gardens (Figure 6.14). A cascade of water pours into it from a magnificent nymphaeum (fountain) high above, decorated with pumice, glass

Figure 6.12  Pompeii, water tower (castellum aquae), where the Pompeii branch of the Serino aqueduct terminated. The flow was split into three at this point.

Figure 6.13  Pompeii, one of the 6-metre-high water towers. The water flowed by gravity to a lead pipe at the top of the tower from which water was distributed locally. There is a public drinking fountain at the foot of the tower from which residents who had no running water could fill their buckets.


Figure 6.14  Pompeii, Suburban Baths, plunge in the frigidarium (cold room). The plunge itself is painted with Nilotic scenes. A cascade of water pours into it from the nymphaeum (fountain) high above.


tesserae and shells. Most astonishing of all is the covered swimming pool (natatio), at the bottom of which is a hollow circular cavity lined with brick and connected to a brick lined passage running out of the pool. A similar cavity was found at the bottom of the large warm pool of the Suburban Baths at Herculaneum although without the connecting passage. In this case the water in a circular bronze ‘samovar’ just below the floor level of the pool was heated by its own furnace.

In ad 62 Pompeii was shaken by a severe earthquake which seems to have affected most buildings. This left only 17 years for repairs to be made and most buildings were not fully repaired by ad 79. At the time of the great eruption the amphitheatre and the Temple of Isis were among the few buildings to have been completely repaired. It is interesting to note that the repairs to the Temple of Isis were done at the expense of a former slave who, because he had been a slave, could not stand for office himself and so dedicated it in the name of his young son, Numerius Popidius Celsinus. One owner who took advantage of the economic crisis following the earthquake was Julia Felix, who decided to rent out part of her huge estate near the amphitheatre (II.4.2) and use the rest for horticulture. A vestibule from the street gave access to a charming garden with an elaborate pool in the middle. On its west side the garden was enclosed by an elegant portico of marble pilasters, rectangular in section. Opening off the portico was a row of guest-chambers, the central room of which was a richly marbled summer triclinium. East of the vestibule, with a separate entrance from the street, was a small bathing suite which must have been a great attraction at a time when so many of the baths in Pompeii were still being repaired. Julia Felix herself had a self-contained atrium house beyond the guest chambers. At the time of the eruption elaborate new colonnades were being erected around the forum, but they were never finished. In the last years of the city a number of old patricians left for good and striking changes began taking place in old patrician dwellings. Many were subdivided or turned into lodgings or commercial premises.

Upper storeys were opened up to face the street and balconies and upstairs windows penetrated street façades. One might justly claim that if the eruption of Vesuvius had not occurred in ad 79 the old Pompeii, familiar to us by its fine houses and splendid paintings, might largely have been rebuilt, as happened at Ostia.

Ostia is another well-preserved Roman city, but it was not destroyed by a violent natural catastrophe like Pompeii. Instead it was gradually abandoned until its buildings collapsed one by one. Precious marbles, statues and columns were torn from decaying buildings to turn up as far away as Pisa and Salerno. For more than a millennium the site was one of almost complete desolation and abandonment, until it slowly began to be uncovered in the mid 19th century. The pace of excavation increased in the period 1938–1942, when most of the city known today was uncovered. The town and the harbour have been the subject of intense archaeological interest in the early 2000s. As Ostia was abandoned, gradually there are fewer spectacular finds than in the cities around Vesuvius, where entire painted rooms, wooden shutters and even foodstuffs regularly turn up. Yet in many ways Ostia was a more typical Roman city than Pompeii, which had deep Oscan roots and whose people never fully accepted Roman ways. Ostia was the harbour town of Rome and was thus particularly well placed to reflect the styles and tastes of the capital. Whereas Pompeii died in ad 79, a time when architectural and artistic styles were in a process of rapid change, Ostia lived on, and during the second century ad was practically rebuilt in brick-faced concrete, which had undergone much development in the course of the first century ad. The typical buildings of Ostia were not sumptuous houses and villas, but tall apartment blocks, baths and warehouses. While Pompeii is now seen as a seaside town with elegant, sprawling houses, Ostia was an imperial port, jammed with the kind of functional housing blocks which must have been a feature of Rome itself.

Ostia is situated on the banks of the Tiber near its mouth, about 25 kilometres from Rome (Figure 1.3). It began as a castrum (fort) designed to protect the coast against raiders from Etruria and Greece. Marauding bands of Gauls were still active in the area after the great invasion of 390 bc, and in 349 bc Greek fleets had ravaged the coast from Antium (Anzio) to the Tiber estuary. Colonies composed of Roman citizens were established at Antium (338 bc), Tarracina Anxur (329 bc) and Minturnae (296 bc). Ostia was probably the oldest of these forts, although according to ancient authors a settlement was established there as early as the seventh century bc. The castrum, dating perhaps to the period 349–348 bc or 338 bc, was a rectangle measuring 194 × 125.7 metres, and although the actual tufa walls have largely disappeared its outline is still visible around the forum area (Figure 6.15). Because Ostia was built around the old castrum and several streets followed the alignment of old roads the decumanus and the cardo were not nearly as regular as in a fully planned city. The eastern branch of the decumanus was quite straight and terminated at the Porta Romana, while the southern cardo, western decumanus and Via della Foce transmitted their irregularity to the surrounding districts. The northern part of the city is notably orderly in its planning because it fronted the river and was under the control of the city Praetor.

In 311 bc ships were built to patrol the coast, and quaestores italici were placed in charge of naval defences. Ostia became the seat of one of them in 267 bc. The Romans decided to build a fleet during the First Punic War and Ostia became strategically important because it was at the mouth of the Tiber, but after the defeat of Carthage the importance of the western fleet declined. Ostia soon compensated for the loss by developing a new role as a commercial port involved in the grain trade. However, it had a river harbour with limited capacity (Figure 6.16). The solution came in the second century bc when a harbour was built

Figure 6.15  Ostia: general plan.

at Puteoli (Pozzuoli), which could handle great numbers of ships of all sizes. This harbour soon became the most important in the western Mediterranean, and through it flowed goods of every description, wine, pottery, precious objects, even slaves and most importantly grain, a vital import because very little grain was grown around Rome.

There is very little archaeological evidence at Ostia for buildings made of permanent materials before the end of the second century bc. Some painted terracottas were found in the pre-Sullan levels, and these suggest mud-brick buildings with timber roofs. Timber was plentiful in the district and may have been a common building material in the early period of Ostia’s growth. Also, the area south of the theatre has a haphazard street plan which may well date back to an earlier period of uncontrolled building activity. By the second century bc the question of grain supply came to a head under Gaius Gracchus (123–122 bc), who enacted a law requiring the Senate to purchase and store large quantities of grain for distribution to the poor. At about this time a number of imposing peristyle and atrium houses were built, as well as Ostia’s first stone temple, the Temple of Hercules. It is perhaps no coincidence that the first signs of prosperity came at the time of the Gracchi when the importation of cheap grain brought prosperity to the harbour city.

In 87 bc during the civil war between Sulla and Marius the city was occupied and plundered by the Marians, and again in 67 bc by pirates (Cicero, Man. 12.33). As a result new walls were built around Ostia, probably in the period 63–58 bc, enclosing an area of 63.5 hectares (160 acres), or almost 30 times the extent of the original castrum (Figure 6.15). In comparison, Pompeii covered an area of 157 acres (63.5 hectares). However, the figure for Ostia may well rise because in the years following 1998 surveys using magnometry and excavation have revealed at least three large warehouses and a building with columns, as well as parts of the city wall, north of the Tiber (Figure 6.16).7 This means that the wall surrounding the main city on the south bank of the Tiber continued around the north as well, and therefore the Tiber bisected the city rather than running along its northern side. The new wall circuit on the south side of the Tiber was trapezoidal in shape, its line partly dictated by the coastline and the river. The three main gates are the Porta Marina through which the western decumanus runs to the seashore, the Porta Laurentina through which the southern cardo runs on its way south and the Porta Romana which marks the end of the eastern decumanus and the beginning of the Via Ostiensis.

During the last century of the Republic, atrium and peristyle houses continued to be built, and porticoes on tufa piers began to appear along some of the main streets. Perhaps the most important development of the period was the rebuilding of the area north of the decumanus. The land adjacent to the river was declared public property by the Roman praetor urbanus, and the whole area replanned on orderly lines. This area contrasts starkly with the haphazard development south of it, where private building had run amok during the late Republic. Even the four late Republican temples just west of where the theatre was later to be built were laid out in a neat and orderly fashion. Another piece of regular planning was the site of the forum which was cleared and set out as a perfect rectangle with the Capitolium at the north end. To the south Tiberius built a temple of Rome and Augustus which, like the Temple of Deified Julius Caesar in the Forum Romanum, had a rostra in front of the columns and a podium accessible by two lateral staircases. Ostia’s high status is reflected in the fact that the temple was sheathed in Carrara marble. The theatre and the large double colonnade (quadriporticus) behind it were first built by Agrippa in 18–12 bc. During the early Empire, perhaps as early as the time of Tiberius, an aqueduct was constructed bringing water from high ground 7 kilometres to the east (Figure 6.16). Under Vespasian the city wall was remodelled as an aqueduct conveying water to the southern part of the city.

The harbour basin of Ostia may actually predate the castrum and is thought to date between the fourth and second centuries bc. It is at the end of the Via della Foce and traces of

Figure 6.16  Ostia, Claudian and Trajanic harbours: plan.


it were found west of the so-called Palazzo Imperiale near the river mouth (Figure 6.16). By the first century bc the water column in the basin had dropped to between 0.50 metre and 1 metre, making it clear that the river harbour was no longer adequate for the shipping that was using the port. The Egyptian grain ships were particularly large and had to use the facilities at Puteoli. Furthermore, the Tiber brings large quantities of silt from the interior and deposits it in the estuary, producing a sandbar at the Tiber mouth (Strabo, Geo. 5.3.5). As a result, the river was often called flavus Tiber or yellow Tiber in antiquity because of this silt (Horace, Carm. 1.2.13). No dredging took place in the unsettled years of the late Republic (first century bc); Julius Caesar planned to build a harbour at Ostia but the project was never carried out; Augustus never found time for a major operation of this kind.

Finally, Claudius (ad 41–54) revived the idea. The reaction of the emperor’s architects was that the scheme would be prohibitively expensive, and they tried to dissuade him (Dio, 60.11.3). However, the emperor persisted and excavation work began in ad 42 at a spot about 4 kilometres north of the harbour mouth (Figure 6.16).

Recent studies have shown that the harbour was much larger than previously thought, covering as much as 200 hectares. A huge basin was cut out of the coastline and extended into the sea by two curving moles, built of enormous travertine blocks each weighing 6 or 7 tonnes, tied together by iron clamps. A canal north of Portus, 20–35 metres wide, connected the Tiber with the sea for flood relief. A second channel, 45 metres wide, known as the Fossa Traiana, was also built by Claudius. There was a small inner harbour to the south of the main basin linked by a short transverse channel to the Fossa. Between the two moles a great lighthouse was built on an artificial island with an entrance to the harbour each side of it. The lighthouse rested upon the hulk of the ship which Caligula had used to bring his 25.5-metre-high obelisk from Egypt to Rome. This ship is described as having carried a ballast of 800 tonnes of lentils and as having a main mast that could be spanned only by four men linking arms (Pliny, Nat.Hist. 16.76.202). It was 95–104 metres long × 20.3 metres wide with a displacement of 7,400 tonnes, suggesting that it must have been manned by a crew of 700–800 men. It was frequently depicted on coins, mosaics and reliefs and had anything up to six decks. According to Suetonius (Claud. 20) the lighthouse was a very tall tower built on piles in imitation of the lighthouse at Alexandria with a burning beacon (Pliny, Nat.Hist. 36.18.83). It is usually depicted, for example in the Torlonia relief, as rising in three diminishing storeys.

The Claudian harbour does not seem to have silted up as was previously thought. Recent studies have shown that it was 7–8 metres deep.8  Even between the third and fifth centuries ad the depth of the harbour was still about 5 metres. However, it was very large and exposed. In ad 62, the year of the earthquake at Pompeii, a storm destroyed 200 ships in it (Tacitus, Ann. 15.18.3). This was a problem for the Roman authorities because they used free or cheap grain and public entertainment, the famous bread and circuses (panem et circenses), as a means of keeping the populace both fed and content (Juvenal, Sat. 4.10.81). A port at the mouth of the Tiber became vital, so that bulky cargoes could be unloaded at Ostia rather than Puteoli, where they had to be transported to Rome along the Via Appia. The problems of providing a safe harbour for Rome and securing Rome’s grain supply were not resolved until the time of Trajan, when between ad 106–113 an enormous hexagonal basin, visible today, was excavated inland of the old harbour (Figure 6.16). The harbour, with six sides 357.77 metres across, covers 39 hectares and has a maximum diameter of 715.54 metres. Mooring blocks, 15 metres apart, and numbered columns have been found around the harbour basin. It could handle 100 ships at a time and it has been calculated that as many as 1,800 sea-going ships used the Trajanic harbour in a year. On the north side of the harbour was found an enormous building, about 145 metres long, divided into eight vaulted bays each measuring about 58 metres long × 12 metres wide. The eight vaulted enclosures, which opened onto both the Claudian and Trajanic harbours, may have been used for ship-building, ship repair and storage. A large building on the NW side of the harbour (the so-called Imperial Palace) was richly decorated and had a bath building. It may have been used by a high official or even the emperor himself. In the Severan period a large warehouse was built on the west side of the basin. The new harbour transformed the river Tiber, which was like a highway filled with boats. Goods arriving at the harbour were transferred to smaller boats and ferried up the river to warehouses beside the Tiber at the southern edge of Rome. Some of the pottery containers were recycled but amphorae which contained oil could not be used again and were dumped. The dump expanded until it became what is now called Monte Testaccio, 35 metres high, covering 20 hectares (49.5 acres) and measuring nearly a kilometre in circumference. It consists of about 53 million amphorae, each of which contained roughly 70 litres. The Tiber amazed Aelius Aristides when he visited Rome at the time of Antoninus Pius: ‘The arrivals and departures of ships never stop … it is quite amazing that there is enough room in the sea, much less the harbour, for the ships … Everything comes together here, all that is produced and grown, trade and commerce, the transportation, agriculture, and metallurgy industries, every skill which exists now and has ever existed,’ (Roman Oration 14, 200, 201).






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