Two Roman Towns Part 3 | Pompeii and Ostia | Roman Architecture | Second edition |

Two Roman Towns Part 3 | Pompeii and Ostia | Roman Architecture | Second edition |

Two Roman Towns | Pompeii and Ostia | Roman Architecture | Second edition | (Part-03)

As no new harbour town was built at the time, Ostia remained the nearest city to the Trajanic harbour. Portus remained part of Ostia until the early third century ad, although its population grew to about 10,000 in the later second century ad, a period of enormous growth and prosperity for Ostia. Now the grain fleet from Alexandria sailed to its harbour rather than to Puteoli, and Ostia became the main harbour for goods from the whole Roman Empire. An imperial official, called the Procurator Portus Utriusque (procurator of both harbours), was put in charge of the harbour district. Because the city was crucial to the survival and growth of the city of Rome, it was practically rebuilt between the time of Trajan (98–117 ad) and Antoninus Pius (138–161 ad). Vast areas were levelled and new housing put up. As the town was limited by its walls and there were tombs all round, the buildings had to be higher and stronger than previously. Tall housing blocks (insulae) built of brick-faced concrete began to take the place of houses, which were much more wasteful of valuable space. Great use was made of brick-faced concrete in Rome following the fire of 64 ad, as can be seen by the remains of Nero’s Golden House and the Markets of Trajan, which are examples of the large-scale use of it. The new building methods did not make themselves felt at Ostia until the end of the first century ad when Domitian rebuilt parts of the forum area. The basilica and, north of it, what may be the curia were built at the end of the first or the beginning of the second century ad. However, it was not until the time of Trajan that reconstruction began on a large scale, just in time for the influx of new wealth. In the Hadrianic period radical replanning created a monumental approach to the forum from the river. The point where the cardo met the river was a landing place of importance where the Emperor or any visiting dignitary would arrive. The stretch of cardo from the river to the enormous new Capitolium at the north end of the forum was laid out as a broad, straight street, flanked by brick porticoes.

The Capitolium (Figure 6.17), built of brick-faced concrete, was 70 Roman feet high, which may suggest that the rest of the town was already reaching the full 60 Roman feet allowed by Trajan’s regulations (Anon., Epit. De Caes 13.13). The large-scale rebuilding under Hadrian was facilitated by the expansion of the brick industry and at the end of Hadrian’s reign reticulate work had entirely disappeared. Late in his reign the area north of

Figure 6.17  Ostia, Capitolium, c. ad 120–130.

the eastern decumanus was rebuilt in a very regular manner. New buildings included the barracks of the vigiles (police and fire-fighters), a brick portico along the adjacent stretch of the eastern decumanus and the Baths of Neptune. This fine complex, consisting of a somewhat rigidly planned row of bathing rooms facing a rectangular palaestra, was inscribed into a block measuring approximately 67 metres square.

The large and imposing the Forum Baths (Figure 6.18) were built at the time of Antoninus Pius. The frigidarium was the most traditional part (Figure 6.19). It was rectangular and symmetrical in its layout, with eight columns supporting a cross-vault and cold plunges on the north and south sides. In contrast, the warm and hot rooms displayed a variety of shapes and projected boldly like a series of steps. The most westerly was octagonal and its four big windows took advantage of the afternoon sun, which, in the absence of heating pipes in the walls, suggest that it was a heliocaminus (sun-room) of the type found at Hadrian’s villa. The adjacent oval room, probably a sweating room (sudatorium), had a bench against the walls, under-floor heating and heated walls. Next were two more sudatoria with big windows, and at the end a large caldarium (hot room), accessible from a tepidarium (warm room). A service corridor for the furnaces ran along the south side of these rooms. The irregular triangle to the south of the baths was left open as a palaestra (exercise yard). It was presumably one more welcome open space in an increasingly crowded city centre. It may be noted here that at Pompeii there were only four major public bath buildings. At Ostia, which was of similar size, at least 18 public bath buildings have been excavated, a reflection on the changing bathing habits of the Romans during the Empire.

Housing blocks and warehouses are perhaps the most conspicuous features of second century ad Ostia (Figure 6.20). Tall buildings had existed in Rome since the third century

Figure 6.18  Ostia, Forum Baths, c. ad 160: plan.

bc, as we know from the tale about an ox finding its way up to the third storey of a building in the Forum Boarium (Livy, 21.62.3). By the fourth century ad the number of insulae (apartment blocks) in Rome far exceeded the number of houses: 25 insulae to every house (domus). Ostia is of great importance because the buildings there probably echoed those of Rome, which are now largely inaccessible because of later structures built over them. A few insulae can still be seen; one substantial survival, 16 metres high × 30 metres wide, forms part of the Aurelianic wall near the Porta Tiburtina. Three storeys of blocked-up windows are still visible with the travertine corbels for a balcony between the first and second storeys. Another was incorporated into the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo on the Caelian, and there is the picturesque four-storey Insula dell’Ara Coeli at the foot of the Capitol.

Ostian insulae usually had a plain façade of brick-faced concrete, frequently with a projecting balcony between the second and third storeys, as in the Markets of Trajan in Rome

Figure 6.19  Ostia, Forum Baths: the frigidarium, c. ad 160.

Figure 6.20  Ostia, Insula of the Charioteers, mid second century ad.

(Figure 8.5). Sometimes pilasters or brick columns carrying a pediment gave added dignity to the main doorways, but no attempt was made to hide the brick under stucco or veneer.


Lighting was a problem which was solved by inserting large windows facing the street, often supplemented with further windows looking onto an inner courtyard (Figure 6.21a). Sometimes the windows had shutters and even if they were glazed it was mainly with selinite which cut down the amount of light entering the room. The rooms and apartments were separate but some facilities were shared, such as the cooking and eating area (medianum).

Figure 6.21  Ostia, (a) one block of the Garden Houses, c. ad 128, and (b) Insula of Diana, later second century ad.

Water could not be piped to the upper floors, so that often there was a water cistern in the central court. Lavatories were sometimes provided in better-class insulae, sometimes one on each floor. Each storey was about 3.5 metres high and there could not have been more than four or at most five storeys because of the Trajanic regulations. These restricted building heights to 60 feet (about 17.5 metres) and were in force at the time when most of the Ostian insulae were built. The number of storeys in a housing block can be roughly calculated by the thickness of the walls at ground level. For example, a wall 0.50 metre thick denotes two, 0.80 metre four and 0.95 metre five storeys. The upper-storey rooms were not necessarily secondary to those on the ground floor, although the latter were preferred. Martial had a third-floor apartment (Martial, Epigr. 1.117.7) which was cold and draughty: ‘I live in a little cell, with one window which does not even fit properly. Boreas himself would not want to live here’ (Martial, Epigr. 8.14.5). The worst places were the attic rooms, which were not only uncomfortable but also dangerous in the event of a fire: ‘Upstairs where the gentle pigeons nest, where only thin tiles protect you from the rain, you will be the last to burn’ (Juvenal, Sat. 1.3.201–202).

One of the largest apartment blocks is the Insula of Serapis, built around a courtyard and dated to the time of Hadrian. The Insula of the Charioteers to the south is an even more enormous block usually restored as five storeys high (Figure 6.20). It too was built around a central courtyard and is dated to the Antonine period. Between the two blocks is a substantial Hadrianic bathing establishment, the Baths of the Seven Sages, which was for the use of the tenants of the two blocks, but may have been available to the public as well. The baths are named after the frescoes of the Seven Greek Sages in the apodyterium which is a Trajanic building incorporated into the bathing complex. A striking feature of the baths is the circular frigidarium, once covered with a dome. Its floor, 11 metres in diameter, was paved in a mosaic of acanthus scrolls and hunters. The ground-floor rooms and corridors were vaulted in line with the regulations enforced following the great fire of Rome. The most luxurious planned development at Ostia is the so-called Garden Houses, which were clearly designed for richer residents (Figure 6.21b). They consist of two identical housing blocks set within a large garden. Each block is divided by a corridor into two halves and in each half are two self-contained housing units back to back. The Insula of Diana had only the west and south sides of the building facing the street, the rest of the block abutting against other buildings (Figure 6.21a). As the rooms could draw no light from two sides the architect has grouped the rooms around an inner courtyard to light the rooms on the north and east sides. On the street frontages there were shops on the ground floor and staircases led up to the upper floor apartments. In the centre of the courtyard was a water cistern which served all the residents.

There is a large concentration of warehouses at Ostia, mainly in the northern part of the city near the river. Their capacity is clearly greater than the needs of Ostia itself would warrant, suggesting that most of them were designed to store grain until it was required in Rome. The grain warehouses usually have raised floors for dryness and conform to two types. One has the storage rooms facing the four sides of a colonnaded courtyard (Figure 6.22a and b); the second type, which eventually superseded the first, has rows of rooms back to back, thus making more economical use of space (Figure 6.22c). A well-known example of the traditional warehouse is the mid second century ad Horrea Epagathiana with its remarkable dressed-brick doorway (Figures 4.11 and 6.22b). Not all warehouses were for grain; some were to store oil, wine and other commodities. A superbly well-planned complex, known as the House of the Lararium, contains apartments on the upper floors and on the ground floor a shopping centre of ten shops grouped around a small internal courtyard. There was a water tank in the middle and a niche of variegated terracotta on the wall, which once held small

Figure 6.22  (a) Ostia, Horrea of Hortensius, granary, c. ad 30–40: plan; (b) Horrea Epagathiana, warehouse, c. ad 145–50: plan; (c) Ostia, Antonine Horrea: plan.

statues of the protecting Lares. Among the many small shops in Ostia are two fish-shops with marble tables for chopping and cleaning, and water tanks to hold the fish. One of them has a black and white mosaic pavement showing a triton and a dolphin with an octopus in its beak. The inscription reads ‘Inbide calco te’ (‘Envious one, I tread on you’). This has been taken as a reference to the dolphin which frightens fish away or alternatively to the octopus, the enemy of humans.

As a seaport Ostia attracted a wide range of foreign traders and businessmen. The cosmopolitan nature of Ostia is reflected in the wide range of religious buildings found there. As well as a large number of conventional temples there is evidence of a flourishing Imperial cult. There are buildings devoted to the cults of Cybele and Isis and 15 mithraea, dating mainly to the later second and third centuries ad. A synagogue, dating to the time of Claudius (ad 41–54), the earliest yet identified in Europe, was discovered outside the walls in 1960– 1961, with evidence that it was still in use in the fourth century ad. Several religious and professional colleges, such as the Augustales, a college of priests instituted in honour of Augustus, and the ship-builders (fabri navales) established their headquarters at Ostia. Most were fairly simple structures, but the so-called School of Trajan belonging to the Antonine period and named after a statue of Trajan found there, is much more sumptuous with its apsidal hall and long nymphaeum (fountain complex) running the whole length of the garden. Which association the building belonged to is still unknown, but it has been suggested that it may be the headquarters of the corporation of shipping transporters (naviculari).9

Demolition and rebuilding went on in the Antonine period, but the pace had begun to slacken because the city was almost fully built up. By the end of the second century ad there were few public spaces except the public gardens behind the theatre. Even the four temples west of the theatre were surrounded by buildings. Ostia remained prosperous up to the time of the Severans, a period largely devoted to the restoration of baths and granaries. However, one major project, probably begun by Commodus, was the enlargement of the theatre from 65 to 88 metres by adding of an outer ring of 21 arched openings. It also seems that that the present 61 shops used by overseas shippers were built when the level of the square behind the theatre, the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, was raised at the end of the second century ad. On the floor in front of each shop is a mosaic explaining the nature of the business. Many of them represent the grain trade and symbols associated with Africa are common. One mosaic bears the words ‘stat(io) Sabrathensium’ and an elephant, a reference to the town of Sabratha in Tripolitania. Another has two palm trees, three fishes and an amphora marked MC, which suggests that its ships traded with Mauretania Caesariensis (Cherchel) in Algeria. Another ambitious project of the period was the Round Temple near the forum. It is difficult to explain such a scheme, which is usually dated to the period ad 222–244, a time of declining wealth. It must almost certainly have been the product of imperial patronage, either by Alexander Severus or Gordian III, whose father lived in Ostia. It is essentially a smaller version of the Pantheon, with a large rectangular colonnaded courtyard in front, providing

Figure 6.23  Ostia, House of Amor and Psyche, c. ad 300: plan.

another much-needed open space in the congested central area. As land prices dropped in the third century ad more open spaces were created such as a small square south of the eastern decumanus and east of the forum. A second square, known as Piazzale della Vittoria, was created just inside Porta Romana. As imperial trade began to run down people moved to the harbour itself, at first called Portus Ostiae, then Portus Romae, and finally Portus. As Portus grew in importance Ostia settled into being a residential town with several senatorial families taking up residence there. The houses were quite lavish in their use of space and their interior decoration, as can be seen in the House of Cupid and Psyche which was an old insula turned into a private dwelling in the third or fourth century ad (Figure 6.23). It has richly marbled rooms facing a spacious viridarium, which opens off a wide corridor whose roof is supported by five columns. Along one side water flows from the spouts of five marbled niches into a deep basin. One of the rooms which faces the viridarium contains a small statue of Cupid and Psyche, from which the house gets its name. To the north there is a large reception room with a magnificent floor of polychrome marble (opus sectile).

At the end of the fourth century ad civic authority began to break down and the poet, Rutilius, wrote in ad 414 that the only glory remaining to Ostia was the glory of Aeneas, who according to legend had landed there. By the sixth century ad only a few inhabitants lived in the ruins of the buildings, half-demolished and stripped of their marble. The dead were buried in the baths and the theatre. The road from Rome to Ostia was overgrown and the Tiber a river without boats. Little attempt was made to defend it from barbarian incursions and finally the area became malarial and was abandoned.


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