Roman Ostia Revisited

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‘Roman Ostia’ Revisited. Archaeological and Historical Papers in Memory of Russell Meiggs.

ARCTOS 32 /1998


Edited by Anna Gallina Zevi and Amanda Claridge. British School at Rome, London, in collaboration with The Soprintendenza Archeologia di Ostia 1996. Including 54 line illustrations and 66 black & white plates. 308 p. ISBN 0-904152-29-4. £ 35.00.

‘Roman Ostia’ Revisited presents the papers of an international conference, held in memory of Russell Meiggs on 3-5 October 1992. The British School at Rome and the Soprintendenza Archeologia di Ostia published the results of the conference as a useful introduction to the present state of the Ostian studies. The articles – written in English, Italian, French and Spanish – vary from pottery and architecture to navigation and great port systems; the perspective is mainly archeological, but epigraphical and historical viewpoints are also represented in this publication.

The first section is dedicated to Russell Meiggs, the legendary author of Roman Ostia. H. Bloch, Oswyn Murray and Maria Floriani Squarciapino introduce Meiggs as both an excellent historian and an extraordinary personality. Murray describes him as a practical historian with a positivist approach who wanted to find the past “as it really was” and as it really worked but who still was a much more sympathetic person than most of his positivist colleagues.

The succeeding articles reveal the history of Ostia from the Archaic and Republic period onwards until Late Antiquity and early Middle Ages. Archer Martin, Benedetta Adembri, Fausto Zevi and Mireille Cébeillac Gervasoni discuss the most ancient phases of Ostia. Martin reports of the excavations of 1991 of the walls of the Ostian castrum, suggesting a dating for the castrum, to the end of the fourth century or the beginning of the third century B.C.E. In his article on the early phases of Ostia, Zevi also discusses the Ostian castrum, its dating and purpose. He supports the late dating of the castrum to not until the end of the fourth century B.C.E. He stresses that a careful topographical and paleo-environmental analysis is in key position in understanding the beginnings of Ostia. The town was situated in a strategically important position for it was not only organically connected with Via Ostiense and but also a link in the navigation line along the Tyrrhenian coastline. Adembri illuminates the importance of the port of Ostia during the Archaic period by surveying the import of the Attican, Etruscan and Faliscan ceramics to Ostia.

The articles of the third section discuss Ostia during the Imperial Period. Filippo Coarelli presents a hypothesis on location of the forum vinarium that is mentioned in inscriptions but its location is not specified in sources. A study of Ricardo Mar analyses the role of sanctuaries in the cityscape of the second-century Ostia. He sets the temple of Hercules, the sacral area of Magna Mater and Serapeum in their urban context.

In her innovative article on the economics of construction in Hadrianic Ostia, Janet DeLaine has calculated roughly how much labour, material and time was needed to build an insula and widens her assumptions even to the Hadrianic building enterprise in Ostia. The calculations are based on comparison with the construction business in Renaissance Italy and Georgian and Victorian London and on handbooks for building of the nineteenth century. The example used in the Roman Ostia is reconstruction of the Insula of the Paintings. On the basis of her estimations DeLaine suggests that the construction of the second century could have been financed by either by the Roman senatorial elite or commercial elites or even Ostian people themselves.

The construction in Ostia is also treated by Patrizio Pensabene in an article on public and private building projects. The impact of the imperial construction was significant: roads, ports, canals (Fossa Traiana), bridges (Pons Matidiae), aqueducts (Aqua Traiana), theatres, terms and temples were built and restored. Carlo Pavolini shows how research of pottery found in Ostia can illustrate the relationship between the commerce of Ostia / Portus and the commerce of Rome in a viewpoint of long duration, “lunga durata”. He, for example, finds out that there is oriental material in Ostia and Portus in the fourth and fifth centuries than in Rome in the same period.

Maria Letizia Lazzarini presents some examples of the numerous Greek inscriptions found in Ostia, and Lidia Paroli introduces excavations made under the Casone del Sale in order to illustrate the circumstances in late antique Ostia. The late antique layers of a warehouse, “magazzino doliare”, found in the excavations, show marks of spoliation and gradual degradation. The degradation of horrea, ware buildings refers to a crisis in the middle of the fifth century and in the sixth century but Paroli insists (as well as Meiggs did) that in spite of an economic depression Ostia was not totally deserted in Late Antiquity and early Middle Ages.

One of sections has been dedicated to Portus. Nicholas Purcell discusses Portus and Ostia, the ports of Rome, within the context of the development of the Roman system of coastline, termed in Latin as ora maritima. The whole landscape, coastline, islands, rivermouths and harbours, functioned as strategic strongholds and links in this system. Thus, Ostia and Portus cannot be called “the port of Rome” since the whole Mediterranean functioned as the harbour of Rome.

Geoffrey E. Rickman and Stefano Coccia introduce new perspectives of Portus. Rickman sets Portus within the wider context of Mediterranean ports and the Roman annona system. The grain trade created the essential conditions for the other trade to flourish, too. Coccia reports of archaeological findings in Portus even from the eighth and ninth centuries, which attests of continuity of settlement in spite of the economic crisis from the mid-fifth and sixth centuries onwards. The city of Rome was still a fairly important consumer centre which depended on import. Portus, however, was no longer used for storage but only for transportation of goods.

Maijastina Kahlos


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