Ostia

Historical background

By S. Keay

Ostia was traditionally founded by Ancus Marcius, the fourth King of Rome, in the 7th c BC, although archaeological excavations in the vicinity of the castrum at the heart of the port reveal little evidence for occupation prior to the 4th c BC. This has led some to speculate that early Ostia was located elsewhere in the vicinity – although no solid evidence has yet been found. It seems likely that the 4th c BC establishment, a colonia, was founded after the conquest of Veii in 396 BC, presumably in an attempt to consolidate Roman control of the lower Tiber valley and adjacent coast, and one of several maritime colonies founded along the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy in the 4th and 3rd c BC. The so-called castrum at the centre of Imperial Ostia was the site of this establishment. Since its citizens had come from Rome, and were inscribed in the Voturia voting tribe and the port was close to both Rome and the sea, Rome played a key role in the administration of the community for much of the Republic (Meiggs 1973: 16-24).

 

The early river port had a primarily military role, becoming the headquarters of a quaestor ostiensis in 267 BC, an official who was responsible for the Roman fleet and who would have played a key role in the wars against Pyrrhus and, one imagines, the first Punic War against Carthage (Meiggs 1973: 25-7). From the end of the 2nd c BC, the official would have assumed a primarily commercial role (Meiggs 1973: 28ff), coordinating the import of overseas grain to Rome by way of Puteoli (Pozzuoli) on the Bay of Naples. This was because the port had a very small harbour basin (c. 2Ha) (Goiran et al. 2014). Also, incoming ships encountered difficulties in negotiating the Tiber on account of the sandbar at its mouth, the strength of its current and the fact that only ships of limited size could sail up it to Rome (Strabo V.3.50; Dio Cassius 60.2).

 

In the course of the 1st c BC the port came under attack on various occasions, notably by Marius in 87 BC upon his return from Africa, by eastern Mediterranean pirates in 67 BC and by Sextus Pompeius in 36 BC. At some time between 63 and 58 BC, the greatly expanded port was surrounded by a substantial defensive wall (Meiggs 1973: 34-40; Zevi 2002). However it soon lost its military role with the transfer of the fleet to Portus Iulius and then Misenum on the Bay of Naples at the end of the 1st c BC (Pavolini 1983).

 

Over the same period, Ostia developed its own municipal institutions and a greater administrative autonomy from Rome. Its key importance as a conduit for the supply of food to the capital, however, meant that from the reign of Augustus onwards a range of Imperial officials responsible to the praefectus annonae at Rome were established at the port to help coordinate supplies of grain and other foodstuffs bound for Rome (Meiggs 1973: 298-310). This new role was given one major boost under Claudius (AD 41-54) with the establishment of an artificial harbour at Portus on the northern edge of its territory, and another under Trajan (AD 98-117), who substantially enlarged it (Keay et al. 2005). This new maritime port made it possible to move the focus of overseas import of foodstuffs from Puteoli to a point very close to Rome and, thus, to accelerate the supply of food and other commodities to the Capital. This development provided a massive boost to Ostia’s role as a nexus of trade and commerce in the course of the later 1st and 2nd c AD (Meiggs 1973: 54-64), as can be attested by an expansion in the numbers of warehouses, and a proliferation in the numbers of negotiatores (merchants), navicularii (shippers and shipowners) and other groups of people (collegia and corpora) involved in the supply of foodstuffs to Rome (Meiggs 1973; 311-36) and other commercial activities. A range of archaeological and epigraphic evidence attests to the particular commercial vigour of the port in the course of the rest of the century down until an apparent slowdown in building activity from the early 3rd c AD onwards.

 

In the course of the 3rd c, however, epigraphic references to officials working for the praefectus annonae disappear. This does not signal the end of Ostia’s role as the key hub in administering the supply of food to the Capital. Indeed the praefectus annonae, who is referred to as a patronus of the port and a curator rei publicae ostiensium (Pavolini 2005: 256; Meiggs 1973: 94), exercised direct control over the port. At the same time, however, the archaeological evidence points to an apparent decline in building activity from the earlier 3rd c AD onwards (Meiggs 1973: 82-5). A further slip in the port’s fortunes came in the course of the 4th c AD, when despite having been chosen as a mint for Roman bronze coinage under the emperor Maxentius in AD 312, Portus was recognized as a municipality distinct to Ostia between AD 337 and 341. While the portscape proliferated with small but luxurious private houses built within the ruins of earlier buildings (Pavolini 2005: 256-68), and occasional larger complexes, the emperor Constantine endowed the port with a Christian church in the early 4th c AD (Meiggs 1973: 92; Bauer & Heinzelmann 1999). By the 5th c AD, the port had lost all of its importance and it seems that it was not important enough to have been sacked by either Alaric the Visigoth in AD 408-10 or Gaiseric the Vandal in AD 455. Nor did Ostia play a significant role during the wars between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths in the early to mid 6th c AD (Meiggs 1973: 97-9; Pavolini 2005: 268-71).

Archaeological background

a. General (by S. Keay)

The early walled castrum of Ostia was rectangular in plan (2.5Ha) located on the south bank of the river Tiber c. 900m from the ancient seafront, with its two principal streets, the Decumanus Maximus and the Cardo Maximus taking their alignments from the Via Ostiensis and what was to become the Via Laurentina respectively. While much of the layout of the early port is unknown on account of overlying structures belonging to subsequent urban developments, a range of houses and shrines of Republican date persisted in use into the Imperial period. By the period 60-50 BC, the urban area of the port was much expanded and defined by a new circuit of walls with two gates and circular towers. These have been documented running south-westwards from a point close to the seafront and the south side of the Tiber, before heading in a north-easterly direction towards the Tiber again. While this evidence has been generally taken to assume that the port was defined by the Tiber on its northern side, the recent discovery of what appears to have been a continuation of the walls on the northern side of the Tiber (cf. Portuslimen website about the discovery) suggests that the river may have run through the middle of the port.

 

While the walls to the south of the Tiber are traditionally taken to indicate the maximum extent of the port during the early Imperial period, geophysical survey undertaken in the late 1990s has shown that settlement extended well beyond them. This suggests that by the later 2nd c AD Ostia to the south of the Tiber encompassed a built-up area of c. 190 ha with a population of up to 40,000; the new discoveries to the north of the Tiber point to an even larger population. It has been argued that this re-development of the urban centre of Ostia under Hadrian (Delaine 2007: Fig. 10) and subsequently (Mar 2002: 144-58; Delaine 2007: Fig. 10) is best understood as a consequence of the enlargement of Portus under Trajan and the consequent increase in its capacity to handle maritime traffic.

 

b. Port Installations (by S.  Keay and F. Salomon)

The approach to Ostia by incoming sea-going ships was signalled by a lighthouse whose core lies within the later Torre Boacciana (Meiggs 1973: 279), which lies immediately south of the Tiber beyond the Porta Marina. The main surviving port installation is the 2 Ha harbour basin that has been located by two geoarchaeological cores (Goiran et al. 2012; Goiran et al. 2014). It lies between the Palazzo Imperiale and the Porta Marina, and was bounded on its eastern side by a temple complex and what has been identified as a navalia. Radiocarbon dating allow us to date the establishment of the basin to the 4th – 3rd c. BC, and a final infilling by coarse fluvial deposits at some time between the 1st c. BC and the beginning of the 1st c. AD (Goiran et al. 2014). It is likely that there were quays along both banks of the old course of the Tiber eastwards from here, and that they were also present on the eastern side of the meander in the Fiume Morto area. These would have made it possible for the cargoes unloaded from ships moored in the river to be stored in nearby warehouses (see d. below).

 

c. Public Buildings (by S. Keay)

Excavations undertaken at Ostia, particularly during the period 1938-42, together with the 1990s geophysical survey, have revealed that by the middle of the 2nd c AD, the portscape was focused around a range of major public buildings, as well as extensive areas of residential settlement. Communication between all of them was articulated by a complex network of streets that originated in the Republican period. The most important public buildings were the forum, with its capitolium, temple to Rome and Augustus, associated basilica and curia, which were situated at the centre of what had been the old Republican castrum at the heart of the port. The portscape was also peppered with a number of major bath complexes, scholae, temples and shrines to a range of Roman, Italic and eastern deities.

 

d. Commercial Buildings (by S. Keay)

One of the main features of the port is the provision of warehouses (Rickman 1971: 15-86; Mar 2002: 148-53). While some of the Ostia warehouses may have originated in the Republican period, they were essentially the result of developments that began under the Julio-Claudians and substantially increased in number under Trajan, and particularly Hadrian, and continued to be constructed until the Severan period. This gave rise to an increase in warehouse space from 17667 m2 in the first, to 31,882 m2 in the early, and 46,118 m2 in the later second century AD. The larger warehouses, such as the Piccolo Mercato, Horrea Epagathiana et Epaphroditiana, Horrea di Hortensius, the Grandi Horrea and the Horrea dell’Artemide proliferated in the area between the river and the Decumanus Maximus, and on the basis of their size and prominence have been attributed to public ownership. They were all situated so as to receive grain and other commodities that was unloaded onto the quays, because their entrances faced directly on to the river port. Furthermore their proximity to the Decumanus Maximus and branch roads ensured that commodities that were stored in them could be re-distributed to the smaller corridor warehouses and other buildings in the south and western parts of the port.

 

The recent discovery of several large warehouses on the northern side of the Tiber, in the southern sector of what is known as the Isola Sacra, defined by what appears to have been the northern stretch of the town walls, further enlarges the known area of storage provision at Ostia. The minimum total quay space on the southern side of the Tiber between the Porta Marina and the Porta Romana was c. 1.2 km. If one counts both sides of the Tiber, then the figure would have been correspondingly greater.

 

Amongst the other key buildings related to the commercial life of the port, the Piazzale delle Corporazione and the Caserma dei Vigiles were arguably amongst the most important. The former lay immediately to the north of the theatre and acted as a meeting place for the representatives of the merchants and shippers active at Ostia and Portus, and possibly also as a forum for meeting representatives of the praefectus annonae. By the later second century AD, the mosaic floors of the stationes that surround the piazza make it clear that the traders represented here traded in grain, wine, olive oil, wild-beasts and other commodities from cities across the Mediterranean, but particularly North Africa.

 

Aside from this complex, and the others associated with the public life of the port, there is no evidence as yet for the kind of buildings that one might expect for officials such as the procurator annonae ostiensis who were involved in the supply of foodstuffs to Rome via Ostia and Portus, or for those of other officials who might have coordinated the movement of shipping and the registration of cargoes. The possible exception is the large building known as the Palazzo Imperiale at the western edge of the port, which was probably a public building of some kind. There was also the Caserma dei Vigiles, which lay to the east of the Piazzale delle Corporazione and was frequented by individuals who would have played a key role in ensuring the security of food stored in the warehouses from fire and other threats.

 

e. Residential Buildings (by S. Keay)

A glance at published town plans and aerial photos of the port reveals a densely packed urban landscape, in which proliferate houses and multi-storey apartment blocks of different kinds (Packer 1971; Hermansen 1982). While many of these have their origin in the 2nd and 1st c BC, the majority were built or reconstructed during the later 1st and 2nd c AD, with progressively fewer of later 2nd, 3rd and 4th c AD date.

 

f. Cemeteries (by S. Keay)

Extensive cemeteries have been found flanking either side of the via Ostiensis and the Via Laurentina outside the line of the mid 1st c BC town walls on the south side of the port (Heinzelmann 2002). While the origins of these are to be sought in the course of the 2nd and 1st c BC, they flourished in the first two centuries, with a period of decline from the 3rd c AD onwards. The 4th c AD witnessed a concentration of burials around a number of extramural churches.

Geomorphological background

By F. Salomon

Ostia is located in the Tiber delta around 25km downstream of Rome. At its foundation, Ostia was located close to the mouth of the River. The spread of the port was limited to the west by the sea and to the east by meander of the ancient course of the Tiber (Fiume Morto) and the Stagno di Ostia. Today the coastline lies c 3 km west of that of the 1 c. AD, while the Tiber course has moved laterally since Roman period, and the Stagno di Ostia was reclaimed in the late 19th c./early 20th c. Geoarchaeological research has been undertaken on the palaeo-landscape of Ostia in the vicinity of the river mouth (Salomon et al. 2014), the palaeomeander called Fiume Morto (Segre 1986; Arnoldus-Huyzendveld 2005; Salomon 2013) and in the palaeo-lagoon (Bellotti et al. 2011; Vittori et al. in press 2014). Geoarchaeological research is still on-going as part of the Ostia Antica – Geoarchaeological project in collaboration between the Soprintendenza per I Beni Archaeologiche di Roma (Italy), Hunt University (USA) and Texas University (USA), the Universita di Bologna (Italy), the University of Lyon (France) and the University of Southampton (UK).

Importance in the Roman harbour network

By S. Keay

Ostia was traditionally founded by Ancus Marcius, the fourth King of Rome, in the 7th c BC, although archaeological excavations in the vicinity of the castrum at the heart of the port reveal little evidence for occupation prior to the 4th c BC. This has led some to speculate that early Ostia was located elsewhere in the vicinity – although no solid evidence has yet been found. It seems likely that the 4th c BC establishment, a colonia, was founded after the conquest of Veii in 396 BC, presumably in an attempt to consolidate Roman control of the lower Tiber valley and adjacent coast, and one of several maritime colonies founded along the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy in the 4th and 3rd c BC. The so-called castrum at the centre of Imperial Ostia was the site of this establishment. Since its citizens had come from Rome, and were inscribed in the Voturia voting tribe and the port was close to both Rome and the sea, Rome played a key role in the administration of the community for much of the Republic (Meiggs 1973: 16-24).

 

The early river port had a primarily military role, becoming the headquarters of a quaestor ostiensis in 267 BC, an official who was responsible for the Roman fleet and who would have played a key role in the wars against Pyrrhus and, one imagines, the first Punic War against Carthage (Meiggs 1973: 25-7). From the end of the 2nd c BC, the official would have assumed a primarily commercial role (Meiggs 1973: 28ff), coordinating the import of overseas grain to Rome by way of Puteoli (Pozzuoli) on the Bay of Naples. This was because the port had a very small harbour basin (c. 2Ha) (Goiran et al. 2014). Also, incoming ships encountered difficulties in negotiating the Tiber on account of the sandbar at its mouth, the strength of its current and the fact that only ships of limited size could sail up it to Rome (Strabo V.3.50; Dio Cassius 60.2).

 

In the course of the 1st c BC the port came under attack on various occasions, notably by Marius in 87 BC upon his return from Africa, by eastern Mediterranean pirates in 67 BC and by Sextus Pompeius in 36 BC. At some time between 63 and 58 BC, the greatly expanded port was surrounded by a substantial defensive wall (Meiggs 1973: 34-40; Zevi 2002). However it soon lost its military role with the transfer of the fleet to Portus Iulius and then Misenum on the Bay of Naples at the end of the 1st c BC (Pavolini 1983).

 

Over the same period, Ostia developed its own municipal institutions and a greater administrative autonomy from Rome. Its key importance as a conduit for the supply of food to the capital, however, meant that from the reign of Augustus onwards a range of Imperial officials responsible to the praefectus annonae at Rome were established at the port to help coordinate supplies of grain and other foodstuffs bound for Rome (Meiggs 1973: 298-310). This new role was given one major boost under Claudius (AD 41-54) with the establishment of an artificial harbour at Portus on the northern edge of its territory, and another under Trajan (AD 98-117), who substantially enlarged it (Keay et al. 2005). This new maritime port made it possible to move the focus of overseas import of foodstuffs from Puteoli to a point very close to Rome and, thus, to accelerate the supply of food and other commodities to the Capital. This development provided a massive boost to Ostia’s role as a nexus of trade and commerce in the course of the later 1st and 2nd c AD (Meiggs 1973: 54-64), as can be attested by an expansion in the numbers of warehouses, and a proliferation in the numbers of negotiatores (merchants), navicularii (shippers and shipowners) and other groups of people (collegia and corpora) involved in the supply of foodstuffs to Rome (Meiggs 1973; 311-36) and other commercial activities. A range of archaeological and epigraphic evidence attests to the particular commercial vigour of the port in the course of the rest of the century down until an apparent slowdown in building activity from the early 3rd c AD onwards.

 

In the course of the 3rd c, however, epigraphic references to officials working for the praefectus annonae disappear. This does not signal the end of Ostia’s role as the key hub in administering the supply of food to the Capital. Indeed the praefectus annonae, who is referred to as a patronus of the port and a curator rei publicae ostiensium (Pavolini 2005: 256; Meiggs 1973: 94), exercised direct control over the port. At the same time, however, the archaeological evidence points to an apparent decline in building activity from the earlier 3rd c AD onwards (Meiggs 1973: 82-5). A further slip in the port’s fortunes came in the course of the 4th c AD, when despite having been chosen as a mint for Roman bronze coinage under the emperor Maxentius in AD 312, Portus was recognized as a municipality distinct to Ostia between AD 337 and 341. While the portscape proliferated with small but luxurious private houses built within the ruins of earlier buildings (Pavolini 2005: 256-68), and occasional larger complexes, the emperor Constantine endowed the port with a Christian church in the early 4th c AD (Meiggs 1973: 92; Bauer & Heinzelmann 1999). By the 5th c AD, the port had lost all of its importance and it seems that it was not important enough to have been sacked by either Alaric the Visigoth in AD 408-10 or Gaiseric the Vandal in AD 455. Nor did Ostia play a significant role during the wars between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths in the early to mid 6th c AD (Meiggs 1973: 97-9; Pavolini 2005: 268-71).

References

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  •  Segre, A. G. 1986. “Considerazioni sul Tevere e sull’Aniene nel Quaternario. In: Il Tevere e le altre vie d’acqua del Lazio antico.” Archeologia Laziale VII (2): 9–17.
  •  Vittori, C., Mazzini, I., Salomon, F., Goiran J.-P., Pannuzi, S., Rosa, C., and Pellegrino, A,. 2014. “Palaeoenvironmental Evolution of the Ancient Lagoon of Ostia Antica (Tiber Delta, Italy).” Journal of Archaeological Science. Accessed September 4. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2014.06.017.
  •  Zevi, F. 2002. Appunti per una storia di Ostia Repubblicana. MEFRA 114.1: 13-58.

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