You are here

Ostia V: Le terme del nuotatore. Cronologia di un’insula ostiense

Ostia V: Le terme del nuotatore. Cronologia di un’insula ostiense

By Maura Medri and Valeria di Cola (Studi miscellanei 36). Pp. 264, figs. 205. L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome 2013. €195. ISBN 978-88-8265-763-5 (paper).

Reviewed by

The excavation of the Baths of the Swimmer at Ostia between 1938 and 1980, but particularly from the late 1960s, under the direction of Andrea Carandini, had an outsized influence on Italian archaeology. This arose particularly from the study of a large rubbish dump of the third century C.E., the so-called mucchione, which formed after the abandonment of the building. It contained the ordinary ceramic rubbish of daily life, which had been of little interest to Italian excavators up to that time, with the exception of Nino Lamboglia. The first four volumes of the Ostia series treated this material in great detail, deriving from them the typological monuments published in the Atlante delle forme ceramiche: Ceramica fine romana nel bacino mediterraneo. Medio e Tardo Imperio (EAA [Rome 1981]). The moment in 1968 when Carandini decided to divvy up the finds by classes between his students remains one of the turning points in Italian archaeology, when ordinary material culture became valued as evidence for the trade and economy of the empire. The elephant in the room remained the building itself, which has awaited complete publication for more than 40 years, although the plan was the subject of Medri’s thesis, and a preliminary report on the baths was published by Panella and Medri (“Le Terme del Nuotatore ad Ostia Antica,” Quaderni della Ricerca Scientifica 112 [1985] 303–16).

The first part of this final publication takes the form of a series of synthetic essays on the baths by Medri. It begins by discussing their development over time, from their initial construction in the Flavian period (80–90 C.E.) to the east of the Sanctuary of the Bona Dea, with some minor additions and changes. These include a radical restructuring of the heating system in the period between 120 and 160 C.E.; ongoing minor changes, including the addition of a laconium near the palaestra between 160 and 190 C.E.; and a final, more serious reconstruction in which the rooms in the front block of the building, including the atrium and the apodyteria, were cut off from the rest of the baths, whose circuit became rather more limited (190–210 C.E.). At some point just after the second half of the third century, the baths were abandoned and spoliated, while rubbish dumps accumulated in some of the rooms. This abandonment remains a striking testimony to the fragility of Ostia’s dense urban network: while occupation of many parts of the city remained vital into the fifth century, 200 years earlier a major part of the city’s infrastructure had become what we must imagine was a malodorous dump.

There follows a second essay on the reconstruction of the spaces of the baths, with sections through every conceivable part of the building, well discussed in the text. This essay is a step beyond the simple analysis by plan, making it clear how the front block, with its two stories, would have balanced the vaulted spaces of the baths proper. It is, however, regrettable that this suite of simple, elegant drawings does not finish with, at least, an axonometric reconstruction of the complex as a whole. This would have allowed the immediate comparison of its volumes with those of the better-known complexes of the city and demonstrated the relationship of the open spaces—the palaestra and the large space around the monumental cistern—to the whole. A comparison with the other public baths would have been useful also in the context of Medri’s valuable calculation that, based on the spaces in the hot rooms, about 50 people might have used the baths at once, allowing time for perhaps 600 hot baths a day (85).

The study of the water supply to the baths follows. That this came most probably from the same aqueduct that supplied the castellum acquarum at the Porta Marina supports the idea that the complex was part of a larger program of urban development centered on the eastern regions II and V. Medri then convincingly argues that they were the first public baths of the city, followed by, in order of construction, the Baths of Porta Marina, the Baths of Neptune, and the Forum Baths. The elegant bust reused in a later building and discussed at the end of the book by Papini and Mascolo may well have represented the individual responsible for their construction, while the fistulae stamped by two separate Priscillae (Arria Priscilla and Larcia Priscilla [94]) might indicate another act of euergetism at the time of the first reconstruction under Hadrian. Brunn has identified these Priscillae as connected to the senatorial families of the Acilii and the Agrilii (“Zwei Priscillae aus Ostia und der Sammbaum der Egrilii,” ZPE 102 [1994] 215–25).

The typology of the Ostian baths is then touched on, and Medri wisely avoids spending too long on this well-studied and essentially sterile question—as she points out, the single unifying characteristic of the Ostian baths is their variety (101). The other public baths at Ostia, like those of the Swimmer, occupy a whole parcel of land and have organic plans and palaestrae. An interesting figure is the sequence of chronologically ordered maps of the Ostian baths, which shows clearly the distribution of the public baths in the eastern half of the site and along the central axis: indeed, the abandonment of the Baths of the Swimmer might be seen as a reaction to the construction of the larger and more glamorous Forum Baths. However, the lack of public baths in the western half of the site is striking to such a degree that it makes me wonder if we are missing another public bath near the Tiber. 

The second section of the book includes di Cola’s analytic documentation of each room and each individual building activity. Based on her thesis, this section recounts everything necessary for a detailed understanding of the building and its development over time. Repetition of the first part is inevitable here, but the major difference between the two is the welcome presence of photographic documentation in this section complementing what seem to be numerous repetitions of what is (almost) the same plan. The section is followed by a fine treatment of the stuccoes in the tepidarium by Bedello Tata and Spanda, the publication of the donor(?) bust mentioned above, and Volpe’s catalogue of the brickstamps from the building.

A final list of the stratigraphic units closes the volume. Like the matrix in the front, it seems to have a purpose more symbolic than real: while normally lists of stratigraphic units are useful to those who might in the future study their finds, these are structural and therefore have no finds. The list thus seems to be designed rather to indicate the nature of the meticulous work carried out than to help the reader. What we miss, instead, is any idea of how the baths were decorated, apart from a rather small photograph of the eponymous mosaic and some comments in the text. The publication of the stuccoes—which includes a nice reconstruction drawing, indicating the blue of the fresco below the stuccoed vault—is an exception to this general silence with respect to the decorative program. More such drawings would have been welcome. A last criticism of this generally fine book is directed not at its authors but at its publishers: €195 is a lot of money for 264 pages, of which only a very few include color images.

Elizabeth Fentress

Book Review of Ostia V: Le terme del nuotatore. Cronologia di uninsula ostiense, by Maura Medri and Valeria di Cola

Reviewed by Elizabeth Fentress

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1191.Fentress

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.