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Ostia in Late Antiquity

Ostia in Late Antiquity

By Douglas Boin. Pp. 287, b&w figs. 57. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-02401-4.

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Ostia, the harbor city of ancient Rome, has long drawn the attention of Roman archaeologists. Ostia is one of the most extensively excavated and well-preserved cities in the Roman West, and, as such, has long played an important role in our understanding of urban infrastructure and daily life. For many decades, archaeological work at Ostia has been focused toward the city’s Early Republican and Imperial-period history, overlooking the site’s rich Late Antique archaeology and development. It is now well acknowledged, however, that the patronage of public buildings, although in decline, continued across the empire throughout late antiquity (J.B. Ward-Perkins, From Classical Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages: Urban Public Building in Northern and Central Italy [Oxford 1984]; “The Cities,” CAH 13 [1998] 378–82). Recent work at Ostia has highlighted considerable epigraphic and archaeological evidence for continued activity in the city during the fourth and early fifth centuries C.E. (e.g., A. Martin and M. Heinzelmann, “The Joint AAR-DAI Research Project at Ostia, 1998 and 1999 Seasons,” MAAR 45 [2000] 277–83; A. Gering, L. Kaumanns, and L. Lavan, “Ostia’s Civic Centre in Late Antiquity: Interim Report of the Excavations 2008–2011,” RM 117 [2011] 409–511). The picture is quite different from the 1973 landscape of Meiggs (Roman Ostia [Oxford]).

Boin’s Ostia in Late Antiquity is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship not only on Roman Ostia but also on the Late Antique city more generally. Despite the broad title of Boin’s work, this is not a general book on Late Antique Ostia; its main focus is an examination of the textual and archaeological sources for the “religious landscape” of Ostia “in order to construct a social-historical picture of life in the Late Antique city” (11).

The book is divided into two main sections: chapters 1 and 2 (“Background”) outline Boin’s methodological approach and provide an overview of recent archaeological surveys and excavations at Ostia; the second part (“Foreground”) contains the main bulk of the book and examines Ostia’s religious landscape over the course of 400 years. The first three chapters of this section each focus on a 100-year period, from the third through fifth centuries C.E., and the last chapter focuses on the sixth and seventh centuries.

A fundamental aspect of late antiquity is the recognition of the ways in which the city’s Republican and Imperial history affected the Late Antique cityscape—a point that Boin addresses with regard to Ostia and its earlier Roman past (20–6). As Boin illustrates via recent work on Ostia’s Early Republican castrum walls, any later development had to negotiate and fit into an existing, older landscape, and, as such, “the past played a constituent part in the formation of people's present social identities” (21). This process was both physical (the large blocks of the walls continued to be recycled at the site for centuries) and conceptual (“tangible memories” helped shape the lives of the people in Late Antique Ostia [31]).

In chapter 1, Boin also presents recent developments in postprocessual archaeology and memory studies that shaped his methodological approach to Late Antique identity and its expression in the Ostian evidence. He then moves on to deal with the terms “Christianization” and “Paganism.” He concludes that both terms are inadequate, as “Christianization” predicts the outcome before any study even commences (33), and “Paganism” represents an imposed Christian agenda regarding the cityscape and its perception (39). This leads into the conclusion of chapter 1, where Boin adopts Geertz’s (The Interpretation of Cultures [New York 1973] 90) view of religion as a system of symbols that provide visible (through epigraphy and archaeology) and analyzable material into how people structured their world (44–6).

Chapter 2 synthesizes and highlights recent work on Ostia’s Late Antique civic spaces, houses, apartments, warehouses, bakeries, and ceramics. The overview offered is to be much welcomed, given the large number of individual articles, monographs, and edited volumes published over the last two decades on Ostia. It will undoubtedly be useful for those in need of an introduction to Ostian archaeology. Importantly, Boin’s survey shows clearly that the city was far from deserted or in decay during this period, as large areas of its urban fabric were well maintained, and evidence suggests a degree of continuity with daily life in earlier periods.

Chapter 3 marks the start of the second part of the book and the main discourse on the religious manifestations of continuity and change. Following the work of scholars such as Witchel (“Re-evaluating the Roman West in the 3rd c. A.D.,” JRA 17 [2004] 251–81), Boin proposes a more nuanced interpretation to the traditional narrative of the third century as a time of urban and religious crisis (85–9). This interpretation concentrates on religious activities at Ostia from large-scale activity at the so-called Round Temple to smaller-scale religious celebrations in domestic spaces, workshops, and storage facilities. The individual perspective is viewed beyond traditional Roman religion through the lens of a bronze “magic” amulet discovered in 1917 at Ostia.

The discussion of alternative religious activity is continued with Ostia’s mithraea and their contextualization within recent scholarship. Boin raises doubts about the cult’s disappearance at Ostia before the end of the fourth century by pointing to the cult’s continuation in Rome during the fifth century (114). Although a new study of the evidence at Ostia is certainly warranted to confirm this hypothesis, Boin does not acknowledge the different nature of Mithraic worship at Rome and Ostia. Mithraism at Ostia appears to have been tied to small-scale industry and commerce, both of which were susceptible to economic fluctuation in this period (cf., M. Clauss, Cultores Mithrae: Die Anhängerschaft des Mithras-Kultes [Stuttgart 1992] 40–2). Chapter 3 concludes by examining Ostia’s synagogue. Of major importance, Boin cites ceramic evidence from recent excavations by the University of Texas at Austin that suggests a date after the mid to late second century (119–20). This is notable, as it places the construction of the synagogue at a much later date than previous studies had suggested.

Chapter 4 concentrates on the fourth century C.E. and introduces the traditional narrative of the period: the fourth century as the triumph of Christianity under Constantine. Boin’s discussion begins with an up-to-date summary of scholarship on the Edict of Milan (313 C.E.) and its repercussions. To contextualize the Ostian evidence, Boin juxtaposes the picture of opposition and conflict portrayed by contemporary literature with recent archaeological evidence for continued investment in traditional civic and religious monuments. He identifies a more gradual social and cultural change than that offered by Christian writers.

Boin’s treatment of the Ostian evidence also seeks to show the persistence of traditional institutions within the increasing Christian presence in the urban landscape. This argument begins with the “Pagan revival” advocated by Bloch (“A New Document of the Last Pagan Revival in the West,” HTR 38 [1945] 199–244), which centered on the restoration of the so-called Temple of Hercules (I.15.5). Boin notes that the late fourth-century C.E. inscription associated with this building, which may in fact have been dedicated to Vulcan and not Hercules (134), likely belongs to the Terme di Porta Marina and not the temple structure.

The Ostian evidence appears to fit well with the general view from the archaeology and epigraphy of other Italian cities, attesting to the maintenance and restoration of the classical urban fabric during this period (cf. C. Witschel, “Rom und die Städte Italiens in Spätantike und Frühmittelalter,” BJb 201 [2001] 113–62). At Ostia, as Boin acknowledges, not all buildings were restored, and some fell into disrepair. The Late Antique forum was restored in the first half of the fifth century C.E. by dismantling and reusing material from the Temple of Roma and Augustus (146). For the present author, this illustrates one of the major characteristics of Late Antique urbanism—a desire to continue the long-standing Roman tradition of beautifying the urban landscape while recognizing the need to reuse and abandon certain areas of the city.

In this chapter, Boin also provides a comparative analysis of Jewish and Christian activities during this period. This relates primarily to the fourth-century renovations to the synagogue and the large basilica discovered just inside the southeastern section of the city wall. Boin, however, is incorrect in stating that the church incorporated foundations of a second-century C.E. apartment complex (160). In actuality, the complex had been demolished prior to the construction of the church or indeed any Christian worship on the site (F.A. Bauer et al., “Untersuchungen im Bereich der konstantinischen Bischofskirche Ostias: Vorbericht zur ersten Grabungskampagne,” RM 106 [1999] 301–3). This notwithstanding, Boin’s connection between the increased visual prominence of Christianity during the fourth century and the installation of a new Torah shrine at the Ostian synagogue in the same period as part of a desire to assert a more “communal Jewish identity” at Ostia (158) is both new and interesting.

The “Christianization” of the city’s landscape forms an important focus of Boin’s book. The development of Christianity and the rise of the church as a major player in urbanism and daily life have often played an important part in the discourse on late antiquity (see J. Curran, Pagan City and Christian Capital: Rome in the Fourth Century [Oxford 2000]). Most importantly, as Boin illustrates, the adoption of Christianity did not lead to dramatic and sudden transformations of the city. The city’s inhabitants did not abandon the more traditional elements of the “Classical” city; both the forum and Capitolium remained into the fifth century C.E. In this light, Christian churches emerge as active participants in driving social change.

Chapter 5 presents a discussion of the dedication and patronage of Ostia’s urban basilica following the two textual traditions (the Liber Pontificalis and the Acta Sanctorum). Any such discussion must remain speculative without firm epigraphic evidence; however, it does raise the possibility of the importance of elite local patrons rather than the emperor in the construction of Ostia’s first urban church (178). In the final part of chapter 5, Boin returns to the question of the continuation of traditional religious practices in the fifth-century city. This discussion concentrates on the statuary of the Sanctuary of Magna Mater. For Boin, the sanctuary’s statues acted not only as “snapshots of the Roman past” but also as “vibrant reminder[s] of the world as it could continue to be” (192).

It is worth noting that the latest dedication at the Sanctuary of Magna Mater was a fourth-century rededication of a first-century C.E. statuette of Dionysos, probably by Ceionius Rufius Volusianus, the praefectus Urbis in 365–367 C.E. This leads to the question of the visibility of such statuary in the sanctuary into the fifth century C.E. Those interested in this would do well to consult Boin’s article “A Late Antique Statuary Collection at Ostia’s Sanctuary of Magna Mater: A Case-Study in Late Roman Religion and Tradition” (PBSR 81 [2013] 247–77), which provides much more detail on this. In the article, Boin ([2013] 158) quotes Visconti (“I monumenti del Metroon Ostiense,” Annali dell’Istituto di corrispendenza archeologica 41 [1869] 210–11), who states that several of the statues had been “overturned…lying on the pavement in the portico, not hidden.” This observation led Visconti (and Boin) to deduce that the statues had been on display for many years after the time of their dedication. The inclusion of this information would have greatly helped the reader to understand the perceived continuation of the sanctuary over a period of 100 years after the last dedication.

Chapter 6 aims to examine the transition of Ostia into the sixth century. The continuation of traditional cults is affirmed through the Codex-Calendar of 354 and Polemius Silvius’ calendar (mid fifth century C.E.), both of which mention celebrations in honor of the Dioscuri at Ostia; however, Boin shows the emerging dominance of Christianity by considering the merge of the developing Christian commemorative calendar with the traditional religious calendar. Ostia appears in this chapter as a “monument in and of ruins” (233). The House of Fortuna Annonaria (5.2.8), for example, is the last known repair to a domestic structure in the city (sixth century C.E.), and there is a lack of any new monumental building in the forum during this period. A brief postscript reflecting on Ostia between the fourth and seventh centuries and its comparison with other Mediterranean cities during this period shows that Ostia’s urban transformation was less dramatic than elsewhere. There is currently no evidence for the city’s sanctuaries being converted into churches, for example. Perhaps, as Boin suggests, various cultural factors led to a unique and “diverse social environment” (238).

Ostia in Late Antiquity will be valuable to both students and scholars, not least for its English summary of more than a decade’s worth of archaeological data as well as its up-to-date bibliography. Overall, Boin’s book has much to offer, bringing together a wide range of evidence for the continued interest in and preservation of traditional civic and religious institutions at Ostia during late antiquity and for charting the rise of Christianity during this period. Boin’s work clearly demonstrates that Rome’s traditional religions remained an important part of civic identity in an increasingly Christian landscape. The strength of Boin’s work rests in his adoption of a new methodological approach examining the survival and gradual disappearance of specific cultural signs and symbols to understand the transformation of Late Antique Ostia (202).

Simon J. Barker
Department of History, Classics and Archaeology
Birkbeck, University of London

Book Review of Ostia in Late Antiquity, by Douglas Boin

Reviewed by Simon J. Barker

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 2 (April 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1192.Barker

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