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The Domus del Ninfeo at Ostia (III, VI, 1–3): Structure, Function, and Social Context

The Domus del Ninfeo at Ostia (III, VI, 1–3): Structure, Function, and Social Context

By Alessandra Batty (BAR-IS 2909). Pp. xiv + 238. BAR Publishing, Oxford 2018. £57.50. ISBN 978-1407-31614-7 (paper). 

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Batty’s monograph on Ostia’s Domus del Ninfeo—an Imperial-period insula turned Late Antique domus—represents the culmination of her work for her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Manchester. While the work in many ways reflects the origins of the project as a doctoral thesis, it nonetheless provides some interesting insights about the evolution of the structure per se, its position within the broader diachronic transformations of Ostia’s urban fabric, and its contributions to understanding spatial aspects of Ostia’s social transformations between the Late Republic and late antiquity.

The first two chapters of the book deal with the spatial context and physical nature of the structure itself, while the third and fourth chapters broaden the analysis to social and historical conclusions. A short summarizing fifth chapter and five appendices follow. The first chapter provides a much appreciated overview of the history of excavation at the site and a diachronic overview of the major transformations of the entire urban sector around the Domus del Ninfeo just inside the Porta Marina. This chapter introduces the reader to the area, major structural changes, and the evidentiary problems of the site, but, as written, it sits rather awkwardly within the book. On the one hand, it becomes somewhat repetitive with the more detailed presentation and discussions that follow in the remaining chapters; on the other hand, the author goes into more detail than the reader might be prepared to understand if coming to Ostia, or even this area of the city, with little background. In short, this introduction to the area is not introductory enough, while the level of detail provided for the structure’s transformations would fit better if integrated into the discussions of each period that follow.

The second chapter—a detailed, diachronic room-by-room structural analysis—constitutes the majority of the book’s content. Batty shines as a field archaeologist here, as the material is exhaustively presented, especially when read with the “Gazetteer” that comprises appendices 1 and 2: 50 pages of structural information for every room and wall within the complex. The original second-century CE insula, which was built during the building boom that affected the entire city and destroyed earlier structures, was divided into two dwelling units of unequal size divided by a central corridor with staircases. Each of the dwellings featured shop space, living space, and, interestingly, an open space at the back. Batty provides an account of the standing remains of every room in each of the dwellings and the corridor, beginning first with Trajanic and Hadrianic construction, followed by an intermediate period that included minor changes throughout the late second and third centuries CE, and then finally the transformation of the ground floor of the entire insula into an elaborate single-family domus at some point in the fourth or early fifth century. In this last phase, the larger of the original insula units was converted into the typical elite Late Antique domus with a focus on dining and display, while the smaller, less accessible, and significantly less well appointed unit across the corridor appears to have been reserved for domestic staff.

The third and fourth chapters attempt to address some social, economic, and historical implications of the shifting form and occupancy of the Domus del Ninfeo over time. The third chapter, curiously entitled “Some Notes on the Architectural Implications of the Domus del Ninfeo,” is just that, with limited and mostly unsurprising conclusions. While it is this reader’s opinion that considering such broader social, economic, and historical implications should be the entire point of collecting the structural data presented in the second chapter, it appears that such an underwhelming discussion does not reflect a lack of concern with issues beyond the raw structural data and stratigraphic sequencing but rather the limitations of the evidence—archaeological, historical, and documentary. In any case, Batty argues that like most insulae the Domus del Ninfeo complex was built to maximize rental profits and to appeal to a wide social range of occupants (101–3). The full integration of the shops along the front also speaks to the builder’s, and presumably also the targeted potential occupants’, interest in commerce. Its position just within the Porta Marina lends support to this aspect. She stresses the inclusion of a rear open space, which was quite rare in Ostian insulae and a good indication of higher property value and social prestige among insulae in the city. Interestingly, this back open space appears to have been communal, accessible to all occupants and not the preserve of the wealthier ground-floor lessees (105). With the transformation of the insula into the Late Antique domus, there was a strong, but typical for the period, focus on using sumptuous materials for reception and display spaces and sequencing these spaces to maximize the impression of the owner’s wealth and importance on guests (115–22). One could quibble with a few of the author’s conclusions about the function or phasing of certain spaces, but Batty’s presentation of the structure and broader social interpretations for the most part are quite strong and well grounded in the structural evidence; they just are not terribly novel. The entire fourth chapter constitutes a short, rather generic essay on Late Antique Ostia and issues of domestic architecture and urbanism in general during the period. This material reads as if it were left over from the dissertation and, if even necessary here, could have been included with the third chapter and more directly connected to the Domus del Ninfeo itself.

A few qualities make the book somewhat difficult to read and use. Although the plans, elevations, and photographs are all of high quality (and available for high-resolution download), they are inconsistently and infrequently referenced in the text. And instead of using cumbersome descriptions (e.g., the west wall of Room P in the red apartment block), a more systematic method of labeling walls (e.g., by assigning numbers) would have been smoother. Concerning the actual text, the organizational structure, as pointed out above, sometimes leads to repetition or abrupt chronological leaps in the presentation of the structure’s phasing, and there are several infelicities with the English. More significant is the balance between dissertation and research publication that the book frequently lacks. Batty is frequently quite explicit in presenting the strengths and hazards of the evidence and the reasoning processes she assumes in drawing conclusions about the building, and this is certainly to be praised; however, the text is sometimes laden with the kind of elementary methodological and theoretical explanation that might be necessary or expected for a dissertation but certainly not for the wider specialized audience that a BAR fieldwork publication is intended to serve. As a result, the book sometimes feels like part field publication, part archaeological textbook.

Despite these inconveniences, Batty’s publication of the Domus del Ninfeo at Ostia stands as a solid contribution to a more detailed understanding of Ostia’s urban history at both the structural and regional scales and a fine, at times exemplary, analysis of standing structural remains. If Batty underdelivers on any of the broader social or historical conclusions promised by the title and introduction, it can be most readily attributed to the significant transformations that the structure and site underwent after its initial construction in the second century, as well as the difficult excavation history and less than ideal documentation produced from it. One cannot argue with Batty’s handling of the evidence and her skills in architectural stratigraphy; the issue is more that, as is often the case in diachronic site analyses, the long life of a structure that makes it so interesting in theory often complicates extracting the most valuable historical information from it in reality.

Margaret M. Andrews
University of Chicago

Book Review of The Domus del Ninfeo at Ostia (III, VI, 1–3): Structure, Function, and Social Context, by Alessandra Batty
Reviewed by Margaret M. Andrews
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Andrews

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