Italy – Visit To Ancient Ostia

FOR one who takes delight in harbors, shipping, cargoes, docks, sailors, seafaring and Joseph Conrad’s stories, the ruins of Ostia, the old port of Rome, compose a fascinating chapter in the ancient life of Italy. Yet their significance is so little known that, I suppose, for every fifty travellers who go out from Naples to Pompeii, one goes from Rome to Ostia. Now the reward of a day’s trip there, easily made by motor-bus or automobile is a glimpse at an ancient city which was very different in character from Pompeii, commercial, full of business men and foreign-born la-borers, closely connected with Rome but more dependent on the sea, expressing in its public buildings and private houses, even ruined as they are today, the character of its life and of its inhabitants. Such a human document, written in bricks, stone, marble, stucco and mosaic, is fascinating reading if one understands the language or has, as it were, a translation of its unknown tongue, or a key for its great historical picture. One difficulty for the average visitor to Ostia is that the descriptions of recent excavations are scattered through the Italian publication, the Notizie degli scavi or secluded in the Literary Supplement of the London Times, or in Thomas Ashby’s articles in the “Journal of Roman Studies,” and the best guide-book is still the Italian one by Dante Vaglieri published as long ago as 1914. There is, however, a small guide in English by Tani, the Guards will point out objects of interest, and the ruins themselves tell much. Perhaps I can be of help by jotting down notes from my study of Ostia and from the brilliant interpretation of the ruins which I heard the Director of the Excavations, Doctor Guido Calza, give.

The name Ostia, “mouth,” is the keynote to the character of the ancient town which was the harbor of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber, fifteen miles from the city, but today because of the deposits brought down by the river, you have to go two miles beyond the excavations to find the sea. Much story and history are associated with this little town. Tradition says it was founded by an early King, Ancus Martius, but neither excavations nor records bear this out. There are no remains earlier than the third century before Christ and the first mention of Ostia in history is during the second Punic War. Perhaps there was a little early settlement here for the sake of the saltworks. Ostia was always a colony of Rome and was essential to her as a port for two reasons, for her naval supremacy and for her corn supply. Perhaps the foundation of the colony is to be connected with the appointment of the four quaestors of the fleet in 267 B.C., and the assignment of one of them to Ostia. The importance to Rome of the little colony at the mouth of the river was so great that as early as 207 B.C., the citizens (along with those of Antium) received exemption from military service on condition that they be present constantly as a garrison on their own walls. When, however, in 191 B.C., the Ostians tried to secure also exemption from naval service, this was refused.

Of the many picturesque stories connected with Ostia, the most dramatic is that of the arrival of the Great Mother. When during the second Punic War, Rome was suffering terrible reverses at the hands of Hannibal, the Cumaean Sibyl and Apollo directed that the Magna Mater (a Phrygian goddess, Rhea, or Cybele) should be brought to Rome. When the sacred black stone symbolizing the Great Mother in due time arrived from Pessinus in Phrygia and a great delegation from Rome, led by her noblest citizen, a Scipio, was waiting on the shore at Ostia to receive the sacred object and carry it to Rome, the boat remained fixed on a sandbar and could not be moved by any amount of human effort. When all were finally in despair over the dreadful omen, Claudia Quinta, a noble matron (some say a Vestal Virgin) whose fair name had been slandered by the gossip of the day, stood forth and prayed to the Great Mother to vindicate her honor and if her life had been pure to follow her to Rome. When Claudia laid her hand on the rope, the ship followed her. A marble altar in the Capitoline Museum in Rome is carved with a picture of this story and to make it clearer, the Magna Mater is represented on the boat not by the black stone, but by a statue. The same story is used by D’Annunzio in one of his most beautiful poems, “il Roma,” a deeply serious appeal which challenges Rome, the eternal, to be again the seat of the Great Mother, the spiritual salvation of the world.

Ostia herself knew the ravages of war, for she was seized by Marius and given over to plunder by his soldiers, and in 67 B.C. as Cicero tells us, in his speech for the Manilian Law, the fleet was attacked here by Cilician pirates and the ships all destroyed or captured. There was need of a real harbor here for the protection both of the navy and of commerce, for as Strabo says, “alluvial deposits continually brought down by the Tiber compelled the larger class of vessels to ride at anchor in the open roadstead at great risk.” Julius Caesar planned to make. an artificial port, but it was Claudius who carried out his design and made a harbor two miles north of Ostia, communicating with the river by an artificial channel. Here large boats could unload into smaller craft or into barges which conveyed their cargo to storehouses. Such an operation is represented on a wall-painting from a tomb at Ostia now in the Vatican library. On the boat which is named the Isis Geminiana stand the pilot with an oarlike rudder and the owner with a branch perhaps of laurel. Two porters are walking up a plank carrying bags probably of grain, a third is emptying his bag into a recipient which another man holds, and a fourth sits on the deck beside his bag, which is labelled happily feci, ‘I have finished.’ The picture is typical of the life of Ostia as the great commercial port of Rome after Claudius’ harbor was built. Before that all the largest vessels had to put in at Puteoli, one hundred and fifty miles from Rome, just as St. Paul did. Nero put on his coins a representation of the harbor and would have it called not Portus Claudii but Portus Augusti, so that he might share in the honor of the work, and then Trajan enlarged Claudius’ harbor by adding an inner hexagonal basin, and another name, Portus Traiani, and now around the two grew up a new town, Portus Ostiensis, which increased in importance especially in the time of Constantine when it was given the double defence of religion by being made an Episcopal see and of fortifications by the construction of strong walls and towers. Ostia itself, however, flourished through the Empire under Domitian, Hadrian, Severus, and Aurelian; was indeed largely rebuilt in the second century but eventually Portus Ostiensis being well fortified gained the advantage over Ostia which gradually decayed. Portus Ostiensis too suffered the vicissitudes of war, was sacked by Alaric, King of the Goths in 409 A.D., by Belisarius in 537 and by the Arabs in the eighth century. Little by little as the life of Rome dwindled in importance, the business of Ostia diminished until finally its value was chiefly as a quarry for rich marbles from the ruins. So ancient Ostia in the eleventh century gave up its treasures for the building of the Cathedral of Pisa and in the fourteenth for the Cathedral of Orvieto.

Something more of the life of the people in the city is learned from the inscriptions found there. Perhaps in the flourishing period of the second and third centuries there was a population of 80,000 persons, not counting the transient guests known to every harbor, and this number was largely composed of persons in the middle and lower classes, the men occupied in commerce and industry, and the slaves. There are records of many guilds : of ship-builders and of carpenters, of boat-men and fishermen, of merchants of wine and oil and grain. There must have been, of course, many inn-keepers and tavern-keepers to accommodate the floating population. The city had the usual magistrates of colonies, duumvirs, quaestors, aediles and a council of decurions, and besides its officials, Ostia like all small towns had its great, or shall we say, very rich men Acilius Glabrio whose name is still cut clear in marble block dedicated to the safety of some Caesar, perhaps Domitian, and the two Lucilii Gamale, whose public benefactions are recorded in two long inscriptions. What a strangely modern sound these lists of public services have ! Banquets for the citizens of the towns, rebuilding of public edifices like the baths, the paving of the roads, subscriptions for repairing the temples, generous contributions to war funds. It was something to be a Lucilius Garnale in Ostia ! You can imagine how important such a man was on the occasions when distinguished foreigners landed here en route to Rome, or when an emperor came out to inspect the needs of the harbor, or when the city was visited by the wealthy Romans who owned villas along the Via Ostiense or the shore.

Of such visits we have the most human and delightful records. About 200 A. D. a Christian lawyer of Rome, Minutius Felix, wrote a dialogue called the “Octavius,” the scene of which is laid here. Minutius himself and his friend Octavius, both Christians, and Caecilius, a pagan, had decided on a delightful autumn day to go to that very pleasant city Ostia for the sea-bathing and after walking on the sand “at the very threshold of the water” and watching some small boys skipping shells on the waves, they sat down on the rocks, to rest and to argue. And there was much to talk about, for as they were walking, Caecilius had kissed his hand, in reverence, to a statue of the Egyptian god Serapis, and now they must talk over the worship of the old gods and the new Christ, the temple not made with hands, the hope of a resurrection of the body and all “those things which it is easier to feel than to say.” It would be worth while to take the dialogue “Octavius” out to Ostia and read it by the surf where the three friends talked until Caecilius was conquered and “saw a great light.”

Another famous religious conversation took place at Ostia between St. Augustine and his mother Monica before her death there. It is written in the “Confessions” beginning in Book IX at the tenth chapter. (I use William Watts’ translation.)

“The day now approaching that she was to depart this life, it fell out . . that she and I should stand alone leaning in a certain window, which looked into the garden within the house where we now lay, at Ostia by Tiber; where being sequestered from company after the wearisomeness of a long journey, we were recruiting ourselves for a sea voyage. There conferred we hand to hand very sweetly; and forgetting those things which are behind, we reached forth unto those things which are before : we did betwixt ourselves seek at that Present Truth in what manner the eternal life of the saints was to be, which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man. But yet we panted with the mouth of our heart after those upper streams of thy fountain, the fountain of life; that being besprinkled with it according to our capacity, we might in some sort meditate upon so high a mystery.”

It was only five days afterwards that Monica fell into a fever and soon realizing that her end was near, bade her sons bury her there, and when they in their distress longed to have her die not in a strange place, but in her own country that there she might be buried, she reassured them saying: “Lay this body anywhere, let not the care for that disquiet you,” just as to certain of her friends she had also given words of comfort, saying “Nothing is far from God.” No son could write about his mother more tenderly than does Saint Augustine.

The picture of son and mother standing in the window of the inn “looking into the garden within the house” is a beautiful introduction to a study of the style of the houses in Ostia. They are very different from the houses at Pompeii in which rooms are grouped about a large central hall, the atrium, and a courtyard surrounded by columns, the peristyle; there are few and very small windows; and there is no complete second story, only in some cases groups of upper rooms with their own staircases. Only one example of this Pornpeian type of house has been found at Ostia. Instead the typical house is a large apartment house of several stories, with rooms on each floor around a central court-yard without a colonnade and lighted from it quite as in a modern apartment house. These houses have many separate staircases for the different apartments and upper balconies. Ask for “the house of Diana” near the Temple of Vulcan and see its amazing characteristics : from the outside the shops with large doors opening on the street, the arched supports for the third-story balconies, and the second-story windows, then, inside, the central courtyard with the fountain and the little shrine to Diana on the wall, the staircases, the upper rooms arranged in groups for separate apartments. Then after you have seen it, look up in “Art and Archaeology” for November, 1921, Doctor. Calza’s article on “The Aesthetics of the Antique City” and see the pictures of reconstructions of houses of this type. As you look at the view of a reconstructed tenement house with its courtyard, you will surely think of St. Augustine and his mother leaning out of a window looking down into the garden. Doctor Calza says that one of the most important contributions that the excavations at Ostia have made to our knowledge of ancient life is this new light thrown on the history of house architecture during the Empire, for here in a city near Rome and undoubtedly imaging it, we have a style of house which has no counterpart in Greece and the Orient, utterly different from the Pompeian type, and clearly the precursor of the modern house.

As you walk about, going in one house after another, you will come upon all sorts of fascinating details: little twin shrines on either side of entrance hall, remarkable frescoes in one large ground-floor room of two orators facing each other and also of two poets, a fresco decoration in a room of another house architectural in style but with the columns converging towards the bottom and the vases on top of the columns not exactly in the center so that the whole effect is asymmetrical, perhaps to suggest perspective.

There are individual touches in the shops, too, especially in the decorations. In front of one, at the barracks of the fire brigade, in mosaic on the sidewalk is a two-handled goblet and an inscription written in both Greek and Latin saying that Proclus made it. In another tiny shop, the floor mosaic shows again a goblet and around it an inscription with the advice of Fortunatus (perhaps the shop-keeper) : “As long as ye are thirsty, drink from the bowl.” Another large shop is most elaborately adorned in marbles of every color, has a marble counter on the street with three shelves and two basins for washing the goblets, against the wall a sort of sideboard effect with shelves above, cupboards below and paintings of food on the wall and a marble hat-rack with bronze hooks hanging on the wall.

We can see also some of the public buildings of the people who went to these delicatessen shops and lived in these houses : the barracks of the fire companies, their baths, the building of the corporations trading with Ostia, and the temples of the gods. Of course all these $re in ruin, but the remains are always significant, often beautiful. The barracks of the fire companies show, scratched on two pilasters by the entrance door, names of firemen and an entire alphabet. Inside is a great courtyard and opposite the entrance a sort of alcove chapel of the imperial family, marble columns across the front, a mosaic pavement representing a sacrificial scene with altar, musicians, and bulls, then at the rear, a raised platform bearing five inscribed altars. The barracks show also a latrina or closet with elaborate hygienic arrangements and on the wall an exquisite little marble shrine to revered Fortune.

The street in front of these barracks is a curiosity, for the road with its great paving-stones stands above the mosaic floor of an earlier building, probably baths of the first century after Christ, so that you look down on mosaics symbolizing the provinces of Rome, the triquetra or three legs for Sicily, a head with a wreath of olive-leaves for Spain, a head with an elephant head-dress for Africa and another with a crocodile for Egypt, and beside the provinces are heads of winds and groups of weapons. Very strange is this magnificent floor decoration of a room submerged beneath a roadway of a later level of civilization. So Ostia disappeared, not by one stroke of fate like that which ended Pompeii, but by the gradual ruin, and rebuilding, .and desertion of the centuries.

The baths, not these under the street, but those of the later empire, show clearly the arrangement of rooms and palestra, the marble bath tubs, the heating arrangements, but their great glory consists in the superb mosaics covering the floors: in one room Neptune driving a chariot of four hippocamps, in another Amphitrite riding through the ocean on a sea-horse and in a third old Triton blowing his sea-wreathed horn.

The theater is disappointing after a view of the two at Pompeii, and the ones in Syracuse and Segesta, for the seats are nearly all destroyed and there remains only the front of the stage with some of the sculptural decoration, but its outline is clear and its relation to the building of corporations back of it. This to me is one of the most interesting structures in Ostia. Its great open square, 262 by 262 feet, was surrounded by columns and this colonnade was divided into small rooms for the offices of the corporations which had commercial dealings with the city. Their floor mosaics give their history, for here are inscribed the names of the corporations, accompanied by pictures of ships, light-houses and dolphins. In a room at the southeastern corner of this building was found the altar, now in the National Museum in Rome, with a relief representing the origins of Rome, Romulus and Remus, nursed by the wolf, the river-god Tiber, the watching. shepherds. In the center of the open area of this building, on a platform seven feet high, was a small temple. The superstructure is gone now, but in place where the hall once was is a seated statue of a goddess, headless, with-out attributes, called Ceres only because so many of the corporations connected with the building had to do with the grain supply.

In the grassy courtyard other marble statues of toga-clad men stand about as though they were the shades of past Ostians and their presence, the vivid mosaics of seafaring, and the murmur of the stone-pines overhead emphasize a certain mournful quality of disuse which Ostia has for me far more than Pompeii. There people seemed more occupied with the art of living than with the business of existence, and many of the little houses are so full of color on wall, floor and column and so adorned with flowers that it seems as though the owners must have just gone out for a few moments.

To study the temples of Ostia is to study the development of Roman religion, for here the evidence of inscriptions shows that there were dedications to the abstract Roman deities of early times like Fortune and Hope, to the great Greek and Roman gods, Jupiter, Venus, Vulcan, to the Roman emperors, to Oriental gods especially Mithras and Cybele, and finally a Christian basilica. But the best way to study the cults of Ostia is to read the interesting book written by Professor Lily Taylor, for the ruins of the temples that you visit have no labels, indeed many are mere stone foundations, vague outlines of former halls and vestibules and bases of columns. A few have more character. The so-called Temple of Vulcan stands high and magnificent on its lofty platform, three sides of the great walls towering up above its long entrance flight of steps. This ruin of the second century after Christ dominates all Ostia and for this reason probably was attributed to Vulcan, the most important god in a city where, from the docks and the storehouses of grain, there was al-ways danger of fire. More probably this was the Campidoglio with the forum in front of it and so perhaps should be assigned to Jupiter, or to the goddess Roma and Augustus.

Equally impressive are the underground chapels sacred to the Phrygian god, Mithras. Enter the large one next “the house of Apuleius” near the Corporation building and try to get its atmosphere. It is a long narrow room with a central passage six feet wide and two benches on either side where the votaries knelt. Opposite the entrance is a cast of the original altar-piece, always found in these Mithrea, a relief representing the victorious young sun-god slaying the bull which symbolizes the powers of darkness in the world. There is an altar in position. In the pavement near the door is a hole for the blood of victims and near it in mosaic is wrought a knife of sacrifice. There are mystic symbols on floor and benches, semicircles, planets, signs of the zodiac and of all these you may read in Professor Franz Cumont’s book on this remarkable worship. On either side of the entrance is a figure of a torch bearer, one with torch raised, the other with torch lowered, and this too had its meaning for the faithful who came to worship the invincible young warrior-god whose cult the Roman soldiers had brought back from eastern lands.

One of the recent discoveries is a Christian basilica between the granary and the main street, at least this group of rooms, often rebuilt, shows clear traces of the rectangular nave ending in elevated choir and two large apses on the sides forming with the nave a cross so that probably it was finally a Christian building. The most surprising find in the church is a colossal group of Mars and Venus, a group made of Parian marble and a replica of a type of the fifth century before Christ, the Venus resembling the Venus of Milo. These great gods have strangely enough the faces of a Roman emperor and his wife, Commodus and Crispina. The group as it stands under one of the tremendous arches of the National Museum in Rome is so magnificent that it seems to belong to those Baths of Diocletian rather than to Ostia, the port.

Yet as I write those words I realize that I am thinking of the ruined Ostia of today, and not of the live city of the second and third century after Christ. Imagination needs to reconstruct this main street with its magnificent public buildings, its large block houses, its fountains, its statues; and then try to picture some great fete day, the annual January games in honor of Castor and Pollux, here worshipped as gods of the sea, or the spring festival of the launching of the ship dedicated to Isis, if indeed that beautiful ceremony which Apuleius describes did take place at Ostia as we believe. That account in the eleventh book of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses is another passage to read after you have seen the scavi and are resting at Ostia mare by the surf. Walter Pater retells in English Apuleius’ narrative :

“At the head of the procession, the master of ceremonies, quietly waving back the assistants, made way for a number of women, scattering perfumes. They were succeeded by a company of musicians, piping and twanging, on instruments the strangest Marius had ever beheld, the notes of a hymn, narrating the first origin of this votive rite to a choir of youths, who marched be-hind them singing it. The tire-v-omen and other personal attendants of the great goddess came next, bearing the instruments of their ministry, and various articles from the sacred wardrobe, wrought of the most precious material; some of them with long ivory combs, plying their hands in wild yet graceful concert of movement as they went, in devout mimicry of the toilet. Placed in their rear were the mirror-bearers of the goddess, carrying large mirrors of beaten brass or silver, turned in such a way as to reflect to the great body of worshippers who followed, the face of the mysterious image, as it moved on its way, and their faces to it, as though they were in fact advancing to meet the heavenly visitor. They comprehended a multitude of both sexes and of all ages, already initiated into the divine secret, clad in fair linen, the females veiled, the males with shining tonsures, and every one carrying a sistrum the richer sort of silver, a few very dainty persons of fine gold rattling the reeds, with a noise like the jargon of innumerable birds and insects awakened from torpor and abroad in the spring sun. Then, borne upon a kind of platform, came the goddess her-self, undulating above the heads of the multitude as the bearers walked, in mystic robe embroidered with the moon and stars, bordered gracefully with a fringe of real fruit and flowers, and with a glittering crown upon the head. The train of the procession consisted of the priests in long white vestments, close from head to foot, distributed into various groups, each bearing, exposed aloft, one of the sacred symbols of Isis the corn-fan, the golden asp, the ivory hand of equity, and among them the votive ship itself, carved and gilt, and adorned bravely with flags flying. Last of all walked the high priest, the people kneeling as he passed to kiss his hand.”

The picture of such a religious pageant helps us to recall the past life of Ostia by the sea and perhaps to reconstruct the great central street, the Decumanus, and repeople it. I have not begun to describe all there is to start imagination: the gates to the city, the monuments along the roads, the bazaars, the mills of grain and oil, the so-called imperial palace, the docks, the many temples, and the most beautiful thing in all Ostia I have not yet mentioned, the colossal statue of Minerva-Victoria, which stands near the principal gate of the city on the main street, a statue made in the first or second century after Christ but a type derived from the fourth century before Christ, the goddess of wisdom in full panoply of armor, but given wings. She stands in the open, her old Piazza grass-covered now, her background the sky and passing clouds, a magnificent and dominant goddess.

Usually people enter Ostia by the Street of Tombs. I would see the street of life, the Decumanus, first and then go back to the Via dei Sepolcri, enter the Porta Romana, and walk up the street of death. On either side tower tall, solemn cypresses. Very touching are the small columbaria with the little niches in which stood the urns containing the ashes of the humble. There are also beautiful fragments of individual monuments, here a Cupid supporting a great heavy garland of fruit, there a marble doorway flanked by fasces, and picturing the four seasons in the guise of small winged folk, Psyche and Cupids. How much is represented here; the symbols of power, the passing year, the door of death ! There is another great tomb on the Via Ostiense whose inscription tells the story of young Lucius Domitius Fabius Hermogenes, how when the young knight was well started in his career, having been a secretary for the aediles at Rome, decurion at Ostia and flamen of the deified Hadrian, he died when he was holding the office of aedile in Ostia and was given a funeral at the expense of the city and an equestrian statue in the forum, and his father in appreciation of these honors made a large contribution to the city treasury. How little the world changes ! Office-holding, municipal service, public recognition, father’s pride, then the golden bow broken, the mourners by the tomb, then the mourners dead and buried, and no one to care for the monument until even it is buried by nature her-self, and at last the excavator’s spade for the sake of the knowledge of antiquity brings to light the halfeffaced inscription.

But such mortuary musings do not last long in the sunlight and the open air and the wind, and I shook them off as I stood on the top of the tower of the Castello, La Rocca, gazing at the view of the ruins by the curving Tiber, the great plain, the sacred island, and the gleaming sea. Then I went down to see the little Museum in the Castle and among the fragments of marble statues, portrait busts and heads of gods, I came upon an exquisite round marble plaque suspended so that I could see both sides, on one a satyr playing the double pipes, on the other a Maenad dancing in joyous ecstasy. That beautiful little oscillum took me back to the zest for life which makes every passing day worth while, at Ostia, at Rome, at Poughkeepsie, or at Ulubrae if, as Horace wrote, you have a contented spirit. It was, with his pregnant “I have lived” in my thoughts that I then walked the two miles down the sandy road between the green meadow stretches to the invigorating salt air, the rhythm of the waves, and a plunge in the surf.