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Level 5

5AACHI11 Roman Ostia

Credit value: 15
Module convenor/tutor: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe
Teaching pattern: 10 x 2-hour seminar (weekly)
Availability: Please see module list  for relevant year
Assessment: 2 x essay of 2,500 words (higher marked essay is weighted at 70%, while the lower is weighted at 30%)

The modules offered in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand: there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years.

Ostia was one of the most important towns of Roman Italy; located 22km downstream from Rome at the mouth of the Tiber, it was the gateway to Rome, the capital of empire, providing access for travellers, goods and traders. It is also one of the archaeologically best-preserved cities of Roman Italy. In this module students will develop an understanding of the social, cultural and religious life of this town, and will be encouraged to work comparatively with evidence from other towns in Roman Italy. Students will be introduced to the topography, archaeology, and epigraphy of the town through in-depth analysis of its material remains.

Provisional teaching plan

1. Introduction: the location, origins and phases of development of Roman Ostia and the associated port, Portus, focussing on the murky early history of the city and the relationship between building and topography. We will also examine the history of excavation and interpretation of the site from the early 20th century, to ongoing excavations at Portus, to attempts to reconstruct Ostia digitally.

2. Domestic buildings at Ostia: we will examine the different styles of domestic architecture in the town, both working on a number of case-studies and relating them to broader patterns of building in Roman Italy. This will involve identifying and exploring the different shapes of building, different materials and styles of construction, and a range of types of interior decoration.

3. Public spaces in Ostia: we will examine the most obviously public spaces of the town in the monumental centre, focussing on the forum, the Square of the corporations, and the networks of streets in and leading to the town; how was this kind of space organized in Roman towns more generally, and what contributions did political, civic, economic and religious activities make to the construction and use of this kind of public space?

4. Guilds: we will examine the place of the various kinds of guilds, economic (such as those for grain shippers, traders, and civil servants) and religious (such as the Augustales), in the life of the town. We will focus both on particular  buildings (eg the curia) and sites (the Square of the Corporations) which they used, and epigraphic evidence for their existence and activities.

5. Social relations: we will examine the subject of social status and relations between classes, focussing in particular on the epigraphic evidence, and on the question of the numbers, roles, and importance of slaves and freedmen in the town.

6. Religions of Ostia: we will survey the range of religious cults, beliefs and practices attested in the town. We will focus this week on the public cult of the Olympian gods, emperor worship, and Mithraism, as well as looking at the syncretistic decoration of the Shrine of Silvanus.

7. The Synagogue at Ostia: we will examine the rare and exceptionally well-preserved site of the synagogue at Ostia, both the various phases of the building and its decoration, and the epigraphic evidence which attests to the existence of the Jewish community at Ostia

8. Christianity and paganism at Ostia: we will examine the material and literary evidence for the rise of Christianity at Ostia, and examine the evidence for Christian campaigns of violence against pagan buildings and statuary, especially mithraea, against the broader late antique historical context of religious change.

9. Portus: we will explore the neighbouring harbour and its developing community, including the extensive funerary remains of the isola sacra, to illuminate the relationship between harbour and town.

10. The end of Ostia: we will examine the decline of the town in late antiquity and the long post-history of the middle ages and the Renaissance. 

Suggested introductory reading

This is suggested reading and purchase of these books is not mandatory.

  • G. Aldrete, Daily Life in the Roman City (2004)

  • T. Cornell, Urban Society in Roman Italy (1996)

  • A. Gallina Zevi and A. Claridge, Roman Ostia Revisited (1996)

  • G. Hermansen, Ostia: Aspects of Roman City Life (1981)

  • R. Meiggs, Roman Ostia (1973)

  • R. Laurence, D. Newsome, Rome, Ostia, Pompeii (2011)

  • G. de la Bédoyère, Cities of Roman Italy (2010)

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