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ABANDONED AND DESTROYED BUILDINGS
The first archaeological evidence of natural disasters that struck Ostia and Portus belongs to the third century AD. Some literary and epigraphical evidence may point to earlier disasters. In 44 BC a portent is mentioned that may be related to a tsunami: "In Ostia a shoal of fish was left on dry land by the retracting of the sea". In 62 AD 200 (!) ships perished in the harbour of Claudius during a storm (note that in the same year Pompeii was struck by an earthquake). And in 196 AD Septimius Severus "restored a column broken by the force of a storm", in Portus.
In Portus the excavators saw traces of several earthquakes and tsunamis in the third and fourth century. On a mole of the harbour of Claudius, in layers belonging to the third century, hasty burials were found, but also corpses buried below collapsed masonry. On the corpses coins were found from 236 and 238 AD. Deposits pointed to a tsunami, perhaps combined with an earthquake (Scrinari 1984, 218; 1987, 182). A repair of the Via Severiana in 238 AD may be related (Maximinus Augustus and Maximus Caesar litus vicinum Viae Severianae adsiduis maris adluentibus fluctibus ad labem ruinae labefactatum aggeribus marini operis in fundamentis ut periculum commeantibus abesset extrui curarunt; CIL X, 6811). The first building in Ostia of which we know that it ceased to function are the Terme del Nuotatore (V,X,3). An accurate and exemplary excavation has shown that it was abandoned c. 240-250 AD. The date suggests a relation with the same seismic activity, apparently in 238 AD or a little later.
The Casa delle Ierodule (III,IX,6), part of the Case a Giardino, was destroyed in the last quarter of the third century, witness coins from the reigns of Gallienus (253-268) and Aurelianus (270-275). The ceiling of the ground floor and the upper stories had collapsed. Traces of fire are not reported. The ruins were not cleared in antiquity. The Caseggiato dei Molini was destroyed by a fire at the end of the third century, witness coins, the latest of which belong to the reign of Probus (276-282). The ruins were again not cleared. A very large number of coins was found in the adjacent Caseggiato di Diana (I,III,3-4), a series also ending during the reign of Probus. In this building no traces of fire were seen, but the building to the north, the Caseggiato del Mitreo di Menandro (I,III,5), also seems to have burned down. Recently Michael Heinzelmann has noted that a a very large villa suburbana near the beach was destroyed by an earthquake at the end of the third century. It is situated near the ancient coastline. The outline of the building is known through geophysical research, but a few trenches were dug. The earthquake was deduced from the fact that collapsed walls and ceilings were found directly on the floor, not on a layer of debris.
The destruction of all these buildings may be related to two earthquakes (and perhaps tsunamis), c. 275 AD and during the reign of Probus (276-282 AD) or a little later. As to the earthquake in 275, the Historia Augusta tells us about the Emperor Tacitus (275-276 AD) that "the omens predicting his death were these: ... All the gods in their private chapel fell down, overthrown either by an earthquake or by some mischance". A gift to Ostia by the same Emperor may well be related: "To the people of Ostia he presented from his own funds one hundred columns of Numidian marble, each twenty-three feet in height".
In the later third century the Caserma dei Vigili (II,V,1-2) was abandoned. Here a long series of dedications to Emperors was found. The latest inscription is a dedication to Furia Sabinia Tranquillina, wife of Gordianus III (241-244 AD). Apparently the firemen - a detachment from Rome - left Ostia in the second half of the third century. Inscriptions from Portus show that there were barracks here as well, and here the vigiles remained active.
Heinzelmann reports that another luxurious house, near the Palazzo Imperiale, was destroyed by an earthquake in late antiquity. This may have been the major earthquake of 346 AD (Hieronymus: "... an earthquake ... for three days and three nights Rome was shaken and numerous towns in Campania were struck"), or a smaller one, that took place in 375 AD (see also F. Galadini - P. Galli, "The 346 A.D. earthquake (Central-Southern Italy): an archaeoseismological approach", Annals of Geophysics 47, 2/3, 2004, 885-905).
A facade that collapsed and fell on Via del Tempio Rotondo, possibly during an earthquake in the third or fourth century.
It belongs to the Domus su Via del Tempio Rotondo (IV,IV,7) and can still be seen. Photograph: SAOA B3082.