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THE LATE-ANTIQUE RAISING OF OSTIA
After c. 250 AD no new store buildings (horrea) were built near the Tiber, and existing horrea were not restored or modified. From an unknown point in time the streets in this part of town were raised with building rubble, rubbish and sherds, found by the excavators on top of the basalt blocks of the streets. Sometimes several layers had been placed on top of each other. The excavators report "terra battuta" on top of each layer, "rammed earth", so it seems that the raised streets were still being used as such, although of course there was no question anymore of proper water-supply and -drainage.
In the north-west part of town the phenomenon is documented in front of the Horrea Epagathiana (I,VIII,3). Here the height of the layer is 0.70. Collapsed walls were found on top. Furthermore around the Domus di Amore e Psiche (I,IV,5), with a height of 1 to 2 metres. The layers were also found to the north-east of the Forum. In front of the Caseggiato dei Molini, on Via dei Molini, the height varies from 2.20 to more than 3 metres. Here the layers are on top of collapsed walls. The layers were found on Via dei Balconi and Via di Diana, 2 to 5 metres high. Here many sherds of amphorae had been dumped on top of the basalt blocks of the street, creating a layer 1.5 metres high, covering the width of the street. Dumped sherds were however also found on top of collapsed masonry. The layers were furthermore found inside the Insula dei Dipinti (I,IV), both in the interior of the buildings and in the garden around which they are arranged. The layers were found in front of the theatre, partly resulting from a fire, 1.5 metres high, with collapsed walls on top. On the north part of Via delle Corporazioni the height was 1.45, on the south part 0.35, with collapsed walls of the theatre on top.
Collapsed masonry on Via dei Balconi, 1916. In the background is the museum.
NSc 1916, p. 142, fig. 2.
The street seen today. In the background is the museum. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
The raising was not restricted to the north part of town. Layers similar to those near the Tiber were found on Via del Sabazeo, in the south-east part of the city. In the rooms along this road many traces of a fire were found, on top of coins from the second and third century, perhaps more evidence of an earthquake. On a street near the Christian Basilica di Pianabella, much further to the south, a succession of layers was found reaching a height of 0.80 to 1 metre, created from c. 350 AD to the early seventh century. On top collapsed tombs were found. Here the earthquake of 346 AD comes to mind. A filling of sherds and bricks was found in the Sacello delle Tre Navate (III,II,12), a shrine to the east of the Caseggiato degli Aurighi (III,X,1), in the central part of the city. In the Casa delle Volte Dipinte (III,V,1) a ceiling with beautiful paintings was found intact. The room could be entered by the excavators through a window, after which they climbed on a filling, the composition of which unfortunately is not described.
All in all hundreds of metres of street (often seven metres wide) were raised in this way. The precise extent is unknown, because of a lack of detail in the excavation reports. On and around Via dei Balconi Guido Calza noted an almost complete absence of bricks in the layers, i.e. of the building material of the upper floors. He suggests that upper floors were torn down in late antiquity, for the collection of bricks. We now know there was no need to tear down the walls: earthquakes made them collapse. The bricks would have been reused in the south part of Ostia, where wealthy dwellings (domus) were installed, and especially in Portus.
We know little about the chronology of these layers. In some layers many amphorae from the middle of the fourth century were identified. In others coins were found of Claudius II Gothicus (268-270) and Maxentius (306-312). It is hard to believe that the raising continued substantially after the first quarter of the fifth century, when the last significant building activity took place in Ostia.
Where did all the material come from and why was it dumped inside the city, instead of the swamp to the east of the city, where much of the rubble resulting from the fire in Rome in 64 AD had been dumped? The raising along the Tiber may have been a protection against Tiber floodings, even though recent geological research has shown that there was only a small sea level rise in the Imperial period. It is interesting however, that the layers are also encountered in the south part of the city, far from the Tiber. It looks as if the high level was not so much protection, but a new ground floor- and street-level, created because the entire city was periodically flooded. Presumably the rubble resulted, at least partly, from the various earthquakes. On the other hand the presence of sherds of amphorae seems to point to continued commercial activity. Partly we may have here an Ostian "Monte Testaccio", created when there was still economic activity, but far less than in the second century. In the 1990's a building with buried storage jars (dolia defossa) was found in a trench near the museum, i.e. near the Tiber. Pottery indicates that activities took place here until the early fifth century. The Tiber was still navigable, albeit with difficulty. We should also not forget the nearby salt-pans, the most important source of salt in central Italy.