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Social relations and private life

Social relations and private life were discussed briefly by Russell Meiggs, in his monumental study "Roman Ostia", published in 1960 (second and updated edition: 1973). The evidence is, for the most part, fragmentary.

Meiggs notes that freedmen had a specific place in society through a special priesthood in the Imperial cult. They could join the seviri Augustales, a group resembling a trade guild. In the organisation the so-called electi ranked highest. They seem to have been honorary presidents. The active presidents were four quinquennales. There were honorary quinquennales as well, and ordinary members.

Freedmen were also in charge of the Imperial cult at shrines of the districts (vici) of Ostia (part of the ancient regiones). At the compita they worshipped the Genius and Lares of the Emperor, his guardian spirit and household deities, as magistri vici.

The relations between patrons (former masters and mistresses) and freedmen were as a rule friendly. Inscriptions tell us that freedmen and their descendants were often buried in the tombs of their patrons (the formula is: libertis libertabusque posterisque eorum). Patrons regularly married former slaves, but marriages of freedmen with a daughter of the family were not common. Funerary inscriptions also tell us that when relations got strained freedmen could be barred from the tomb. Freed slaves could also inherit property from the former master or mistress.

There must have been many slaves in the harbours, but we can only guess at their numbers. Surprisingly they were often owned by former slaves. Some Imperial freedmen were quite important, having also financial means. Slaves born in the household (vernae, whether a child of the patron or of two slaves) were often treated by the patrons as if they were their own, free children - at least, that is what phrases in funerary inscriptions suggest. In a rich household these slaves probably lived in better circumstances than free citizens living in a crowded apartment building. But slaves could also be sold and used for hard manual labour, under circumstances that we do not know.

Adoption occurred very frequently. The Corpus Iuris Civilis contains many laws about the tutela, the guardianship. Adopted children were called alumni and alumnae.

D(is) M(anibus)
Funerary inscription for Salinatoria Ianuaria, alumna of Marcus Salinator Fortunatus.
The nomen Salinator indicates that Fortunatus had been a slave working in the salt pans.
Photo: Marinucci 2012, 110 nr. 130.

Meiggs notes that women too could own slaves and property, including workshops. They are mentioned in affectionate terms in funerary inscriptions. They appear next to their husbands in reliefs of the dextrarum iunctio, the joining of the right hands, and are referred to in mythological scenes. One woman left money in her will for the upbringing of one hundred girls, thus following an example set by Antoninus Pius, who honoured his deceased wife Faustina by the institution of puellae alimentariae Faustinianae. Women are not encountered in the trade guilds, but featured prominently in religious life, also having their own cult, that of Bona Dea.

Life in the harbours was not merely a matter of money and hard work. A very large number of baths has been excavated, decorated wth statues, statuettes, paintings and mosaics. Here men and women would meet friends and acquaintances, presumably on set days and times. But which topics would they discuss? There is much about which we have little evidence, no evidence at all, or only evidence that does not easily allow conclusions: the average age of marriage, the size of families, the stability of marriage, the expectation of life, the incidence and severity of disease, literacy, and crime.

The age of death is recorded in approximately 600 funerary inscriptions. It is important to realize that the age of very young children and of people who lived to be quite old is more likely to be recorded. The numbers for the first 10 years suggest that the death rate of boys was higher than that of girls. Between the ages of 20 and 30 the death rate of females is higher, a result of complications when giving birth one would think. The proportion of deaths under the age of 30 is very high: 82 percent for males, 86 percent for females.

The age of marriage is rarely recorded. Girls could marry before the age of 15. Looking at the number of children buried with their parents, a common practice, family size seems to have been small: one or two children was probably the general rule. A family with more than five children is not documented, and only four families are known to have had more than three children.

As to disease, Meiggs notes that there is one epigraphic piece of evidence only: D(is) M(anibus) Atticillae praenomen Marciae pestis cui dira negavit, an awful plague denied life to Marcia Atticilla (CIL XIV, 632). In 2003 Christer Bruun discussed the possible impact of the so-called Antonine plague on the harbours. This epidemic probably raged throughout the Empire during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, from 165 to 190 AD. Herodianus describes how Commodus himself took shelter from the epidemic in a villa a bit to the south of Ostia, in 189 AD: "About this time, plague struck all Italy. The suffering was especially severe in Rome, since the city, which received people from all over the world, was overcrowded. The city suffered great loss of both men and animals. Then, on the advice of his physicians, Commodus left Rome for Laurentum. This region enjoyed the shade from extensive laurel groves (whence the area derives its name); it was cooler there and seemed to be a safe haven. The emperor is said to have counteracted the pollution in the air by the fragrant scent of the laurels and the refreshing shade of the trees" (Herodianus I,12, translation E.E. Echols).

No conclusions can be drawn from the epigraphic evidence, says Bruun, and "a holistic approach should include at least a study of travel patterns, government business, religious activities, day-to-day management of the city and so on, always with an eye to disruptions that may derive from an epidemic". In 2002 Elio Lo Cascio went a bit further. At the end of the reign of Commodus there was an uproar in Rome, resulting from a shortage of grain. The Historia Augusta states that Commodus instituted an auxiliary African grain fleet, "which would have been useful, in case the grain-supply from Alexandria were delayed" (SHA, Commodus XVII,7-8, translation David Magie). In this context Lo Cascio reminds us of two storage buildings for grain in Ostia: the Grandi Horrea, re-arranged in the period Marcus Aurelius - Commodus, and the (largely unexcavated) Horrea Antoniniani, built during the reign of the latter Emperor. Lo Cascio suggests a link with the epidemic, noting that Egypt was struck particularly hard.

Elsewhere on this website it is argued that the addition of mosaics on the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, which started at the end of the reign of Commodus, is directly related to the institution of the auxiliary grain fleet. We may finally note that very little construction activity in Ostia has been dated to the period of the epidemic. The easiest explanation for that however is, that little was left to be done after the franctic building activity in the first sixty years of the second century.

About crime there is little or no evidence from the harbours, but of course things could go wrong and the law will have been broken regularly: mismanagement by guardians of orphans, forced prostitution of slaves (when it was not stipulated in the sales contract), theft, fraud, physical violence, murder, and in the harbours in particular theft by inn-keepers and sailors, and from warehouses. People could be put in prison before a hearing or awaiting trial, but emprisonment was not a known form of punishment. Instead, fines were applied, physical punishment and forced labour. Access to the city could be denied.

It is only normal but nevertheless frustrating that the physical remains of the harbour are so silent about all this. And there is much of which we know that it must have been a reality, but cannot be recognized.

Q(uinti) VOLUSI SP(uri) F(ilii) LEM(onia) ANTHI
VOLVSIAE Q(uinti) F(iliae) NICE Q(uinto) VOLVSIO Q(uinti) F(ilio) ANTHO
SILIAE ((mulieris)) L(ibertae) NICE C(aio) SILIO ANTHO
IN FR(onte) P(edes) VI IN AGR(o) P(edes) III ((semis))
To the departed spirits of
Quintus Volusius Anthus, son of Spurius, of the tribe Lemonia.
A little boy, in the protection of a common parent,
while he played, fell down by chance by way of the envy of fate.
For at that moment, a carter with yoked wild oxen ran over
by accident the unknowing child with the rim of a wheel.
After the two mourning parents performed the miserable funeral
and gave the final gifts as grave-offering, now, to Anthus,
as his years fade away wretchedly, they have set up this tomb
with equally matched affection to their own.
Quintus Volusius Anthus, freedman of Quintus, father, made this for himself and for
Silia Felicula, freedwoman of a woman, his chaste wife, for
Volusia Nice, daughter of Quintus, for Quintus Volusius Anthus, son of Quintus, for
Silia Nice, freedwoman of a woman, for Gaius Silius Anthus.
Six feet in frontage, three-and-a-half in depth.

Translation: Peter Keegan.
A funerary inscription on a marble slab, found in Ostia in 1789, now in the Galleria Lapidaria of the Vatican Museums (CIL XIV, 1808).

The boy Anthus was run over by a plough pulled by oxen.
"Son of Spurius" means that Anthus was an illegitimate child. His father, also called Anthus, was a freed slave of Quintus Volusius.
He had the child with a fellow-slave (illegimitate children took their name from their mother). Later he married Silia Felicula.
At the end of the inscription another Anthus is mentioned, son of Felicula and half-brother of the deceased boy.