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Philosophers and jurists

One of Pliny the Younger's villas was situated on the coast to the south of Ostia, only a few miles away. Pliny discusses the villa at length in his letters. Here is part of his description:

Adjoining is a chamber for passing the night in or taking a nap, and unless the windows are open, you do not hear a sound either of your slaves talking, or the murmur of the sea, or the raging of the storms; nor do you see the flashes of the lightning or know that it is day. This deep seclusion and remoteness is due to the fact that an intervening passage separates the wall of the chamber from that of the garden, and so all the sound is dissipated in the empty space between. A very small heating apparatus has been fitted to the room, which, by means of a narrow trap-door, either diffuses or retains the hot air as may be required. Adjoining it is an ante-room and a chamber projected towards the sun, which the latter room catches immediately upon his rising, and retains his rays beyond mid-day though they fall aslant upon it. When I betake myself into this sitting-room, I seem to be quite away even from my villa, and I find it delightful to sit there, especially during the Saturnalia, when all the rest of the house rings with the merriment and shouts of the festival-makers; for then I do not interfere with their amusements, and they do not distract me from my studies.

The convenience and charm of the situation of my villa have one drawback in that it contains no running water, but I draw my supply from wells or rather fountains, for they are situated at a high level. Indeed, it is one of the curious characteristics of the shore here that wherever you dig you find moisture ready to hand, and the water is quite fresh and not even brackish in the slightest degree, though the sea is so close by. The neighbouring woods furnish us with abundance of fuel, and other supplies we get from the colony of Ostia. The vicus (Augustanus Laurentium], which is separated only by one residence from my own, supplies my modest wants; it boasts of three public baths, which are a great convenience, when you do not feel inclined to heat your own bath at home, if you arrive unexpectedly or wish to save time.

The shore is beautified by a most pleasing variety of villa buildings, some of which are close together, while others have great intervals between them. They give the appearance of a number of cities, whether you view them from the sea or from the shore itself, and the sands of the latter are sometimes loosened by a long spell of quiet weather, or - as more often happens - are hardened by the constant beating of the waves. The sea does not indeed abound with fish of any value, but it yields excellent soles and prawns. Yet our villa provides us with plenty of inland produce and especially milk, for the herds come down to us from the pastures whenever they seek water or shade.



A mosaic of a villa and fishermen, said to have been found in Ostia. A date in the early fourth century has been suggested.

Pliny may have inherited his interest in trees and fishes, because his uncle Pliny the Elder discusses them as well, on and along the coast to the south of Ostia:

Very few improvements have been made to the mulberry tree, whether in cultivars or in grafting; and other than in size, there is no difference between the Ostia and Tusculanum mulberry and the one found at Rome.

Nowadays the wrasse is felt to be the best fish. It is particularly common in the Carpathian Sea: never does it range of its own accord beyond Lectum in the Troad. From there, in the reign of Tiberius Claudius, Optatus, one of his freedmen who was commander of a fleet, seeded them between the Ostian and the Campanian mouths, taking care for about five years to throw back to the sea any that were caught. Since then they have been frequently found off the shores of Italy, when they'd never been caught there before; thus gluttony has provided itself with some fresh flavors by sowing fish, and has given the sea a new inhabitant: no great wonder, then, that foreign birds breed at Rome.

Suetonius has a nice anecdote about the Ostian fishermen:

Some young men from the city went to Ostia in the summer season, and arriving at the shore, found some fishermen drawing in their nets. They made a bargain to give a certain sum for the haul. The money was paid and they waited for some time until the nets were drawn ashore. When they were at last hauled out, no fish was found in them, but a closed basket of gold. Then the purchasers said that the catch belonged to them, the fishermen that it was theirs.

The shore in Ostia itself was also regarded as attractive. Aulus Gellius, writing in the middle of the second century, describes a debate that took place there between three philosophers. One of them was Favorinus, an eminent orator who was frequently seen at the court of Hadrian, banished by him, but rehabilitated by Antoninus Pius.

There were two friends of Favorinus, philosophers of no little note in the city of Rome; one of them was a follower of the Peripatetic school, the other of the Stoic. I was once present when these men argued ably and vigorously, each for his own beliefs, when we were all with Favorinus at Ostia. And we were walking along the shore in springtime, just as evening was falling.

But when the first night-lights appeared and the darkness grew thicker, we escorted Favorinus to the house where he was putting up; and when he went in, we separated.

The Latin phrase about the house where Frontinus was staying (domum, ad quam devertebat) may well indicate that he had hired a house in Ostia. The House of the Muses, part of the Garden Houses and not far from the beach, is an attractive candidate. The painted decoration, depicting Apollo and the Muses, would be fitting.



The vestibule of the House of the Muses, a rented domus
where Frontinus could well have lived. Photo: ICCD E040644

The beach of Ostia features again in the dialogue "Octavius", written in the first half of the third century by the Christian author Minucius Felix. It is a record of the conversation between two Christian converts, Octavius and Minucius himself, and the pagan lawyer Caecilius. Minucius says:

For the sake of business and of visiting me, Octavius had hastened to Rome, having left his home, his wife, his children, and that which is most attractive in children, while yet their innocent years are attempting only half-uttered words, a language all the sweeter for the very imperfection of the faltering tongue. And at this his arrival I cannot express in words with how great and with how impatient a joy I exulted, since the unexpected presence of a man so very dear to me greatly enhanced my gladness. Therefore, after one or two days, when the frequent enjoyment of our continual association had satisfied the craving of affection, and when we had ascertained by mutual narrative all that we were ignorant of about one another by reason of our separation, we agreed to go to that very pleasant city Ostia, that my body might have a soothing and appropriate remedy for drying its humours from the marine bathing, especially as the holidays of the courts at the vintage-time had released me from my cares. For at that time, after the summer days, the autumn season was tending to a milder temperature. And thus, when in the early morning we were going towards the sea along the shore, that both the breathing air might gently refresh our limbs, and that the yielding sand might sink down under our easy footsteps with excessive pleasure, Caecilius, observing an image of Serapis, raised his hand to his mouth, as is the custom of the superstitious common people, and pressed a kiss on it with his lips.

Then Octavius said: "It is not the part of a good man, my brother Marcus, so to desert a man who abides by your side at home and abroad, in this blindness of vulgar ignorance, as that you should suffer him in such broad daylight as this to give himself up to stones, however they may be carved into images, anointed and crowned; since you know that the disgrace of this his error redounds in no less degree to your discredit than to his own." With this discourse of his we passed over the distance between the city and the sea, and we were now walking on the broad and open shore. There the gently rippling wave was smoothing the outside sands as if it would level them for a promenade; and as the sea is always restless, even when the winds are lulled, it came up on the shore, although not with waves crested and foaming, yet with waves crisped and cuffing. Just then we were excessively delighted at its vagaries, as on the very threshold of the water we were wetting the soles of our feet, and it now by turns approaching broke upon our feet, and now the wave retiring and retracing its course, sucked itself back into itself. And thus, slowly and quietly going along, we tracked the coast of the gently bending shore, beguiling the way with stories. These stories were related by Octavius, who was discoursing on navigation. But when we had occupied a sufficiently reasonable time of our walk with discourse, retracing the same way again, we trod the path with reverted footsteps. And when we came to that place where the little ships, drawn up on an oaken framework, were lying at rest supported above the risk of ground-rot, we saw some boys eagerly gesticulating as they played at throwing shells into the sea. This play is: To choose a shell from the shore, rubbed and made smooth by the tossing of the waves; to take hold of the shell in a horizontal position with the fingers; to whiff it along sloping and as low down as possible upon the waves, that when thrown it may either skim the back of the wave, or may swim as it glides along with a smooth impulse, or may spring up as it cleaves the top of the waves, and rise as if lifted up with repeated springs. That boy claimed to be conqueror whose shell both went out furthest, and leaped up most frequently.

And thus, while we were all engaged in the enjoyment of this spectacle, Caecilius was paying no attention, nor laughing at the contest; but silent, uneasy, standing apart, confessed by his countenance that he was grieving for I knew not what. To whom I said: "What is the matter? Wherefore do I not recognise, Caecilius, your usual liveliness? And why do I seek vainly for that joyousness which is characteristic of your glances even in serious matters?" Then said he: "For some time our friend Octavius' speech has bitterly vexed and worried me, in which he, attacking you, reproached you with negligence, that he might under cover of that charge more seriously condemn me for ignorance. Therefore I shall proceed further: the matter is now wholly and entirely between me and Octavius. If he is willing that I, a man of that form of opinion, should argue with him, he will now at once perceive that it is easier to hold an argument among his comrades, than to engage in close conflict after the manner of the philosophers. Let us be seated on those rocky barriers that are cast there for the protection of the baths, and that run far out into the deep, that we may be able both to rest after our journey, and to argue with more attention." And at his word we sat down, so that, by covering me on either side, they sheltered me in the midst of the three. Nor was this a matter of observance, or of rank, or of honour, because friendship always either receives or makes equals; but that, as an arbitrator, and being near to both, I might give my attention, and being in the middle, I might separate the two.

How Ostia can be called a very pleasant city (amoenissima civitas) in the first half of the third century is a bit of a mystery. Of course the beach and luxurious baths such as the Terme di Porta Marina were delightful, but most of the city was taken up by commercial buildings and high-rise apartment buildings. Perhaps it is to be understood as a qualification by people used to the metropolis Rome.

Three portraits from Ostia, dated to the third quarter of the third century, represent the same man, a philosopher.
A fourth copy, in the Vatican, may be from Ostia. A fifth copy is in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (USA).
Two of the portraits were found in baths named after the portraits: Terme del Filosofo. It may have been a school.
The man is usually identified as the philosopher Plotinus.
The two portraits of Plotinus that were found in the Terme del Filosofo.
Photos: Wikimedia, Sailko.

In the Severan period a new kind of textual evidence becomes available: Roman law. In the Fragmenta Vaticana an exemption for the bakers in Rome is preserved. It is followed by an addition, stipulating that the Ostian bakers are not entitled to this exemption.

Ulpian, in his commentary on the official function of the Praetor Tutelaris. Yet those in the collegium pistorum are exempted from guardianship if they themselves operate a pistrinum, but I believe that no others can be released apart from those among their number who operate a pistrinum of 100,000 sesterces in accordance with the letter of the late Trajan to Sulpicius Similis. And all these matters are given in a letter to the Prefect of the Annona.

Ulpian in the above mentioned book [= Duties of the Praetor Tutelaris]. Yet the bakers from Ostia are not exempted, as our Emperor together with his father [Septimius Severus and Caracalla] had decreed by rescript to Philumenianus.

The Digesta or Corpus Iuris Civilis ("Body of Civil Law") contains various laws pertaining to guilds. Many guilds (collegia), often with the special status of corpus ("body"), were present in the harbours. They were certainly one of the parties involved. Ostia is mentioned only once explicitly however:

A ship ravaged by the storm, with rigging, mast and yard burnt, ended up in Hippo [presumably Hippo Regius, modern Annaba in Algeria]. After provisional work there on the rigging, it set sail for Ostia and brought its cargo ashore unharmed. The question has been raised as to whether those to whom the cargo belonged must pay a cover for the damage to the skipper. The answer has been that this is not necessary. In this case the expenditure was made to equip the ship, rather than to preserve the merchandise.



Detail of a manuscipt of the Digesta from 1325 AD. The miniature shows a court scene.
We read the beginning of book 44: Agere etiam is videtur, qui exceptione utitur: nam reus in exceptione actor est
("Anyone who makes use of an objection is also considered to act: in fact, the defendant who objects is considered
as if he were a plaintiff"). Image: Free Library of Philadelphia.