The Tombs of Ancient Ostia

Gate at Porta Romana / Wikimedia Commons


NOTE: The Isola Sacra necropolis will be covered in a separate article.

Porta Romana Necropolis


The Porta Romana necropolis consists of some sixty tombs. It was unearthed by Pietro Ercole Visconti in the years 1855-1859, by Dante Vaglieri in the years 1909-1913, and by Guido Calza in the period 1919-1923. The necropolis continued further to the east, but this part has not been excavated systematically. In recent years the necropolis has been studied in great detail by Michael Heinzelmann.

Burial places are always situated outside Roman cities. They flank roads leading to the city gates, over a long distance. The road that connected Ostia and Rome was called Via Ostiensis. It reached Ostia at the Porta Romana. To the south of the road, outside the gate, many tombs were excavated. The tombs also flank another road, to the south of and running parallel to the Via Ostiensis. This road is today known as the Via dei Sepolcri. It reaches Ostia at the so-called Porta Secondaria. Near the gates the two roads are connected by the Via di Hermogene. In the course of time tombs were modified and placed on top of each other. The necropolis not only contains tombs, but also various utilitarian structures, that will be described first.


c.250-25 BCE

Augustan to Flavian

Trajanic to Early Antonine

c.150-300 CE

All plans from Heinzelmann 2000, Abb. 15-18

Utilitarian Structures


Left: The utilitarian cluster / A15-A17-B15-B16b-B17.
Right: The utilitarian cluster / A5b-A6-B2-B3.

The masonry of building A15 is unique. It is opus mixtum that has been dated to c. 140-150 AD. However, not only small tufa blocks were used, but also small basalt blocks. The basalt is the same as that which was used to pave streets. The beautiful polychrome masonry was later covered with a thick layer of plaster. The structure was entered from the Via Ostiensis through a vestibule with a wide entrance. It could be closed off with beams at the south end. It is flanked by two shops with shop-thresholds. Behind the vestibule is a hall with two windows that were later blocked. The roof was supported by brick piers, one of which has been preserved. A staircase was placed against the west wall. In the north-west corner may have been a water basin. Clearly this was a utilitarian building. Heinzelmann suggests that it was a stable. However, the unique masonry and polychromy may also point to an office of those who built and decorated tombs. Inside are some sarcophagi, but these may have been placed there by the excavators.

A15 is surrounded by other utilitarian structures. To the east, hall A17 was added in the years c. 150-160 AD. Room B15, added still later to the south of A17, may have been a shop, facing Via dei Sepolcri. To the east of B15 is the Hadrianic structure B16b, also accessible from Via dei Sepolcri. A staircase leads to the first floor. It is flanked by two rooms. The western room or corridor leads to an irregular hall. Both the corridor and the hall may have been covered by cross-vaults. On the upper floor may have been apartments. Further to the east is the Antonine hall B17. In the Severan period a room was added in front of the entrance in the west wall. This too was not a tomb.

Another utilitarian cluster is found at the west end of the necropolis. The north part consists of shops. One shop (A5b), accessible from Via di Hermogene, was built in the later second century AD. A row of three shops behind a porticus is to the south of the Via Ostiensis (A6). There is a staircase leading to an upper floor. These shops were built in the first half of the second century AD. Complex B2 is on the intersection of Via dei Sepolcri and Via di Hermogene. It was accessible from the latter road. It was built in the second half of the second century. It consists of three small rooms to the north of a courtyard. In the westernmost room a door was hacked out later, connecting it with shop A5b. According to Heinzelmann this may have been a hotel, a hospitium. In the third century part of B2 was incorporated in B3, another utilitarian structure. It contains a well in a rectangular floor-niche. The north-west part had a pavement of basalt blocks. Between the two utilitarian clusters are two further shops, B9 and B10.

Some of these utilitarian structures may have been used by the undertakers. The workers belonging to this organization were not allowed to live inside the city. Their living quarters should be looked for amongst tombs, where they also stored various materials that were used during funerals.

Tomb Types

The oldest burials are a group of approximately 35 cremations, that have been dated to the second and first century BC. Many of these are older than the two gates and the city wall to which the gates belong, constructed in the second quarter of the first century BC. Therefore it is not surprising that one of these burials (Z41) is located inside the later gates, but outside the much older wall of the earliest Ostia, the Castrum. In other words, part of Ostia was built on top of burials from the third and second centuries BC. In some of the urns (ollae) small bone objects were found of high quality, often with dionysiac motifs. Presumably this had been decoration of funerary beds.

In the middle of the first century BC, not long after the building of the city wall, the first funerary monuments appear with architectural decoration. The monuments are impressive, and on prominent locations, for example near a city gate. They are made of large tufa blocks (opus quadratum). In the Imperial period one or more sides could be decorated with travertine or marble slabs. In each monument only one person was buried. In the early Imperial period a very simple type of tomb is seen first. These tombs consist of an open area enclosed by a fairly high wall of opus reticulatum. Urns were placed in the ground of the area. The walls did not have a door, so that the areas could only be reached with a ladder. Also in the early imperial period the columbarium emerges. This is a rectangular building, with niches in the walls in which the urns were placed. The funerary chamber was often preceded by a small courtyard, the walls of which could also contain urns. Sometimes the columbaria had an upper floor.

In the second century AD inhumation replaced cremation. The bodies were usually placed in arched recesses in the walls (arcosolia) of the funerary chamber, sometimes in sarcophagi made of marble or terracotta, or in fossae in the ground. Sometimes the funerary chamber was an imitation of a temple. At the end of the second century AD the Christian author Tertullian wrote (Ad nationes I,10,26-27): “You build temples for the gods, you erect temples also to the dead; you build altars for the gods, you build them also for the dead; you inscribe the same superscription over both; you sketch out the same lineaments for their statues – as best suits their genius, or profession, or age; you make an old man of Saturn, a beardless youth of Apollo; you form a virgin from Diana; in Mars you consecrate a soldier, a blacksmith in Vulcan. No wonder, therefore, if you slay the same victims and burn the same odours for your dead as you do for your gods”. Many statues as mentioned by Tertullian were found in Ostia, both in the necropolis and in the city, the latter near lime-kilns from late antiquity and the Middle Ages, to be burned.

A Short Description of Some of the Tombs

To the south of the Via Ostiensis are structures A1-A25. To the east of the Porta Romana are tombs A1 and A2. Both are monumental tombs from the first century BC. A curse tablet (tabula defixionis), made of lead, was found in A2. Former female slaves are mentioned (ornatrices, hairdressers; CIL XIV, 5306). Another curse tablet was found in tomb A18a. In this one at least twelve persons are cursed, slaves and freedmen (Solin 1968).

Near the two city gates the Via Ostiensis and Via dei Sepolcri are connected through the Via di Hermogene. It was named after tomb A3b to the east of the cross-road, on the intersection with the Via Ostiensis, a prominent location. The tomb was a high, square monument, perhaps decorated with marble (only part of the core has been preserved). The sarcophagus must have been placed in a room in the upper part, that was reached along a narrow staircase. Next to the tomb a long inscription was found (CIL XIV, 4642), that informs us that it was the last resting place of C. Domitius Fabius Hermogenes. The city council had honoured him with an equestrian statue on the Forum, the base of which has been found (CIL XIV, 353), and with a public funeral. Fragments were found of a marble architrave on which the name of Hermogenes has been preserved.

To the north of the Via dei Sepolcri are structures B1-B23. To the north of the west end are the scant remains of a round funerary monument from the early first century AD (“Tomba del Pretoriano”, B4). According to an inscription (CIL XIV, 4494) it is the tomb of a soldier from Rome (his name has not been preserved) who died when fighting a fire, and was given a public funeral by the city. In this period there were no regular fire-fighters (vigiles) in Ostia, but Augustus had sent a Praetorian Cohort to the harbour for this purpose.

A bit to the east is a beautifully decorated tomb from the first century AD, with later modifications (“Tomba degli Archetti”, B6). This tomb is famous because of its north facade. It is divided in sections by red brick pilasters. Between the pilasters are red brick arches. The lower part of the arches is filled with opus reticulatum. In the upper part are polychrome intarsios of rays, made of red and yellow bricks, and pieces of pumice. In this tomb a polychrome mosaic was found, that has disappeared. Depicted were a boar-hunt and parts of a ship. The south facade is interesting because of the decoration of two doorways and a window. One doorway and a window have thick travertine frames. On the lintel of the doorway is the inscription H(oc) M(onumentum) H(eredes) N(on) [S(equetur)]. A doorway to the right has a red and yellow decoration.

The columbaria B11 and B12 (“Colombari Gemelli”) have an identical plan. They are particularly interesting because they contain staircases that led to a terrace that was used for funerary banquets. The area in between was originally an ustrinum, i.e. used for burning bodies, but later converted to a tomb (B13). In B12 a red brick aedicula for urns was added later. The upper part of its niche is decorated with small, polychrome pieces of terracotta. Many inscriptions from B11 mention the family name Cacius.

At the east end are the funerary temples B20 and B22. B20 was built in the second century AD. It was preceded by a small courtyard with a staircase. B22 may be Severan. In the back wall is an apse.

To the south of the Via dei Sepolcri are structures C1-C6. At the west end two rows of shops flanking a secondary street were built to the south of the Porta Secondaria, in the second century AD. C1-C5 were funerary temples. C3 was built around 200 AD by Vibussia Sabina for herself, her son T. Flavius Verus and her husband Gn. Ostiensis Hermes. In the facade was a large marble relief of Verus and his mother (width 1.81 m., height 1.12 m.).

On the intersection of the Via dei Sepolcri and a cross-road leading to the south is a huge marble sarcophagus, resting on a travertine base (C6). It belongs to the third century AD. An inscription on the front informs us that the monument was made by Sextus Carminius Plotinianus for his brother, Sextus Carminius Parthenopeus, and the wife of his brother, Carminia Briseis. Parthenopeus had been a member of the city council and had played a important role in the guild of the builders.

To the north of the Via Ostiensis four tombs from the early first century AD have been found (D1-D4). These were replaced by a row of shops in the Trajanic period. The Tiber must in antiquity have been very close.


Left: The east part of the utilitarian structure A15, seen from the Via Ostiensis. To the left is a shop, to the right the vestibule. In the background is a hall, with a brick pier that supported the roof. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The outer south wall of the utilitarian structure A15, seen from the west. Note the thick layer of plaster. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: Utilitarian structure B2, seen from the south-east. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Center: Utilitarian structure B3, seen from the south-west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The niche and well in utilitarian structure B3, seen from the north-west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: Fragments of the bone decoration of funerary beds, from burial Z23. Second half of the second century BC. / NSc 1913, fig. 1 on p. 47.
Right: The tabula defixionis from tomb A2 (0,105 x 0,105). / NSc 1911, fig. 6 on p. 87.


Left: The tomb of C. Domitius Fabius Hermogenes (A3b). / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Formae for inhumation (A23). / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: The north facade of the Tomba degli Archetti (B6). / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Detail of the north facade of the Tomba degli Archetti (B6). / Photograph: Laura Maish – Bill Storage.


Left: A doorway in the south facade of the Tomba degli Archetti (B6). / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Detail of a doorway in the south facade of the Tomba degli Archetti (B6). / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: A columbarium with niches for urns (B8), seen from the south. In the back wall is a large, central niche for urns. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: A columbarium with niches for urns (B12), seen from the south. Note the first steps of a staircase in the left part of the back room. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: An aedicula for urns that was added in B12, seen from the south-west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Funerary inscription in tomb B14b:
(“Marcus Saenius Aristo made it for himself and his freedmen and freedwomen
and their children; length and width 20 x 25 feet”).
Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker


Left: The sarcophagus of Sextus Carminius Parthenopeus (C6). / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: A marble door of a tomb or funerary temple, found in 1916 on the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, and probably from the Porta Romana necropolis. Each slab measures 1.80 x 0.80. The four seasons are depicted, between fasces. / The photograph was taken in 1963 by Arthur Fear. See NSc 1916, 140-141.

To the north of the Via Ostiensis is this mosaic of Oedipus and the Sphinx. It was found in a tomb on the Pianabella, the plain to the south of Ostia. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Porta Laurentina Necropolis

The Porta Laurentina necropolis is situated 200 metres to the south of the Porta Laurentina. It is the small, excavated part of a huge necropolis to the south of Ostia, on the Pianabella. It was excavated by P.E. Visconti in the years 1855-1867, by Dante Vaglieri in 1911, and by Guido Calza in the years 1920-1922 and 1934-1935. The tombs flank the Via Laurentina and two side-streets. The oldest tombs have been dated to the years 50-30 BC. The tomb types are identical to those of the Porta Romana necropolis. Only in this necropolis however, the names of the deceased are sometimes inscribed on travertine cippi.


Necropolis aerial (left) and seen from the south (right). / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Tomb 17-18 is also called “Tomba della sacerdotessa isiaca”. It has been dated to the late first century BC. It received its name from a painting of a woman holding a sistrum, surrounded by birds and a dog. The ceiling was decorated with stucco reliefs of a dancing maenad (stolen), landscapes with animals, and sacrifices. Also in this tomb a painting of the male deceased on a kline was found. His wife is sitting in front of the bed. One room was decorated with a painting of a Nilotic scene, with a lion, a buffalo, birds and pygmees (the painting of the woman with sistrum is from the period of Augustus, the latter two paintings are from the second half of the second century AD).


Left: Painting of the deceased on a kline. Tomb 17-18. Found in 1937. Helbig 3183. Guida p. 109 nr. 13. Museo Ostiense. Inv. 10108. / Photograph: Giovanni Lattanzi
Right: Painting of a Nilotic scene (c. 2.5 x 1.5 m.). Tomb 17-18. Found in 1935. Helbig 3184. Guida p. 109 nr. 14. Heinzelmann 2000, Abb. 134 (in situ). / Museo Ostiense. Inv. 142.

Tomb 32 is also called “Tomba dei Claudii” (a name that has in the past also been used for the entire excavated part of the necropolis). It contains marble urns for the ashes of freedmen and slaves of the Emperor Claudius.

Tomb 33 was built by Decimus Folius Mela in the first half of the first century AD. Here a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice in the underworld was found. To the left is the gate of the underworld, in front of which are the dog Cerberus, and a seated man with the word ianitor (“doorkeeper”). In the centre are Orpheus and Eurydice. In the upper right part we see Pluto and Proserpina. Below them is Ocnus, making a rope that is eaten by a donkey (first half of the third century AD).


Left: Orpheus and Eurydice in the underworld. Tomb 33. Vatican museums. / Donati 1998, pl. 61.
Right: Orpheus and Eurydice in the underworld. Tomb 33. Vatican museums. / Photograph: Giovanni Lattanzi

Tomb 34 is perhaps identical to the “Tomba dei Caecilii”, that was excavated by Visconti. Here paintings were found of the rape of Proserpina and a scene from a tragedy, from the Severan period.


Left: The Rape of Proserpina. Tomb of the Caecilii. Vatican museums. / Photograph: Giovanni Lattanzi
Right: Scene from a tragedy. Tomb of the Caecilii. Vatican museums. / Photograph: Giovanni Lattanzi

More paintings were discovered in another tomb, nearby. It was excavated by Visconti, but has not been identified (perhaps it is tomb 31). One painting shows five men participating in a meal in honour of the dead (refrigerium). Their names are painted above them: [—]mus, Felix, Foebus, Restutus and Fortunatus. With a gesture Foebus is calling for attention. The other persons hold conical glass beakers (first half of the third century AD). On another wall were a painting of Mercurius and, next to the deity, the famous painting of the ship Isis Giminiana.

Painting of a meal in honour of the dead. Vatican museums. / Donati 1998, pl. 62.


Left: The painting of the Isis Giminiana. / Vatican Museums.
Right: The painting of the Isis Giminiana, detail.

Painting of Mercurius. Vatican museums. / Paschetto 1912, fig. 156.

Tombs on the Planabella

The area to the south and east of Ostia was studied by Bradford (1957) and more recently, in great detail, by Michael Heinzelmann (1998).

The plain to the south of Ostia (“Pianabella”). / Bradford 1957, fig. 23 (partial).

To the east the Ostian territory stretched at least as far as modern Acilia, seven to eight kilometres away. The Tiber, to the north of Ostia, continued further to the east in antiquity than it does today. The river reached the spot of the mediaeval borgo, where it turned towards the north. This arm was cut off during an inundation in 1557. It is now filled with earth (“Fiume Morto”). To the east of the Porta Romana, directly behind the entrance to the excavations, some tombs can be seen. Further to the east was a swamp (stagnum ostiense). The northern border was approximately one kilometre to the north of the borgo, the southern border four kilometres to the south. To the east it reached the Monti di S. Paolo (modern Dragoncello). In the north part of the swamp (to the north of the borgo) were salt-pans. The Via Ostiensis, leading from Ostia to Rome, traversed the swamp and therefore had to be reinforced with supporting walls and special foundations. An aqueduct ran parallel to the road. In the swamp rubble was dumped of buildings that had been destroyed by the great fire of Rome under Nero. The swamp was drained in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The land to the south of Ostia is today called Pianabella (“Beautiful plain”). The size of the plain is approximately 1.5 x 2.5 km. In antiquity the sea was the western border of this plain, with a sand beach and dunes. The present beach is four kilometres to the west, due to silting. The location of the mouth of the Tiber in the years 14 AD, 850, 1569, 1774 and 1876 is indicated on Bradford’s map above. The southern border is the present day Canale dello Stagno, that in the Roman period served as an outlet from the swamp to the sea. The salt water reached the salt beds at the north end of the swamp through narrow channels below the Via Ostiensis.

Excavations in the 19th and 20th century, and a study of crop marks, of undulations in the terrain, and of aerial photographs have led to the discovery of an orthogonal system of many Roman roads in this area. The system consisted of five roads running north-west / south-east, and many side-streets running south-west / north-east. They seem to have been created in the Augustan period. Along the coast ran the Via Severiana, that was built in the first century AD and restored under the Severan Emperors. The roads were eventually all paved with basalt blocks, for the last time in the Severan period. Two of the north-west / south-east running roads and the Via Severiana led to a bridge across the Canale dello Stagno. It was restored in 284 AD by the Emperors Carinus and Numerianus: “pontem Laurentibus adque Ostiensibus olim vetustate collabsum lapideum restituerunt” (“they restored with stone the bridge that had collapsed a long time ago, because it was old, for the people of Laurentum and Ostia”; CIL XIV, 126). It was destroyed in 1943. Another inscription, found in this area, informs us that in 190 AD Commodus “pontem arcendae inundationis gratia fecit dedicavitque” (“made and dedicated a bridge to avoid the risk of inundation”; AE 1909, 67). This was probably not a true bridge, but rather a raising of the Via Severiana.

One of five high ridges on the Pianabella, directly to the south of Ostia. In the ridges are the remains of north-south running roads. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The roads were flanked by villas, farms, but especially by single and multiple rows of tombs. Many sarcophagi, marble urns and hundreds of funeral inscriptions have been found here. To the south of the Porta Laurentina a small cluster of tombs has been unearthed (closed to the public). This necropolis reached the Canale dello Stagno and was even continued to the east of the swamp. In late antiquity Christians were buried in the area, but an exclusively Christian zone has not been identified. Particularly noteworthy are:


Left: The Basilica of Planabella seen from the west. / Photograph: Milton Torres.
Center: The Church of San Ercolano and the modern cemetery in 1926. / From De Nisi 1982, fig. on p. 39.
Right: The Church of Sant’Aurea. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Through the unexcavated part of regio V runs the Via del Sabazeo. At the south end was a secondary gate in the city wall. Outside the gate was found a small, rectangular space of:

The vestibule of the shrine at Sacello with the hole leading to the cistern. / From Scrinari-Ricciardi 1996, I, fig. 216.

Throughout the Pianabella farms (villae rusticae) have been found. Concentrations of luxurious villas (villae suburbanae) were found in two places. Several villas and baths were found to the south of the west half of Ostia. These include:

A polychrome mosaic found in the Villa of Perseus. Second half of fourth century. Depicted are two months: April (left) and March (a shepherd). Below is a female bust. Now in the garden of the Insula dei Dipinti (I,IV). / Photograph: Melissa Sellers.

To the north of the Canale dello Stagno is a row of at least five coastal villas and baths. Nearby a Severan milestone of the Via Severiana was found with the number VI. The number implies, that the milestone was in antiquity on a spot further to the south.


The remains of baths near the Canale dello Stagno (Heinzelmann nr. 45). / Photographs: Jan Theo Bakker.

A Severan milestone, found in 1955/6, to the north of the Canale dello Stagno, along the Via Severiana (h. 1.51 m.; Helbig IV, 2996). Now in front of the museum. Dated to 198-209 AD. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

IMP(erator) CAES(ar)
IMP(erator) CAES(ar)

The Canale dello Stagno runs parallel to the modern Via dei Pescatori, a road to the south of Lido di Ostia, starting at the beach and continuing north-eastwards. The channel was an administrative border, between the territory of Ostia and that of a city to the south: Laurentum, probably to be identified with Lavinium (Pratica di Mare). To the south of the channel is a forest, the Pineta di Castel Fusano. Here are the remains of the Villa della Palombara (“Villa di Plinio”):

The east part of the peristylium of the Villa della Palombara (Villa di Plinio) seen from the south. / Photograph: Silvano Sanges.

In this same area wild animals seem to have been kept, destined for the amphitheatre. Such an area is known as a vivarium:

The funeral inscription and relief of T. Flavius Stephanus. J. De Grossi Mazzorin, “Cammelli nell’antichità: le presenze in Italia”, / Archaeozoological studies in honour of A. Riedel, Bolzano 2006, 231-242, fig. 2.

The area to the south of the Canale dello Stagno.

Along the coast to the south were many other villas, along the Via Severiana, which connected Ostia and Terracina. They are at intervals of some 500 metres. There was an Imperial villa as well, and an aqueduct. Here too a village was unearthed, the Vicus Augustanus Laurentium (not to be confused with Laurentum).


Left: The area to the south of the Villa della Palombara, or “of Plinius”. / Plan from Lanciani.
Right: Plan of the Vicus Augustanus Laurentium / From Simonazzi Masarichi.

Inscription on a base for a statue of P. Aelius Liberalis, patron of the Vicus. Hadrianic. Found in 1874 in the Tenuta di Castel Porziano, c. 8 km. to the south-east of Ostia. / Museo Nazionale (Helbig III, 2419).

P(ublio) AELIO AVG(usti) LIB(erto)
NVMMVL(ariae) F(isci) F(rumentarii) OST(iensis) ORNATO ORNA

Isolated Tombs

Sepolcro di Cartilio Poplicola

Regio IV – Insula IX – (IV,IX,2)

Plan of the tomb. / After SO I.

The Tomb of Cartilius Poplicola, an important citizen of Ostia in the first century BC, was built in the years 25-20 BC. Poplicola means “friend of the people”. The cognomen was probably conferred by the Ostians, in recognition of his services to the city. The tomb was originally a freestanding structure; the surrounding buildings were erected in the Hadrianic period. Like all tombs it is situated outside the city wall, in this case outside the Porta Marina, near the ancient sea-shore. One other tomb has been found in this area, the large Monumento Funerario (III,VII,2), the tomb of another leading citizen from the first century BC, whose name we do not know.

The front of the tomb was the west side, facing a road that has disappeared. The monument has a square base (6.20 x 6.20 m.), with travertine revetment. The upper part measures 4.70 x 4.70 m. The front was decorated with marble, the sides had travertine revetment, the back tufa revetment. On the front is the following inscription (one fragment emerged in Rome in 1776!):

[c. carti]LI[o c(ai) f(ilio) pop]LICOLAE DVOVIRO VIII
[censori iii et uxsori et] LIBEREIS POSTEREISQVE EIVS
[decurionum decreto co]LONORVMQVE CONSENSV
VNIVERSEIS [cognomen datum est]
HVMANIAE M(arci) F(iliae) [added later]

“This monument was erected with public money. For Caius Cartilius Poplicola, son of Caius, eight times mayor, three times censor, leading citizen, and for his wife and children and descendants, this monument has been dedicated by decree of the members of the city council and with the agreement of the colonists, for his merits, and thanks was given to him who deserved it. He, present or absent, was elected eight times mayor and three times censor by decision of the colonists. For his love towards all, the cognomen was given by all. To Humania, daughter of Marcus.”

Humania must have been the wife of Poplicola. Sixteen bundles of rods are flanking the inscription, two for each time Poplicola was mayor (duovir). The bundles, by the way, are not fasces, because the axe is missing, which means that the duoviri could not pass sentence of death: in Ostia the lictors carried bacilli. Above the inscription is a frieze, depicting a scene of war. To the left is a row of armed soldiers, guided by a somewhat larger person. To the right is a ship with the head of Minerva on the prow. On board is a soldier about to throw a lance, but another person seems to hold his arm.

The soldiers to the left may be Ostians, led by Poplicola, defending themselves against a naval attack, perhaps that of Sextus Pompeius in 39 BC (Florus, Epitome, II,18,2). We encounter the same Poplicola in the Tempio di Ercole (I,XV,5).

The remains of the tomb, seen from the north (the street). / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Drawing of the marble decoration of the west side. / Scavi di Ostia III, fig. 71.


Left: The marble decoration of the west side, lower part. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Center: The marble decoration of the west side, upper part. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Right: The marble decoration of the west side, upper part, detail. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Monumento Funerario

Regio III – Insula VII – (III,VII,2)

Plan of the monument. / After SO I.

This mausoleum was probably built around 30-20 BC. Therefore it is at a very low level. It has a rectangular base of travertine and tufa (6.80 x 6.80 m.). The base supported a cylindrical upper part (diam. 5.11 m.), lined with marble (largely disappeared). The base has a rectangular exedra at the front, flanked by two semicircular exedrae with small benches. In the central exedra are also benches, supported by dolphins. Amongst fragments of marble, located to the north of the tomb, are two blocks of Carrara marble, one decorated with the prow (rostrum) of a war ship, the other with three swords and a lion’s head.

In view of the rostrum the deceased must have had a connection with a naval war. It cannot have been Caius Cartilius Poplicola, who was buried in a mausoleum on the other side of the street (IV,IX,2). According to Van der Meer it will have been Publius Lucilius Gamala, who gave Ostia money for a bellum navale, probably the war against Sextus Pompeius Magnus in 38-36 BC. The adjacent, Flavian Domus Fulminata (III,VII,3-4) may have been used for funerary meals.


Left: Drawing of the remains. / From SO III.
Right: Reconstruction drawing. / From SO III.


Left: The monument seen from the Decumanus, from the south. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The rostrum. / Van der Meer 2005, fig. 5.

Monumento Repubblicano

Regio V – Insula XI – (V,XI,6)

The Republican Monument has been studied in detail by Sole. It is situated to the south of the Decumanus, opposite the theatre, between the east gate of the Castrum and the Porta Romana, that forms part of the city wall from the first century BC, probably the work of M. Tullius Cicero.

What remains of the monument is a square base (6.10 x 6.10) of large tufa blocks, with a cornice at the bottom. Three layers have been preserved, but Vaglieri saw traces of another five layers, which means that the base was at least 3.80 high. From a typological point of view the cornice seems to belong to the period c. 150-100 BC. The monument is at a low level, 1.40 below the present level of the Decumanus and 0.70 above the sand. The following layers are documented between the Castrum and the Porta Romana:

  1. A raising of c. 0.70 on top of the sand. On this layer rest the Republican Monument and the Cippi of Caninius, that have been dated by Meiggs to c. 150-125 BC.
  2. A raising of c. 0.80 on top of layer 1. On this layer rests the Republican Temple on the corner of Via dei Molini. This raising should probably be dated to the reign of Claudius.
  3. A raising of c. 0.l5 on top of layer 2, probably from the reign of Domitian.
  4. A raising of c. 0.25-0.75 on top of layer 3, probably from the reign of Hadrian.
  5. A final, slight raising, probably Severan, taking the final level to c. 2.00-2.50 above the sand.

A comparison with similar monuments suggests a date of the monument in the period 120/110 – 70/60 BC, and according to Sole it is most likely to be assigned to the first century BC. In trenches in this part of town countless remains were found of buildings from the second and first century BC, but other tombs were not found. This is reminiscent of the situation outside the Porta Marina, where only two large tombs of leading Ostian citizens have been found. In the second century AD buildings were erected to the east, south and west of the monument. It remained visible from the north, from the Decumanus.

According to Coarelli the monument was a tomb from the late first century BC, of Gamala, son of the builder of the Quattro Tempietti to the west of the theatre. He suggests that there is a relation with the Horrea of Hortensius to the east, and that this store building was built by Gamala. An objection to Coarelli’s hypothesis is, that the funerary monument would then have been built inside the city wall, which is abnormal. According to Zevi it was a funerary monument with an aedicula or altar on top, from the first half of the first century BC. The funeral chamber must be in or below the base.


Left: The remains of the monument, seen from the Decumanus Maximus, from the north-west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Detail of the lower part of the monument, seen from the Decumanus Maximus, from the north-west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Related Buildings

Domus Fulminata

Regio III – Insula VII – (III,VII,3-4)

The House of the Thunderbolt was excavated in 1941. It was studied in detail by Van der Meer (2005). It is located outside Porta Marina at a distance of some 50 metres, to the north of the continuation of the Decumanus Maximus. It was built c. 70-75 AD (opus latericium), but various adaptations can be seen, some dated to c. 150 AD (opus mixtum), others to c. 250 AD (a few mosaics and a painting).

The facade is slightly concave, reflecting the shape of the older Santuario della Bona Dea (IV,VIII,3) on the other side of the street. The shape prevented that the street became too narrow. The entrance corridor (5) is decorated with two columns (a later addition) and flanked by a staircase with travertine steps (4), and by six shops, two of which were bars. The first (6) is directly to the south of the entrance corridor. In the door opening is a bar counter with three stepped shelves. The second one (2) is in the second room to the north of the entrance corridor. Here too was a counter with three stepped shelves, in the door opening, but only part of it has been preserved.

Plan of the building. North-west is up. Rooms E-D-F-G belong to building III,VII,5. / Van der Meer 2005, fig. 2.

The entrance corridor leads to a colonnaded courtyard. Further rooms are found only to the north of the courtyard: a row of four rooms, all interconnected through two doors in the lateral walls. Rooms A, B and C are quite large and have wide entrances. On the floor are geometric black-and-white mosaics. The ceilings were at a height of at least 4.70 metres. In room A a fragment was found of a painting of Erotes in circles. In the north-west wall of room C are two rectangular wall-niches. The wide openings, many doors and high ceilings are evidence that these were not living rooms, but rooms used for special activities. In the south wall of the colonnade, in section N, was a door leading to the adjacent apartment III,VII,5. It was blocked and replaced by a door in section I. Building III,VII,5 forms a structural entity with the House of the Thunderbolt. The door indicates that the two buildings were also a functional entity. From holes in the threshold of the door in section I can be deduced, that the door could only be closed from the House of the Thunderbolt. Doors in the north-west wall of the courtyard lead to an unexcavated area. Inside the west wall an iron sword was found (length 0.55), perhaps a building sacrifice.

To the south of the courtyard (H-O) black-and-white mosaics were found, with geometric motifs, in section I with a depiction of Venus holding a mirror and the text BENVS [D?]AE[—], and in section L with a depiction of – presumably – Leda and the swan. These mosaics are a much later addition (c. 250 AD). In section H a painting was found of Odysseus and the Sirens, probably also from the middle of the third century AD. The paintings and mosaics are references to love and seduction. A marble statuette of Venus was also found in the building. Had the building become a brothel in the later third century?

The colonnaded courtyard is twice the size of the rooms in the north wing. The roof of the colonnade rested on brick piers and round brick columns, single, double and triple, the result of adaptations in the course of time. In the east part of the courtyard is a large rectangular water basin. The rim is decorated with a mosaic of blue, green, yellow and red tesserae. Water was supplied through lead pipes. Near the east wall is a round, marble well-head. It soon lost its function and became a decorative element. Later a second rectangular basin was added in the north-east corner.

Plan of the courtyard. South-west is up. / Van der Meer 2005, fig. 7.

In the south-west part of the courtyard is a small, restored masonry structure, a so-called bidental. On a small marble plaque in the top are the letters F D C: F(ulgur) D(ium) C(onditum). Therefore this was a place where a bolt of lightning that had struck by day had been ritually buried. There are slightly conflicting reports about what was found below the slab: fragments of vessels, terracotta statuettes and lamps (Raissa Calza), or fragments of terracotta tiles, fragments of glass vessels, a handle of an amphora, a bronze coin and a piece of a floor (excavation report). These objects had been struck by lightning. The west part of the courtyard is dominated by a masonry biclinium, the remains of an aedicula, and a brick base on which presumably rested a marble altar found nearby (stolen). Each couch measures c. 4 x 2 metres. Only the lower part of the aedicula has been preserved. In the podium is a floor-niche flanked by small, round brick columns. On the altar is a relief of bucrania linked by garlands, and of a bunch of grapes, a bird, paterae umbilicatae and a vessel.

After its discovery the building was identified as a domus, but later it was suggested that it was the seat of a guild, perhaps related to the Sanctuary of the Bona Dea. Van der Meer suggests that the building was related to the cult of ancestors, that it was used for funerary meals in honour of the deceased who had been buried in the adjacent mausoleum III,VII,2. This huge tomb, built c. 30-20 BC, must have been a public memorial. The find of a marble rostrum (a ship’s bow) suggests that the person who was buried there had been involved in naval activities. According to Van der Meer it was P. Lucilius Gamala, who gave Ostia money for a naval war. We know that he was honoured with a public funeral. The House of the Thunderbolt may have been built by a relative, also called P. Lucilius Gamala, duovir in 71 AD.


Left: The entrance to the building, seen from the Decumanus, from the south. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Detail of the bar in room 6, seen from the Decumanus, from the east. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: The courtyard, seen from the south-east. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The courtyard seen from the north-west, from the unexcavated area. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: The slab with the letters FDC (Fulgur Dium Conditum). / Photograph: L. Bouke van der Meer.
Right: Detail of the decoration of the rim of the basin. / Photograph: L. Bouke van der Meer.


Left: The mosaic of Venus (section I). / Van der Meer 2005, fig. 17.
Right: The mosaic of Leda and the swan (section L). / Van der Meer 2005, fig. 18.


Left: The painting of Erotes in circles in room A. / SAOA neg. B3028.
Right: Drawing of a painted Erote in a circle in room A. / Drawing SAOA.

Domus delle Gorgoni Regio I – Insula XIII – (I,XIII,6)


The House of the Gorgons was excavated shortly before, or during the first years of, the Second World War. There may be some information about the excavation in the Giornale degli Scavi, but I have not been able to check this. In the building are three mosaics of heads of Medusa, and it was therefore of interest for my studies of private religion in Ostia in the mid-1980’s. I made a detailed catalogue of the visible remains in 1987, having some time to spare. The building had until that time always been interpreted as an elite dwelling, a domus, which was in my view quite wrong. However, the only alternative I could come up with was, that it was a brothel. I was never quite satisfied with that interpretation. Therefore I placed the mosaics in the chapter “Unclassifiable evidence” in my study of private religion [1]. My catalogue of the building had been gathering dust ever since.

In 2007 my teacher and sodalis dr. L. Bouke van der Meer at the University of Leiden unexpectedly sent me a short email message in which he suggested a new interpretation of a text below one of the Medusa-heads: “Life to Gorgo!”, instead of “Avoid Gordo!” (an interpretation that – as I discovered later – has also been suggested by Henig [1a]). My initial reaction was one of disbelief. But after a few days I realized that it opened up the way for a much better hypothesis regarding the function of the building, namely that it was the office of the Ostian undertakers. That hypothesis will be investigated on this webpage. The building will be described in detail, and the catalogue is now online.

Before my work in Ostia the building as a whole had been studied by Becatti [2]. Its mosaics were later studied in detail by Becatti, its paintings by Van Essen and Borda, its masonry by Heres [3]. Afterwards rather different building phases were suggested by Tione [4], but her 1999 and 2004 publications are not detailed enough to accept her conclusions.

Below is a small colour-coded plan of the house, but you can also open a larger plan, in a new window [5], and a plan of the area, from Scavi di Ostia I.

Building Periods and Reconstruction

The building is situated opposite the Porta Laurentina, at a distance of some 60 metres. It is at the junction of the Cardo Maximus and Semita dei Cippi, and as a result it has a trapezoidal shape. According to the general plan in Scavi di Ostia I there was a small square in front (to the south) of the building. No basalt blocks were found here, and it may have been paved with bipedales or travertine slabs. The square is the “bottom” of the triangle formed by the two roads flanking the building. According to the same plan basalt blocks were touching the east facade. There was therefore no sidewalk here, and there are no doors in the east wall. Along the west wall is a low sidewalk, the edge of which is indicated by a row of basalt blocks. The sidewalk widens towards the north. It is not known what constituted its surface. In the facade, in the south-west corner of the building, is a large, protruding travertine block. According to Van der Meer it may have been a boundary marker, not only of the insula, but also of one of Ostia’s ancient regiones, that are mentioned in an inscription [6].

The oldest visible remains have been dated to the Hadrianic period by Blake [7], but to the last quarter of the second century by Heres and Van Dalen [8]. To this period belong the whole of the north wall (including a door and a door or window), most of the east wall (including one door), a small part of the south wall, the lower part of the west wall (covered by a row of bricks, sesquipedales and bipedales at the average height 0.25), and some of the masonry above the row. The masonry is opus mixtum (north wall), opus reticulatum (north wall) and opus latericium. The mixtum and reticulatum of the north wall were apparently used because it was not a facade; latericium is often preferred for facades. The continuation of the west wall beyond the line of the north wall indicates, that to the north the building was continued or planned to be continued. Already the building had assumed its characteristic shape: that of a topped triangle. This awkward shape was the inevitable consequence of the position of the building, north of the intersection of Cardo Maximus and Semita dei Cippi, that meet at a sharp angle.

The openings in the outer north and east wall were blocked, according to Heres still in the second century. The blocking of the western door in the north wall (tufa stones in an irregular pattern) could also be related to the construction of Caseggiato I,XIII,5, in the late-Severan period [9].

The second main building period has been dated by Heres to the years around 250 AD ( latericium). It is likely that the masonry from this period in the central part of the building belongs to a courtyard with porticus, as was the case in the fourth century. Some masonry in the west wall of the building, narrowing doorways, may belong to the same period. Some entrances of the supposed courtyard were closed off or narrowed not long after the middle of the third century.

The building as we see it today was for the most part constructed still later, according to Heres after Maxentius, during the reign of Constantine, c. 307-325 AD (opus vittatum). There are a few minor later additions. The edifice had now almost completely been rebuilt, ground floor and upper floor(s) alike. The building that had emerged was accessible from the south and west only.

Room 4 was a shop, not connected with the interior [10]. In its entrance is a shop-threshold, with a groove for shutters, and to the south of that a depression with pivot-hole for a door opening inwards. In the southeast part of the building rooms 12 and 15 (interconnected) were also not connected with the interior. Room 12 only was accessible from the outside. In its entrance are a step and a threshold for two doors. Room 15 had a floor of bipedales.

The remaining rooms on the ground floor were accessible from the south only, through vestibule 6. In the entrance to room 6 are a step and a threshold for one door. In the north wall of the vestibule is a bench, in masonry that has been dated to the third quarter of the third century. However, the bench may have been hacked out later, because its back is showing the core of the wall. According to Becatti the vestibule received light through a window above the bench [11]. From room 6 rooms 1 and 2 to the west can be entered. They are set apart from the rest of the building. The entrances to both rooms had doors (one and two respectively), room 1 had a floor of bipedales. There was once a door in the west wall of room 2, its north jamb latericium (undated), its south jamb partly latericium (undated), partly vittatum. The vertical joint indicating the position of the south jamb separates the vittatum to the north (of the blocking) and south. This suggests that there was more than one building phase in the period c. 307-325 AD [12]. Corridor 7-8 was accessible directly from the vestibule, corridor 14 via the tiny room 13, that has a simple white mosaic on its floor.

The organizing feature was courtyard 10, with its porticus. It has a simple black-and-white mosaic. The west part has a wide and widening black band, possibly intended as an optical correction for the irregular shape of the courtyard, as seen from the accentuated room 11. On the north part stands a small marble basin with hydraulic mortar on the inside. It is aligned with the south wall. A wide window seems to have provided light to corridor 8 (modern). The doors leading to rooms 7, 11 and 14north could all be closed off by two doors. A stepped passage to room 14south has in its threshold a shallow pivot-hole.

The western corridor, or porticus, was divided into two rooms, 7 and 8, by a wall, the south facing of which (latericium with some tufa stones) has been dated by Heres to the years around 250 AD, while she leaves the north facing (vittatum) undated [13]. A black-and-white mosaic with a geometrical pattern has been found in both rooms. The pattern does not take the dividing wall into account. Unfortunately it is not at present possible to study the relation between the wall and the mosaic, so that it remains uncertain whether the wall has been set on top of the mosaic.

Off corridor 8 opens room 3. In its entrance is a threshold for one door. Directly behind was a large gorgoneion of which only part of a wing has been found. The rest of the floor is covered by a mass of black and white tesserae. Behind room 8 is understairs 9.

To the north of the courtyard is an accentuated room, 11, that may have been two stories high. A subsidiary door, leading to corridor 8, was hacked out in the west wall. Behind the threshold is a large gorgoneion. It is surrounded on three sides by a black-and-white geometrical mosaic, an arrangement that is usually interpreted as belonging to a triclinium. The pattern to the east of the gorgoneion is wider than that to the west.

The eastern corridor has the same floor-mosaic as its pendant, but no subdivision. Off it open rooms 16, 17 and 18. The entrances to these rooms could be closed off by, respectively, at least one, two, and perhaps one door. On the floor of room 16 is a black-and-white mosaic with a geometrical pattern that is not found elsewhere in the building. The central rectangle is not alligned with any of the four walls of the room. Its southwest corner ends logically below the west wall, but unfortunately it can at present not be checked whether this wall has been set on top of the mosaic. The orientation of this mosaic too may have been intended as an optical correction. Behind the threshold of room 17 is a large gorgoneion accompanied by the words Gorgoni bita, interpreted by Becatti as Gorgoni vita (“Avoid Gorgo!”). Normally one would expect an accusative with vitare (so Gorgonem vita), but a dative is possible [14]. Behind the emblema is a rectangle with a geometrical pattern. Presumably a bed or table was placed on top. In the east part of the south wall are three vertical heating-channels. No traces of the heating-system have been found by the excavators [15]. No floor-mosaic was found in room 18. There may have been a window in the blocked doorway in its north wall [16]. This room is the logical place to look for the furnace used for the heating of room 17, although it is rather strange that the heating-channels are not in the north wall of room 17. This furnace may have been used as a kitchen-furnace as well, in relation to triclinium 11 [17]. An irregular hole passing through the wall is found both in the south and east wall. The latter one is sloping downwards towards Semita del Cippi and was presumably used for the disposal of the water that was used in the kitchen.

The building has one internal and one external staircase. The former, at the south end of room 14, can be dated to the early-fourth century. If it ended at a landing one metre deep, it would have reached the first floor at a height of c. 3.25, which would take the height of the ground floor to c. 2.95. The installation of the latter, in room 5, cannot be dated. It was not accessible from the interior. The back wall of the understairs, below the second and third tread, is in vittatum, probably Constantinian, but not dated explicitly by Heres. The south wall of the staircase, above the treads, is in undated latericium. The floor of room 5 is a little over one metre above the present ground level of the sidewalk. Should we imagine that it was reached by disappeared treads set against the outer west wall, blocking the sidewalk? Perhaps the high level was caused by the need to reach the first floor at an angle that was not too steep. But if that was the case, then why is the first tread at some distance from, and not directly behind the threshold? It is also possible that the level is related to a raising of the street, as happened so often in Ostia in later antiquity. Several thresholds of staircases at a high level can be seen in the surrounding area, for example in Caseggiato I, XIII,5, Botteghe V,I,1, and the Caseggiato dell’Ercole (IV,II,4). If the staircase ended at a landing c. one metre deep at the east end of room 9, it would have reached the first floor at a height of c. 3.07, which would take the height of the ground floor to c. 2.77 [18]. In the entrance to the staircase is a threshold for two doors. The lower, preserved part of the jambs consists of thick travertine blocks. Holes and grooves in the jambs were used for bolting the doors. The outside of the left jamb is curved inwards, so that the joint between this block and the bricks against which it was set is also curved. This suggests that the travertine is reused material, as do some grooves in the threshold.

The remains of a thick layer of plaster looking like opus signinum on the south wall of room 10 may indicate that this wall had marble revetment. Remains and traces of plaster can be found throughout the building, both on the in- and outside. There are some scanty remains of paint (bands). During the excavation paintings imitating marble revetment could be seen in rooms 16 and 17. The paintings are dated by Van Essen in the period Constantine-Theodosius I, by Borda in the period of Constantine [19]. The mosaics are dated by Becatti at the end of the third or in the first half of the fourth century (contemporaneous with the vittatum), by Van Essen in the period of Constantine or later [20].


In the second and third century the building may well have had the same plan and function as in the fourth, but only excavations below the present floor-level can provide more information about the history of the building. The Constantinian building has so far always been regarded as a dwelling, hence the designation “domus” [21]. The plan of the building certainly allows this interpretation: vestibule 6 with a bench, courtyard 10 with porticus, triclinium / accentuated room 11, cubicula (?) 3, 16 and 17, independent shop 4, door-keeper’s rooms (?) 1 and 2, and kitchen 18. This interpretation is very problematic however. The building is flanked by two major streets and situated at a square that is facing the nearby Porta Laurentina. No other Ostian domus from the third or fourth century is so “open” to the outside world [22]. When a domus is on an intersection, the main entrance or a side wall may be on a major street, but then the other road is invariably of less importance [23]. On such an exposed location one would expect to find rather an office of taxi-drivers (cisiarii). And there is an additional problem, namely the nature of the traffic through the city gate. The Porta Laurentina led to the area to the south of Ostia, today known as the Pianabella. On the west side of this plain, along the coast, was a long row of large and luxurious villas. On the plain itself were some farms, but it was primarily the major necropolis of Ostia, up to the Canale dello Stagno, at a distance of 2.7 kilometers from the Porta Laurentina [24]. This means that funeral processions must have passed the building daily, making its interpretation as a domus even more unlikely. According to Bodel the mortality rate may have been 40 per 1000, or 4%. This means that with a population of 50.000, 2000 people died in Ostia each year, or 5 to 6 per day on average [25].

Do the three gorgoneia help us in interpreting the building? Whether their number, three, is a reference to the three gorgones Stheno, Euryale and Medusa, I would not know. Numerous examples of gorgoneia can be found in Ostian wall-paintings, four in mosaics [26]. The gorgoneia in wall-paintings are always small and never dominating. The mosaics are found in dwellings and seats of guilds [27]. In three cases the gorgoneion is the central emblema, sometimes large, but never is the emblema dominating: instead they are incorporated in the rest of the mosaic and blended into its motifs. Furthermore, they are not behind a threshold. Our gorgoneia stand out because of their number (three), position (directly behind a threshold) and domination over the remainder of each mosaic, also being the only figurative motifs in the mosaics. Apparently there was a strong relation between the whole building and Medusa.

Becatti suggests that the text below one of the heads should be understood as “Avoid Gorgo!”. The implication is that the people inside the building were warning visitors to the building to behave properly, so that they would not undergo the wrath of Medusa. This is most problematic inside a domus. It is awkward, to say the least, that the accentuated room / triclinium had to be protected in such an emphatic way. As a parallel one could think of texts painted on the walls of a triclinium in the House of the Moralist (III 4, 2.3) in Pompeii [28]:

Abluat unda pedes, puer et detergeat udos, Mappa torum velet, lintea nostra cave.
Lascivos voltus et blandos aufer ocellos Coniuge ab alterius, sit tibi in ore pudor
[Utere blandit]iis odiosaque iurgia, differ, Si potes, aut gressus ad tua tecta refer

But that relatively small text cannot be compared to the size of and emphasis on the mosaics. And how to explain the ones in room 3 and 17? Does the rectangle behind the emblema in room 17 indicate that it was a bedroom? We know that the bedroom could sometimes be used to receive guests [29], but this use would hardly be planned, and the guests would hardly be received in such an unfriendly manner. Or perhaps a table was standing on the rectangle, in which case the unfriendliness is still not understood.

A new hypothesis about the function of the building is needed. In my study of private religion, published in 1994, I suggested that it was a luxurious brothel, where the guests could also enjoy a meal [30]. The owner could have feared misbehaviour of the guests. But even and perhaps especially in an expensive brothel the aggressiveness is hard to understand. It is this aggressiveness in combination with the dining-room that leads to perplexity.

For setting up hypotheses about the function of buildings I have started using an approach that I have called the ADONIS-principle. An hypothesis can only be attractive (an Adonis) if we can make sense of the Architecture, DecoratiON, Inscriptions and Surroundings of a building. What happens when we apply this to the House of the Gorgons?

Let us return first to the architecture and surroundings of the building. In Ostia it is notoriously difficult to distinguish between domus and guild-seats [31]. The presence or absence of small, private rooms is one reason to distinguish between the two, but unequivocal evidence is provided only by inscriptions found in situ. Therefore there are still uncertainties about the function of, for example, the Domus del Tempio Rotondo (I,XI,2-3). If the House of the Gorgons was not a domus, then the second choice is, that it was the seat of a guild [32]. Seats of guilds are often at locations that are much more exposed than the locations of the domus. Several are on the Decumanus Maximus. The Caseggiato dei Lottatori (V,III,1), perhaps a guild-seat of wrestlers, is surrounded by three streets, a good parallel for the location of the House of the Gorgons.

Then the decoration and inscriptions. For the gorgoneia a much more satisfactory explanation can be found. When we understand the text in room 17 as “Life for Gorgo!”, i.e. “Long live Gorgo!”, the problem of the aggressiveness disappears: the people inside the building and the visitors are in agreement about the help that they all receive from Medusa. Two questions must be answered now. Is the interpretation of the text supported by parallels? And with what did Medusa help?

Many inscriptions with a dative referring to living people and followed by vita have been found in North Africa. They were collected by Y. Duval [32a].

  • Felici [—] vita. On a keystone of an arch.
  • [—]anovis vita. The mosaic-threshold of a house.
  • Aelio Silvano vita cum suis. A mosaic, perhaps of a vestibule.
  • Filadelfis vita. On a mosaic of Jupiter and Antiope, in baths.
  • Spes in Cristo nostro Flabianis bita. On the lintel of the door of a house.
  • Pancratio vita. On a base with an honorific inscription.
  • Pompeianis vita, Amazoniis vita. The beginning and end of an inscription honouring a governor or Sicily, Julius Claudius Peristerius Pompeianus.
  • [—ino] Gentio vita. On a stone.
  • Citrasis vita. On a stone (base?).
  • Donato coro magistro vita. On a terracotta lamp. The meaning of coro magistro is uncertain: sculptor of figurines?
  • Polychronis vita. A graffito.

There is a further parallel from Spain [32b]:

  • Leonti vita. On a mosaic of the triump of Dionysus.

In some cases it is not clear whether the text refers to a family or an organization. Duval is surely right when he calls the inscriptions acclamations, but I do not understand why he believes that they primarily have an apotropaic intention (which of course is implicitly present). It should be noted that the phrase also occurs in a Christian context.

Then the help given by Medusa. In 1915 Frothingham wrote the following about Medusa [33]:

“There is a group of Medusa monuments that seems to have escaped attention. This is the more peculiar because it is a fairly numerous and homogeneous group. It is the gorgoneion with vegetation. Probably the reason for the neglect is that this juxtaposition of the gorgoneion is found almost without exception in connection with tombs; sometimes on the architecture of the tombs themselves, but much more often on sarcophagi and urns. As all critics have taken the Medusa in connection with the tomb as an emblem of suffering and death, they have found it convenient to ignore the almost constant use of vegetation symbolism with the gorgoneion in this entire class.”

“It is hard to see how justification can be found for any of the current theories to explain the frequent use of the gorgoneion in the decoration of tombs, sepulchral urns, and sarcophagi. These theories are that the Gorgon was used as an emblem of death or of pain, or as a protecting evil bogey. But if preconceptions are laid aside, and if the plain evidence of the monuments is alone admitted, the law of the association of ideas would seem to lead inevitably to just the contrary conclusion. Eros, the god of life, the dove of fertility, the Victories, the eagle and griffin of apotheosis, the first-fruits of the earth in the sacred basket or the horn of plenty; these and the rest all point to the Gorgon as the emblem of life, of victory over death, and of renewed life beyond the grave. This group, will, I hope, help to destroy the delusion that Medusa’s fundamental characteristic was apotropaic. This is a characteristic that not only was not fundamental but is nonexistent. She protected not negatively but positively.”

An example of this way of representing Medusa in Ostia-Portus is a sarcophagus with two heads of Medusa, erotes and garlands, found in the Isola Sacra necropolis [34] (ICCD negative E69973). In tomb 21 in that same necropolis her head was painted amidst flowers. More recently Medusa in funerary contexts was studied by Fuchs, who concludes that here we should not think of her apotropaic aspects, rather “Medusa acts as a boundary maker indicating the passage between the world of the living and that of the dead” [34a].

Do we see this “positive” Medusa in the House of the Gorgons? It is true that the gorgoneia in the House of the Gorgons are not accompanied by vegetative elements, but the expression of the heads does not, on the other hand, inspire fear. The faces are calm.

The parallels of the text from North Africa could lead us to believe that Gorgo is a proper name (Gorgo or Gorgonius), but that stretches the imagination, in view of the three large depictions of the head of Medusa, forcefully conveying a message, either negative-apotropaic or positive-funerary. An apotropaic message cannot be understood. The House of the Gorgons then, the seat of an organization, located opposite the main gate leading to Ostia’s largest necropolis, with a strong presence of what must be a positive Medusa, documented in funerary art, was in my opinion used by the Ostian undertakers. In view of the many parallels from North Africa the undertakers using the building in the early fourth century may well have come from there, which is not at all surprising in Ostia [34b]. The text they chose may well be a conscious extension of the African texts: an acclamation of Gorgo for eternal life, instead of an acclamation of living people for long life on earth. Let us now have a look at the profession in Italy.

The Roman Undertakers

A very rich source of information about the undertakers are two inscriptions with copies of laws, usually referred to as leges libitinariae, found in Cumae and Puteoli [35]. The one from Cumae is the less informative. It was found as fairly recently reused material, near a city-gate and the amphitheatre. The (marble) inscription from Puteoli was found in 1956, at a site where the forum may have been. This inscription does not seem to have been reused. It has holes used for attaching it to a wall. The right part of the inscription has been preserved, in three columns. Roughly the first three-quarters of each line in the first column is missing. Roughly a quarter to a half at the end of each line of the third column is missing [36]. Several datings have been suggested, from the first century BC to the Julio-Claudian period. Below is my provisional English translation of part of the text [37].

[De publi?]co Libitin[ae] [The public service of?] the Libitina  
Col. I, 32 [Si quis cadaver proieceri]t, tum is mancipi [If someone has thrown out a corpse], then to the contractor
Col II, 1 sociove eius, quotienscumq(ue) proiecer(it) in sing(ula) cadavera HS LX n(ummum) d(amnas) e(sto) d(are), deq(ue) ea re magistrat(us) recipe or his associate a fine must be paid of 60 sesterces for each abandoned corpse, per corpse, and about this incident the magistrate
2 ratorium iudicium e lege colon(iae) cogito. will start a judicial procedure with the board of the recoverers, according to the Law of the Colony.
3 Oper(ae), quae ad eam r(em) praeparat(ae) er(unt), ne intra turrem ubi hodie lucus est Libit(inae) habitent laventurve ab h(ora) I The workers who will have been trained for this work are not allowed to reside or wash themselves in the tower where today the grove of Libitina is situated, from the first hour
4 noctis, neve veniant in oppid(um) nisi mortui tollend(i) conlocand(i)ve aut supplic(ii) sumend(i) c(ausa), dum ita of the night, and they are not allowed to enter the city, except for carrying away or laying out in state a deceased person, and for inflicting punishment, provided that
5 quis eor(um) veniat quotiens oppid(um) intrab(it) in oppid(o)ve erit ut pilleum color(ium) in capit(e) habeat, et each of them, whenever he enters the city or is inside the city, does not go there without the multi-coloured cap on his head, and
6 dum ne quis eor(um) maior ann(orum) L minorve ann(orum) XX sit neve u[at]i(us) neve luscus neve manc(us) neve clodus provided that not one of them is older than 50 or younger than 20 years, and provided that not one of them is bowlegged, one-eyed, maimed, limping,
7 neve caec[us] neve stigmat(ibus) inscript(us) sit, et dum ne pauciores manceps oper(as) habeat quam XXXII blind, carrying tattoos, and provided that the contractor does not have fewer than 32 workmen.
8 Qui supplic(ium) de ser(vo) servave privatim sumer(e) volet, uti is sumi volet ita supplic(ium) sumet, si in cruc(em) If someone, privately, wants to inflict punishment on a male or female slave, then the punishment must be inflicted in the way that has been asked for, so that if he has asked for the yoke and the cross,
9 patibul(atum) agere volet, redempt(or) asser(es) vincul(a) restes verberatorib(us) et verberator(es) praeber(e) d(ebeto), et the contractor must provide the beams, the fetters, the whips for the floggers, and the floggers, and
10 quisq(uis) supplic(ium) sumet pro oper(is) sing(ulis) quae patibul(um) ferunt verberatorib(us)q(ue) item carnif(ici) HS IIII d(are) d(ebeto) each person asking for inflicting punishment must pay 4 sesterces for each worker carrying the yoke, and for each flogger, and likewise for the executioner.
11 Quot(iens) supplic(ium) magistrat(us) public(e) sumet, ita imperat(o); quotienscumq(ue) imperat(um) er(it), praestu esse su- For each public punishment the magistrate must give the appropriate orders. Each time the orders have been given the contractor must guarantee
12 p(p)licium sumer(e) cruces statuere clavos pecem ceram candel(as) quaeq(ue) ad eas res opus erunt red(emptor) that the punishment will be inflicted, that the crosses will be erected, that there will be nails, pitch, wax, candles, and everything that is needed,
13 gratis praest(are) d(ebeto); item si u[n]co extrahere iussus erit, oper(is) russat(is) id cadaver ubi plura free of charge. Furthermore, if the order has been given to drag the body away with a hook, the contractor must guarantee that the corpse will be dragged
14 cadavera erunt cum tintinnabulo extrahere debebit. to the place where many corpses will be by workers clothed in red, using a signal-bell.
15 Quot quisq(uis) ex is rebus, quas h(ac) l(ege) utiq(ue) praeber(e) o(portebit), praeberi volet, denuntiat(o) denuntiat(um)ve cura- Each time that someone wishes the services to be delivered, which the contractor is obliged to deliver in any case according to this law, he must declare or ensure that is declared,
16 to manc(ipi) eius public(i) sociove eius eive ad q(uem) e(a) r(es) q(ua) d(e) a(gitur) p(ertinet), aut s(i) is praesens non erit, ad eum loc(um) to the contractor of this public service or to his associate or to the person who is responsible for this, or, in case that he will not be present, at the place
17 quem libitinae exsercend(ae) gratia conduct(um) constitut(um)ve habeb(it), quo die, quoq(ue) loc(o) quam that the contractor has hired or established to exercise the libitina, the day, the place and the services
18 que r(em) ei praeberi volet, et si ita denuntiat(um) erit, tum is manc(eps) sociusve eius isve ad q(uem) e(a) r(es) q(ua) d(e) [a(gitur)] that he wishes to be arranged. And when it will have been declared in this way, then the contractor or his associate or the person who is responsible for this,
19 p(ertinet), ei qui primum denuntaver(it) et deinceps reliquis, ut quisq(ue) denuntiaver(it), nisi si funus to the person who was the first to declare and then to the others, in the order of the declarations, unless the funeral
20 decurion(is) funusve acervom denuntiat(um) erit, cui prima curand(a) erint, reliquor(um) autem fu- of a member of the city council or the funeral of someone who died prematurely has been declared, which must be given priority, keeping
21 nerum ordo servand(us), omnes res quae ex h(ac) l(ege) praestand(ae) erunt mitter(e) praeber(e)que quae praeb(enda erunt debeto). the order of the other funerals, must send everything that he is responsible for according to this law and provide what must be provided.
22 Suspendiosum cum denuntiat(um) erit ead(em) hora is solvend(um) tollend(um) curato, item servom When one that has hanged himself is declared, he must ensure that the body is cut loose and carried off in the same hour. Also when the death of a male or
23 servamve si ante h(oram) X diei denuntiat(um) erit ead die tollend(um) curato, si post X poster(a) d(ie) a(nte) h(oram) II. female slave is declared before the 10th hour, he must ensure that the body is carried off on the same day, if it is declared after the 10th hour on the next day, before the 2nd hour.
Col. III, 21 Man[ceps han]c legem propositam habeto eo loco quem eius r[ei exsercend(ae)] The contractor must put this law on display in the place that he has hired or established to exercise the service,
22 gr[atia cond]uct(um) constitutum habebit u(nde) d(e) p(lano) r(ecte) l(egi) p(ossit). where it can be read easily and correctly.

The inscription mentions the Lucus Libitinae or Grove of Libitina as a place of activity of the undertakers in Puteoli. It must have been a copy of the Lucus Libitinae in Rome, that has been discussed extensively by Bodel [38]. He explains that Libitina was the goddess of funerals. In Rome she had a grove, the Lucus Libitinae, but as far as we know she had no temple, no cult, no worshippers. The grove was probably located outside the Esquiline gate. An inscription referring to the upkeep of public areas may be related to the undertakers [39]. It was found just outside the Porta Esquilina, near the church of San Vito in Macello. Nearby statues of flute-players and an inscription [40] mentioning the association of flute-players (collegium tibicinum) was found [41]. It was located near a large public burial ground, to the south of today’s Stazione Termini. Here the bodies of the poor and of slaves were thrown in open pits called puticuli. Approximately 75 such pits from the republican period were found in the area by Rodolfo Lanciani, in the late 19th century. They measured about four by four metres, and were ten metres deep. Animal and human bones were found. A mass grave with perhaps as much as 24.000 bodies was found nearby.

The inscriptions from Puteoli and Cumae show that the Lucus Libitinae was introduced in other cities in Italy. In Puteoli it must have been situated outside the city, because the ordinary workers who used it were not allowed to enter the city, except for funerals. It had been installed in a tower, which cannot have been a tower of the city-wall, because that formed part of the city. According to Hinard it may have been a villa suburbana. He points out that in the Italian cities the Lucus was not necessarily a true grove anymore, with trees [42]. Scheid goes further. According to him there may never have been a grove of the goddess Libitina in Rome [43]. Lucus may be interpreted as “cemetery”. In the lucus was a temple of Venus Libitina, also called Lubentina, that may have given its name to the cemetery. Eventually Lucus Libitina seems to have become the name of a district (vicus) [44]. In later antiquity ancient authors may have reconstructed the goddess Libitina.

The lucus in Puteoli must have been used for various technical services, because the ordinary workers were present there. But what about the administrative services? In Rome the undertakers also kept a death-register, witness for example these words of Suetonius: “a plague which in a single autumn entered thirty thousand deaths in the accounts of Libitina” (pestilentia unius autumni, quo triginta funerum milia in rationem Libitinae venerunt) [45]. The leges libitinariae provide much other information. The libitina was a monopoly, under the responsibility of a contractor (manceps). Only when the contractor could not deliver the services on time were people allowed to look for an alternative [46]. The undertakers had a revenue and made profit. Fixed prices had to be paid to the contractor for the various services. People wanting to arrange a burial had to request the desired services in a formal way from the contractor or a person replacing him, in the Lucus, or – if the contractor was not there – ad eum locum quem libitinae exsercendae gratia conductum constitutum habebit (“at the place that the contractor has hired or established to exercise the libitina“). Every citizen was obliged to do so, including the decurions. The bodies of slaves and of people who had committed suicide had to be removed quickly. The residents of Puteoli were forbidden to leave a corpse unburied. Bodel remarks that “presumably one of the lost clauses stipulated that they had to remove any unclaimed corpses”. The undertakers also had to carry out punishments, providing both equipment and personnel (floggers, executioners). The corpses could then be dragged to the place “where many corpses will be”. The contractor had to post the text of the law in the locus mentioned before [47].

The locus could apparently be rented from the colony, but the contractor could also arrange a building himself. According to Bodel the locus was in the Lucus Libitinae, but Bove, Hinard and Camodeca maintain that it was inside the city. Hinard remarks that the Lucus, outside the city, must have been property of the colony, contrary to the locus. He suggests that family members of the deceased first went to the Lucus, perhaps to pay a death-tax. If the contractor was not there they went to an office in the city, where the law had been posted [48]. The place of discovery of the Puteolan law suggests that it was on the Forum.

Bodel has further analysed the financial aspects of the trade. The contractor could be represented by someone else, and may have restricted himself to investing money [49]. An inscription from Bergamum [50], probably from the second century AD, put up in honour of a certain P. Marius Lupercianus, records that “his exceptional generosity shone out to the point that he remitted for all his fellow citizens in perpetuity the lucar Libitinae purchased from his city”. Lucar means “revenue spent on public entertainments, funds disbursed to public officials for staging games” It is mentioned in an Ostian inscription commemorating P. Lucilius Gamala “senior” [51]. According to Bodel the inscription from Bergamum refers to revenue derived from a local Lucus Libitinae, revenue that was used for staging games. Linguistically there may have been a development from lucus (grove) to (pecunia) lucaris (money paid in the grove of Libitina at Rome in connection with funerals) to lucar. He argues that “the funerary concession was let by public contract and a designated location was rented to the contractor for the purpose of negotiating his services with clients”. It was a source of income for the contractor and the city, for the city through a death-tax or the contract. Bodel mentions the relation between gladiatorial combats and theatrical shows with funerary games. So money paid to the state for burials was spent on games that could be perceived as commemorative of the dead.

There is no explicit evidence about the formal organizational structure of the undertakers. According to Cimma they belonged to the societates publicanorum, so that they formed a legal body (corpus). This is denied by Hinard, who points primarily to the simpler organizational structure in Puteoli [52]. The contractor could be called libitinarius. He appears in the Cena Trimalchionis by Petronius:

“Make believe I am dead,” he [Trimalchio] ordered. “Play something fine.” Then the horn-blowers struck up a loud funeral dirge. In particular one of these undertaker’s men [servus libitinarii illius], the most conscientious of the lot, blew so tremendous a fanfare he roused the whole neighborhood. Hereupon the watchmen in charge of the surrounding district, thinking Trimalchio’s house was on fire, suddenly burst open the door, and rushing in with water and axes, started the much admired confusion usual under such circumstances (“Fingite me,” inquit, “mortuum esse. Dicite aliquid belli.” Consonuere cornicines funebri strepitu. Unus praecipue servus libitinarii illius, qui inter hos honestissimus erat, tam valde intonuit, ut totam concitaret viciniam. Itaque vigiles, qui custodiebant vicinam regionem, rati ardere Trimalchionis domum, effregerunt ianuam subito et cum aqua securibusque tumultuari suo iure coeperunt).

In the Digesta we read:

… if a libitinarius had employed a slave as corpse-washer and he has robbed the corpse … (… si libitinarius servum pollinctorem habuerit isque mortuum spoliaverit …) [53].

According to the Lex Iulia Municipalis, from the first century BC, the contractor and the master of the funeral ceremonies had a low social status: “Nor shall anyone who is an auctioneer, a master of funeral ceremonies, or an undertaker, so long as he is engaged in such a trade, be a candidate for, accept, administer, or hold the office of duumvir, quattuorvir, or any other magistracy, nor shall he be a senator or a decurion, or a conscript, nor shall he give his vote as such in a municipality, a colony, or a prefecture” (Neve quis, qui praeconium dissignationem libitinamve faciet, dum eorum quid faciet, in municipio colonia praefectura IIviratum IIIIviratum aliumve quem magistratum petito neve capito neve gerito neve habeto, neve ibi senator neve decurio neve conscriptus esto, neve sententiam dicito). As Bodel puts it, death was unclean for the Romans in both cultural and religious terms, and it contaminated the living. Among other things, it also meant that people in certain professions, including all members of the funeral trade, were regarded as permanently polluted and had to live in isolation [54]. In the course of time the regulations were less strictly applied and replaced by other measures. By the end of the 2nd century AD the notion had been significantly weakened [55].

From these and other sources we learn more about the personnel employed by or cooperating with the contractor:

  • dissignatores, masters of the ceremonies.
  • pollinctores, washers of the corpses.
  • vespillones, corpse-bearers for the poor and criminals.
  • sandapilarii, corpse-bearers.
  • ustores, corpse-burners.
  • tibicines, flute-players.
  • fossores, grave-diggers in the catacombs in Rome.
  • verberatores, floggers.
  • carnifices, executioners.

There is a lot of uncertainty about the situation in the fourth century, especially about the role of the emerging church. Were the dead taken to a church during the funeral, and was the eucharist then celebrated there? Were memorial services held? Could the church own part of a cemetery? What was the name of the undertakers? In recent years these and other questions have been studied in depth by Rebillard [56]. Constantine arranged free burials in Constantinople, under the responsibility of the church [57]. According to a source from the ninth century this was done for the poor. Persons called dekanoi, lektikarioi and kopiatai (three synonyms?) were provided for this purpose by 950 ergasteria [58]. The form copiatae is encountered in two laws from the time of Constantius, from 356 and 359 AD [59]. In both the word is presented as a neologism (clericos … qui copiatae appellantur; clerici vero vel hi, quos copiatas recens usus instituit nuncupari), but the Greek form is already attested in a funeral inscription from Rome, from the time of Constantine [60]. According to Rebillard copiatae was a general designation for the people who were active in the funerary trade, so for both the contractors and the workers. He concludes that funerals were still primarily the responsibility of the state when the family did not assume its traditional role [61]. There is some evidence that bishops could hire contractors for the burial of the poor and foreigners [62]. Christians who had deceased did not normally lie in state in a church. Exceptions are certain bishops and unmarried women [63].

The House of the Gorgons as Office of the Undertakers

From what has been written above may be deduced that there was a Lucus Libitinae near Ostia, already in the republican period, presumably in the necropolis to the south of Ostia and perhaps near puticuli. The lucar resulting from the trade is already mentioned in the first century BC in a famous inscription mentioning the work of P. Lucilius Gamala “senior”: “When he had accepted public funds for putting on games he gave them back, and made good the obligation from his own resources” (In ludos cum accepisset publicum lucar, remisit et de suo erogationem fecit) [64].

The House of the Gorgons was the administrative office of the undertakers, and as far as I know the first building identified as such. In view of its significant position we may assume that it was built by the colony, to be used by successive contractors. The small square in front of the building may well be another indication that the building was public property. The south facade seems the logical place for the posting of the local lex libitinaria. People wishing to arrange a funeral apparently approached the building along the Cardo, where there was a sidewalk. They entered vestibule 6, to be received by a door-keeper residing in rooms 1-2. Rooms 3, 16 and 17, all with a mosaic floor, must have been used for arranging the funeral, and for keeping the Ostian death-register. Room 17 seems to have been the most important of these rooms: the emblema is larger than the one in room 3, presumably because of the text below the gorgoneion, there is a rectangle in the mosaic behind the gorgoneion, and in the south wall are three heating-channels. We may exclude the possibility that a corpse was laid on a bed on top of the rectangle, in view of the heating-channels to the south. This room must have been used by the contractor or his associate, sitting at a table. Dining-room 11 was used by the more important people in the association [65]. This seems to be the first time in Ostia that we have clear archaeological evidence for the double use of the seat of an organization: for communal meals, and for transacting business.

Shop 4 and rooms 12 + 15 (an office?) do not seem to have been used by the undertakers, but surely the activity that went on there was related to the funerals. Rooms 12 + 15 may for example have been used by sellers of sarcophagi or the guild of the flute-players, and in the shop incense and other materials for use in the house may have been sold. Finally we can have a look at the curious outer staircase 5, starting at 1 metre from the sidewalk and with thick travertine jambs and a travertine threshold, reused material. In late antiquity the level of many streets in Ostia was raised with building rubble, rubbish and sherds. This activity may have started after earthquakes in the later third century [67], but certainly did not start before the end of the third century. The high threshold could be related. Staircase 5 may already have existed in the second century (the masonry below the threshold belongs to the second century phase), but it may also have been hacked out later. If it is related to a raised level, we must imagine that it was added when the ground floor was no longer in use, because no other threshold in the building is at this high level.

Thick travertine door-jambs are rare in Ostia [68]. They are found in the Caseggiato dei Triclinii (I,XII,1), in a door next to a staircase in the north-west corner of the porticus; in an entrance in the west part of the Terme del Filosofo (V,II,6-7); in a monumental main entrance of the Horrea Epagathiana et Epaphroditiana (I,VIII,3); and there is a single jamb in the east wall of the Terme del Foro (I,XII,6), reused material. Some scant remains may belong to similar entrances in three other rooms in the city. It is remarkable however, that travertine doorframes are very frequent in the tombs of the Porta Laurentina necropolis to the south of Ostia, and of the Isola Sacra necropolis to the south of Portus (at least 40) [69]. We may conclude that travertine doorframes inside the city walls were a rare and conscious choice to accentuate an entrance. So, for example, archives may have been stored in the room next to a staircase in the Caseggiato dei Triclinii. The entrance in the House of the Gorgons could well be an echo of the entrances that are found in tombs. If indeed the ground floor of the building was given up in late antiquity, the travertine may have been chosen to stipulate the function of the building. An alternative explanation is, that corpses were taken to the first floor. Normally bodies would stay in the house of the deceased, but what to do with bodies that had been thrown out, and those in hotels? The high level of the entrance could then have prevented accidental access and pollution.

The Ostian Undertakers in Inscriptions and Ancient Literature

No inscription from Ostia or Portus mentions the undertakers. The inscriptions do however provide evidence about the fear that the undertakers would not be allowed to do their work. According to Bodel a modest burial during the early Empire may have cost some 250 sesterces [70]. Some people would rather not pay the undertakers (presumably for the burial of slaves), or simply could not. That is why the funerary inscriptions sometimes stipulate stiff fines when corpses were introduced in tombs without permission [71]. Important references to the Ostian undertakers are found in the literary sources: in the satires of Juvenalis, in the descriptions of the torturing and execution of martyrs (Acta Sanctorum, Prudentius), and in the Confessions of Augustinus.

During the reign of Hadrian, Juvenalis comments upon a legatus called Lateranus. He had a bad reputation, and was not willing to defend the limes. “Send to Ostia, Caesar, send, but look for the legatus in the big pub, and you will find him lying with some hit man, in company with sailors, thieves, and runaway slaves, among hangmen, bier-makers and the idle tambourines of a gallus, prostrate from drunkenness” (Mitte Ostia, Caesar, mitte sed in magna legatum quaere popina. Invenies aliquo cum percussore iacentem, permixtum nautis et furibus ac fugitivis, inter carnifices et fabros sandapilarum et resupinati cessantia tympana galli) [72]. Here we find some of the workers in the Ostian funeral trade: executioners and carpenters who made biers. The latter presumably made their products in the Lucus Libitinae.

In the third century a number of Christians was tortured and killed in Ostia and Portus. Prudentius describes the activity of the executioners and torturers (carnifices and tortores) [73]. The descriptions in the Acta Sanctorum are full of torture and executions, but the people performing this are not referred to explicitly. Interesting are passages like this one: “And they were beheaded in that very spot [in front of the theatre], giving thanks to God. But Romulus ordered the blessed Cyriacus to be beheaded in jail. Then, blessed Eusebius at night gathered up all the bodies of the saints – bishop Cyriacus, presbyter Maximus and deacon Archelaus. And he buried them with every care” [74]. We may assume that, normally, the bodies of martyrs would be handed over to the people who were claiming them according to the law. If these did not appear, they would be taken to the puticuli, from which in this case they were removed by a fellow Christian.

In 387 AD Monica, the mother of Augustinus, died in Ostia, shortly after the famous “Vision at Ostia”. Part of her funerary inscription has been found near the church of Sant’Aurea in mediaeval Ostia. Augustinus refers to the undertakers (pollinctores) when he writes: “And whilst they whose office it was were, according to custom, making ready for the funeral, I, in a part of the house where I conveniently could …” (et de more illis, quorum officium erat, funus curantibus, ego in parte, ubi decenter poteram …) [75]. About the funeral itself he says: “So, when the body was carried forth, we both went and returned without tears. For neither in those prayers which we poured forth unto Thee when the sacrifice of our redemption was offered up unto Thee for her, the dead body being now placed by the side of the grave, as the custom there is, prior to its being laid therein, neither in their prayers did I shed tears” (Cum ecce corpus elatum est, imus, redimus, sine lacrimis. Nam neque in eis precibus, quas tibi fudimus, cum offeretur pro ea sacrificium pretii nostri, iam iuxta sepulchrum posito cadavere, priusquam deponeretur, sicut illic fiere solet, nec in eis ergo precibus flevi) [76]. We hear of a local, Ostian custom, namely placing the corpse next to the tomb, to perform a ritual. The eucharist was celebrated at the tomb, or in a church [77]. Augustinus was the eldest son of Monica, and it comes as a bit of a shock that, presumably, he had visited the House of the Gorgons to arrange the funeral.

The House of the Gorgons and the Urban Landscape of Ostia

It is hardly surprising that the House of the Gorgons forms part of the low-status block I,XIII, comprising small horrea, a fullery, a bakery and shops. Possibly conclusions can be drawn about buildings to the west, east and south, but this will not be researched in depth here.

It may be noted that, to the west, the main entrance of the Campus of the Magna Mater is on the square in front of the House of the Gorgons. Was the location of the Campus chosen because it was between the world of the living and the world of the dead? We may also note that the fossa sanguinis (IV,I,6), used for blood-baptism, was installed inside the Porta Laurentina.

To the east is a building (V,I,2) that the excavators have called horrea, for unknown reasons [78]. In this building is a late, curved wall, possibly from the fourth century, and according to Heinzelmann belonging to a small amphitheatre [79]. For the undertakers it would have been a convenient place for executions. This could lead to a new interpretation of the cippi on the Semita dei Cippi, to the north-east of the House of the Gorgons.

The Constantinian date of the House of the Gorgons brings to mind the new regulations for funerals by Constantine, in Constantinople. Constantine donated a basilica to Ostia. It was found by Heinzelmann inside the city, near a secondary gate to the east of the Porta Laurentina. It may be significant that still a bit further to the east a concentration of Christian burials was found, near the church of San Ercolano [80].

In the 1930’s a building was excavated outside the Porta Laurentina, the Villa (or Baths) of Perseus. Most of the rooms seem to belong to a bath. Unfortunately the building was never published, and the ruins are now buried. Building phases have been dated to the early second and the fourth century AD. To the west seem to have been shops [81]. It was named after a statue of Perseus from the late first or early second century AD [82]. With his right hand Perseus holds the head of Medusa, that has a calm expression (Perseus was the one who had decapitated her; ICCD neg. E49888). From the building also comes a large polychrome mosaic from the second half of the fourth century. Depicted are two months and a female bust [83]. The building does not form part of, but is behind the row of coastal villas. May we deduce from the statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa, that the baths were used by people who had just attended a funeral or visited a tomb? And could it have been an annex or part of the Lucus Libitinae? It would in any case make perfect sense if the Lucus was situated in the area, because it was visited by the same people who were active in the House of the Gorgons. Why would it have been further away? [84].

Clusters of utilitarian structures amongst the tombs of the Porta Romana necropolis, possibly including apartments, may well have been used by the undertakers.


Left: The Cardo to the west of the building, seen from the south. Countless funeral processions have used this road. / Photograph: Jorgen Christian Meyer.
Right: The building seen from the south. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: The bench in vestibule 6, seen from the south-west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The west part of the building, seen from the north, from staircase 5. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: The building seen from the west, from staircase 5. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Staircase 5, seen from the west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: The mosaic in room 11. / Becatti 1961, Tav. LXXII.
Right: Room 17, seen from the west. / Photograph: archives Arch. Inst. Leiden Univ., NL.


Left: The mosaic in room 17. / Becatti 1961, Tav. LXXII.
Right: Room 3, seen from the east. Neg. N15535.


Left: Corridor 7, seen from the north. Neg. N15536.
Right: Courtyard 10, seen from the north-west, from room 11. Neg. N15534.


Left: Corridor 14, seen from the north. Neg. N15537.
Right: Room 16, mosaic floor. Neg. N15533.

Originally published by “Ostia: Harbour City of Ancient Rome“, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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