Tuesday, October 8, 2013


L. Bouke van der Meer, Ostia Speaks. Inscriptions, Buildings and Spaces in Rome's Main Port. Leuven: Peeters, 2012. Pp. xii, 129. ISBN 9789042927001. €27,00.

Reviewed by Moss Pike, The Harvard-Westlake School (mpike@hw.com)

Version at BMCR home site

Though the town of Ostia has a lengthy history, spanning from the 4th c. BCE to the 9th c. CE, it has received relatively little attention in comparison to more famous Roman provincial towns like Pompeii and Herculaneum. Meiggs treated Ostia extensively in a monograph (1960, rev. ed. 19731); but the city, including its wealth of epigraphic material, has been relatively neglected since then. Van der Meer thus sets out to update Meiggs "in light of the archaeological and epigraphic research of the last decades" (iix). His goal is to produce a selection of texts from the over 6500 inscriptions found in Ostia that reveal business, political, religious, and other practices, targeted at a rather wide audience that includes both teachers and students, archaeologists, classicists, historians, linguists, and philologists.

The book is organized into two principal chapters, with the first supplying a historical and cultural overview of Ostia, and the second containing the 42 in situ inscriptions van der Meer has chosen to analyze, organized by geographical location within the city. All the inscriptions are accessible to the public, except for No 15. Each entry lists the regio, insula of the inscription's location within Ostia, followed by the full text of the inscription, with translation and brief commentary. Four appendices follow the catalogue: a useful summary of epigraphic abbreviations, a chronological list of the Roman emperors, and the text and translation of two inscriptions, for P. Lucilius Gamala "Senior" and "Iunior", respectively. Finally, a bibliography and brief topical index are provided. Two maps of Ostia are included: the first is a reproduction from Meiggs, and the second in the back cover flap, locates each of the discussed inscriptions within the town. Black-and-white photographs taken by the author while investigating them accompany a fair number of the inscriptions.

Generally, van der Meer is successful in his attempt to explore the culture of Ostia through its epigraphy and to "clarify relationship between monuments, spaces and people" (1). He has selected well a rather varied corpus of inscriptions with meaningful content, and he often cites epigraphic comparanda to provide support for his argumentation. The texts contain interesting cultural material—for instance, a discussion on how the fire brigade, or vigiles 'watchmen' and sebarii/sebaciarii 'night-watchmen' operated (20), the fact that the latrine was a space sacred to the goddess Fortuna (26), and a fascinating discussion of the international character of Ostia, based on the testimony of the mosaics dedicated to the various guilds ( corpora or collegia) that are found in the "Square of the Guilds" (31-37). Despite Cicero's complaint that Ostia was negotiosam et molestam (Pro Murena 8.18), one can easily imagine the rich cultural quality of the city within this time frame, thanks to the information revealed by these texts.

Though relatively short in length, the book can be somewhat hard to use as a handbook for a few reasons. The absence of maps and figures woven into the textual commentary can hamper some of van der Meer's descriptions of the objects and their relative locations, especially for the inscriptions for which no image is provided (e.g., in the physical description of the "Boundary Stones of the Public Domain" text, p. 48). Illustrations of at least some of the mosaics in the "Square of the Guilds" would have been welcome, given the detail that they apparently contain.2 The book would also be more usable, if more cross-references directed the reader to relevant discussions elsewhere, (e.g, referring back to the pontifex Volkani in Chapter 1 p. 10, when discussing the inscription from the "House of the Thunderbolt," p. 80). Similarly, the suggestion that the S in the inscription IOMS is an abbreviation for Serapis (47) seems surprising at the time, until the phrase IOVI SERAPI is encountered and discussed later in the book (76), though without any connection to the earlier text.

It is not van der Meer's purpose to provide extensive commentary for each inscription, but in some cases it may have been helpful to at least point to more detailed discussions elsewhere, especially where he is departing from Meiggs. For instance, van der Meer does not comment on why some scholars date the "Sanctuary of the Lares Vicinales" altar to the Hadrianic period (52), potentially hampering follow-up work on the texts.3

Most of the inscriptions selected by van der Meer date to the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, and they are relatively uniform in style, language, and appearance. Consequently, excessive space need not be devoted to grammatical commentary. Most of van der Meer's analysis is sound, above all his fine historical engagement with the figures who played a significant political role in Ostia; but there are occasions where further commentary on epigraphic details or references to external discussion would have been warranted, especially where Latin forms differ from expectation. For example, the gerundive FACIUN(da) is found in the "Sanctuary of Bona Dea" (84), rather than the standard "textbook" version facienda. This is a good time to direct readers to a discussion of the "legalizing" archaic form of the gerund with the original o-grade of the suffix that has survived in some forms.4

The book has a handful of typographical mistakes, including but not limited to listing inscription No 18 on p. 558 in the Table of Contents (rather than p. 58), epoièsen for epoiēsen (27), and "to the [sic] Olympus" (53). There are also some potentially misleading errors or phrases: "instead of genitive [sic] on -ae" (97) in the PN Kalaemere, van der Meer evidently intended to cite the dative case in the phrase CONIUGI BENEMERENTI KALAEEMERE.5

Any criticism aside, Ostia Speaks has great potential for classroom use. The book could quite easily be used for project work, for which students could use Google Maps and/or Google Earth to create engaging walking tours of the city, providing their own commentary for each of the texts in much the same way as van der Meer did during his own time in Ostia. Epigraphic texts like the corpus from Ostia can also provide effective supplementation to the usual literary texts for discussion of specific aspects of Roman culture, and as such, they certainly deserve more attention than they have hitherto received. Some explicit sexual content (cf. No 15) may preclude some high-school libraries from purchasing it, but the book nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to the growing number of non-standard texts that have recently become available, including the online corpus of Vindolanda tablets.6 Without doubt, van der Meer's intended audience for Ostia speaks will find the book both interesting and useful.


1.   Meiggs, Russell. 1973. Roman Ostia, 2nd ed. London: Oxford.
2.   More images and inscriptions from Ostia can be found at http://www.ostia-antica.org/inscript.htm. Though mentioned in the bibliography, van der Meer does not make reference to this resource in his commentary.
3.   Other examples include not specifying which of the two references to Mols in his bibliography he is citing, when discussing Mols' opinion on the origin of certain metrical Latin texts found in the "Baths of the Seven Wise Men" (73). Likewise, van der Meer does not specify what "recent research" (107) has argued that the "Granary of Hortensius" may date to the late Republic, rather than the Julio-Claudian period.
4.   Additional notes could be made for words like kastra beside castra (20) and Volkani beside Vulcanus that reflect the "QKC convention," where /k/ was used in place of /c/ before the vowel a. For more on the Old Latin "QKC" convention, cf. p. 27 in Weiss, Michael. 2009. Outline of the Historical and Comparative Grammar of Latin. Ann Arbor: Beech Stave Press.
5.   Other typographical errors include CO(n)S(ulibvs), with -BVS instead of -BUS (44); inconsistency in marking Greek accents, e.g. only accenting the word alexípon[on] in No 18 (59); confusion in the phrase C(aius) CARTILIUS C(ai) F(ilius) / DUOVIRU [sic] TERTIO beside C(aius) CARTILIUS C(aii) [sic] F(ilius) / DUOVIR ITERUM, which is the original version of the same inscription with ITERUM that was later overwritten with TERTIO (67); and listing the dates for Trebonianus Gallus as "251-53" rather than "251-253", as with the other emperors. These errors are minor and do not affect the arguments in the book.
6.   Texts and commentary through the second volume of the Tabulae Vindolandenses series can be found at http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk .

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