Thursday, February 15, 2018


Marcel Danner, Wohnkultur im spätantiken Ostia. Kölner Schriften zur Archäologie, 1. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2017. Pp. x, 323, 12. ISBN 9783954901289. €78.00.

Reviewed by Arja Karivieri, Institutum Romanum Finlandiae (

Version at BMCR home site

This book is the first volume in the new series Kölner Schriften zur Archäologie, edited by Dietrich Boschung and Michael Heinzelmann, both well-known specialists of Roman urbanism (Heinzelmann wrote his doctoral dissertation on the grave monuments of Ostia and has continued to contribute geophysical and geoarchaeological studies in Ostia). In this series, monographs, doctoral theses and other volumes are published, including a wealth of material that has been produced at the Archaeological Institute of University of Cologne, or other works that represent one of the research themes of the Institute. A novelty of this new series is that the more detailed archaeological documentation and photographs can be presented in digital form by the Cologne Digital Archaeology Laboratory and the photo archive ARACHNE, while the discussion, the analysis and the results of the archaeological study are presented in a well-illustrated printed book.

As the first volume of the Kölner series, Boschung and Heinzelmann have chosen Marcel Danner's doctoral dissertation from 2012, which presents the field documentation and a detailed analysis of a group of late antique houses in Ostia. Danner aims to provide a more detailed analysis of the urban development of Ostia from the 3rd to the 5th century AD by analysing private houses in the city. Danner has studied the architectural design of complete buildings, their decorative systems and the room functions, instead of confining himself specifically to the most 'representative' spaces, such as apsidal and triconch halls. He has, furthermore, aimed at defining the semantics of room decoration. He sees development from the 1st to the 5th century AD, especially in the increased emphasis on the part of the houses where the owner received his guests: from the 3rd century onwards, the private and public parts of the house became clearly separate domains, and the decoration of reception rooms became more important, with an addition of columns, sculpture, figurative floor mosaics, marble revetments and pavements. Danner interprets this as evidence for the actual social role of the house owner, or the role at which he aimed, in comparison with the Early Imperial strategies of owners who chose to emphasize their social standing through the cultivation of a bucolic and sacred atmosphere. Danner does not, however, believe that the owners of these large houses of the 4th and 5th century necessarily belonged to old senatorial families; for example, they may have come from the Roman army or been priests or members of the local administration.

Danner has organized the book in 14 chapters and completed the study with a detailed catalogue of 18 houses. Danner studied two of the houses, Domus accanto al Serapeo and Domus delle Colonne, in greater detail through minor excavations in 20121 to verify the construction phases of these houses. The book starts with a short introduction (Ch. 1: p. 1–2), followed by the history of excavations and scholarship (Ch. 2: p. 3–8), before going into more detail about the research questions and methods (Ch. 3: p. 9–16). Ch. 4 (p. 17–22) presents background for the city of Ostia in the 2nd century, Ch. 5 (p. 23–28) analyses the development of Ostia from the Severan period onwards and Ch. 6 (p. 29–47), a longer chapter, includes a synthesis of the development from the 3rd to the mid-5th century. The three following chapters present various aspects of late antique houses in Ostia. Ch. 7 (p. 49–55) provides a commentary on the outer walls and the definition of main and side entrances. In Ch. 8 (p. 57–83) Danner systematically examines room structures, entrances, tabernae, porticoes and corridors, courts, main rooms, groups of rooms, staircases and upper floors and the principles for distribution of space. Ch. 9 (p. 85–116) is dedicated to the decor and furnishings of houses, including pavements, wall decorations, water installations, kitchen and heating systems and sculptural decoration.

In Ch. 10 (p. 117–139) Danner widens the perspective of his research to study Ostian houses contextually, making comparisons with senatorial palaces at Rome, city houses in Northern Italy, North Africa, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria and late antique villages in the western part of the Roman Empire and concluding with a synthesis of late antique domestic decoration in elite houses in various parts of the Roman world. Ch. 11 (p. 141–162) includes an analysis of how movement was organized in the house and how various parts of the house were used. Ch. 12 (p. 163–174) expands the theoretical approach to present a semantic interpretation of décor, such as the connection between an image and an aristocratic ideal, marble as a mirror of wealth and prestige and the interpretation of water installations. Ch. 13 (p. 175–183) includes an important discussion of the house owners and inhabitants of late antique Ostia. Danner emphasizes the senatorial owners, their imitators and role models. The work ends with a bibliography and alphabetical indexes. The catalogue of 18 late antique houses (p. 189-295) completes the volume. He gives detailed instructions for the use of the catalogue, as well as a concordance providing the name of the house, the catalogue number, the ARACHNE serial number and the attached Permalink. The description of the wall techniques follows the conventions that T. L. Heres used for Ostia.2

Every catalogue entry presents a specific house, the measures of each room, the history of excavations and restoration, the grade of preservation, the wall techniques used, the building history and various phases of the house, the most important finds (e.g., inscriptions and sculpture) and a bibliographical excursus. Every catalogue entry also provides a new ground plan drawn by the author; a more detailed plan, in which the various phases of the building history are marked with colour codes, is placed at the end of the book in colour plates. In the ARACHNE digital archive these 18 houses are presented with the detailed plans marked with colour codes, and with more detailed descriptions of each separate room, walls and pavements. The house catalogue is presented in a somewhat shorter version in the printed book, whereas the web version shows both the detailed documentation from the fieldwork, a general description of the house and a detailed description of each room.

This handsome book is very well proofread. The only errors I found are on p. 6, 6th line, where Late Antiquity is written Spät-antike, and on p. 71, line 14, Mamor instead of Marmor. Concerning references in the footnotes and bibliographical lists in the catalogue, I would have preferred a chronological list of publications instead of an alphabetical list according to the surnames of the authors.

The book presents the houses dated to the 3rd to 5th century AD that give evidence for the distribution of larger, new luxurious houses in the southern part of the city centre. Danner emphasises that buildings were not restored at this time in the northern parts of the city, which declined into ruins when Roman senators in the 4th and 5th centuries instead built porticoes, courts and decorative fountains in the southern part of the city. He shows how the new houses continued the older tradition of peristyle houses. He identifies specific changes in the houses of the 4th and 5th centuries, when entrances became broader and some halls were decorated with an apse. Literary sources and some inscriptions in the lead water pipes allow us to connect the names with members of the Roman senatorial aristocracy, while others must have belonged to local elite, prosperous traders and priests. However, the archaeological evidence for building activities or restorations is missing in Ostia for the period after the mid-5th century.

The distribution maps in Ch. 6 (p. 40-42) greatly enhance the discussion of the development and contexts of late antique houses in Ostia. Fig. 7 (p. 40) shows the distribution of these houses, where the first group comprises those included in the catalogue, the second group includes other known late antique houses and a third group notes buildings that have some characteristics of this category. Figs. 8-10 show more detailed plans of these three categories of buildings located south of the main forum, west of Regio V and between the Bivium and Porta Marina. Fig. 11 shows the distribution of peristyle houses and medianum-apartments in the 2nd century AD. Fig. 12 shows the 2nd-century buildings still existing in the 2nd century, as well as new buildings from the 3rd century. Fig. 13 provides a map of 2nd and 3rd-century buildings that still existed in the 4th century and the distribution of new houses of the 4th and early 5th century.

Danner has succeeded in providing a solid, detailed documentation of 18 late antique houses in Ostia, including the descriptions of wall structures, floor levels, remains of wall paintings, inscriptions and sculpture found in the houses. Naturally he has not been able to include the most recent discussion of late antique houses written by Carlo Pavolini, or the latest studies on mosaics and opus sectile pavements of Domus dei Pesci, Domus del Protiro and Domus del Ninfeo, by M Bruno and F. Bianchi, 3 but the book provides an important and long-awaited contribution to the study of building history of late antique Ostia with a wealth of important documentation and sound arguments concerning the interpretation of standing structures, inscriptions and sculpture.


1.   M. Danner, P. Vivacqua and E. Spagnoli, "Untersuchungen zur Chronologie der spätantiken Wohnhäuser in Ostia – Vorbericht zu einem Kursprojekt im Oktober 2012", KuBA 3 (2013), 217-239.
2.   T. L. Heres, Paries. A proposal for a dating system of late-antique masonry structures in Rome and Ostia (Amsterdam 1982).
3.   C. Pavolini, Rileggendo le domus delle Colonne e dei Pesci, MEFRA 126–1 (2014) (online); C. Pavolini, "Per un riesame del problema di Ostia nella tarda antichità: indice degli argomenti", in: A. F. Ferrandes and G. Pardini (eds.), Le regole del gioco. Tracce Archeologici Racconti. Studi in onore di Clementina Panella (Rome 2016) 385-405; see also the survey article Pavolini, "A Survey of Excavations and Studies on Ostia (2004-2014)", JRS 106 (2016), 199-236. M. Bruno and E. Bianchi, "L'uso and il riuso di moduli pavimentali nella tarda antichità: il caso della Domus dei Pesci e della Domus del Protiro", in: F. Guidobaldi and G. Tozzi (eds.), Atti del XVII Colloquio dell'AISCOM (Tivoli 2012) 229-240; M. Bruno and E. Bianchi, "Pavimenti marmorei dalla Domus del Ninfeo ad Ostia", in: C. Angelelli (ed.), Atti del XIX Colloquio dell'AISCOM (Tivoli 2014) 345-356. The article Cristina Murer, "The Reuse of Funerary Statues in Late Antique Prestige Buildings at Ostia", in: T. Myrup Kristensen and L. Stirling (eds.) The Afterlife of Greek and Roman Sculpture: Late Antique Response and Practices (Ann Arbor 2016) 177-197, adds another aspect to the discussion about the use of spolia in the late antique houses of Ostia.

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