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Reviewed by:
  • Ostia in Late Antiquity by Douglas Boin
  • Michael Mulryan
Ostia in Late Antiquity Douglas Boin New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xv + 287. ISBN 978–1-107–2401–4

This is the first book dedicated specifically to the final phases of occupation at Ostia, the river port of Rome. For that reason alone this monograph is to be welcomed. It ambitiously attempts to reconstruct the socio-religious environment of the town from the third to seventh centuries ce using the archaeological, literary and hagiographical evidence, and argues strongly from the “continuist” viewpoint. In the estimation of this reviewer, Boin is only partly successful in these aims. His arguments for “pagan” Ostia are quite problematic, but his picture of early Christian and Jewish Ostia are both convincing, and important steps towards a fuller and more nuanced understanding of monotheistic activity in the port town.

The book begins with an introduction setting out the content and structure, which is thick with metaphors and establishes the author’s positive reading emphasizing the continued sophistication of urbanism into Late Antiquity. Urban change occurred only in the seventh and eighth centuries. This is now largely the consensus among late Roman and early medieval archaeologists looking at urban centers in the eastern Mediterranean, but it needs to be established for Ostia, where popular guidebooks still hold to a model of fourth-century decline. Boin states that, “architecture was integral to the social process by which Ostia became a Christian town,” which is a fair point, but to make sweeping conclusions as to the nature of Christian (or indeed pagan) Ostia based on archaeologically attested religious spaces ignores the largely domestic nature of Christianity in this period. But Boin rightly also highlights how this purpose-built architecture was a sign of increasing confidence in the Christian (and Jewish) communities, and this is where the book is very successful.

Chapter 1 provides a background to research at Ostia and outlines the intended sociological models that Boin wishes to use to look at minority behavior, which includes the important theory of “identity management” as a mode of integration and self-definition. He also rightly emphasizes the danger in seeing religious identity in material culture, an observation applied to Christian objects, [End Page 245] but strangely not to the art and sculpture of the traditional cults (whatever this means by this time) discussed later in the book.

Chapter 2 examines structural and social continuity in late antique Ostia compared with previous centuries, concentrating on the material investment made along the beach, the river port (which in fact may not be the site of the famed Temple of Castor and Pollux, although it certainly was by the river somewhere), along with the so-called Building with Opus Sectile. It also tackles the problematic “basilica cristiana” alongside the central decumanus. This is seen as a good example of the difficulty in finding Christianity in the centre of Ostia at this time, although the (fourth century?) Christian structure built within the Baths of Mithras is not mentioned. The point about structural adaptation and the need to assimilate can still hold true though, but why was this need felt less in the southern part of town, where large new Christian basilicas were built?

The following chapters proceed chronologically. Chapter 3 discusses the third-century town, arguing against the outdated crisis model, although the analysis of the fate of paganism here, and throughout the book, is too temple-focused to convince. Private religion and domestic rites are rightly touched on in this chapter, but ignored when looking at later periods, which is a shame. It would also have been useful to touch on the debate over the decline in public blood sacrifice. Boin focuses on the newly built central “Round Temple” and tentatively argues for the continuation of imperial cult rites, but admits this structure is more ceremonial than religious.

Chapter 4 turns to the fourth century, and once more begins with a temple-focused debate on cultic activity at this time, although Boin rightly notes that these structures remained prominent landmarks and objects of civic pride. He then moves onto the Christian and Jewish communities of the town, convincingly...


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pp. 245-247
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