Engineering Rome

Public Spaces: Learning from Ostia Antica and Pompei

By Kira Twitchell
All photos were taken by the author unless otherwise noted.

1. Introduction

Visiting Italy for the first time, walking the streets of Rome, it is almost breathtaking when you turn the corner and happen upon a big square in the middle of the winding alleys. These squares are full of life in the afternoon. Take Piazza Navona for example in Figure 1, full of street performers and artists, three fountains, and a beautiful church façade. After following google maps through narrow alleyways, weaving taxis and Vespas, it’s a relief when you walk into a pedestrian-controlled space. Not only public squares, but the numerous fountains supplying endless drinking water scattered around the city are also quite convenient during a hot day of touring.

Figure 1: Piazza Navona.

Rome is a city of layers. To elaborate, it is a city built upon ancient cities. As Rome grew, fell, and grew again, open land became scarce, and thus abandoned or older cities that were filled in with earth material became new open land and even the new foundations for structures built on top. This left physical historical records of how cities were constructed and functioned in ancient times. Through excavations and documentation, archeologists and tourists the same can learn from these sites. This paper will look at two cities that I visited this summer in August of 2022 while living abroad in Rome. The cities of Osita Antica and Pompei will be discussed and compared to describe various public spaces that we can still enjoy and experience today in Rome.

1.2 Historical Background of Ostia Antica

Ostia is derived from ‘ostium’ which means ‘mouth’. Since the city was located where the mouth of the Tiber River flows into the Mediterranean, the city took on the name Ostia. Founded in approximately 620 B.C. Ostia was ideal for exploiting the salt flats. About 200 years after the city was established, Ostia was used as a naval base and a military camp due to its prime location for strategic military defense (Steves). By the time Rome controlled all of the Mediterranean in 150 A.D., Ostia was a commercial port and a true working city filled with warehouses and markets, housing about 60,000 people (Steves).

With the fall of Rome in approximately 470 A.D., Ostia was abandoned. Over time, the ebb and flow of the Tiber and Mediterranean had buried the city in silt. Now, no longer right on the water’s edge, Ostia is some 3 km (1.86 miles) east of where the current river mouth is located (Consoli). Due to the slow burial of the city by water movement, as the population of Ostia diminished, materials and valuables were salvaged to be repurposed. This meant that most evidence of daily life such as candles, pots, and furniture, and expensive materials, particularly marble and metals, were taken before the city was completely covered in silt. Buried under earth material for many centuries, what was left of the city was well preserved. Excavation began in the 1800s and later, in the mid-1900s, Mussolini decided that Ostia was to be excavated completely to be put on display for the postponed World Fair of 1942 in Rome (Huissen). Today, the harbor city of Ostia is known as Ostia Antica, or the ancient Ostia, and is not entirely excavated. About a half an hour from the Colosseum, as located in Figure 2, the site can be visited by tourists but is less popular than the similar ancient city of Pompei.

Figure 2: The location of Ostia Antica with respect to Rome (Jashemski).

1.3 Historical Background of Pompei

Approximately 14 miles (23 km) outside of modern-day Naples and southeast of Rome, Pompei is an archaeological wonder useful for learning how ancient cities functioned (Jashemski). In the 8th century B.C., Pompei fell under the influence of ancient Greek settlers. However, six centuries later, Pompei was overtaken by Rome in the 2nd century B.C. (Pompei). As seen in Figure 3, Pompei is located along the west coast of Italy. Due to Pompei’s beautiful location atop a hill with perfect site lines looking towards the coast, this city became an attraction for wealthy vacationers and travelers passing through. There were spas, taverns, brothels, many shops, bakeries and cafes, secret bars for gambling, food markets, an arena, and many public buildings.

Figure 3: The location of Pompei with respect to Rome (Jashemski).

As Pompei is now known for, on August 24, 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius, just five miles from Pompei, erupted (Pompei). Over the course of the next day, volcanic debris including ash, pumice, and even small volcanic rocks still on fire, rained down on the city and the citizens. At the time of the eruption, Pompei had about 12,000 inhabitants, all caught in their daily life by the toxic gases and collapsing roofs (Pompei). Roofing material and second stories were destroyed, but oil candles, bedframes, dishware, marble fountains, and even people, were frozen in time, encapsulated in the hot ash. The sudden burial of the city in about 19 to 23 feet (6 to 7 meters) deep of ash and pumice stones preserved Pompei to nearly the state we can see today. Pompei was buried in this volcanic debris and earth material for about 17 centuries which is why the materials and artifacts survived all this time, protected from weathering and vandalism (Jashemski). The site of Pompei was excavated in phases, the first being in 1748. The excavation was interrupted by WWII and bombing damage can be seen on site today. In 1951 excavation was resumed and still today they are carefully uncovering and documenting more of the city (Jashemski).

2. Public spaces

A public space can be defined as the phrase implies: an area that is open to the general public, typically with unresticted access and free of charge. In the case of this discussion, public spaces will include roads, squares, markets, and water features.

2.1 Roads

Both Ostia Antica and Pompei proved the necessity for roads in different types of cities. Ostia Antica was a working port city and Pompei was a luxury destination for the wealthy. Nonetheless, roads were necessary for the movement of goods through the cities and for the constant traveling of people, be that the military or vacationers. As observed in both cities, roads were constructed out of volcanic basalt stones. These large flat surfaces made it easier for carriage wheels to roll over and to clean the roads as seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4: A main road through the city of Ostia Antica.

That said, one of the original versions of crosswalks was created out of necessity for cleaning the streets of Pompei. Horses would pull carriages and goods through the roads and leave messes behind. In order to clean the streets, water from the fountains would be released onto the road to flow downhill and theoretically, the velocity of the water would clean the streets. To allow people to cross the street without getting their feet dirty or wet and to still allow carriages to pass through, large spaced-out stones were used to step across. All equal in height, the width of the stones were exactly the spacing of the carriage wheels. As pictured in Figure 5, three to four stones indicated a two-way street, whereas one to two stones meant it was a one-way street.

Figure 5: The three large stones in the road were the crosswalks of Pompei. The small white stones are pieces of marble embedded in the road.

Also pictured in Figure 5 small pieces of broken marble can be seen in between the large black basalt stones of the roads of Pompei. With at least two-story buildings lining the roads and no electricity, the roads became very dark at night. Thus white marble was added between the stones to reflect the light of torches so the carriage drivers knew where the road and crosswalks were, aka modern-day “reflectors”.

Similar to the necessity for crosswalks, curbs as seen in Figure 6, were used to both separate pedestrian traffic from passing carriages and to direct the flow of water through the streets. In Pompei, some curb stones had diagonal holes carved out of the outside corners to serve as tie locations for horses, or as the tour guides would say, for “parking”.

Figure 6: The stone ledge lined the roads and alleys of Pompei and created curbs and sidewalks.

Just behind the sidewalks, houses, stores, baths, and bars lined the streets. Stores were usually clustered in rows on street sides all similar in size. Looking through the ancient towns of both Osita Antica and Pompei, it is easy to spot a storefront from the entryway stones lining the base of the door frame. A long groove was carved on top of the front white stones as pictured in Figure 7. This groove was the track for a sliding folding door that all small shops and some bars had.

Figure 7: Storefronts line a road in Ostia Antica.

Just as frequent as bathhouses, bars were everywhere in Ostia Antica and Pompei. Beautiful stone counters seen in Figure 8 had built-in basins lined with terracotta to keep cold drinks cold and the same for warm. Behind the counter, stone shelves would display the drinks and, just as today, a bartender would take orders. These locations were of importance for socializing and most bars also had rooms in the back that hid illegal gambling games.

Figure 8: A bar in Ostia Antica with a track for a sliding door.

2.2 Squares & Markets

With no newspaper or blogs to spread news, squares were places of conversation, learning, sharing stories, and spreading rumors between all the different travelers that passed through. Since public squares were made for pedestrians only, carriages could not be used to carry goods across the large open area. For this reason, in Pompei, stores on either end of the square housed a service where slaves would carry recently purchased goods across the square. In Pompei, the main grandiose square as seen in Figure 9 once had a floor covered in large white marble slabs with statues providing shade, giving people a place to gather and hold meetings. Sections of these large marble slabs are still intact for people to walk across in a few parts of the square. This is unique to Pompei compared to Ostia Antica because of the preservation differences. As mentioned previously, Ostia Antica was buried slowly in river silt, which gave time for valuable material, i.e., marble, to be taken and reused in other cities.

Figure 9: The main pedestrian only square of Pompei.

With the same function of socialization as squares, food and goods markets were also a key aspect of both ancient cities. A food market in Pompei had small booths lining the perimeter that were once covered with a slanted roof towards the center. As seen in Figure 10, the center was open air and had stands for the fresh fish brought in from the coast. Similarly in Ostia Antica, just outside of the theatre and to the side of a public square, a marketplace had goods for the public to buy as they browsed down the street. In Figure 11, mosaic tiles depicted what was sold at each booth and the columns indicate that it was once covered as well.

Figures 10 & 11: A food market in Pompei (left). A row of booths for a marketplace in Ostia Antica (right).

2.3 Water

Key to the functionality of a city, public access to water is essential. Water was used for drinking, sewage, fountains, cleaning the roads, and baths in both ancient cities. In Ostia Antica, the main aqueduct brought water into the city, now with one arch remaining as seen in Figure 12. This water was then distributed to public access points, homes, and numerous baths in the city. In Figure 13, the hole in the stone was where water flowed from the aqueduct to lead pipes. This intersection of the water flow allowed the public to gather water for personal use. Lead pipes were used to then distribute the water to ground levels of homes and baths.

Figures 12 & 13: One arch of an aqueduct in Ostia Antica (left). A hole in a short wall to the right of the tree was a water access location in Ostia Antica (right).

Similarly, an aqueduct supplied water to the inhabitants of Pompei with a network of lead pipes that branched out from distribution points to all the homes. The original lead pipes can still be seen, as pictured in Figure 14, due to the immediate preservation of the cityAlmost all the buildings in Pompei were multi-story, however, only the first floor had water access. This was because pipes carrying water to the buildings ran along the street level and there were no pumps or systems in place to bring the water to higher levels. This meant that it was preferable to live on the bottom floor, hence the wealthy lived on the ground level while the slaves and workers lived on the higher floors.

Figure 14: The exterior of a residential building in Pompei shows a lead pipe that once carried water to the home.

Water that flowed from the aqueduct lost pressure as it traveled through the town. In order to regain pressure, simple structures were built with columns on either side of the road with a cross beam connecting over the road. The water was sent up one side of the column, over, and back down to then flow until it reached the next structure to repeat this process. Multiple systems like these lined the road in Pompei where the aqueduct met the town. These structures also had water storage tanks on the crossbeams that spanned the roads and were useful to control the availability of water. As seen in Figure 15, the groove where a pipe directed water can be seen in the stand-alone column on the curb. Also pictured in Figure 15, a public fountain was built right next to the newly gained high-pressure water. This was available to anyone in town and provided a place for the poorer to collect water for their homes.

Figure 15: One column of a structure that spanned over the road to carry water in Pompei.

3. Modern parallels

The public spaces of roads, squares, markets, and public fountains from Pompei and Ostia Antica are all still visible in the city of Rome today. These key elements to the public functionally did not disappear from the ancient cities to modern times. However, over the years there have been significant adaptions as briefly discussed in the following sections.

3.1 Roads

Although still made of cobblestones, instead of large black basalt stones seen in Pompei and Ostia Antica, a significant portion of roads in Rome are constructed from smaller, approximately 4 ¾” (12cm) stone cubes arranged in more uniform rows with earth-fill in between the grooves (Rome’s). Used for road construction beginning in the 1700s, these cobblestones are called “sampietrini” and can be seen in Figure 16 (Rome). Similar to Figure 6 in 2.2 Roads, larger rectangular stones are still used to create curbs that line cobblestone roads.

Figure 16: A cobblestone road is lined by a curb in Rome.

As a tourist in Rome, these smaller cobblestones seem to dominate the city, with your suitcase wheels nearly tearing off and it becomes easy to forget the main arterials that are paved with, smoother, asphalt. These roads came to be when, in 2005, the mayor at the time, Walter Veltroni, requested the removal of a significant portion of the sampietrini. His reasoning was based on their hazardous nature to vehicles, pedestrians, and even monuments, and as an attempt to improve traffic flow (Rome). The mix of road materials can be seen when visiting Rome and the remaining cobblestone roads remind us of the neighboring ancient cities.

Crosswalks in modern Rome have the same purpose as those of ancient times, in the ease for street cleaning, a guided path for pedestrians, and at an appropriate height (flat) for vehicles, and yes still some carriages, to pass over. As everyone is familiar with today, crosswalks are typically painted white stripes on the road indicating the pedestrian pathway. As seen in Figure 17, a street in modern Ostia includes a crosswalk on the flat asphalt road. The rectangular stripes seem to mimic the gaps in the large stones that once connected curbs in Pompei.

Figure 17: A crosswalk painted on an asphalt road in modern Ostia.

3.2 Squares & Markets

What was once intended as a pedestrian only space, public squares now have occasional vehicles, bikes, electric scooters, and Vespas to look out for. During my time abroad in Rome, I observed some squares are kept for pedestrians only but were still designed to allow for emergency vehicles to enter upon needed occasions. However, the heart of public squares, similar to those in Pompei and Osita Antica, still remains in modern Rome. The large open areas are places of congregation, spreading news, enjoying a meal, observing local talented artists, and have eye catching features of statues, obelisks, and fountains. As seen in Figure 18, Piazza di Santa Maria provides a break in the buildings for people to gather around the large fountain centered in the square.

Figure 18: Piazza di Santa Maria is a public square in Trastevere, a neighborhood of Rome.

Markets in Pompei and Ostia Antica were constructed permanently with brick walls separating stalls, brick or marble columns holding up roofs, and mosaics detailing the goods sold. The concept, however, of public markets for buying and selling goods produced locally or imported still thrives in modern Rome. Temporary markets constructed of various stands that are set up and torn down every day provide places, some more focused for tourists, for people to buy souvenirs and fresh groceries. As seen in Figure 19, markets can fill public squares, creating a busy and lively environment. Reminiscent of the permanent nature of markets from the ancient cities, modern day malls reflect the idea of a mix of imported and locally sourced products. Though the appearance of markets has changed, the purpose to provide a location for locals to shop and buy goods without the need to travel to other cities still holds true.

Figure 19: The market of Campo de’ Fiori is busy with vendors right outside the UW Rome Center.

3.3 Water features

Out of Rome’s 11 aqueducts that were once the main supply of running water to the city, only one remains in operation and it feeds the monumental Trevi fountain. In modern Rome, the public drinking fountains and water features are now supplied by mechanical systems or pumps. The water supply method has changed from the times of Pompei and Osita Antica, but there are still numerous public drinking fountains useful for water collection. Beautiful fountains, some original to the era of the ancient cities, are featured in public squares all throughout Rome, as seen in Figure 18 above and Figure 20 below. With modern plumbing, multi-story buildings have water access to all levels and living arrangements are more preferred for the view, thus the higher levels are more valued. Similar systems of pipes also help distribute water to residents and shops but are thankfully not constructed of lead anymore.

Figure 20: A public fountain near the Orto Botanico di Roma provides drinking water for any passerby.

4.0 Final thoughts

Walking through the cities of Osita Antica and Pompei, I found it so intriguing to see the key aspects of cities, that I have grown to know, in the preserved towns of ancient Italy. I immediately started making connections to modern Rome and wanted to compare them more thoroughly. Though discussing Ostia Antica and Pompei, the importance and influence of public spaces is evident in the parallels we see today in Rome. Roads provide the means for traveling, squares and markets give spaces for entertainment and socialization, and water features provide both function and beauty throughout the city.


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