Thursday, October 04, 2012

The builders of Roman Ostia: Organisation, status and society

By Janet DeLaine

Proceedings of the First International Congress on Construction History, Madrid, 20th-24th January 2003

English: Ancient Roman mosaics in Ostia Antica
Ancient Roman mosaics in Ostia Antica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Introduction: Direct documentary evidence for the organisation of the ancient Roman construction industry, and for the social and economic status of builders and their place in society, is very limited compared with what is available for the Renaissance and later periods. Together with occasional and entirely incidental mentions in literary sources, there is a small body of legal precepts relating to building contracts, and a slightly more substantial corpus of inscriptions relating to individuals engaged in the construction industry. Many of the latter are funerary epitaphs, but they also include documents relating to the collegium of the fabri tignuarii (the association of builders), which give lists of names of members or are dedications to or by the main magistrates of the collegium. Attention has largely focused on the evidence from the city of Rome, but the study has been hampered by the difficulty we have in associating the collegium and its members with any specific projects. Even in the high imperial period, discussion is inevitably reduced to generalisations, as only the quite exceptional building projects of the emperors are at all well-preserved, while the documentary sources are too fragmentary to say anything useful about the social structure of the collegium.

At Ostia however the data is much more self-contained. This is partly due to the rebuilding of most of the city during the course of the second century AD, using a distinctive technique of rubble concrete faced with brick or brick and reticulate. For much of this it is possible to determine remarkably precise construction dates, based on the use of bricks stamped with a date which is most likely the year of their manufacture. The resulting micro-chronology allows us to think of these building projects as events in real time originating in individual human actions and choices, most evident in the details of construction and the materials employed.