Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Trip to Ostia [May 1463]

LLeaf from Cosmographia showing map of Ostia by Sebastian Munster, published in 1564, German edition.
Munster (1489-1552) was a German mathematician, cartographer, professor of Hebrew and, for a time, monk.

Ostia Antica

A view of the actual ruins of Portus in 1582Veduta delle rovine di Porto nell'anno 1582, al tempo di papa Gregorio XIII (affresco di A. Danti nella Galleria delle carte geografiche del Museo Vaticano).

Ostia Antica

In May 1463, Pius II visited Ostia by boat. He describes the trip in Book 9 of his Commentaries:

"Up to this time Pius II had not seen Ostia Tiberina nor the sea which washes the Roman shore. At the invitation of the Cardinal of Rouen,who was Bishop of Ostia, he embarked with four cardinals at the foot of the Aventine and made a most delightful voyage down the river.

The banks on both sides were green and the month of May clothed all the country with luxuriant grass and many-colored flowers except where there remained traces of ancient ruins, which in many places them in this river bed like walls. When they reached Ostia seven huge fish were presented to them on the shore. These are today called sturgeon and are much prized. We do not know the ancient name, though it has been suggested that they may be the lupi Tiberini. One was said to weigh two hundred and fifty pounds.

The city of Ostia was founded by Ancus, the third king of Rome. The extensive ruins show that it was once large. It lay about a mile from the sea. Ruined porticoes, prostrate columns, and fragments of statues are still visible. There are also the walls of an ancient temple, stripped of their marble, which show it was once a noble work.4 You may see also part of an aqueduct which brought sweet water from a distance to the city. The older and more extensive city walls long ago fell in ruins and the circuit was narrowed to enclose only the cathedral church and a few dwelling houses, some of which were built directly on the aqueduct itself. They say that even these structures were destroyed in our time by Ladislas, King of Sicily. The walls are leveled for the most part.

The church, which must have been of some distinction, has been destroyed by age or violence. Only the upper part with the high altar still stands. Under the altar during the pontificate of Eugenius were found many bones of saints, among them the body of Santa Monica, mother of Aurelius Augustinus, which was taken to Rome and buried in the convent of the Augustinians. The poet Maffeo Vegio erected a marble tomb and adorned it with verses.

The other buildings of Ostia lie in ruins. The episcopal palace was roofed over and partially repaired by Eugenius's chamberlain, Lodovico, but there is no other habitable building except a sort of public tavern and a high, round tower built by Martin V to guard the place, that the harbor dues might not be evaded, and to serve as a watchtower to prevent an enemy making a surprise landing. This, if report is true, was originally much higher than it is now. They say it has settled under the shock of earthquakes and is underground more than a man's height.

Such today is Ostia whose fame was great in antiquity. Only a few fishermen from Dalmatia and the guards of the tower live there. It lies on a triangular tract cut off along two miles by the sea and encircled by the Tiber for an equal distance.

The rest is bounded by a lagoon where there are saltworks. An aqueduct built in antiquity through this lagoon serves today as a bridge and over this a footpath leads straight from Ostia to Rome. Swans lay eggs and rear their young on the bank and in the marsh grass and it is delightful to see and hear the flocks. The lagoon is hardly fifty feet from the Tiber so that it would be easy to turn the peninsula into a real island. At its widest point the lagoon is a stade across and it is no deeper than a man's height. It narrows toward the sea and is like a canal hedged on the sides with trees in which birds sing sweetly. It is not connected with the sea except when the ocean swells and then the sandy shore between the lagoon and the sea is covered with water and the lagoon thus enlarged becomes one with the sea.

The whole peninsula is covered with grass and is suitable for cattle although in many places and especially near the sea it is very sandy. The actual mouth of the Tiber is larger and admits galleys and moderate- sized freighters, though not without some danger as there are said to be only three cubits of water above the sand and the sand itself is continually shifting.

On this account they have to have a steersman who knows the nature of the place (he is called a pilot) and they have to hire him. If anyone omits to do this, his stinginess is punished with shipwreck. They say that Carthage was directly opposite this mouth not more than five hundred miles away and that fresh figs were brought from there to Rome, It was on this account that Cato argued that an enemy of the Roman people so powerful and so near ought to be utterly destroyed.

Juan, Cardinal and Bishop of Porto,(1) when he heard that Pius had gone to Ostia, sailed over to ask him to visit his church too and the Pope accepted. With the cardinals he went on board and was towed upstream. They had scarcely gone two stades when a heated dispute arose as to whether a certain palace was in Ostia or on the island opposite. The Pope said it was in Ostia and so did Gregorio Lolli; the rest held the other view. The sailors and Romans supposed to be familiar with the region were questioned and they said it was on the island. Gregorio and the Vice-chancellor, who were on opposite sides, agreed that the loser should pay a forfeit of the largest sturgeon. The subject was continued till their return with various arguments and no results. Their perplexity and uncertainty was caused by the fact that the river was very winding and the ground, which was practically a continuous meadow between the island and the palace, was so low that from a distance no water could be seen. The question was so difficult to settle that men who rode across the island toward Ostia to within about three stades of the palace still thought it was connected with the island until runners sent to reach the palace found their way blocked by the river and reported Lolli the victor.

Afterward all were able to see the topography for themselves. Two hundred miles above Ostia the Tiber branches; the larger part, which is much the wider, runs to the left toward Ostia, the smaller bends to the right and flows toward the west, whether because such is its natural course or because man has so diverted it.(2)

These two arms of the Tiber encircle a good-sized island with abundant pasturage which is excellent for cattle. On it is the church of Porto.(3) It is unroofed and only the walls and the fine bell tower without its bells are standing. There is no other building on the island, but wherever you dig you find pieces of marble, statues, and huge columns. They say the marbles were brought here from the Ligurian mountains and other regions by traders and offered for sale to the Romans. Scattered about are many rough and unpolished fragments marked on two sides with numerals which, according to Pliny indicate the weight of the stones, but according to others the order of the pieces sent by the merchants, but almost everything has been covered by the rising soil

The island is level and grassy, about ten miles in circumference. In time of peace it is full of herds. At the point in Tuscany where the smaller branch of the Tiber enters the Tuscan sea the Emperor Claudius built a harbor protected right and left by the jetty, with a mole at the entrance where the sea is deep. To facilitate the building of this mole he first sank the ship in which the great obelisk had been brought from Egypt and built on it a lofty tower supported on piles after the manner of the Pharos of Alexandria, that ships might steer by its light at night. There are still traces of this tower which can be seen from far out at sea. Everything else has perished utterly.

The neighboring city of Porto gets its name from the harbor. Whether it was built by Claudius or by Trajan, only the ruins are now to be seen. There is the city gate stripped of its marbles and part of the ruined walls. Traces too can be seen of the pagan temples and the corpses of Christian churches. In the center was a dock said to be the work of Trajan and vulgarly called Trojan instead of Trajan's. It was capable of accommodating many galleys but now it is choked with mud and looks like a lagoon. Once a canal two miles long brought ships from the sea and the harbor and mingled the salt and sweet waters. Of the rows of columns around the lagoon, to which ships used to be moored, some are still standing. Nearby are arches very convenient for storing merchandise and larger workshops suitable for building or repairing ships.

A Roman named Pamachius built an inn here, which St. Jerome commends, but no traces of it are to be seen. The city was once destroyed and then reduced to a mere fortress. This also is now uninhabited. The Cardinal of Porto spread canopies over the ruins of the destroyed city and erected arbors of branches where he received Pope Pius with smiles and flattering words. He talked a great deal about Trajan, saying that he was succeeding him as one Spaniard another.

When Pius returned to Ostia he found that fishermen had caught an enormous dolphin which the servants of the French Cardinal of Rouen had cooked in many different ways and devoured greedily, as they prize very highly this sea fish and consider it one of the sovereigns perquisites. The Italians were disgusted either because of the foul odor or because they had gorged themselves stupid on sturgeon. The catching of a dolphin is said to be the sign of a coming storm.

The next night, May 15, the sea, which during the last few days had been continuously disturbed and rough, became much wilder than usual. A violent tempest arose, a south wind churned the waters to their very depths, huge waves lashed the shore, and you could have heard the ocean groaning and shrieking. The force of the winds was such that it seemed nothing could withstand it. They fought savagely together and seemed now to rout, now to flee from one another. They tore down forests and everything in their path.

The sky flashed with repeated fires, the heavens thundered, and terrible bolts shot from the clouds. One of them struck the tower bringing down a buttress and a bell which came near crushing a monk who was lying there buried in wine and sleep. Herds of cattle were stabled nearby and heifers that had just calved bellowed horribly in their anxiety for their young, either because they were terrified at the thunder or because they were afraid that wolves might attack them in the dark. The utter blackness of the night (though there were frequent flashes of lightning) doubled the terror, and such sheets of water fell that you would have said it was not rain but a deluge, as if the Creator had resolved once more to drown the human race.

Since there were not accommodations in the episcopal palace or the tower for all the attendants of the Pope and the cardinals, many lay under tents and some had gone to bed in the ships. Among the latter were Roman citizens, some of the Pope's household, and Rouen's steward. When with the rising storm winds buffeted the ship and rain filled the hull, in their fear and dismay they did not know what to do.

The steward to escape from water plunged into water and nearly drowned. Being by good luck near the bank he seized hold of a rope and when he shouted for help was finally rescued. He emerged from the river dripping and half dead. One of the Pope's household took the only light in the ship and leapt with it to land. Then the Romans, left in darkness, embraced one another and prayed that they might not be abandoned. They cried that theirs was a most miserable fate if they must die in the dark; they bitterly bewailed their lot and never doubting that their last day had come, entwined in each other's arms and soaked to the skin, they awaited the outcome.

The wind had torn down all the tents. Outside the wall were two tents where the household of the Vice-Chancellor (4) were lodged. These were caught up in a violent whirlwind which snapped the ropes, splintered the poles, and slit the canvas to ribbons. One of the poles fell on the leg of a man lying close by and came near breaking it. Everyone fled from the ruined tents but in the dark they could not see the way. The violence of the storm drove them naked as they were among the thistles with which the place was overgrown and they were wounded by the sharp prickles.

Finally a pitiful sight, covered with blood, stiff with cold, and almost dazed, they reached the Vice-Chancellor who was lying in the palace terrified at the fury of the dreadful storm. When he saw his men had left the tents and come there naked, he did not ask whether they were all safe but where they had left the plate (gold is so much more regarded than a man) and he refused to be comforted till he learned that it was safe. Everyone in the palace was in a panic. There was no one who did not fear for his life except those who had drunk more than usual at dinner or had been lodged in the lowest rooms. These were sunk in deep sleep and heard nothing.

Pius in his room had begun, as was his custom, to dictate to Agostino Patrizzi (5) and for almost an hour thought little of the storm and felt no alarm. But when the fury of the rain increased and the wind buffeted the walls and made them quake and the whole house shook and the roof tiles were torn off and sent flying hither and yon, he began to fear there was danger, and when he looked at the walls and ceiling and saw they were all very old, fearing that they might be rotten and collapse, he bade Agostino get up and call the servants. When they came he said, "Bring me my clothes so that I may go outside."

They said that would be unwise because it was not safe to stay outside in the furious rain and in the palace there was no safer place than his room. But the Pope answered,"You don't know what you are talking about! The wind is easier to bear than a falling house. Dress me at once. I shall have better protection under the sky. The walls are cracking and do you put confidence in a room?" The servants obeyed but when Pius was half dressed the storm suddenly abated and all the winds subsided as if they had been afraid to cause the Pope inconvenience.

The Cardinal of Porto, who had remained in his own city, passed a similar night. When his tent collapsed and was torn to pieces, finding himself out in the open air he covered himself up with his clothing and so got through the storm and that dangerous night. At Rome too there were thunderstorms as severe as those at Ostia. "

1 Carvajal
2 Although Pius is traveling upstream, "left" and "right" branches are here in downstream terms.
3 Cathedral of Santa Rufina.
4 Rodrigo Borgia.
5 Friend of Pius's student days, now reader and secretary

This website is dedicated to Ostia, the harbour city of ancient Rome. Here you will find information for professional archaeologists and historians, for students of Roman archaeology and history, and for interested lay-people. The site is maintained by the Internet Group Ostia (IGO)
History of Ostia: The decline of Ostia;Late antiquity;The middle ages
History of Ostia: From the eleventh century to the present day
Ostia Antica
Le Date della Storia di Ostia a cura di Roberto Gruppo
Photographs of modern Ostia
Notes on the landscape of Ostia and Portus before 1880
Ruins of ancient Ostia