The baths of Ostia

Baths of Neptune.

Unfortunately no precise figures are available for the population of ancient Ostia. Perhaps the city had just over 20,000 inhabitants, perhaps some 50-60,000. However, we do know one thing for certain: the people of Ostia had ample opportunity to take a bath. Public baths were omnipresent in Ostia, and these were not just places for body care, but also places to meet other people. Business could be done here and marriages could be arranged. It is up  for debate whether the presence of baths in a city was really beneficial to the general hygiene. Of course it is always wise to wash, but the hot environment of the baths was also an excellent breeding ground for bacteria. As people did not practice social distancing while bathing, a gathering at a bath house could quickly turn into a superspreader event. The problem was that most citizens had no other options for taking a bath, as only the filthily rich could afford a private bathroom. In this post I will leave the matter of hygiene aside. Instead I will focus on five large complexes of public baths in Ostia. Most of these have interesting mosaics.

Close to the entrance of the archaeological park visitors will first of all find the baths of the Cisiarii. Cisiarii are coachmen, or to be more precise: men who drive a cisium. A cisium was an open two-wheeled Roman cart which was usually drawn by mules. Next to the baths was a parking area from which the cisia took the Via Ostiensis and drove to Rome and back. The baths themselves date from the second century and were renovated in the second half of the third century. By far the most interesting room of the baths is the frigidarium, the cold water bath. It has a beautiful floor mosaic in black and white, featuring several cisia, mules, coachmen and customers. In the centre a city has been depicted, possibly Ostia or Rome. The cutest detail of the mosaic must be that the names of some of the mules are mentioned. In the picture included in this post we see the names of Pudes (“Modest”) and Podagrosus (“Gouty”) on the left, and at the top the names of Potiscus (meaning uncertain, possibly “Thirsty” or “Inebriated”) and Barosus (“Stupid”).

Baths of the Cisiarii.

If visitors continue their way, they will quickly arrive at the much larger baths of Neptune. These also date from the second century. Some changes to the baths were made at the end of the third century and in the fourth century. The complex consisted of a frigidarium (cold bath), two tepidaria (lukewarm baths) and two caldaria (hot baths), one of which was later abandoned. West of the baths was a large exercise field or palaestra. The baths take their name from a large mosaic in the room south of the cold bath. On it we see Neptune, god of the sea, in a rather invisible chariot that is drawn by four hippocampi. These mythological creatures are a cross between a horse and a fish. More sea creatures have been depicted around the god. Neptune was married to Amphitrite, who is featured on another mosaic, where she can be seen reclining on the back of a hippocampus. In front of her is a hovering Eros with a torch. The Eros is usually identified as Hymenaeus, the god of marriage.

Mosaic with Neptune.

Mosaic with Amphitrite.

The baths of the Forum are also very large. They are alternatively known as the baths of Gavius Maximus (Thermae Gavii Maximi), after the praetorian prefect who had them built around the year 160. Apart from the usual cold, lukewarm and hot baths and an exercise field the complex also had a sweating room (sudatorium) and several dressing rooms (apodyteria). Sunbathing was possible in the room next to the sweating room, which was called a heliocaminus. During my last visit to Ostia the baths were unfortunately closed to the public, but it should generally be possible to explore them. Regretfully visitors will not find any mosaics in these baths, apart from a nice mosaic of a snake and an ibis in the sweating room.

Baths of the Forum.

Next, in the far southwest of Ostia, we find the baths of the Porta Marina. Ostia had three important city gates. Apart from the aforementioned Porta Marina near the sea, these were the  Porta Laurentina and Porta Romana, where the roads to Laurentum and Rome commenced. The baths of the Porta Marina were situated outside the city walls. In Antiquity they were actually on the beach, but nowadays the sea is some 2.5 kilometres further to the west. The Jewish synagogue of Ostia stood just east of the baths. A very interesting element of the baths of the Porta Marina is the polychrome mosaic floor of the frigidarium. While the baths themselves probably date from 138-139, the floor was laid in the fourth or fifth century. The western part of the frigidarium has a separate mosaic floor that features several athletes. The athletes are practicing a number of sports that would in reality have been practiced on the large palaestra north of the baths. We see boxing, wrestling, the long jump and discus throwing. In the middle is a table with prizes for the winners, a palm branch and crown. In front of the table lies a rather conspicuous object, which looks a lot like a modern football.

Baths of the Porta Marina.

Mosaic in the Baths of the Porta Marina.

Lastly, I will dedicate a few words to the baths of the Seven Sages, which are located in the western part of the city. The baths have been named after frescoes of the Seven Sages of Greece. Unfortunately, of the seven only Solon, Thales, Chilon and Bias have been preserved. The names of the Sages have been written down in Greek, with rather vulgar texts about defecation in Latin above that. Apparently at some point the room served as a latrine. Regretfully it is not possible to get a closer look at the frescoes. They are probably too vulnerable for that. What is visible is a large mosaic in a conspicuous circular room of the baths. Initially it may have been used for markets, but later the room was turned into a frigidarium, which explains the presence of a drain. The mosaic dates from the second or third century. It shows us a hunting scene with several different wild animals, including tigers, stags and boars.

Part of the Baths of the Seven Sages.

Floor in the Baths of the Seven Sages.

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