The synagogue at Ostia:
the initial discoveries

View of synagogue aedicula, looking south


In 1961 in the far south-east corner of the quarter outside the Porta Marina at Ostia, the remains of a building were discovered. Based on analyses of masonry techniques, building materials and comparative evidence from other sites at Ostia, the excavator M. Floriani Squarciapino, who led the two excavation campaigns in 1961 and 1962, dated the original edifice to the second half of the first century. Her dating was subsequently confirmed by G. Zappa’s identification of brick stamps. As the excavations were completed, Floriani Squarciapino asserted that a first century synagogue had been discovered. With its clear affiliation to Ostian architecture in general the building was recognized for being without comparison to any other known synagogue building. Its monumental character was taken as a testimony to the high level of integration and economical well-being of the Jews of Ostia.

Plan of first phase with area-letters
(Courtesy of A. Runesson).
Click for enlargement.

According to the excavator’s preliminary excavation report, the earliest building was constructed in opus reticulatum. It included a main hall with broad benches along the walls and a podium. Also included in the original construction were four monumental columns with doors on either side leading into the main hall. The different areas of the building have subsequently been labeled with the letters A-K by L. M. White.

In the fourth century, a major renovation and enlargement of the building included the addition of some areas (A, F and E), the laying out of mosaic floors and the construction of two doors to flank the entrance from A to B. During this renovation phase the doors from area D towards the Via Severiana to the north were blocked, the benches of the main hall removed and additional columns installed in D. From outside and around most of the exterior walls of D, supporting walls were added. Some time later a Torah aedicula on a podium was put up in C3, now partly blocking the south entrance to D. Between the construction of the original building and its renovation in the fourth century, Floriani Squarciapino alleged that there may have been an intermediary phase with a few minor changes, like the division of area B by wooden walls and the laying out of some mosaics. Since no adjacent building or road construction have been identified that might have influenced the original building’s geographical orientation, Floriani Squarciapino suggested that the building was designed from the beginning in an east-west direction for religious purposes, i.e. looking towards Jerusalem from the podium in D. For this she also takes the three doors from B to A into account, two of which were added much later, however. Adding to that the evidence from the Mindus Faustus inscription with its reference to an ark for the holy law (την κειβωτον ανεθηκεν νομω αγιω) which she considered to belong to the synagogue, and the continuity of plan between the earliest and the latter building, Floriani Squarciapino considered it reasonable to assume that the building was designed from the outset for synagogal purposes.

View across the Via Severiana, looking west

The Building’s History and Functions

In 1990, L.Μ. White challenged Floriani Squarciapino’s position. White argued that the original building could not be dated before Trajan (98– 117), or even Hadrian (117–138). Also, in his opinion the original edifice must have been a private two-storey building with street front shops in B1. In addition, and most importantly, according to White all of area D consisted of two stories. During a minor renovation towards the end of the second century, benches and a podium were introduced in D and a dining hall (E) added to the building. Only from then on the building was used as a synagogue. Not before the late third or early fourth century was the building monumentalized by the removal of the first storey floor in D and the addition of columns in C2.

Original Menorah relief from the aedicula,
placed outside the Museum

Thought-provoking as it seemed, White’s reassessment of the building’s history appears beset with a number of incredible assumptions. Under the influence of Runesson’s criticism, he has retracted in several respects. In his later publications he is accepting a date of the original building as early as late Flavian-Trajan, i.e. from the beginning of Domitian’s reign in 81 C.E. Also, he now reaffirms the excavator’s position that the original foundation structures presuppose four columns in C2 and acknowledges that “some sort of colonnade was original.” Nonetheless, White retains his two-storey theory for D and claims that, based on the dating of the capitals, the extant large columns cannot be dated earlier than the end of the first century. The original but no longer extant columns could therefore have been of lower height and could have served the purpose of supporting the first floor ceiling of D. Some support for White’s replacement theory comes from the fact that the capitals of the columns cannot be dated before the first half of the second century. But since the capitals may have been exchanged or added later the assertion of an installment of new and larger column shafts at a later date remains a conjecture. Also, there are no signs of any column foundation enlargements, which one might have expected had such a change in column size been carried out. Runesson had suggested that White’s two-storey theory depended on a misreading of Floriani Squarciapino’s article from the second campaign, namely that there were remains of a staircase under the Torah aedicula. Admitting his misreading, White asserts however, that a staircase under the Torah aedicula never played an important role in his argument for an original two storey structure. Instead, his two “main” arguments have always been (a) the staircase in K (presuming an original connection between K and D) and (b) the second floor window in room D and the brick band in that wall. In Whites scheme the brick band carried the support structure for the upper floor (“its position above a layer of brick in three courses gives the appearance of a second level” [italics mine]).... .

Artistic reconstruction of the Ostia synagogue building in the first phase.

Want to read more? The above text is an excerpt of pages 534-38 from Dieter Mitternacht (2003) "Current Views on the Synagogue of Ostia Antica and the Jews of Rome and Ostia." Pages 521-571 in The Ancient Synagogue. From its Beginnings until 200 CE. (ConBNTS 39), eds Birger Olsson & Magnus Zetterholm, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International. Download the whole article with footnotes, illustrations and bibliography [from here, 23Mb].



Ancient Synagogues

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