June 18, 2011

Imperial Rome and Ostia

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Available on iTunes and OU Podcasts

Moving away from the Open University’s Myth series, these podcasts look at how Rome (together with its port colony Ostia) was built and functioned. There are 14 videos in the series and one introductory audio podcast. The podcast files are prefixed with non-contiguous numbers, so I think that the released episodes are only part of a larger series. The videos are in documentary format with shots of a large model of Rome for context interspersed with contemporary scenes of the sites and talking heads. The podcasts range from under 2 minutes (12MB) to over 11 minutes (128MB) all recorded at 640×480 resolution, or a smaller iPod optimised format. Transcripts are available in PDF format.

The videos can be split in three rough categories. There are episodes on Rome: how it was constructed, aqueducts; the Aurelanic wall; how the population was fed; the water system; and some industry, mainly fulleries. Then there are some podcasts on Ostia, its warehouses, insulae and baths. The last videos focus on a couple of Rome’s monumental buildings, namely the Pantheon and the Baths of Caracalla.

At its peak, Rome had a population of around a million people – the largest western city in history until London and Paris in the 18th century. The Romans were not known for their invention, but they were good developers of existing technology and very organised. To maintain the large population aqueducts were used to bring in water, while sewers took the waste out (although urine was used in the fulleries. Grain and other goods were transported up the Tiber on barges from Ostia after arriving there from around the Mediterranean. Only the rich could afford horses and carts were banned in Rome during daylight. Thus the size of the city was dictated by walking distance. To fit the large population the city had to built upwards. Many people lived in apartment blocks called Insulae (which means “island” in Latin). Upto six stories tall, the better apartments were at the bottom, as these were nearer the water supply, involved less stairs and were safer in the event of a fire.

The standard Roman building method used thin bricks combined with concrete. This technique allowed them to build strong buildings. The Baths of Caracalla is a massive building able to serve thousands of bathers at a time. It had a large dome over the caldarium (hot room), underfloor heating and furnaces and large windows (unusual in older buildings). The Pantheon at a diameter of 43 metres is still the worlds largest concrete dome. It is constructed using marble from all over the world – publicly demonstrating the Emperor’s power. The portico’s 12 metre tall columns are each from a single block of stone quarried in Egypt. Peculiarly, if the columns were 15 metres tall then the portico would better integrate with the rotunda. It is theorized that the columns were originally supposed to be taller, but that it was too difficult produce and transport such columns to Rome – thus necessitating the mismatch between portico and rotunda.

Many interesting details on the functioning of a Roman city – recommended.


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