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Bill Thayer

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Building Morale and Loyalty:
Shrine to the Emperors in a Busy Port

[image ALT: A field of weeds enclosed by ruined brick walls; at one end, a slightly raised marble podium about ten meters wide and four meters deep, with several statue bases with deeply engraved marble inscriptions. It is the Caserma dei Vigili of Ostia Antica, looking towards the Augusteum.]

This is one time when a short movie would be useful to give you a spatial feel for this place. This weedy field we're standing in is the main courtyard of the Firemen's Barracks in Regio II, and over three-quarters of it is in fact behind us. We've approached the western end, or more precisely, the WSW end of the barracks, having passed to our right and left, walls and rooms of various types: sleeping quarters, latrines, offices, store-rooms, everything a 400‑man contingent of firemen might need. This was Ostia's main fire station in the 2c A.D.: you must imagine the building at least one story taller all around you, maybe two; but this central courtyard was open to the sky, as it is today.

At the end of the main axis, this raised dais: a shrine to the Roman emperors, similar in function to the portrait of the Queen and her coat-of‑arms in a British police station, or to Old Glory and the photo of the President in a U. S. government building.

[image ALT: A close-up of the previous photo. In the foreground, a somewhat damaged mosaic showing what appears to be a man wrestling a bull (see my text). Behind it, two steps up to a narrow platform with six more or less cubical inscribed marble blocks, probably statue bases. It is the Augusteum of the Caserma dei Vigili of Ostia Antica.]

[image ALT: A deeply carved inscription, incised on hard stone, a little over one meter high.]
The ceremonial and religious aspect is much stronger here than in our own times, though: some type of actual religious worship was conducted here, and prayers offered for the safety of the emperor and the well-being of the empire. The mosaic at the foot of the podium shows the sacrifice of a bull and suggests that this space may have seen such sacrifices from time to time.

Behind it, part of the fixtures for this emperor worship: dedicatory inscriptions — they are particularly handsome and well cut — to a series of 2c‑3c rulers. They probably served as bases for their statues, now destroyed, lost, or unidentified in one of hundreds of museums or private collections.

The inscription on the left, for example, is dedicated to Septimius Severus (193‑211), even though he appears to be disguised as Marcus Aurelius: trust me. . . and in essence thanks him for having restored the police and fire departments of Ostia: the do-nothing reign of the dissolute and narcissistic Commodus (177‑192) must have been very bad for morale in the armed services, and the firemen of Ostia were glad to have a serious emperor again.

What do these inscriptions say? Take a detailed look at one of the most attractive of them.

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Page updated: 13 Jun 03