Changing Patterns of Communal Dining in the Ostia Synagogue

Recent work by the UT•OSMAP excavations on the Ostia Synagogue have significantly revised previous assumptions regarding the building history and chronology of this important Diaspora Synagogue. The main complex can now be securely dated but is no earlier than the early 3rd cent. CE; it was almost certainly not a Synagogue (or any kind of Jewish edifice) in its initial stages. Two subsequent stages of renovation — one in the mid 4th cent. CE and another at the very end of the 5th cent. — saw the complex first transformed into a Synagogue and then subsequently made over in the opulent “basilical” fashion of the day. Ceramic evidence suggests, moreover, that this building continued in active usage at least through the 6th cent., and thus represents the experience of a large and affluent Jewish community at a crucial moment of transition in the political and social environment of Rome at the end of Late Antiquity. It is this final edifice that is preserved in the excavated remains, including the addition of a monumental Torah Shrine (measuring 2.80 m in width and over 5.50 m in height) with polychrome marble decoration. Beyond the importance of the areas for worship and assembly, each of the final phases of the Synagogue complex contained specific and rather elaborate provisions for dining and other social and commercial activities. Interestingly, the renovation of the building in the final phase included transforming the earlier dining room into a bakery and the addition of a new dining area, with attendant cooking rooms, more than twice the size of the earlier one. Following an archaeological summary of the building’s history and chronology, this paper will focus on the spatial configuration of the dining areas in these two major phases of Jewish usage, with special attention to how the architectural changes reflect different patterns of access and usage within the life of the Synagogue community.