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Excavations of villas where Roman emperors escaped the office are giving archaeologists new insights into the imperial way of life

At Villa Adriana, built by the emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D., these column surrounded a private retreat ringed by water. (Susan Wright Photography)
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In A.D. 143 or 144, when he was in his early 20s, the future Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius set out for the country estate of his adoptive father, Emperor Antoninus Pius. The property, Villa Magna (Great Estate), boasted hundreds of acres of wheat, grapes and other crops, a grand mansion, baths and temples, as well as rooms for the emperor and his entourage to retreat from the world or curl up with a good book.

Which is just what young Marcus did, as he related in a letter written to his tutor, Fronto, during the excursion. He describes reading Cato’s De agri cultura, which was to the gentlemanly farmer of the Roman Empire what Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was to nature lovers in the 19th century. He hunted boar, without success (“We did hear that boars had been captured but saw nothing ourselves”), and climbed a hill. And since the emperor was also the head of the Roman religion, he helped his father with the daily sacrifices—a ritual that made offerings of bread, milk or a slaughtered animal. The father, son and the emperor’s retinue dined in a chamber adjacent to the pressing room—where grapes were crushed for making wine—and there enjoyed some kind of show, perhaps a dance performed by the peasant farmworkers or slaves as they stomped the grapes.

We know what became of Marcus Aurelius—considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors.” He ruled for nearly two decades from A.D. 161 to his death in A.D. 180, a tenure marked by wars in Asia and what is now Germany. As for the Villa Magna, it faded into neglect. Documents from the Middle Ages and later mention a church “at Villa Magna” lying southeast of Rome near the town of Anagni, in the region of Lazio. There, on privately owned land, remains of Roman walls are partially covered by a 19th-century farmhouse and a long-ruined medieval monastery. Sections of the complex were half-heartedly excavated in the 18th century by the Scottish painter and amateur treasure hunter Gavin Hamilton, who failed to find marble statues or frescoed rooms and decided that the site held little interest.

As a result, archaeologists mostly ignored the site for 200 years. Then, in 2006, archaeologist Elizabeth Fentress—working under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania and the British School at Rome—got permission from the property owner and the Italian government to excavate the area and began to make some interesting discoveries. Most important, near the old farmhouse, her team—accompanied by Sandra Gatti from the Italian Archaeological Superintendency—found a marble-paved rectangular room. At one end was a raised platform, and there were circular indentations in the ground where large terra-cotta pots, or dolia, would have been set in an ancient Roman cella vinaria—a wine pressing room.

The following summer, Fentress and a team discovered a chamber shaped like a semicircular auditorium attached to the pressing room. She was thrilled. Here was the dining area described by Marcus Aurelius where the imperial retinue watched the local workers stomp grapes and, presumably, dance and sing. “If there was any doubt about the villa,” says Fentress, “the discovery of the marble-paved cella vinaria and the banquet room looking into it sealed it.”

In all, roman emperors constructed dozens of villas over the roughly 350-year span of imperial rule,from the rise of Augustus in 27 B.C. to the death of Constantine in A.D. 337. Since treasure hunters first discovered the villas in the 18th century (followed by archaeologists in the 19th and 20th), nearly 30 such properties have been documented in the Italian region of Lazio alone. Some, such as Hadrian’s, at Tivoli, have yielded marble statues, frescoes and ornate architecture, evidence of the luxuries enjoyed by wealthy, powerful men (and their wives and mistresses). As archaeological investigations continue at several sites throughout the Mediterranean, a more nuanced picture of these properties and the men who built them is emerging. “This idea that the villa is just about conspicuous consumption, that’s only the beginning,” says Columbia University archaeologist Marco Maiuro, who works with Fentress at Villa Magna.

The villas also point up the sharp contrast between the emperors’ official and private lives. “In Rome,” says Steven Tuck, a classical art historian at Miami University of Ohio, “you constantly see them through their service to the state—dedications of buildings, triumphal columns and arches and monuments.” But battles and bureaucracy are left at the villa’s door. Tuck points to his favorite villa—that of Tiberius, Augustus’ stepson, son-in-law and successor. It lies at the end of a sandy beach near Sperlonga, a resort between Rome and Naples on the Mediterranean coast. Wedged between a twisting mountain road and crashing waves, the Villa Tiberio features a natural grotto fashioned into a banquet hall. When archaeologists discovered the grotto in the 1950s, the entrance was filled with thousands of marble fragments. Once the pieces were put together, they yielded some of the greatest sculptural groups ever created—enormous statues depicting the sea monster Scylla and the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus. Both are characters from Homer’s Odyssey as retold in Virgil’s Aeneid, itself a celebration of Rome’s mythic founding written just before Tiberius’ reign. Both also vividly illustrate man locked in epic battle with primal forces. “We don’t see this kind of thing in Rome,” says Tuck. It was evocative of a nymphaeum, a dark, primeval place supposedly inhabited by nymphs and beloved by the capricious sea god Neptune. Imagine dining here, with the sound of the sea and torchlight flickering off the fish tail of the monster Scylla as she tossed Odysseus’ shipmates into the ocean.

If the imperial villa provided opportunities for Roman emperors to experiment with new images and ideas, then the one that Hadrian (A.D. 76-138) built at Tivoli in the first decades of the second century may be the ultimate in freewheeling expression. Occupying about 250 acres at the base of the Apennine Hills, Villa Adriana was originally a farm. When Hadrian became emperor in A.D. 117, he began renovating the existing structure into something extraordinary. The villa unfolded into a grand interlocking of halls, baths and gathering spaces designed to tantalize and amaze visitors. “This villa has been studied for five centuries, ever since its discovery during the Renaissance,” says Marina De Franceschini, an archaeologist working with the University of Trento. “And yet there’s still a lot to discover.”

Franceschini is especially beguiled by the villa’s outlandish architecture. Take the so-called Maritime Theater, where Hadrian designed a villa within a villa. On an island ringed by a water channel, it is reached by a drawbridge and equipped with two sleeping areas, two bathrooms, a dining room, living room and a thermal bath. The circular design and forced perspective make it appear larger than it is. “The emperor was interested in experimental architecture,” says Franceschini. “It’s an extremely complicated place. Everything is curved. It’s unique.”

What exact statement Hadrian wanted to make with his villa has been the subject of debate since the Renaissance, when the great artists of Italy—including Raphael and Michelangelo—studied it. Perhaps to a greater extent than any other emperor, Hadrian possessed an aesthetic sensibility, which found expression in the many beautiful statues discovered on the site, some of which now grace the halls of the Vatican museums and the National Museum of Rome, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Louvre in Paris.


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