Home Away From Rome

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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Hadrian traveled frequently, and whenever he returned to Italy, Tivoli became his preferred residence, away from the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill. Part business, part pleasure, the villa contains many rooms designed to accommodate large gatherings. One of the most spacious is the canopus—a long structure marked by a reflecting pool said to symbolize a canal Hadrian visited in Alexandria, Egypt, in A.D. 130, where his lover Antinous drowned that same year. Ringing the pool was a colonnade connected by an elaborate architrave (carved marble connecting the top of each column). At the far end is a grotto, similar to that at Sperlonga but completely man-made, which scholars have named the Temple of Serapis, after a temple originally found at Alexandria.

Today, the canopus and grotto may look austere, but with the emperor seated there with up to 100 other diners around the pool, it must have been something to see. A network of underground tunnels some three miles long trace a labyrinth beneath the villa, which allowed servants to appear, almost magically, to refill a glass or serve a plate of food. The pool on a warm summer night, reflecting the curvilinear architrave, was surely enchanting.

Standing at the grotto today, one can barely see the line made by two small aqueducts running from a hillside behind the grotto to the top of this half-domed pavilion. Water would have entered a series of pipes at its height, run down into walls and eventually exploded from niches into a semi-circular pool and passed under the emperor. Franceschini believes the water was mostly decorative. “It reflected the buildings,” he says. “It also ran through fountains and grand waterworks. It was conceived to amaze the visitor. If you came to a banquet in the canopus and saw the water coming, that would have been really spectacular.”

Hadrian was not the only emperor to prefer country life to Rome’s imperial palace. Several generations earlier, Tiberius had retired to villas constructed by his predecessor Augustus. Installing a regent in Rome, the gloomy and reclusive Tiberius walled himself off from the world at the Villa Jovis, which still stands on the island of Capri, near Neapolis (today’s Naples hills). Tiberius’ retreat from Rome bred rumor and suspicion. The historian Suetonius, in his epic work The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, would later accuse him of setting up a licentious colony where sadomasochism, pederasty and cruelty were practiced. (Most historians believe these accusations to be false.) “Tradition still associates the great villas of Capri with this negative image,” says Eduardo Federico, a historian at the University of Naples who grew up on the island. Excavated largely in the 1930s and boasting some of the most spectacular vistas of the Mediterranean Sea of any Roman estate, the Villa Jovis remains a popular tourist destination. “The legend of Tiberius as a tyrant still prevails,” says Federico. “Hostile history has made the Villa Jovis a place of cruelty and Tiberian lust.”

Perhaps the best-known retirement villa belonged to the emperor Diocletian (A.D. 245-316), who ruled at the end of the third century and into the fourth. Besides his tireless persecution of Christians, Diocletian is known for ending a half-century of instability and consolidating the empire—before dividing it into eastern and western halves (thereby setting the stage for the rise of the Byzantine Empire). Much of this work involved quelling rebellions on the perimeter and keeping the ever-agitating senatorial class under control. By A.D. 305, at the age of 60, Diocletian had had enough. In a bold, unprecedented move—previous emperors had all died in office—he announced his retirement and sought refuge in a seaside villa on the coast of Dalmatia (today’s Croatia).

Now called Diocletian’s Palace, the ten-acre complex includes a mausoleum, temples, a residential suite and a magnificent peristyle courtyard complete with a dais and throne. Even out of power, Diocletian remained a force in the empire, and when it fell into chaos in 309, various factions pleaded for him to take up rule again. Diocletian demurred, famously writing that if they could see the incredible cabbages he’d grown with his own hands, they wouldn’t ask him to trade the peace and happiness of his palace for the “storms of a never-satisfied greed,” as one historian put it. He died there seven years later.

Located in the modern city of Split, Diocletian’s Palace is one of the most stunning ancient sites in the world. Most of its walls still stand; and although the villa has been looted for treasure, a surprising number of statues—mostly Egyptian, pillaged during a successful military campaign—still stand. The villa owes its excellent condition to local inhabitants, who moved into the sprawling residence not long after the fall of Rome and whose descendants live there to this day. “Everything is interwoven in Split,” says Josko Belamaric, an art historian with the Croatian Ministry of Culture who is responsible for conservation of the palace. “It’s so dense. You open a cupboard in someone’s apartment, and you’re looking at a 1,700-year-old wall.”

Belamaric has been measuring and studying Diocletian’s Palace for more than a decade, aiming to strike a balance between its 2,000 residents and the needs of preservation. (Wiring high-speed Internet into an ancient villa, for instance, is not done with a staple gun.) Belamaric’s studies of the structure have yielded some surprises. Working with local architect Goran Niksic, the art historian realized that the aqueduct to the villa was large enough to supply water to 173,000 people (too big for a residence, but about right for a factory). The local water contains natural sulfur, which can be used to fix dyes. Belamaric concluded that Diocletian’s estate included some sort of manufacturing center—probably for textiles, as the surrounding hills were filled with sheep and the region was known for its fabrics.

It’s long been thought that Diocletian built his villa here because of the accommodating harbor and beautiful seascape, not to mention his own humble roots in the region. But Belamaric speculates it was also an existing textile plant that drew the emperor here, “and it probably continued during his residence, generating valuable income.”

In fact, most imperial Roman villas were likely working farms or factories beneficial to the economy of the empire. “The Roman world was an agriculturally based one,” says Fentress. “During the late republic we begin to see small farms replaced by larger villas.” Although fish and grains were important, the predominant crop was grapes, and the main product wine. By the first century B.C., wealthy landowners—the emperors among them—were bottling huge amounts of wine and shipping it throughout the Roman Empire. One of the first global export commodities was born.


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