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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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At Tiberius’ villa at Sperlonga, a series of rectangular pools, fed by the ocean nearby, lay in front of the grotto. At first they seem merely decorative. But upon closer inspection, one notices a series of terra-cotta-lined holes, each about six inches in diameter, set into the sides of the pools, just beneath the water’s surface. Their likely use? To provide a safe space in which fish could lay their eggs. The villa operated as a fish farm, producing enough fish, Tuck estimates, not only to feed the villa and its guests but also to supply markets in Rome. “It’s fantastic to see this dining space that also doubled as a fish farm,” says Tuck. “It emphasizes the practical workings of these places.”

Maiuro believes that the economic power of the larger villas, which tended to expand as Rome grew more politically unstable, may even have contributed to the empire’s decline, by sucking economic—and eventually political—power away from Rome and concentrating it in the hands of wealthy landowners, precursors of the feudal lords who would dominate the medieval period. “Rome was never very well centralized,” says Maiuro, “and as the villas grow, Rome fades.”

Paul Bennett lived in Italy for five years and has lectured widely on Roman history, archaeology and landscape design.


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