In ancient Rome, the Latin word luxuria represented lavish displays of wealth and power in physical forms like clothing, buildings and banquets. Some decried luxuria as a foreign influence, antithetical to Rome itself, even as Roman leaders like Marcellus and Mark Antony embraced it.
A team with Rome’s Colosseum Archaeological Park has uncovered a pristine mural—crafted of shells, stones, minerals and imported tiles—that serves as an example of luxuria from more than 2,000 years ago. The mural was found in the remains of a Roman house (known as a domus) near the Colosseum.
“This discovery is exceptional for a simple reason: There is nothing else like it from this period in Rome,” Massimo Osanna, director general of museums at the Italian culture ministry, tells James Imam of the London Times. “There is nothing like it even at Pompeii.”
The mural dates to between the first and second century B.C.E. Its intricate designs show weapons and instruments hanging alongside ships and tridents. Archaeologists think a wealthy Roman officer commissioned it after a military success. Osanna tells the Times that “many clues” in the mural could help researchers determine who owned this home.
Whoever the owner was, he may not have stayed wealthy for long. Evidence suggests that his family fell out of favor when the Roman emperor Augustus came to power. The building and its contents were later buried and replaced with a grain store built directly on top of it.
“The owner may have been on the wrong side of politics,” Osanna tells the Times.
The area of the discovery, situated on the Palatine Hill, was home to generations of influential Romans. Earlier this month, the nearby Domus Tiberiana opened to visitors following 50 years of renovations. The palace was built by the emperor Tiberius and was much beloved by his infamous successor, Nero.
“The Palatine Hill has always been the stage of Rome’s power politics,” Giorgio Franchetti, an archaeologist and historian of ancient Rome, tells CNN’s Silvia Marchetti. “There aren’t many places like the Domus Tiberiana where you can really breathe the past.”
The principle of luxuria demonstrated in the mural is evident from its sheer grandeur as well as from small details such as individual Egyptian tiles. Colored glass, marble and a special volcanic stone called pozzolana pull the artwork together. The space around the mural is called a specus aestivus, which is a “vaulted, cave-like room around the home’s atrium that’s used as a banquet hall or entertainment space,” according to Rhea Nayyar of Hyperallergic. Lead pipes in the walls fed into various water features within the room.
“The archaeological excavation will conclude in the first months of 2024,” says Alfonsina Russo, director of the Colosseum Archaeological Park, in a statement, per Google Translate. “We will subsequently work intensely to make this place—among the most evocative of ancient Rome—accessible to the public as soon as possible.”