Several years ago, archaeologists in Italy were looking for the starting gates of a third-century villa’s chariot arena when they stumbled upon something unexpected: Built atop the site where the starting gates once stood was a winery.
The space was lavish. Found during excavations at the Villa of the Quintilii, it contained an elaborately decorated grape-treading area, wine presses and cellar for storage and fermentation, according to a research published in the journal Antiquity this week.
The villa, which also had a theater and a baths complex, once encompassed almost 60 acres near the Appian Way, just outside of Rome. It was likely originally built by the Quintilli brothers, who served as Roman consuls in 151 C.E. Three decades later, the Roman emperor Commodus killed them and took possession of the site.
“[The Villa of the Quintilii] was an amazing mini-city completed by a luxury winery for the emperor himself to indulge his Bacchic tendencies,” says lead author Emlyn Dodd, an archaeologist at the British School at Rome and expert on ancient wine production, to the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins.
Based on markings in the cellar, Dodd and his team estimate the winery was added or renovated during the reign of Gordian III, who served as emperor between 238 and 244 C.E. Like the rest of the villa, the winery was sumptuously decorated. “They’re taking it to a bizarre degree of opulence we never see in ancient production facilities,” Dodd tells Andrew Curry of Science.
Surfaces are covered in marble veneer tiling; even the floor of the grape-treading area is made of red marble. This was unusual at the time, as marble becomes extremely slippery when wet. Waterproof concrete was more common—and more practical—in such spaces.
“It shows that whoever built this was prioritizing the extravagant nature of the winery over practical considerations,” Dodd tells the Guardian.
Perhaps the most extravagant feature were three fountains that once flowed with freshly pressed wine. After streaming out from openings in an elegantly tiled facade, the wine snaked its way through open-air marble channels to giant storage jars, where it was fermented.
Nearby, the researchers found what may be a series of dining rooms. They have so far excavated one of the rooms, which is decorated with intricate marble tiling in geometric patterns. Dodd is looking for funding to excavate the other two.
Due to the elaborate decor, researchers think the winery was built primarily as a display of wealth. Plus, unlike several nearby regions, the Rome region wasn’t especially well-known for its wine.
“About an hour’s drive south of Rome there are some very famous terroirs for ancient Roman wine, which are mentioned over and over again and which we know produced very expensive wine,” Dodd tells Patrick Smith of NBC News. This particular winery, however, was “much more about the spectacle than the product being produced,” he adds. “The level of decoration, with these fountains of wine, really shows that.”
The villa may have been a place for rituals celebrating the beginning of the grape harvest, the study authors say.
“It’s absolutely delightful,” Elizabeth Fentress, an independent archaeologist who was not involved with the research, tells Science. “It confirms you had to have [the harvest ritual] happen as part of the calendar.”
In ancient Rome, wine was a source of great wealth for the elite, who dedicated large swaths of land to cultivating grapes and sold their product across the Mediterranean, Dodd tells NBC News. “But at the same time,” he adds, “wine permeates the whole culture and society—it’s used in religion, medicine, in daily life.”