Chapter 1: The Via Gabina Sites in Context
In looking at the field surveys conducted east of Rome, especially those of
Quilici and Ward Perkins/Kahane, one is struck by the number of late Republican
and early Imperial sites identified as independent villas as well as their close
proximity one to another.14 If we consider
these sites in their relationship to the natural boundaries established by the
terrain, even the field divisions of today where the ancient sites still lie
within farm tenute, we realize that the villas represent holdings of
land of between two and twenty hectares.15
In other words, the size of these villa sites is not very different from many
19th and 20th century suburban residential estates of the well-to-do. We have
country living, but with neighbors often no more than a stone's throw away --
a situation little resembling agrarian isolation or otium in its more extreme
form, or any attempt at latifundia with the extensive use of slave labor.
Instead, we have a 19th or 20th century garden city utopia with Rome itself
a kind of hub or anchor. Where the ancient pattern perhaps differs from many
contemporary models is that some of the villas must have been only secondary
residences, truly retreats from the congestion of the city, whether for a day
or for longer periods of rural relaxation. At the same time, these residential
land holdings were sufficient in size to offer the potential of agricultural
surplus and therefore some economic gain. Two to twenty hectares of land on
the periphery of Rome, if intensively cultivated, today would be called a "truck
farm." Residential structures are not an issue except for the designation
of suburb, garden city or, in antiquity, "villa."
However, the surveys and other current literature can be misleading in two
respects: a) the dating and calculation of the time span for the occupation
of any given site from surface finds alone, and b) the identification of the
great majority of sites as independent villas with some sort of residential
or domestic accommodation. Linked to these matters are questions of economic
viability which only excavation can answer. We must not assume the preference
of residence over profit necessarily remains constant in the time span represented
by the occupation of any site or, for that matter, the possible interaction
between adjacent sites. We should expect shifts in the social and economic patterns
of villa life on the outskirts of Rome to reflect certain historical developments
or special circumstances found either locally or even throughout the Italian
To choose sites for test cases was not an easy assignment. The usual considerations
of present-day land ownership, official permissions, and the status granted
to a foreign team by the Italian authorities all figured into our site selection.
But to fulfill the goals of our particular study we needed assurance of easy
access in antiquity to the city markets for possible agricultural surplus. Knowledge
of the pathway of the ancient Via Gabina from the Ward Perkins/Kahane survey,
and awareness that produce from sites bordering this roadway could easily reach
Rome or, in the reverse direction, Gabii just 3 kilometers away, focused our
attention on the thirty five sites enumerated and documented in this survey.
From its list, we chose Site 10, Site 11, and Site 13 for excavation. I would
like to quote here from the Ward Perkins/Kahane entries:16
10. 042392 (Site of main building). Substantial Roman villa occupying the
plateau between the Fosso di Tor Bella Monaca and its nameless eastern tributary,
south of the ancient road cutting at Pt. 61 and north of the boundary of the
modern estate. The earlier material found by us came from the area nearer
the road, but this may indicate no more than this part was free of buildings.
The main buildings lay nearer the boundary fence, where air photographs indicate
a rectangular building some 100 x 100 meters in extent. When seen by us in
1964 the floor levels seems to have been largely intact except at one point,
and the pottery remains were proportionately scarce. When revisited in 1972
it was rapidly reverting to thick grass and weeds.
This is Site J of Coste (1971, 84, note 65), who records two brick stamps
of first century type, two Hadrianic and one of uncertain type. To this may
be added two found by ourselves, one early (CIL, XV, 1: 1315a) and one Hadrianic
(ibid. 578a). Schutzmann-Bolzon (1972, 33) indicates the site of the main
Although the evidence available indicates occupation from Republican times
well into or through the second century A.D., one would need more domestic
pottery to feel any confidence that it did not remain in occupation thereafter.
Archaic coarse ware.
BIG (2); TS (2); RP (2, unidentifiable); beaker, incl. thin-walled; Roman
coarse ware. Amph.; dolium. Tile, incl. flue-tile and two brick stamps, one
of which is early (CIL, XV, 1: 1315a) and the other Hadrianic (CIL, XV, 1:
578a). Window glass. Tiny white cube tesserae in matrix and large grey cube
tesserae. Op. sig. Tufa reticulate. Chips of travertine. Marble veneer, incl.
grey Luni (slab with moulding and op. sectile) , Karystos, Phrygian, Numidian
(moulding), Chios marble, pale alabaster, rosso antico, fior di pesca (from Euboea), coarse and fine grained marmo scritto (Greek) and Skyros.
11. 043398. The ploughed-out remains of a Roman building situated on the
western edge of the slopes overlooking the nameless tributary of the Fosso
di Tor Bella Monaca, 500 meters south-southeast of the Palazzetto Lanza, in
the angle between the modem track way that runs down from the Palazzetto and
that which climbs the hill to cross it from the west, at Pt. 67. In the same
angle there is a small electrical distributing tower. The buildings may have
extended some distance northwards and eastwards, across the modern track.
In 1964 we could only record some ploughed-out blocks and a thin scatter
of shards and tile. Since then the site has been more deeply ploughed. Substantial
remains are recorded by the Gruppo Archacologico for Tor Angela (Schutzmann-Bolzon
1972, 33); and in the autumn of 1972 we noted blocks of worked tufa of various
qualities, including two large blocks measuring 1.80 x 0.86 x 0.34 metres,
as well as a substantial scatter of building materials from a structure with
red painted plaster walls and floors of black and white tesserae and opus
spicatum. The associated pottery collected by us ranges from possibly archaic
coarse ware to the second century A.D., but not much later.
Possibly archaic coarse ware.
BIG (6); TS (3); RP (3, of which 2 are identifiable: early second to early
third century); beaker (2); 'rilled' ware; Roman coarse ware. Amph. Tile. Small
black and white cube tesserae. Op. spic. Red painted wall plaster. Numerous
13. 045398. Site of a Roman building and adjacent cemetery, 500 meters south-east
of the Palazzetto Lanza and about 100 meters north of the modem track to the
Pecoreccia Tor Angela. It occupied the flat crest projecting northwards between
two shallow depressions, which unite to form the head of a small left-bank
tributary of the Fosso di Tor Angela.
When seen by us in 1964 the site had been ploughed, but not it seems deeply
enough to disturb the floor levels, and we noted it then as a concentration
of material from what may have been a small Roman villa. Coste (1971, 78,
Site B) records the discovery here in 1968, no doubt as the result of deeper
ploughing, of: '3 o 4 buche profonde 1.50 m. circa. In una di esse si trovava
ancora un sarcofago tufacco, intorno al quale giacevano frammenti di tipici
oggetti funerari. Sulle pared delle buche vi erano tracce di conchiglie decorative.'
There was also a well, 20 meters deep, and west and south of it a large area
of building material, bits of mosaic and painted plaster, and fragments of
marble sculpture. Of the 34 legible brick stamps, 21 were of the first century
type, only 9 being Trajanic-Hadrianic, and 4 post-Hadrianic down to Caracalla.
The well, the cemetery and the area of surface finds are shown by Schutzmann-Bolzon
(1972,33).When revisited by us in 1972 the superficial remains suggested that much
of the building may still lie buried. Most of the pottery was found lying
down the slopes to the west and north-west.
The evidence appears to indicate a small but quite well-to-do villa on a
site that was already occupied in Republican times; it was rebuilt in the
first century A.D. and was repaired or enlarged in the first half of the second
century. Seemingly abandoned in the third century, some part of it was reoccupied
in the sixth.
Archaic coarse ware (2). Archaic dolium.
BIG (3); TS (12); RP (33, of which 10 are identifiable: 80/90 to mid third
century; mid-sixth century); beaker, incl. barbotine (2); 'rilled' ware; Pompeian
red ware (2); colour-coated ware; Roman coarse ware. Amph. Tile, incl. triangular
imbrex, and part of a stamp reading: OFPVL (or B) ... / ... OL . . .' Crescent-shaped
lamp handle, with a relief figure of Jupiter (as H.B. Walters, Catalogue of
Greek and Roman Lamps in the British Museum, 1914, p. 129, nos. 854-7, fig.
Small white and grey cube tesserae, incl. a fragment in matrix. Op spic.; op sig. Domestic and window glass. Fragment of Luni marble (1.5 cm. thick)
carved in low relief with the wing of an Eros or Victory (from a sarcophagus?).
Red, purple, yellow and blue painted wall plaster. Tufa reticulate and building
debris. Marble veneer and paving, incl. Karystos, Numidian, Chios (portasanta),
and green porphyry; a Luni veneer moulding; several tiles of simple geometrical opus sectile.
Glazed medieval spout.
These three sites lie within what is called today the Tenuta di Tor Bella Monaca
or Tor Angela, a large tract of land put together as a single residential farm
estate, in other words a huge villa complex, by Romolo Vaselli in the early
20th century and still held but not occupied by his heirs. Some peripheral property
has been sold to developers, but in the main the land holding is intact and
continues to be worked as a farm.
At this point, luck and good fortune took over. The superb cooperation and
help we received on both sides of the Atlantic made our efforts at uncovering
Rome's suburban past not only rewarding but pleasant indeed.17
A deep debt of gratitude is owed our crew of more than two hundred persons,
mostly student diggers, over the years 1976-1989. Also, our thanks go to the
many donors who provided funding for the project and, of course, thanks to our
sponsor Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Before going on to discuss our sites one by one, it would be well to comment
briefly on the growing season and climate of Rome and its immediate area. Although
a temperate climate, the number of harvests per year is limited to two at most,
unlike the three to four of the Vesuvian region to the south. Winters can be
cold and rainfall is heaviest then and in early spring. I believe one is safe
in attributing present-day conditions to the past and in presuming that there
has been little change in the kind of crops or herds which the relatively fertile
volcanic soil is able to support: olives, grapes, legumes, grain, and grasses
for herds, primarily sheep and goats. Even with the many centuries of cultivation,
the land is by no means worn out. Despite what some ancient authors claim, the
territory of Latium, especially that part east of Rome, would have been reasonably
productive so long as there was a system of crop rotation and resting of fields,
as there is today.18 The need for fertilizers
would have depended upon how astute the farmer was at rotation, fallowing, and
combination cropping. Irrigation raises other questions as we shall see.19
The more productive fields of the Tenuta di Tor Bella Monaca/Tor Angela now
are regularly irrigated from an underground aquifer using electric pumps as
the means of raising the water. In antiquity we need to look for other kinds
of equipment to obtain water from standard wells tapping the same aquifer. These
are all issues on which our excavation of the three Gabina sites was able to
shed light and thus carry our knowledge in new directions. I don't mean to imply
that all is fact with no speculative interpretation; as always, conclusions
must be looked at with caution and care.