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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 peninsula.

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 building.

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 tufa blocks.

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. 159).

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.


All text and images copyright © 2002 by Walter Widrig and Rice University. Last updated May 2007 by