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Chapter 10: Speculations

Because our excavated Villas and Horreum/Barn reveal twelve hundred years of suburban development with ever evolving patterns of economic and social change, one is tempted to speculate and generalize on causes and special circumstances. Simple farms with limited land holdings from the Republican era become in the early Empire surprisingly luxurious suburban retreats or secondary residences. This transformation may well indicate a change of ownership, but little, if any, augmentation of tillable land for each newly created estate. In fact, just the opposite may occur. More well-to-do Romans seem intent on participating in the otium of the country and hence would compete for aquiring land outside Rome however limited its boundaries.91

As land becomes dearer, very specialized agricultural industry comes to the fore in the Trajanic/Hadrianic period. Is this a matter of opportunism or a need to enhance one's income? At both the Site 10 Villa and that at Site 11, the facilities installed for the processing of wine and olive oil are substantial enough for commercial profit. The question raised is: can the small land holdings of these suburban retreats provide enough grapes and olives to fully utilize the new processing facilities? Might it be that owners begin to enter into cooperative agreements, in other words form "cooperatives," to maximize profit and to make mechanical presses commercially viable.92

About c. 180 A.C. the balance between residential concerns and agricultural industry shifts to favor commercial enterprise. Yet those parts reserved for habitation at both the Site 10 Villa and Site 11 Villa continue to exhibit much visible luxury (the mosaics of Site 10's Phase 2D and 11's bath suite and new decorations of Phase 2B/C) even if considerable ground floor footage has become industrialized.

All changes drastically in the 2nd or 3rd decade of the 3rd century A.C. Both villas are abruptly abandoned if not leveled. The problems and chaos affecting Rome in the 3rd century hardly seem the cause. Rather I believe it had to do with confiscation by the Roman State of the farm lands bordering the course of the Aqua Alexandriana. Local land owners could easily have tunneled through the tufa bedrock to draw off water for the irrigation of their cultivated fields. The result would perhaps have been to destroy the aqueduct's natural flow. Therefore confiscation and abandonment makes sense for these nearby villas. Besides, we know the State and its reigning emperors were indeed greedy.93 Yet these estates do not seem to have been returned to agricultural production. In other words they would have existed in a kind of limbo for close to a hundred years.

The Horreum/Barn at Site 10, if the dates for construction I put forth are correct, means these lands are finally returned to agriculture at least by the early 5th century A.C. But the crop is now wheat and not the luxury production of wine and oil. Also the size of the Horreum/Barn would indicate the harvest from a very large tract of land. Cattle and sheep, too, might have been a factor.

The 4th and 5th centuries A.C. brought the end of most of the Mediterranean grain trade. Without providing grain from local sources the citizens of Rome could well have starved in large numbers. The capital had shifted from Rome to Milan (c. 350) and then Ravenna (420) by the early 5th century. Also Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410 A.C.

Not only had the population of Rome declined but so, too, had the authority of the Roman State. The Papacy became Rome's real ruler and the humanitarian agent for the care of its citizenry. The question thus raised is: do these suburban lands of sites 10, 11 and 13 and our Horreum/Barn at Site 10 represent one of the first of the Papal estates which we know surrounded Rome. The land representing the Tor Bella Monaca and Tor Angela are Church related properties in the 13th century A.C.94 When Church properties become private can not be easily established. But the present-day ownership of the lands of the Tenuta Tor Bella Monaca / Tor Angela by the Vaselli family prove this final transformation does take place. Are these lands again going to revert to State ownership because of Rome's ever greater need for high-rise housing for its expanding population?

True, this summary is speculative. But we should remember it is based on the facts of excavation.95 It can be refuted only if new information comes to light from a reexamination of the literary evidence or from further scientific excavation in the area. Rescue operations will help little to confirm or go beyond what our work on two Villas and a Late Antique Horreum/Barn has provided for study and consideration by the historians of suburban Rome.


Professor Emeritus Walter M. Widrig
Rice University, Houston, Texas, U.S.A.
Co-Director of the Via Gabina Excavations

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