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The ancient Roman villa and its evolution have been favorite topics of investigation for the past several decades.1 However, this investigation has raised more questions than it has answered. Of crucial importance is how we define the term "villa." Is it a residential structure in a non-urban area, a grouping of facilities for processing and storing agricultural produce, or simply land in the country whatever its use, improvement, or extent? Does the term imply rusticity or some degree of luxury? Furthermore, is there any recognizable evolutionary pattern to these matters?

It is to the ancient authors that we must first turn our attention. Here we have a lengthy time span from Cato (B.C. 234-149) to Palladius (5th century A.C.?) but, on the other hand, we limit ourselves geographically to the Italian peninsula. Unfortunately, few villas or farm structures have been excavated in any complete or scientific manner in all of Italy, whereas hundreds of excellent villa excavations have been accomplished in Britain, France, and Germany.2 Therefore, little archaeological evidence can be offered to prove or sustain the Roman agronomers such as Cato, Varro, and Columella.3 The type of rustic farm and its associated activities so extolled by Cato and others is, in large measure, left to one's imagination and romantic fantasies.4 The luxury of villa life indulged in by many Romans and strongly condemned by Cicero and Seneca is more easily visualized if we consider representations of villas which have come down to us from Roman wall paintings and floor mosaics.5 Several imperial or rich patrician villas, including Nero's Golden House on the Esquiline, have been exposed principally because of their lavishness, and these add to our picture of sybaritic country existence.

The concept of otium and the fact that it stems from the Epicurians must be noted if we are to fully appreciate the writings of Horace, Lucretius, Catullus, and in particular Virgil.6 At once we realize this theme is at odds with the stoicism of Cicero and Pliny the Elder. Perhaps we should ask the economic role of farming in Italy, whether practiced by a simple farmer on a small plot of land or a patrician owner of vast estates, and the relationship between profit and stoic attitudes. Several contemporary authorities have carefully calculated the possible investment return from various farm types, but their analysis has been based on the ancient authors rather than archaeology.7 The peace and serenity of the country might be sought by many urban Romans, but surely not at the cost of economic deprivation.

Nonetheless, a city such as Rome with all its congestion, noise, and filth, would not have been especially attractive or conducive to family life on a year round basis. This raises the issue of the villa as a country retreat. To qualify as a retreat, what must be the distance from the city and what kind of domestic accommodation provided? The one category of villa which Columella passes over only briefly is the villa suburbana, possibly because he assumes this type of villa lacks any significant economic function. The area of the Bay of Naples, particularly the outskirts of Pompeii, gives us some idea of the country or suburban retreat both on the scale of extreme luxury (the villa maritimae) and the more restricted convenience of villas with definite farming activities, on occasion a combination of the two as evidenced by the well-known Villa of Mysteries and a few other Vesuvian sites.8For the vicinity of Rome, we must depend upon Pliny's description of his Laurentine villa or Horace's mention of his farm near Tivoli.9 Rescue archaeology and not scientific excavation has been the necessary rule for almost all the Republican and Imperial sites of the Roman campagna until this report. Rescue operations yield little of sociological substance and offer only hints of the range of villa activities over time.

Underlying any consideration of the villa suburbana is the ancient ideal of landscape. For the Roman, landscape was defined as the "man-made" played against "nature" in her rawer states.10 Open space and cultivated fields contrasted with wooded groves and city dwellings or the farm buildings themselves, all are what constitute landscape and the "view." In graded juxtaposition, these elements carry even greater importance because they represent what one would see upon leaving the city or in looking back toward the city from nature's heights or man's concrete terraces. It is through landscape and the view that suburban residences and farms work their magic on Roman sensibilities.

Although we have little knowledge from excavation, a wealth of topographical information for the eastern environs of Rome has been gathered over the years, most recently in the Forma Italiae, vol. 10, a compilation by Lorenzo Quilici under the direction of the Instituto di Topografia del Universita di Roma, and, with various authors participating, the Misurare la terra: centuriazione e coloni nel mondo romano. Citta, agricultura. commercio: materiali da Roma e dal suburbio issued by the Soprintendenza archeologica di Roma. Surface walks with careful observation, collection and analysis also provide much useful material with which to reconstruct ancient Rome's immediate surroundings and associated activities.11 Further work of this kind, unfortunately, is under a real threat from the rapid expansion of the post World War II city. Excavation in any proper sense has become almost impossible as farm land gives way to residential complexes and developments. Time is very much the enemy even with the application of new technology. In this regard, the British World War II aerial photography of Rome and its immediate territory takes us back nicely in time and has proved invaluable, as have the air photographs made by the Italians in 1959 for the purpose of mapping the area.12

It was with the objective of providing more substantial evidence and expanding the work of the topographical surveys around Rome that my colleague Philip Oliver-Smith and I undertook in 1976 the excavation of three potential villa sites 14 kilometers directly east of the city, between the vias Prenestina and Casilina and separated by the path of the very ancient Via Gabina as traced by John Ward Perkins and Anne Kahane in 1964.13 Like many such studies, our original goal of uncovering the full extent of structures on three sites was found to be overly ambitious. However, two sites, Site 10 and Site 11, were thoroughly investigated and the third, Site 13, tested by three trial trenches in fourteen six and one half week field seasons. Our results from excavation, which this publication now reports, were indeed astonishing as to the span of occupation, combination of luxury and rusticity, and the very concept of a suburban retreat. In short, we have been able to document ever-changing social and economic patterns little guessed at in previous work.


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