COME AND EXPERIENCE LA DOLCE VITA IN OUR RIDICULOUSLY WONDERFUL
COME AND EXPERIENCE LA DOLCE VITA IN OUR RIDICULOUSLY WONDERFUL
LEGEND VERSUS SCIENCE
Legend has it that the city of Rome, founded in 753 BC, began with an abundance of male inhabitants and a significant shortage of female ones. And so it came to pass, legend tells us, that the Roman men invited the people of the northern neighboring Sabina region to a celebration, where upon the men of Rome kidnapped all of the young and attractive Sabine women to make them their wives. War is said to have then ensued, followed by a peace which would see for a time a dual kingship of the newly formed Roman city; the two kings being Romulus, leader of Rome, and Titus Tatius, leader of the Sabine people. It is subsequently said that, were it not for this union between the two, the city of Rome would not have gone on to achieve all that it did in the centuries that followed.
Historical records, however, are somewhat in disaccord with this legend, with evidence showing that it was not until the year 290 BC that the Sabine people were finally conquered by the Roman state at the hands of General Manius Curius Dentatus. Some areas of the territory of the Sabina were then confiscated and shared among the Roman soldiers, and the Sabine people were granted Roman citizenship, albeit without the right to vote in Roman elections. It was only twenty-two years later, in 268 BC, that voting rights were finally afforded to the people of the Sabina, making them the first non-Latin-speaking people to be so afforded. And, thereafter, there finally came to pass between the two nations an amicability somewhat akin to that depicted in the legend.
Numerous families of the Roman Aristocracy would later come to claim Sabine descent, including the family Claudii, whose members included the emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. And, in fact, even the founder of Rome’s second imperial dynasty, Vespasian, hailed from the Sabine region. However, many questions have remained unanswered regarding the conquest of the Sabina (latin name: Sabinium), including how the political shift that began in 290 BC affected the settlement patterns of the region, whether the Roman people themselves began thereafter to settle within the territory, and what economic ties existed thereafter between the Sabina and the city of Rome.
THE SABINA TIBERINA
Today, the territory which originally encompassed ancient Sabinium is located to the north east of Rome and goes by the name of the Sabina. It is an area which now spans parts of the modern regions of Lazio, Umbria, and Abruzzo, and is made up of a largely mountainous country, planted primarily with olive groves and dotted with dozens of picturesque Medieval hilltop villages, and which, due to its unlevel terrain, is serviced by a winding network of roads with numerous sharp bends that at times render car travel quite slow. The Sabina is divided roughly in half by the Sabine Hills, a quite formidable mountain range running south to north and forming the foothills of the Apennines. The western boundary of the Sabina is the Tiber river, which runs the length of and the valley of the same name, and which in turn has given the Sabina its full name of Sabina Tiberina.
On the opposite (western bank) side of the Tiber river is to be found what was originally the territories of both the Etruscan and Faliscan peoples, other traditional rivals of early Rome. Unlike the Etruscan/Faliscan western bank of the Tiber, however, which has been extensively studied by archaeologists since the 1950s, the Sabine eastern bank has received considerably less attention. This is a surprising oversight given the importance of the river to trade with the city of Rome, an enormous market which held around a million residents at its peak. And the Tiber was the principal means through which the Romans were afforded access to central Italy, given that moving goods by river was considerably cheaper and faster, and particularly downriver, as in this case, than doing so by land in the ancient world. As a result, the Sabina Tiberina was an extremely valuable addition to Roman territory.
Exploiting the fertile agricultural land closest to the river would have allowed Roman landowners the opportunity to accumulate enormous wealth, and the territory was close enough to the capital that it would have enabled them to reach their country estates in no more than a day or two of travel. One reason for the relative neglect of the Sabina Tiberina by archaeologists, however, may lie in the region’s lack of urbanization in ancient times. While the Etruscans and Faliscans had developed an urbanized society with competing city-states (not unlike Rome and its other Latin speaking neighbors), the Sabines remained a more dispersed and rural people with relatively few larger cities. Therefore, enticed by the clear presence of rich settlements and a more forgiving terrain of rolling hills covered by plowed fields, generations of archaeologists appear to have focused their research entirely on the west bank.
The Sabina Tiberina, in contrast, with its undulating, hilly terrain, makes archaeological survey (the systematic walking of agricultural fields in search of surface artifacts) far more difficult, but this is not to say that the eastern bank does not offer anything of historical interest. On the contrary, recent research on the Sabina Tiberina has suggested that the eastern bank of the Tiber may have been more heavily exploited than previously assumed. However, many of its archaeological sites remain yet to be studied using modern survey and excavation techniques. What is known is that the area surrounding the Roman town of Forum Novum, founded at some point after the conquest of 290 BC in order to provide a market center for the dispersed estates of the region, had, by the 1st century AD, been elevated to the status of a 'true' Roman town (municipium in Latin), and although research conducted by the British School at Rome in the early 21st century revealed that the town itself consisted of little more than a few public buildings and a single villa, what it lacked in Roman urban culture was more than made up for by its network of nearby Roman villas; a series of elaborate country residences connected to large agricultural estates.
THE ROMAN VILLAS OF THE SABINA
The word ‘villa’ still brings to mind an image of a luxurious country residence, and its ancient Roman counterpart was a very distinctive type of lavish structure. Villas were arguably one of the most characteristic features of Roman culture, and one that spread across the Mediterranean and Western Europe with the expansion of Roman power. While many still debate the exact origins of this institution, it is clear that by the 1st century BC a wealthy Roman would likely have owned several of these types of residences across the Italian peninsula. In fact, in reality it was fundamentally a necessity for the ruling class to do so, both socially and economically. By definition, a villa was located in the countryside and it defined the center of a large agricultural estate. And since landowners did not live in these properties year round, the residences served as a kind of country vacation home for the elite, but with all the comforts of city life.
Villas were usually paved with mosaic floors and decorated with wall paintings and sculptures. Private bath complexes, decorative fountains, and formally planted gardens provided a suitable setting for a Roman aristocrat to devote himself to leisure, free from the pressures of political life in Rome. Yet central to the villa was a working farm. Land was the primary, and only socially acceptable, source of wealth for the aristocracy in the world of ancient Rome. Tended by slaves or tenants in the owner’s absence, these estates typically specialized in cash crops that were guaranteed to bring in a good return, such as olives, grapes (for wine), and even small game and other edible luxuries favored by the upper classes, such as snails, fish, and small birds. True Roman aristocrats owned several properties around Italy, diversifying against the risk of localized drought or disease. They made a habit of visiting each in turn throughout the year. The excuse was to check on farms and staff, but the true payoff was the opportunity to relax by hunting, reading, writing, and enjoying the pleasant setting of the estate.
The Sabina Tiberina, like much of the Italian countryside, was home to at least several dozen Roman villas. Many of these have been known for centuries due to their visible ruins dotting the hillsides and valleys of the region, and most were built on foundations of Roman concrete, of which, due it its extreme durability, structural remains still exist today. Other villas were found when plows or other agricultural activity churned up large concentrations of broken pottery and roof tiles. A small number of sites even produced works of sculpture in earlier centuries. Very few, however, have ever been studied by professional archaeologists. One villa, located near the town of Cottanello, was extensively excavated in the 1960s by a group of amateur archaeologists, and only in recent years have experts from the University of Rome, La Sapienza, revisited to the site. Another villa, near the town of Forum Novum, was briefly explored with a few test trenches by British archaeologists over a decade ago. However, outside of these two examples, prior to 2011 no other villa in the region had ever been investigated by a specialized expedition.
The UST (Upper Sabina Tiberina) project, commenced in the year 2011, however, has so far identified at least 15 villas of interest in their given research zone, and one of the goals of the project is to study a select number of these sites using geophysical survey techniques, using tools that require no digging to gain information about what is underground. These include ground penetrating radar, as well as magnetometry, a method that measures magnetic fields beneath the earth’s surface in order to discern significant anomalies, such as walls or voids. While the results are largely dependent upon local conditions, in the best case scenario they can provide plans of structures that are still underground. Nonetheless, in order to gain a more complete picture of a villa, such as a detailed understanding of its date and how it changed through time, there is no better technique than good, old-fashioned excavation. So, for this reason, the UST project chose one particular villa in the region as the focus of a more intensive investigation; a villa located near the town of Vacone.
THE ROMAN VILLA OF VACONE
The town of Vacone, located about 55 km north of Rome, is perched on the slope of Monte Cosce, a formidable mountain that marks the border between the modern regions of Lazio and Umbria. It is a very small town with fewer than 300 permanent residents, and every June the townspeople observe the 'Sacra Vacunae', a festival in honour of the Sabine goddess, Vacuna. The town’s name is said to derive from the name of the goddess, whose temple is said to sit beneath Vacone’s central church. However, while no definitive evidence has yet been found of a pagan shrine beneath the church, a few kilometers downhill stand the unmistakable ruins of a Roman villa. And although the villa was known to travelers during the 18th century and earlier, the ruins of the villa were later forgotten, and were only rediscovered in the 1960’s during road construction.
Work crews stumbled upon the imposing remains of a vaulted structure called a cryptoporticus, built of Roman concrete and large blocks of local limestone, along with a semicircular structure with a vaulted ceiling. Further investigation revealed a second cryptoporticus a little downhill from the first. Both could be entered via doorways and formed a type of covered passageway, features that are not uncommon in the architecture of Roman villas. However, these two particular structures formed the supports for a wide terrace upon which rests the main residential zone of the villa. By the time of the mid 1980s the cryptoportici were in need of repair, so a series of conservation efforts were carried out by the Italian government to shore up the remains. This work also uncovered a section of a well-preserved mosaic floor located on the upper surface of the lower cryptoporticus. The section of floor was removed and placed into storage, where it still remains today.
The Vacone villa was chosen for excavation by the UST project for a number of reasons. Firstly, the earlier work done by the Italian government had exposed a series of doorways just to the north of the lower cryptoporticus, which strongly suggested that a series of rooms, perhaps also paved in mosaics, lay waiting to be discovered to the north. Secondly, above the upper cryptoporticus were the remains of several vats and channels, and a circular feature in the ground that surely belonged to a press for olive oil. Most importantly, however, the construction technique of the cryptoporticus wall, that being concrete mixed with rough large stones, suggested that the villa dated to the 2nd century BC or even earlier. This would place the initial construction of the villa in the period not long after the Roman conquest of Sabinium, which would allow it to possibly shed further light on the processes set in motion by this event. Therefore, the Vacone villa offered the possibility of examining several interesting facets of the Sabina Tiberina and its place in the study of Roman imperialism, the Roman economy, and Roman society and culture in general.
Each summer, undergraduate and graduate students from the United States and the U.K. travel to Vacone to learn proper archaeological methodology while furthering the research goals of the UST project. They join an international staff that includes experts from Italy, the United States, the U.K, and Australia. Many local residents of Vacone also volunteer their time and resources to help advance the study of this invaluable piece of Roman heritage, and by the end of the 2015 season, excavations had uncovered evidence of at least 32 distinct rooms, although some of these remain have only been partially excavated to date. The vast majority of these rooms belong to the residential sector of the villa, as evidenced by the presence of mosaic floors and painted wall plaster in the majority thereof.
The plaster is generally only preserved for a few centimeters along the walls; however, hundreds, if not thousands, of plaster fragments have so far been recovered and are presently awaiting study. Most of the villa's walls were colored with red, black or yellow backgrounds and accompanied by a variety of designs, such as an unusual ring pattern not previously seen at other sites. A fragment containing a bird and plantlike motifs has also been uncovered, and a particularly well-preserved section remains in place on the east wall of Room 4, which is comprised of an intricate geometric and floral design in black and red, provides a hint of the types of schemes that many of the villa’s walls once contained. Other rooms of the villa contained examples of the molded stucco that once adorned its walls and ceilings.
Many of the villa's mosaics, in contrast, are in good condition and are among the most noteworthy of the project's finds so far in the villa. All are geometric in design and typically consist of black, white, and red tesserae (the small cubed stones that make up a mosaic floor). The red stones, which are quite rare in Roman mosaics, come from a quarry in the neighboring town of Cottanello. A few mosaics of particularly high quality contain multiple colors arranged in intricate designs, some of which mimic shading. The mosaics in Rooms 10 and 4 both include border zones with complex shaded designs of triangles and diamonds in green, red, white, and black. The border zone in Room 10 may have originally marked off a niche where a bed, either for sleeping or dining, may have once stood. Other notable mosaic designs in the villa include a double wave and checkerboard pattern, as well as a few variations on a net motif.
Several rooms also contain mosaics of the type called opus scutulatum, which consists of a series of larger colored stones set into a background of single colored tesserae (white or black) or other types of plain pavement. Especially remarkable in the Vacone villa is ample evidence of repairs made to the mosaic floors in ancient times. In Room 8, for example, a large area of damage to an opus scutulatum was replaced in antiquity by red or white tesserae arranged to mimic the lost colored stones of the pattern. Repairs to the mosaic are also evident in Room 10. In other rooms, mosaic floors that became damaged in ancient times were simply covered over by simpler paving techniques, such as cocciopesto (a pavement made of mortar and crushed ceramics). The buckling of the floors in several areas hints at structural issues in the villa’s design that may have possibly led to the villa’s eventual abandonment.
Not every room in the villa was paved with mosaics, however. Some rooms seem to have been used for storage or more utilitarian purposes. These areas produced a rich assortment of artifacts and were paved with more utilitarian flooring techniques, such as plain concrete, opus spicatum (a pavement made of bricks arranged in a herringbone pattern) and cocciopesto. For example, room 12, located adjacent to the upper cryptoporticus wall and paved in cocciopesto, produced over 3000 ceramic sherds, mainly cookware and storage containers. Also noteworthy was an iron key and the remains of a bronze locking mechanism, probably from a storage chest.
The main agricultural zone was located in the northeastern zone of the villa, beside the upper cryptoporticus. Excavation has revealed many more details about this area, including evidence for not just one, but at least two olive presses. Once pressed, the olive oil ran along brick lined channels to a series of three vats that could be opened and closed to control the flow of oil. These vats were used to separate the oil from the amurca, the watery byproduct of olive pressing. Another channel reveals how the liquid in the vats could be drained into the upper cryptoporticus, for reasons still under investigation. Preliminary research suggests that the presence of two presses puts the Vacone villa in rare company, with fewer than 30 other villas in the region of Lazio out of a total of over 300. At the very end of last season, we also discovered a basin for collecting juice from a grape-treading floor, not far from the pressing area. While further exploration is needed, this may hint at a shift from olive to wine production during the course of the villa’s occupation.
The villa has also produced a few surprises. During the second season of digging, a small void opened up during excavation near the corner of one of the villa’s largest rooms, Room 7. Two seasons of careful excavation in cramped conditions have revealed that this was a vaulted passageway leading to the lower level of the villa and the interior of the cryptoporticus below. It had a floor of beaten earth and was full of broken pottery, including several lamps, a necessity in this gloomy underground section of the villa. This past summer, a secondary passageway was identified, opening perpendicularly to the original tunnel, that leads into a circular vaulted chamber. A two by two meter test trench centered on the midpoint of the round chamber was excavated to see what architecture corresponded to this feature on the ground level of the villa. This revealed a stone with a cut opening that sits directly atop the capstone of the vaulted chamber below. This feature has defied early attempts to understand its function. The opening brings to mind a latrine or wellhead for a cistern, but its placement and surrounding architecture do not support these interpretations. Future excavation within the circular chamber will hopefully shed light on this mysterious feature.
Furthermore, additional passageways or collapsed underground vaults were discovered last summer in the western end of the villa. Several floors of the villa also produce a distinctive (and disconcerting) hollow sound when struck. This suggests that more of the terrace may be artificially constructed than previously assumed. If so, there may be far more to be investigated in the underground spaces of the villa.
Finally, four seasons of fieldwork have finally begun to provide some indications of the villa’s chronology. Much of the evidence for the earlier phases of the villa came to light due to damage the villa sustained during agricultural work in later centuries. All across the site, deep trenches were dug, possibly for vines, that cut through the mosaic floors of the villa in several areas. Excavating within these cuts allowed us to gain windows into what lies beneath the villa’s mosaic floors, which probably date to the 1st or 2nd centuries AD. For example, beneath the floor of Room 3 we found an earlier floor in opus scutulatum, but paved with cocciopesto rather than the mosaic background of later floors in the villa. Ceramic evidence currently suggests a date around 100 BC for this earlier phase of the villa, but future study will refine our knowledge of the villa’s initial construction.
On the other end of the villa’s history, we are also beginning to understand how the villa came to be abandoned. At some point, new walls were constructed along a different orientation from the walls of the imperial era villa. Many of these new walls were built through the mosaic floors of the 1st or 2nd century AD, indicating their later date. At an unknown subsequent date, the rooms of the villa also came to be used for human burials. So far, six individuals have been found. Four were male adults in their 30s, one was a young child of indeterminate sex, and the last was a newborn, found within a drain inside the upper cryptoporticus. The only indication of when these individuals were buried comes from a medallion dating to 1700 discovered near one of the adult burials. However, since there is clear evidence that the bones were disturbed after the initial burial, it could suggest a date when the remains were reinterred rather than the date of the original interment. As for when the villa was abandoned, preliminary evidence suggests the villa may have gone out of use as early as 200 AD. For instance, of the several coins that we have discovered on the site, the latest datable examples are from the 2nd century AD, and many were found on the surface of the latest floors, mixed in with the collapse of the structure. The same holds true for the diagnostic pottery found on site – no forms date later than about 200 AD.
Near the entrance to the site of the Vacone villa is a sign that reads “Villa di Quinto Orazio Flacco” – the villa of Quintus Horatius Flaccus. English speakers know this individual as the Roman poet Horace, famous for the adage carpe diem as well as a rich body of surviving work. One of the most salient details known about Horace’s life was that Maecenas, one of Augustus’ closest confidants and Horace’s personal patron, gave him a “Sabine villa.” This villa and its adjoining estate allowed the poet the space and time to devote himself to his poetry, and for this reason it provides the setting for several of the poet’s works. Generations of antiquarians and scholars have sought the location of Horace’s famous Sabine villa. Of the few clues to the location of Horace’s villa given in his poetry is the detail that it was located “behind the crumbling temple of Vacuna”. As mentioned earlier, tradition holds that the town of Vacone took its name from a supposed temple of Vacuna beneath its central church. As a result, many local residents resolutely believe that the great poet once called their little town home.
Given the lack of evidence for this attribution, the UST project took little notice of this popular local belief. However, two discoveries, brought to light in 2013 and 2014, have given us reason to reassess this attribution, or at least the villa’s fascinating afterlife as “Horace’s villa”. The first artifact uncovered was the rim of a dolium, a giant storage vessel that was buried in the ground, inscribed with HORATI F. The following year produced the rim of an amphora, an ancient vessel used to transport oil and wine, with the inscription HORATIUS. It is not out of the question that the excavation of a villa might uncover objects inscribed with the name of the villa’s owner. In fact, this very situation occurred at the neighboring villa of Cottanello, where a dolium rim was discovered identifying the owners as the Roman family of the Aurelii Cottae (and hence the namesake of the modern town). However, our initial excitement was quickly tempered by the realization that our inscriptions were not ancient, but fake. The letters were carved with a sharp object into the pottery after they had been fired, unlike genuine inscriptions that tend to be stamped into the wet clay before firing (such as the Cottanello dolium). Furthermore, the shapes of the letters were different than those used by the Romans, and the objects were found near topsoil, in contexts that were disturbed by later agricultural activity.
While it is impossible to give a precise date for this case of forgery, it is tempting to connect these objects to the 18th century. At that time, several travelers’ accounts reveal that sections of the villa were exposed and displayed to visitors as “Horace’s villa”. Some contemporary writers even mention inscriptions on display that “proved” this was the genuine villa of the poet. These inscriptions, one of which still survives to this day, were also counterfeit. Therefore, it is not out of the question that the two inscribed pottery rims date back to this time period. Even if the UST has not accidently uncovered the famous Sabine villa of Horace, it has nonetheless shed new light on the villa’s remarkable afterlife. As to the true identity of the villa’s owner, one can only hope that subsequent seasons will uncover a piece of evidence as telling as the two inscribed rims purport to be.
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