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- The “Villa di Tito” archaeological project is revealing what life was like in a Roman villa in the foothills of the Apennines
The “Villa di Tito” archaeological project is revealing what life was like in a Roman villa in the foothills of the Apennines
The construction of elaborate country villas by members of the Roman elite was one of the defining architectural, cultural and economic phenomena of the Roman world. Modern research has thrown light on the varied functions of country villas, from their role in the development of the important Roman concept of otium (an all-encompassing term for the leisure-time activities of the elite) and in ostentatious display of status to their function as nodes in broader social and economic networks, in Italy linking members of the Senatorial and Equestrian orders to Italian communities. Textual and archaeological evidence indicate that villas played an essential role in ordering and structuring access to resources, markets, and patronage within rural society — factors of crucial importance when one considers that the vast majority of ancient Italians lived not in cities but in the countryside. But major gaps exist in the evaluation and exploitation of the archaeological evidence which, when available at all, has frequently been reduced to an illustrative role for ancient textual sources, often presented as definitive testaments to the nature Roman villas.
The “Villa di Tito” project, jointly directed by Martin Beckmann (McMaster) and Myles McCallum (St. Mary’s), aims expand our understanding of the Roman country villa phenomenon by the archaeological investigation of a villa in the Sabine hills near Rieti in northeast Latium, about seventy-five kilometres from Rome. The villa is located along the Via Salaria, the main ancient road from Rome east to the Adriatic coast, and close to a mineral water bathing complex famous in Roman times. The site is important not only as a major example of a country villa in an area where such buildings are little known, but also because of its remarkable scale (sixty metres of concrete terrace remain exposed today), its careful and dramatic topographic situation (projecting from a hillside above a lake thought in Roman times to be the umbilicus or navel of Italy), its proximity to a major Roman road and to a massive bath complex and, finally, for the intriguing possibility, suggested by ancient sources, that it may have been an imperial possession.
Using an interdisciplinary approach and employing a variety of archaeological methods, including field survey, geophysical prospection, human paleoecology, and excavation, our goal is to obtain as complete as possible an image of the villa and its surroundings in both space and time. Excavation conducted by McMaster and St. Mary’s students in 2018 and 2019 has revealed a sequence of rooms built along the northern (hillside) edge of the terrace structure, centred on a large brick-and-concrete room with a large apse containing a smaller niche. A dense layer of pottery and other artifacts, including well-preserved bronze coins of the emperor Claudius, was discovered in 2019 a room in the eastern part of the site, indicating that major construction activities in the mid-1st century CE. The simple plaster decoration of the rooms uncovered to date suggests that we may be dealing with a service are of the villa complex, one used not by the elite owners, but rather by servant or servile workers who ran the day-to-day life of the villa.