Genzano (Italie) : Ancient Roman Villa of the Antonines
Archaeologists Uncover Ancient Roman Villa of the Antonines
What remains of the opulent villa of four Roman emperors slowly emerges under the archaeologist's trowel.
Bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Courtesy Giovanni Dall'Orto, Wikimedia Commons.
For many years, the ruins of this ancient Roman villa retreat for the family and guests of four Roman emperors remained unnoticeable, far from the limelight of scholarly research and exploration. Now, it is the focus of new excavations and research by a team of archaeologists and other specialists who aim to resurrect what lies beneath the surface near a picturesque Italian town 18 miles from present-day Rome, Italy. What remains may say something about emperors Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus, all major players, for better or worse, in ancient Rome's illustrious 138-192 A.D. Antonine Dynasty.
The Antonine Dynasty consisted of (with the exception of one), adopted emperors who ruled over a Roman Empire at the zenith of its power. It was a time period of great prosperity and stability, and it has been said that they (especially Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) ably administered the affairs of the empire without the brutal tyranny and deep corruption so often attributed to other emperors. Like other emperors and royal families, they constructed impressive "great house" retreats, known as villas, for the comfort and entertainment of family members and invited guests and friends. The remains of many of the villas of Roman nobility and emperors such as Hadrian and Diocletian are well-known today and some still visibly spot the landscapes of Italy and that of present-day countries that anciently constituted the outlying provinces. Some of these have been at least partially restored for the visiting public. Others, like the villa now under excavation and associated with the Antonines, awaits the efforts and interpretive skills of archaeologists.
Fragment of a bronze portrait of Marcus Aurelius. Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons.
Located along the ancient Via Appia road adjacent to the modern town of Genzano, the only clearly visible features that mark the spot of this Antonine villa today are the remains of structures associated with its bath house. Much of the rest of its remains still lie beneath the landscape or have been destroyed by the sprawl of past urban development. Site investigators indicate that approximately 3 hectares still remains to be unearthed.
New excavations began during the summer of 2010 under the direction of Deborah Chatr Aryamontri and Timothy Renner of Montclair State University and Michele di Filippo of the University of Rome. Investigations focused on exploration of a curvilinear structure adjacent to the baths and thought to be a possible monumental fountain, along with geophysical investigations that revealed evidence for probable additional wall structures. Of significance was the discovery of brick stamp inscriptions that further support the view that the structure was associated with the time period of the Antonine dynasty. Reported Aryamontri, "Our study of the brick stamps is not yet complete, but the preliminary results, as well as the ceramic classes of most of the pottery, fit well into the second half of the second century. Moreover, the great number of tesserae found, especially the glass ones, reinforces the idea that we are dealing with a possible hydraulic structure such as a fountain." Fountains would have been common among villa complexes of this time period.
The team also explored the remains of what may have been an amphitheater incorporated into the villa's grounds. The structure's features are similar to another amphitheater not far away and built by Commodus, the last emperor of the Antonine Dynasty.
Although the excavations of the villa began in 2010, they were not the first explorations of the structure. Initial discoveries at the site were made in 1701, when several busts identified as that of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, among others, were unearthed at a location near the currently visible bath house complex. Now exhibited in the Capitoline Museum, it was this discovery, along with certain literary references, that led scholars to attribute the remains to the emperors of the Antonine dynasty and to refer to the complex as the "Villa of the Antonines". Subsequent explorations of the site from the 18th until the middle of the 20th century turned up portions of black-and-white mosaics, fragments of stucco and fresco, fragments of moldings and statues.
Busts of Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, who ruled Rome together as co-emperors. Courtesy Arif Najafov, Wikimedia Commons.
Remains of a Roman villa in Carthage. It is a classic representation of the opulence typical of a Roman villa. Courtesy Shoestring, Wikimedia Commons.
It was not until 1989 and 1996 when sufficiently systematic archaeological investigations were conducted. In 1989, Drs. Giuseppina Ghini and Nicoletta Cassieri of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archaeologici per il Lazio examined the baths, identifying and studying several rooms of the complex. Then, in 1996, excavations led to the discovery of the curvilinear structure that became the subject of current efforts. It was this discovery, among other things, that opened the door to more careful, detailed research and excavation of the visible structures and new findings of additional wall structures through geophysical surveys.
"We think that the 2010 excavation has been a profitable and promising season, and its outcome opens a new, intriguing chapter in the study of the "Villa of the Antonines", says Aryamontri. "Among our other tasks, during coming seasons we aim to follow up the results of the geophysical surveys with targeted explorations of the foundations in the area west of the curved building in order to shed light on the nature and chronology of these [newly discovered] structures. Ultimately, of course, it is also necessary to continue to investigate the baths in order to completely define their layout and their relationship to the other remains of this complex."