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Roman Republican Villas: Architecture, Context and Ideology

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

Roman Republican Villas: Architecture, Context and Ideology

Edited by Jeffrey A. Becker and Nicola Terrenato (PAAR 32). Pp. iii + 143, figs. 34. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2012. $60. ISBN 978-0-472-11770-3 (cloth).

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This interesting book continues Terrenato’s investigation into the reality of the “Catonian” villa, a project initiated in his article “The Auditorium Site in Rome and the Origins of the Villa” (JRA 14 [2001] 5–32). It consists of seven articles on various aspects of mid Republican-period agriculture and villas, treating both written sources and archaeology. Its interdisciplinary approach is intended to illuminate not only the ideology and conceptual framework of the villas but also the problem of whether they actually existed (contra Carandini). The approach, focusing on the precursors of Late Republican villas, such as Settefinestre, the subject of so much attention in the past quarter-century, is a good one, even if the result is not quite what one may have imagined the editors intended. As Terrenato points out in his introduction (6), if the mid Republican sites published here by Volpe and the group suggested by the polygonal bases villae of southern Latium are all villas, the argument ex silentio for the absence of the type falls rather flat.

In the first contribution, Torelli gives a straightforward and reasonably convincing argument for the filiation of the Roman villa in Magna Graecia, citing structures in Lucania, the fortified farm of Montegiordano, and the evidence from field survey in the area of Tarentum—to which he could have added surveys in Metapontum or Sicily, with their dense classical and Hellenistic rural networks. However, it is curious that a farm such as that of Moltone del Tolve in Lucania should start resembling a “Catonian” villa just at the moment of Roman colonization, when, as Torelli points out, the addition of an atrium makes it resemble the Roman villa of the Auditorium. The finished product is as much Roman as it is Greek. In this argument, however, there is a rather bizarre attempt to deny the existence of Etruscan farms—only one, a second-century site at Poggio Bacherina near Chiusi, is mentioned, while excavated sites such as the fifth-century Podere Tartuchino, near Saturnia (I. Attolini and P. Perkins, “The Excavation of an Etruscan Farm at Podere Tartuchino,” PBSR 60 [1992] 1–76) or the numerous sites revealed by survey in the Albegna Valley and elsewhere, are ignored.

The next three pieces, by Green, Bodel, and Reay, are close readings of Cato and Varro, showing, in different ways, the metaphorical quality of their agricultural treatises and how discourses on the management of a villa could function as metaphors for discourses on the management of the city or the empire. Green’s argument that the senatorial class was the bailiff of the estate in Varro’s account is a neat one, with the forum as Rome’s “seven iugera farm” (35). These simple metaphors play out over the long term, with emperors acting out in their own villas the character of the bonus agricola. In much the same theme, Bodel argues that Cato’s manual is a social statement, rather than a handbook, while Reay goes so far as to say that it is simply an aristocratic performance piece, its subject being Cato’s own expertise in farming, carried out through the “human prostheses” of his slaves (66). By writing his manual, Cato transformed agriculture into something requiring expertise and connoisseurship. Without denying any of the above, I must admit to wondering: if the manual was only written to show off, why would anyone copy or circulate it? And was the same true of the contemporary Punic author of an agricultural treatise, Mago, in his very different context?

The final section deals with the realien of the Catonian villas, starting with a reiteration of Terrenato’s 2001 argument that they are archaeologically absent, barring the very rare instances, such as the villa of the Auditorium, which should be looked on as the top of the settlement hierarchy—rural palaces rather than comfortable farms. Cato, rather than describing either these or contemporary Hellenistic farms, is talking about an abstract icon, what people should have rather than what they do have. This makes Terrenato’s task of proving the negative significantly easier: we should not be looking for villae expolitissimae, nor yet for simple farms, but for substantial properties with major productive facilities but without luxurious characteristics. Where these sites do exist, they are concentrated in southern Campania, rather than around Rome (a point that supports Torelli’s argument). However, in the next contribution, Volpe describes just such sites in the suburbium of Rome, where her rescue excavations in the area of Centocelle over the last decade have revealed a whole landscape of intensive wine production, with everything from tuff-block buildings to vine trenches. The existence of these sites, which date to the third and second centuries B.C.E., was simply not guessed at. It is entirely true that field survey cannot distinguish between a villa built in the first century over a small farm of the middle Republican period, but here excavation has removed any doubt; even Cato would have been impressed.

Becker’s chapter deals with a final set of sites. These are the numerous substantial terraces in polygonal masonry found in their hundreds in the limestone Alban Hills and around the base of Monte Lepini, previously discussed at length by Andreussi (“Stanziamenti agricoli e ville residenziali in alcune zone campione del Lazio,” in A. Giardina and A. Schiavone, eds., Società romana e produzione schiavistica: L’Italia, insediamenti e forme economiche [Bari 1981] 349–70), Attema (P.A.J. Attema and T. de Haas, “Villas and Farmsteads in the Pontine Region Between 300 BC and 300 AD: A Landscape Archaeological Approach,”, and Mari (“La villa romana tardo-repubblicana nell’ager Sabinus e Tiburtinus: Tra fonti letterarie e documentazione archeologica,” They have been generally taken as the bases villae for mid Republican-period villas, a conclusion based on the fact that on the terraces they create are found roof tiles and pottery. Here, Becker argues that we cannot actually be sure of this interpretation. “Polygonal masonry is massive, rough and unrefined, while villas conjure up images of luxury and opulence” (112), a statement contradicted later by the more plausible assertion that polygonal architecture was high-value, expensive, and difficult to execute (117). Attema and his team believe that they were indeed villas but that the superstructures were made of wood, a rather bizarre idea in a world in which even later luxury villas such as Settefinestre were largely built of pisé de terre, while, to my knowledge, high-class wooden buildings of the Roman period in central Italy have never been found. As none of them has been excavated, their interpretation as villas of any type is based, for Becker, on an a priori interpretation and a misunderstanding of Cato (119). The conclusion, that their interpretation as villas, in spite of their early date, must be called into question because no villas of that date are known, is splendidly circular. Sadly, no other interpretation of these interesting structures is offered. Becker’s piece is characterized by some very odd language: “otiose” is used as a translation of otium (111), while basis villae is consistently used as a plural.

The collection certainly contains valuable work, some of it very stimulating. The debate on the Catonian villa, which has been going on for a while, is certainly interesting. Much more work on rural sites of this period would be the only way to resolve any remaining doubts as to the reality of the phenomenon.

Elizabeth Fentress
Arco degli Acetari 31
00186 Rome

Book Review of Roman Republican Villas: Architecture, Context and Ideology, edited by Jeffrey A. Becker and Nicola Terrenato

Reviewed by Elizabeth Fentress

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Fentress

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