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Villa Magna: An Imperial Estate and Its Legacies. Excavations 2006–10

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

Villa Magna: An Imperial Estate and Its Legacies. Excavations 2006–10

Edited by Elizabeth Fentress, Caroline Goodson, and Marco Maiuro, with Margaret Andrews and J. Andrew Dufton (Archaeological Monographs of the British School at Rome 23). Pp. xx + 516, figs. 350, pls. 34, tables 21, online database. British School at Rome, London 2016. £90. ISBN 978-0-904152-74-6 (cloth).

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Villa Magna, about 62 km south of Rome, first studied in 1889, was not recognized as an imperial estate until recently because of the continued use of the area and scholarly emphasis on the more obvious medieval remains. In the Middle Ages, the site—which is differentiated in this publication from the antique periods by the name Villamagna—housed a church, then a monastery, with a final evolution into a castrum. A cemetery pertains to these later phases.

Villa Magna: An Imperial Estate complements a recent, well-acclaimed book on imperial estates in Italy by Maiuro (Res Caesaris: Ricerche sulla proprietà imperiale nel Principato [Bari 2012]). Other than Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, the villa of the Quintilii on the Via Appia, and the villa of Lucius Verus on the Via Cassia/Clodia, few contemporary imperial properties in Latium have been investigated: beyond the suburbium, the number of excavated imperial villas increases substantially. The actual plan of the Villa Magna and the phasing are at best ephemeral because of the more recent disturbance at the site. Republican and Augustan remains are residual, and the best-documented phases, the post-Hadrianic construction and subsequent expansion in the Severan period, constitute the plan of the villa in the publication. The centerpiece of the estate is an elaborate winery. The remains of this winery, in conjunction with three letters written from the estate by Marcus Aurelius to his tutor Fronto between 140 and 145 C.E., indicate that the Villa Magna hosted an important religious and secular festival inaugurating the vintage in all of Latium.

The research questions posed by the Villa Magna excavators structure this publication of a very long-lived site. How is the villa a symbol of the self-representation of the emperor? How does the material culture compare with other contemporary estates in Italy? What happened to the site when the imperial control ceased? Epistolary evidence provides the background for a multidisciplinary and integrated methodology that weaves together evidence from geophysical and field survey, excavation, and material culture, as well as epigraphical evidence recovered from various places.

Although the level of disturbance has significantly compromised the stratigraphy and preservation of the earlier levels of the site, six major phases have been distinguished from the Roman (ca. 120 C.E.) through the Late Medieval (ca. 1500 C.E.) periods. A discussion of the history of the site and the excavation methodology delineates the setting and the research progression. The remainder of the volume, a skillful combination of detailed excavation reports and classes of materials along with interpretative narratives, is divided chronologically into the second to fifth centuries (Roman–Late Roman) and the sixth to seventh centuries (Byzantine). The Medieval period of Villamagna and its population close the chronological presentation. General considerations regarding the emperor, the estate, and its world conclude the volume.

The spectacular winery, which included a bath complex in addition to the actual production and storage areas, is the most extensively excavated portion of the estate. This volume presents a complete physical context for the winery, in particular for the lavishly decorated formal spaces where sculptural, marble, and wall-painting remains define the areas dedicated to ceremony and ritual. Not only is the power, wealth, and munificence of the emperor underlined in the winery but also is his all-encompassing influence in many spheres, including economic well-being. The winery complex represents a precocious physical and symbolic merger of ceremonial ideology, religious ritual, and agricultural productivity in the second century C.E. that does not become evident in decorative programs found on imperial estates across the Italian peninsula until the late second to early third century C.E. The spatial fusion and symbolic importance of the ceremonial winery replaces the integration of ceremony and ritual in Republican and Augustan atria, underlining the evolving conceptual embodiment of the self-representation, roles, and spheres of influence in the second century C.E.

The productive activity of the Villa Magna is well discussed, and the extent of the production certainly should answer the initial research questions posed about the functions of the imperial estate. Imperial villas outside Latium provide additional evidence for the evolving conjunction of production and ceremony in contemporary establishments. The Vibii Pansae bequeathed the villa at Ossaia in Tuscany to the imperial fiscus in the final decades of the first century B.C.E.; the family was famous for the production of roof tiles, found from Calabria to Istria. Evidence from the Ossaia villa documents an increase in productive aspects partially at the expense of a luxurious residence when the lower terraces were converted into a large-scale commercial enterprise producing wine amphoras, lamps, and pottery, as well as roof and floor tiles during the second century C.E., although the presence of contemporary wall paintings establishes the continued existence of an elite residence at the site. In the early third century C.E., the ceremonial aspect emerged when a large pillared hall was built over the Augustan-era baths and floored with a large mosaic featuring two panthers around a kantharos, a popular motif across the Roman world. This mosaic in the ceremonial hall at Ossaia evokes the same religious and productive symbolism seen at Villa Magna—that is, the wine making, evident in the kantharos, and the Dionysiac religious reference, represented by the panthers. Masseria Ciccotti (Lucania), plausibly owned by the Bruttii Praesentes, the family of Bruttia Crispina, wife of Commodus, illustrates the growing crescendo of the spatial and symbolic fusion identified at Villa Magna. At this Lucanian villa, a ceremonial processional route celebrated aspects of production under a theme of felicitas temporum, starting from a labrum in the peristyle and crossing a large, late second- or third-century C.E. seasons mosaic featuring Aion with a zodiac. The route moved up a ramp through a large cenatio, passed around a fountain on an opus sectile floor, to arrive at the triclinium. The semantics and symbolism of the decor and ceremonial procession are evident. Grain and wool were certainly the most important products of the villa, although a decorated basin for wine collection, dated as “imperial,” indicate that the same symbolic significance extended to lesser productions at the estate. At Villa Magna the precocity of the ceremonial and productive activities of an imperial estate, the magnificence, size, and surroundings of the winery can be attributed to the location in the suburbium as well as to the physical imperial presence at the actual ceremonial activities. In specific architectural features, level of decoration, and symbolic intent, Villa Magna differs from other known imperial villas of the late second and third centuries C.E. only in scale.

The area surrounding Villa Magna was covered by field survey and the site itself mapped by geophysical survey. The only other extensively excavated Roman structure is the so-called barracks, which consists of small rooms with beaten earth floors. It was originally considered a slave barracks, although this hypothesis was argued on the basis of one artifact and the restrictive plan of the building. Of the 31 identified rooms, only four contained traces of hearths. Skeletal remains of eight infants were found interred inside the building walls. The rooms are characterized by an absence of decoration, some domestic pottery, a few storage vessels, as well as some gendered objects, in particular hairpins. The location of the building ties it to the villa itself, although the legal status of the occupants is far from clear; the few hearths and storage vessels would argue against long-term occupants. The building might have been used for dependent workers of undetermined status or even seasonal workers, although that possibility is not fully explored.

The Ossaia villa provides general comparanda for the material culture and spatial divisions in the barracks. Until the second century C.E., a nearby village provided the workforce for the Ossaia villa. When part of the villa became a figlina, a previously residential area was cut up into small rooms with hearths. Burnt roof tile drains cut through earlier mosaic floors. A vast quantity of cooking wares, numerous large plates of Middle Adriatic Terra Sigillata for communal eating, as well as many small-denomination third- and fourth-century coins were found on top of thin cement floors. Masseria Ciccotti also had similar housing for workers, probably seasonal, as grain does not require a year-round workforce. The rooms around a portico in the pars rustica were part of the Augustan villa belonging to Publius Vedius Pollio and were used until the end of the second century, when the estate was enhanced by the construction of a new aqueduct, monumental baths equal only to imperial baths in Latium, a ceremonial processional way, and lavish decoration in the villa residence. A nearby large, long-lived village (Iron Age through the sixth century C.E.), at the junction of important east–west roads, might also have housed workers; field survey retrieved no mosaic tesserae or glass, but pottery finds indicate an expansion in the third century.

A lack of burials (other than medieval) at Villa Magna presents a problem in identifying the barracks as a residence for a stable labor force. The well-known symbiosis of villas and villages, vici, especially near imperial estates, merits further research. At Villa Magna, field survey located a village nearby in the Early Imperial period. In the Middle Imperial period, the estate engulfed that village, but concomitantly, another village appeared within 1.5 km of the villa. Either site could have housed Villa Magna workers in its respective time period, although no evidence for burials is noted in the field survey report. The San Felice villa and the vicus at Vagnari were two separate centers on another imperial property in Apulia. Burials at the vicus from the first to the fourth centuries document a reasonably healthy immigrant and local population.

The residence at Villa Magna is largely conjectural, as very little has been excavated. Some structural elements still visible on the modern surface level allow a reconstruction of the villa entrance. The finds, sculptural fragments, wall painting fragments, and marble wall mouldings provide a glimpse of the luxury enjoyed at the villa.

The site’s evolution in the Medieval period is of great interest because developments can be compared with imperial estates in less urbanized areas of Latium itself. Another villa of the Bruttii Praesentes, along the Via Salaria near Rieti, was established in the late first century, partially abandoned in the second half of the third century, and a church built on top of the villa in the early 10th century. A 13th-century castle in the same spot also illustrates the relationship between the Late Antique and the Medieval periods.

The Villa Magna research involved the local community, the archaeological superintendency, and a vast number of students and volunteers who participated in the archaeological field school. It is not a simple task to reconcile a field school with a serious research program, but the Villa Magna publication does so successfully. Given the site’s complexity, disturbance, and the detail provided, not surprisingly the forest is sometimes obscured by the trees. A synthetic breakdown of phases is provided at the outset; a similar synthetic breakdown of the chronology and functions of the various areas excavated would have been helpful. The excellent interpretative sections on the pottery assemblage, including chronology, character, consumption, and trade, are separated from the details of ceramic quantities and types, creating a certain disjunction in the narrative. Statistical analyses of pottery would be more persuasive if the quantities being compared originated from equivalent functional areas or excavated extensions at the numerous analogous sites referenced.

The Villa Magna publication, with a wealth of documentation and narrative, is a major contribution to our knowledge of the diachronic evolution of the architecture, the material culture, and ceremonial productive activity of an imperial estate in Latium. The masterful tapestry of interpretation and various types of evidence plus the honesty in the presentation of an extremely complex and long-lived site make this volume a model publication.

Helena Fracchia
Department of History and Classics
University of Alberta

Book Review of Villa Magna: An Imperial Estate and Its Legacies. Excavations 2006–10, edited by Elizabeth Fentress, Caroline Goodson, and Marco Maiuro, with Margaret Andrews and J. Andrew Dufton 

Reviewed by Helena Fracchia

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.fracchia

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