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The Horace’s Villa Project, 1997–2003: Report on New Fieldwork and Research

July 2011 (115.3)

Book Review

The Horace’s Villa Project, 1997–2003: Report on New Fieldwork and Research

Edited by Bernard Frischer, Jane Crawford, and Monica de Simone (BAR-IS 1588). 2 vols. Vol. 1, The Reports. Pp. xxvii + 385; vol. 2, Documentation. Pp. iii + 645, figs. 326, tables 16, plans 29, maps 13. Archaeopress, Oxford 2006. $337.50. ISBN 1-1-905739-07-9 (cloth).

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A romantic mythology surrounds the ruins of Horace’s Villa at Licenza, northeast of Rome. Ever since the excavation of the villa in the early 20th century, there has been debate about whether the ruins should be identified with those of the “Sabine farm” mentioned by Horace in his poems (e.g., Sat. 2.6; Carm. 1.22; Epod. 1.16). The arguments for doing so are entirely circumstantial; no firm evidence has been found to link the villa securely to Horace. Enter Frischer and his team, who in 1996 were given permission to reinvestigate the site of the villa and to conduct new excavations with the aim of clarifying the building’s history and ownership. Ten years later, the results of Frischer’s work are presented here in two richly produced clothbound volumes, weighing in together at an impressive 5.25 kg. Volume 1 contains a summary of the project’s findings, including a report of the new excavations; volume 2 provides the supporting texts, both ancient and modern, and illustrations.

Volume 1 includes contributions by 30 different authors, many of them Italian. In addition to numerous specialist reports detailing the results of the new excavations, there is lengthy discussion of the history of the site and the work done by earlier excavators. The reassessment of the old excavations, which were directed by Pasqui from 1911 to 1914 and published (inaccurately, it appears) by Lugli in 1926 (MonAnt 31 [1926] col. 457–598), is a triumph of clarity. Frischer and his team sort through a tangle of old excavation reports and unpublished archival material to fashion a clear picture of what earlier excavators did, and did not, find at the site. Among the key contributions is a study by de Simone (sec. D.1) of the “masonry structures” that can be seen on the site today. De Simone offers a new phasing of the villa based on careful analysis of these structures in conjunction with a review of the relevant archival material and finds from the new excavations. She proposes four main periods of development starting around the end of the second century B.C.E. and continuing to the fourth–fifth centuries C.E. Absolute dating of these periods is less certain. De Simone refers to the use of “stratigraphical data, where available” to support the proposed chronology but admits that for at least two of the four periods, there is little, if any, stratigraphic data to work with (149–51).

A more secure picture emerges from the primary area of new excavation, the villa’s bath house. Here, a full stratigraphic record of the site is given (sec. C.5 [Camaiani, Cerri, and Pasalaqua]), cross-referenced to a significant quantity of ceramic and other finds. The bath house dates originally to the Flavian period and was abandoned in the fourth–fifth centuries C.E. Subsequently, it served as a burial site with graves dating from the fourth–ninth centuries. Much of the material recovered from the bath house excavations is Late Roman, including most of the pottery and coins.

Studies of the finds from the excavations, both old and new, occupy a large part of both volumes. While a lot of new material is included (small finds, brickstamps, fistulae, coins, wall paintings, mosaics), there are also some surprising omissions. The numismatic report (sec. D.11 [Buttrey]) includes several coins from the 1997–1999 seasons but none from work done in 2000–2001. The report on the metal finds (sec. D.12 [Martin]) catalogues about a dozen metal objects, but these can hardly be all the metal finds from five seasons of excavation. More disturbingly, the pottery report (sec. D.2 [Angelelli]) is a mere 18 pages long, shorter than the report on the brickstamps. It contains finds from only the 1997–1999 excavations. There is only one identified lamp fragment. Angelelli explains the small amount of published pottery as a result of particular local conditions (e.g., soil acidity, redeposition, modern disturbance). But these are conditions common to many sites, and one must question the failure to provide a more complete ceramic accounting of the excavations and with it, potentially, a more precise chronology of the entire villa.

Among specialist reports of materials found at the site, two are particularly noteworthy. One is the report (sec. D.13 [Bruun]) on the fistulae (lead pipe inscriptions), the other (sec. D.4 [Filippi]) the report on the brickstamps. In both cases, the material from old and new excavations is meticulously reviewed and catalogued and, more importantly, used as the basis for a broader discussion of manufacturing and trading in the region.

Another area where this publication stands out is in its treatment of the villa in its historical context. This is not just a book about a Roman villa; it is about a villa and its environment throughout history. It discusses settlement in the Licenza Valley before, during, and after the Roman period up to and including the 20th century (including an account of the German occupation of the local museum in 1944). It concludes with a series of discussions (sections E.2 [Rudich], E.3 [Allegrezza]) of what is known about the ownership of the villa, from the earliest named Roman dominus (Manius Naevius) to the Orsini and Borghese families, who owned the property from the 12th to 19th centuries.

Still the question remains: was this Horace’s Villa? Despite exhaustive new research, Frischer finally admits that the kind of evidence needed to link the villa to the Roman poet is lacking. But does this really matter? What Frischer and his team have done, and for the most part have done very efficiently, is to clarify and classify every known detail of the villa’s history and physical remains and to add important new data to that picture. Broader issues of villa settlement in the region and of the ancient agricultural economy are left unaddressed. But the picture of Horace’s Villa itself that emerges from these two volumes is a vast improvement on what we knew before. The villa now stands as one of only a handful of well-published villae suburbanae in the vicinity of Rome.

Jeremy Rossiter
Department of History and Classics
University of Alberta
Edmonton T6G 2H4

Book Review of The Horaces Villa Project, 1997–2003: Report on New Fieldwork and Research, edited by Bernard Frischer, Jane Crawford, and Monica de Simone

Reviewed by Jeremy Rossiter

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 3 (July 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1153.Rossiter

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