THE ROMAN VILLA IN THE MEDITERRANEAN BASIN: Late Republic to Late Antiquity

Ed. by Annalisa Marzano and Guy P. R. Métraux

CUP (2018) h/b 634pp £140 (ISBN 9781107164314)

What is your vision of a Roman villa? A modest dwelling on an Italian country farm? One of a line of luxury maritime palaces built from the proceeds of wine and oil production and ‘strung like pearls along the shores of Istria’ (Cassiodorus, p. 395)? A purely residential mansion near Rome acting as a symbol of aristocratic status and a centre of political power broking? Or perhaps the rural praetorium of a Christian dominus boasting a permanent staff of blacksmiths, carpenters and potters, as well as extensive storage and transport facilities?

All these and more are included within the broad sweep of this very substantial work, stemming from an international conference and containing chapters written by a wide range of international contributors. It is handsomely produced with many useful black and white illustrations and maps, as well as 12 pages of colour plates. Each chapter is equipped with individual notes and the volume ends with a glossary of specialist terminology, an extensive bibliography and detailed indices locorum, topographicus et verborum. The depth of technical knowledge assumed makes it suitable for the shelves of scholars of Roman architecture, social history and economics and as a reference book for university libraries.

The aims of this volume are to provide a survey of current research on Roman villas and to investigate their contribution to the economic, social and ideological networks of the Mediterranean. But the editors also express the earnest hope of inspiring fruitful discussions between scholars of different nations and of providing signposts for future research in a field where so many archaeological sites have only recently been discovered and remain partly or wholly unexcavated, have been unsystematically recorded or received limited publication.

Chapters 1 and 2 introduce key themes in literary texts, agricultural treatises, architectural manuals and modern scholarship: the connection of villas to urban and rural infrastructures, their relationship with town houses and their economic and social contribution to Roman imperial expansion, both as centres of hospitality, retreat, pleasure and learning, and as hubs for the production of commodities ranging from wheat to shellfish, bricks, charcoal and barrels.

The bulk of the book is divided into four sections. Part One contains chapters about villas around the Bay of Naples, both those open to the public like the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii and the ‘Villa of Poppaea’ at Torre Annunziata, and less well-known maritime villas at Stabiae, Positano and Somma Vesuviana. Part Two (the largest section) deals with Roman villas in the wider Mediterranean area, including recent evidence for villa life in Southern and Northern Italy, Sicily, Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula, the Maltese Archipelago, North Africa, Apollonia (Israel), Roman Galilee, Greece, and the Eastern Adriatic and Ionian Coastlands. Part Three presents research on late antique villas, including case studies of the properties of Paulinus of Pella and the ‘burgus’ of Pontius Leontius as well as what can be gleaned about the cultural interests of villa owners from two assemblages of portrait busts. This section also discusses villas in Late Antique Hispania and the developments brought about by the spread of Christianity and the Visigothic occupation. Part Four offers papers on the after-life of Pliny’s letters about his Tuscan and Laurentine villas in the maps and designs of European architectural education and the reconstruction by J. Paul Getty of an eclectic pastiche of a luxury Roman villa and garden loosely based on the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum.

Finally the editors draw together the threads of these diverse studies in a conclusion which ranges from theories concerning the Republican origins of villas and the influence of Hellenistic Greek architecture to their decline in the late 6th c. CE as European economies changed and villas were subdivided, used as burial places and in time became centres for villages and churches.

This book deals not merely with villas as architectural entities and agricultural production centres, but also with the ideologies behind them: as vehicles for the elite owners’ individual self-expression, as a means of displaying their wealth, status and desire for competitive luxury, as venues of productive otium and as experiments in the integration of buildings and gardens. The editors succeed in their mission to show both the diversity and the homogeneity of the Roman villa phenomenon, united by similar architectural features, full exploitation of estates’ natural resources and shared ideological values. The book demonstrates how the versatile template of the Italian-based villa was successfully adapted to the varied climates of the whole Mediterranean basin, how villas did not just export goods like garum and amphorae, but were also instrumental in spreading Roman lifestyles and aspirations to the different lands of the empire, and even how the vision of the ideal villa lives on in European and American imaginations into the present day.

Claire Gruzelier

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