Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.11.14

Alastair M. Small and Robert J. Buck (edd.), The Excavations of San Giovanni di Ruoti, Vol. 1., The Villas and their Environment. Phoenix Supplementary vol. 33. Cheektowaga: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Pp. xxvi, 352, 8 tbls; 34 plans; 153 ills. $125. ISBN 0-8020-5948-1.

Reviewed by Jean Turfa, Dept. of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Bryn Mawr College.

The site of San Giovanni di Ruoti might have been dismissed as a late Roman backwater, but its potential was recognized by Dr. Gerardo Salinardi and Prof. Dinu Adamesteanu of the Soprintendenza alle Antichità della Basilicata. Impeccable excavation by a Canadian team and thorough research of finds make it indispensable for establishing an understanding of the beginnings of medieval Italy. It also furnishes a model of the daily life, agriculture and technology of the inland and upland regions of Lucania for the period of the first through sixth centuries A.D. The vicissitudes and political fortunes of this villa site and its owners left a buildup of debris from which the excavators have extracted a surprising amount of information. Their synthesis is openly documented so that readers may verify any conclusions by reference to the artifacts, a sampling of which are analysed here, arranged by period of use.

This work represents the first volume of an anticipated series which will include specialist studies of the finds and environment; it, and the proposed final volume, will be of interest to historians, while archaeologists will consult the studies of pottery, glass, and other finds. The general interpretation and excavation history of the site are presented by editors Small and Buck, with assistance by C. Roberto. I. A. Campbell and S. G. Monckton contributed studies of the physical environment (climate, geology and flora). Pottery and chronology were discussed by J. Freed, lamps by J. J. Rossiter, the glass by J. W. Hayes, small finds by C. J. Simpson, and coins by R. Reece, with reconstruction of the different building phases by E. R. Haldenby. The mosaics of the third and final villa are analysed by K. M. D. Dunbabin, although for full analysis you must refer to her "The San Giovanni mosaic in the context of late Roman mosaic production," in Lo scavo di San Giovanni di Ruoti ed il periodo tardoarcaico in Basilicata, ed. M. Gualtieri, M. Salvatore, A. M. Small (Bari, 1983) pp. 47-58. Many other participants are graciously credited as well. Everything is beautifully illustrated, with maps of the region of Italy (lacking in many reports) as well as the usual site plans. This format follows the pattern set with The San Rocco Villa at Francolise, by M. Aylwin Cotton, G. P. R. Metraux, ed. A. M. Small (BSR Suppl., New York, 1985), including generous illustration of excavation sections as well as plans and photos. All is geared to make this painstakingly indexed work as useful for historians as for archaeologists.

The site is on a slope at 670 m. overlooking a headwater of the River Sele, better known for its outlet near the city of Paestum, but San Giovanni, its ancient name still unknown, represents a very different aspect of life in Lucania. In contrast to the region's Greek colonial cities, Poseidonia/Paestum and Elea/Velia, the interior reflects the life of all the non-urban natives, with hilly countryside used for pasturage and vineyards. The excavators state that this particular site, although it could have been cultivated, was not commercially viable until the building of the Roman Via Herculia at the end of the third century A.D., since there would have been no means of shipping out surplus produce (contra, see p. 35).

Chapter 4 provides a neat precis of the historical background with ample reference to ancient sources. The Appennine uplands, while remote, were economically dependent upon politics in Rome for the maintenance of transportation networks, markets, taxes, and, all too frequently, for protection against military incursions, although this seldom materialized in timely fashion. Lucania in general apparently suffered economic depression from the time of the Hannibalic War to the end of the Roman Republic. A field survey (chap. 3) covering a six km radius from the site showed eighteen Late Iron Age (ca. 500-300 B.C.) sites, followed by thirty-eight Republican (ca. 300-30 B.C.) sites, which represent a sudden and intensive Roman intervention and population increase. Dozens of small habitation sites mirror the fortunes of this villa throughout its various phases under the Empire.

Sporadic sherds, but no structures, are the only evidence of Italic inhabitants at or near San Giovanni until the early first century A.D., when local landowners first built a large but modest villa there to emulate the leisure class of the Principate. Similar establishments, dotted around the area, were found by the survey team. The native magnates' family names are preserved in funerary inscriptions from a nearby cemetery. The excavators indicate that most of the estate's labor was supplied by free, hired men and women from local hamlets, such as the large settlement identified by the survey just 0.9 km from the villa; this had existed since at least the fourth century B.C.

The original and much remodeled courtyard villa covered about 4,000 square m.; in standard fashion, it encompassed its own industries, including a tile kiln and water-mill. It was in use for almost two centuries (Period 1 = 1st-2nd c. A.D.) prior to abandonment ca. A.D. 220, in the widespread reaction to Rome's third-century political upheavals, when the rich vacated the indefensible countryside. The building remained roofed, so presumably had some use other than as a dwelling, until the return of an owner, ca. A.D. 350 (Period 2 = 350-400 A.D.), who extensively but haphazardly remodeled, and in 370 added a bath house. Again, this late fourth century "architectural mess" was echoed all over the region as Lucania revived under Diocletian's stable economy. Chapter 5 discusses the phenomenon of villa building in the region; be sure to refer to Chapter 10 for the building materials themselves, so important in Roman architecture, sociology, and chronology. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the site retains Period 2 walls, and there is as yet no documentation for the phenomenon of the stibadium, with guests dining around a curved table, replacing the triclinium at the end of the third century, as among the provincial aristocracy in Sicily or Britain.1

Lucanian prosperity under the later Empire derived from government levied pork production and attendant surplus, a very fortunate coincidence for a region famous for pork products since at least the Hellenistic period. Ca. A.D. 400, a completely new villa was built, with a coherent plan and fine structures that reflect an economic and political change, with an apsidal hall as its focus. This is referred to as the praetorium (pp. 91 ff.), and was reached from an outer porch and stair, thus was designed for outsiders whose access to the rest of the establishment was restricted. San Giovanni was exporting not only live animals, but cured meats, as attested by the quantities of heads and forequarters left back home. Still, except for the government levy, most transactions were done by barter (coin finds are scarce). The villa now included large stables and a fine set of baths. After an earthquake in 460, however, the apsidal hall was replaced in a different part of the site, and the whole villa was "monumentalized", with a domed entrance, mosaic-paved dining hall, a lookout tower and a new plan of clustered buildings separated by narrow passageways, "resembling in certain respects the streets and blocks of a city" (Haldenby, p. 116).

The excavators suggest that the departure from the courtyard plan reflects a change in the ethnicity of the owners, who may well have been barbarian veterans settled on Lucanian lands after the invasions of the fifth century. A further trait is the presence of middens in and around the buildings, where Roman inhabitants had always removed their trash. Finally, the dining customs were un-Roman, with guests seated around a long table rather than reclining. These Germanic traits, and structural developments such as piers in divided windows (see p. 124) foreshadow the medieval lifestyle of Southern Italy, which is also portrayed in North African mosaics. (Period 3 = ca. 400 to ca. 550 A.D.) The northern range burned down and the whole villa was abandoned probably in the 540's when the Gothic Wars scoured the region.

Documentation of the rural economy and commerce is implemented by the environmental studies, nicely described with reference to ancient literature (see pp. 34-36), and supported by the first run of specialist studies of the tools and structures on the site. San Giovanni compares favorably with villas excavated in Etruria, for instance Settefinestre,2 although in the north the key periods of occupation are not an exact match. Many northern villas seem to appear in the first century B.C., and lack the later, 5th-century occupation history. Down south, in areas of pasturage and woods that would not be used for grain agriculture, neither the Gracchi, nor the latifundia system had much impact.

A trove of hardware was left in situ, and has been admirably studied. While decoratively not the match of metropolitan Roman edifices, the series of villas were fairly sophisticated as regards an efficient rural lifestyle, with mud brick walls on a rubble masonry socle, neatly tiled roofs, and painted plaster walls (no figural decoration was recovered). The bath buildings of Periods 2 and 3 were of masonry, with hypocaust floors, vaulted ceilings, lead piping, and glass windows. While iron hardware is generally assumed by scholars to have been valuable or in short supply, the owners did not bother to salvage it, after fire destroyed the beams of the final villa. This makes for very intriguing reconstructions of carpentry, for instance the suggestion that tegulae in the roofs of some rooms were laid on battens attached to rafters. This was not common practice in antiquity, but is the only likely explanation of the nails of small size found in Rooms 64 and 69 of period 3B (pp. 143-144). Throughout are intriguing references to Roman (Justinianic) carpentry still on view, as in St. Catherine's monastery, Sinai. On analogy to these, a roof truss is postulated for the main hall of the Period 3 complex (p. 116) which further showed buttressing of thick, exterior load-bearing walls, and gallery lighting. Window glass was used in all periods (pp. 146-147), though it was especially abundant in Period 3 B. The second apsidal hall or praetorium, (Room 58), probably had many windows, and was presumably used for daytime public gatherings (pp. 97-98, 146-147).

The excavators offer rather sophisticated reasoning for reconstructing the first period of abandonment, the roofing methods, and re-use of building materials, but they are probably quite correct. They tote up the weight of rooftiles expected for a given room, to compare with the weight of tiles actually found there; in rooms that cannot have been extensively looted, less than 1 kg of tile per square meter must indicate a vaulted roof.3 Thus, for Period 3, they restore four apsidal bath rooms on the north side, and two more vaulted rooms (Rooms 51, 52, pp. 130 ff.).4 This must reflect a large and highly skilled workforce, and one wonders where else they were active. Note the fish-decorated tiles (fig. 144); and the round-vented tegulae (p. 129), for which the authors note that comparanda, but no thorough study yet exists. The middens of Period 3 are analysed to great advantage (pp. 119-121). Many features of this large but rustic villa seem rather advanced, for instance the abundance of glazed windows and the earliest attested Roman water-mill (in Period 1, pp. 47-49). The mill is small, with water brought from quite a distance in a conjectured wooden aqueduct; the water lines were maintained in later periods.

Although these features seem like innovations from our viewpoint, the villa of San Giovanni was not typical of Roman senators or historians. It is not the Plinian or Pompeian peristyle villa filled with sculpture and fine paintings; nor is it in any way like the "royal villas", or the rich men's retreats such as Piazza Armerina, which was probably used by a privatus to avoid the financial burdens which city residence imposed on the clarissimi.5 H. Mielsch (Die römische Villa: Architektur und Lebensform [Munich, 1987] p. 35) noted that there is still very little archaeological evidence for the historians' paradigm of another villa type, the latifundia. While slave farms may have been as efficient as they were inhumane, terrain and crops rather often dictated a different system, such as a Horatian sort of villa run by a few families of coloni. Such a villa may be the one at Cosa, which is mid-size with about 500 iugera of land; compare San Rocco, Francolise, a Campanian diversorium or perhaps summer home of the first centuries B.C. to A.D.6 The latifundia of the grain-bearing areas, such as Settefinestre, are worlds apart from Lucanian grazing systems. Contrast the wealth of tools in Settefinestre vol. 3, although San Giovanni promises surprises in store, such as an iron wrench probably used as a tap handle in the caldarium of the baths (pp. 145-146, fig. 150). Wrench, water-mill etc. were surely not invented at this site; their discovery thus serves to push back in date the dissemination of such developments through the classical world.

Freed has cautioned against overemphasizing the significance of comparanda of pottery finds where we may err in favor of a site that was of minor importance in its lifetime because it is now well-documented or -illustrated. Better-known Etruscan and Latian contexts in some cases provide parallels that are significantly earlier than the strata at San Giovanni. For instance (p. 53 no. 8), Black Glazed pottery in occupation layers of Period 1, Room 19, is associated with Cosan assemblages of the second to first centuries B.C. It is difficult to imagine such heirlooms on the table here, and presumably more will be said on Black Glaze in a future volume. Pottery comparanda for Period 1 include a respectable amount of imports, paralleled to some extent at Cosa, Ostia, Magdalensburg, Hofheim, Camulodunum, and Dramont wreck D. Beakers were being used for cooking by Period 1, as at Cosa. Other cookware and cooking methods may be linked to developments at Pompeii; likewise, a clibanus (baking cover) attests the conservatism of this household in the second century, when other regions had switched to the use of closed bread ovens (p. 56). Lamps also point to Pompeian analogies. North African spatheia in Period 2 attest the consumption of imported olives, with similar finds in Dramont wrecks F and E (sp. Dramond, p. 54 no. 14). The pottery of Periods 2 and 3 is similar to assemblages at Conimbriga, Ostia, and Carthage, with a North African flavor that goes beyond the Red Slip ware. Personal ornaments (duck brooches, buckles, bosses) in Period 3, on the other hand, link their owners to cultures north of the Alps. The mosaics may be paralleled in Ravenna, Sicily and Greece, but show no regional specialization; in contrast to the North African affinities of Piazza Armerina, San Giovanni's dominus did not hire Carthaginian artists, but probably used local workers. The floors are of considerable value for the rare, secure chronology they provide for Italian secular buildings of ca. 460-500 A.D. Dunbabin notes (p. 116) that "they demonstrate the persistent strength of the traditional embellishments of civilized life" which kept alive artisans' workshops in a troubled era.

Historians, classicists and archaeologists expect different things of a site report; those seeking comparanda for their own finds in field or museum must wait for the next San Giovanni volumes, although a stratigraphic sample has been presented here. A mise en scene of the political social and economic background of the Empire in Italy is available: was life in the villa typical of the region and Empire? Probably yes to the former, and no to the latter. To the best of the excavators' knowledge, no military or catastrophic events directly touched the site, such as raids or wars. While editing throughout this volume is very good, there is some uncertainty as to whether to link the demise of the villa with the Gothic Wars (cf. pp. 6, 22, 121). The political dealings of Rome, however, had come to dictate the character of farming in Lucania, promoting the pork dole in the third century, as it had the grain dole that affected other regions and provinces earlier. Sometimes this drove the wealthy to the land (as noted for the fourth century Sicilian aristocracy by Wilson), and at other times, as in the unrest of the third century, caused them to seek refuge in the towns, abandoning their villas. The ethnicity of the villa's owners, presumed to be native Italic Lucanians in the Augustan period, is said to have shifted at some time in the 5th century to the barbarian element, perhaps settled veterans. The structures, with their "studied avoidance of symmetry" (Wilson 1987) very clearly reflect the change in lifestyle that would result in medieval Europe.  


1. This was already seen at Piazza Armerina and Woodchester: see S. Ellis, "Late-antique dining: architecture, furnishings and behavior," in Domestic Space in the Roman World: Pompeii and Beyond, JRA Suppl. Ser. 22, ed. R. Laurence and A. Wallace-Hadrill (1997) pp. 41-51.  

2. See the lavish volumes of Settefinestre: una villa schiavistica nell'Etruria romana, ed. A. Carandini et al. (Modena, 1985).  

3. This is very cautious of them, and must be correct: I have estimated sixty kg. for a square meter of just slightly coarser, earlier Etruscan tiles on a gabled roof (PBSR 64, 1996, p. 2). Perhaps even more rooms were vaulted than has been so clearly proven.  

4. While photos throughout are of excellent clarity and well-planned, if occasionally printed a bit dark, it can be tedious to navigate between photos labelled by excavation feature numbers and plans with room numbers and only a few feature numbers.  

5. See R. J. A. Wilson, "Piazza Armerina and the Senatorial Aristocracy in late Roman Sicily," in La villa romana del Casale di Piazza Armerina, S. Garraffo, ed. (Catania, 1988) pp. 170-182.  

6. Or compare the modest villa excavated at La Befa, near Siena: J. J. Dobbins, The Excavation of the Roman Villa at La Befa, Italy, B.A.R. I.S. 162, Oxford, 1983.