Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.44

Jochen Werner Mayer, Imus ad villam: Studien zur Villeggiatur im stadtrömischen Suburbium in der späten Republik und frühen Kaiserzeit. Geographica Historica, 20.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2005.  Pp. 266.  ISBN 3-515-08787-7.  €44.00.  

Reviewed by Geoff W. Adams, The University of New England (

The arrival of a new study examining the suburbium of ancient Rome is very welcome, since the field is relatively fertile ground for future studies. Previous studies by Champlin and Purcell,1 have laid a firm foundation upon which further studies of this quite enigmatic region beyond the pomerium of the urbs. can be based.

The intention of this study is clearly established by Mayer: to analyse the topographical distribution of villas in the extra-urban areas of Rome, primarily through the examination of the literary and epigraphic sources. He seeks to justify this fairly controlled scope of investigation [p. 19] by arguing that the dominance of archaeological studies has left a void for this method of interpretation. While this is a valid perspective in some regards, a more holistic method of analysis might have been beneficial for the study overall. Nevertheless, it does provide some significant contributions.

The first section [pp. 15-20] serves as a general introduction that outlines the intention and focus of the study, whereas the second section [pp. 21-4] details where the study itself is placed within the corpus of previous studies on the suburbium of ancient Rome. The third section of the book [pp. 35-42] dives head-first into the actual 'meat' of Mayer's analysis with a discussion of the various literary references concerning the lifestyles and intellectualism that occurred at the various villae suburbanae.

Section IV [pp. 43-148] is divided under three general subheadings: an analysis of how the term suburbium was used in both Latin and Greek literature, the use of the term suburbanus for definite extra-urban areas outside Rome, and, finally, the nature of the border between Rome and the suburbium. The main focus within this section is upon the second topic [IV.2, pp. 51-108], which provides a progressive examination of the various references to areas within the hinterland of ancient Rome, such as Atina, Gabii, Labici, Lanuvium, Velitrae, Tibur and Tusculum, just to name a few. Section IV.3 deals with the difficulties in the division between the urbs and the suburbs, focusing upon the definition of the pomerium and how it changed from the Republican into the Imperial periods. Section V comprises the final major section of the book, which analyses the significance of terms such as salubritas [p. 152], otium [p. 154], amoenitas [p. 155] and modestia [p. 161] and how they relate what we know of the activities that occurred in the suburbium.

Initially the focus is upon two themes: the topographical expansion of the suburbium and its psychological connection to the capital. Owing to the nature of the evidence used for this in Section III [pp. 25-42], which focuses primarily upon the literary sources, the work necessarily concentrates upon the aristocratic residences at the expense of the purely productive estates, which means that the analysis can be taken as an interpretation only of luxury sites. This section analyses the lifestyles that were attainable at such sites, according to the ancient authors, and primarily focuses upon the elements of otium and luxuria. One of the most intriguing aspects of Mayer's work is his attempt to tie the growth of privacy to the political changes that occurred from the Second Century BC with the increasing power of Rome [p. 39]. Owing to the predominant emphasis upon the literary evidence, the discussion is largely concerned with the intellectual possibilities that were available to villa owners [pp. 40-2]. His argument is quite accurate, but only in relation to the upper-class villa rather than the large number of villae rusticae that also existed within the extra-urban regions of the capital.

The bulk of the analysis is contained within Sections IV and V and centres upon a topographical survey of various regional centres in the suburbium and the literary references to various villa complexes within the region. Section IV [pp. 43-148] correctly recognises the status of villae suburbanae [p. 47], with a fair degree of analysis detailing the various influences [Greek, Etruscan] that assisted in the development of these complexes [pp. 43-6]. Pages 59-108 mainly comprise a survey of various sites and the known literary and epigraphic evidence that relates to each section. This provides an informative overview of each centre, such as Laurentum and Velitrae, many of which have had only minimal publication.

The comprehensive basis of the research is clearly evident, with a great number of references being used in relation to each centre, but there is little contextualisation of each location, which limits the application of each site towards the overall argument. It seems that this is largely owing to the structure of the work, which frequently separates the collected literary references from the analysis of the various terms that are used in relation to them. Mayer's attempt to define the borders of the pomerium and how it changed [pp. 109-28] is a significant feature of the study, but it also illustrates how difficult it is to define such a subjective division. Some of the problems in the structure of the book appear in Section V, where the important concepts within the literary evidence, such as salubritas, otium and amoenitas [pp. 149-63], are disconnected from the analysis of the various authors and their perspectives [pp. 164-217]. The segmented structure of this study makes quick referencing much easier, but it reduces the effectiveness of Mayer's argument, which becomes a little lost in the continued division of sub-headings.

While there is little doubt about the overall value of this study, there are a couple of areas that might have been elaborated upon. There is no discussion of the term villa suburbana itself. This was not a common term, with there being only five extant sources that use the phrase: Catullus, Cornelius Nepos, Fronto, Apuleius and the Digest. Only the Catullan reference is discussed, with little mention of the significance of the term itself within the literary corpus. Another area that might have been covered more comprehensively is the representation of the archaeological sources: complexes such as the Villas dell'Auditorium, Castel Gandolfo and Gabina are mentioned as evidence for Mayer's conclusions, but there are no plans of their structure and there is only one general map of the region, which seems inadequate for a topographical study.

All the same, the overall quality of the research displayed within this study, in relation to the literary and epigraphic material, is thorough and clearly epitomises the author's familiarity with the extant evidence. Imus ad villam is therefore a meritorious study, although it could have been improved through some reorganisation of the valuable material presented. The key themes within Mayer's work provide an excellent basis for the developing research on the suburbium of ancient cities at this time, providing a well-reasoned delineation of the issues and idiosyncrasies of the extra-urban region of Rome. All the same, the main benefit produced of this study is that it highlights the significant place that was held by the smaller hinterland communities around ancient Rome, such as Lanuvium, Tusculum and Tibur, and how they also played an important role within the socio-political environment in the capital.


1.   E. Champlin, "The Suburbium of Rome", AJAH 7, 1982, pp. 97-117; N. Purcell, "Wine and Wealth in Ancient Italy", JRS 75, 1985, pp. 1-19; "Tomb and Suburb", in Von Hesberg, H. and Zanker, P. (eds.), Römische Gräberstrassen, Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften: Munich, 1987, pp. 25-41; "Town in Country and Country in Town", in MacDougall, E.B. (ed.), Ancient Roman Villa Gardens, Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture 10: Washington, 1987, pp. 187-203.

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