Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.10.25

Bernard Frischer, Jane Crawford, Monica De Simone, The Horace's Villa Project, 1997-2003. 2 vols.   Oxford:  Archaeopress, 2006.  Pp. xxvii, 1032.  ISBN 1407300016.  £135.00.  

Reviewed by David Soren, University of Arizona (
Word count: 3466 words

2006 was a very good year for the poet Horace even though he died in 8 B.C. First, the sacred spring near Chiusi (southern Tuscany) that he appears to have frequented in 23 B.C. with the emperor Augustus has apparently been located and studied in a new monograph, and in the same year his alleged Sabine Villa has been published as well, a site which for decades has been the subject of pilgrimages by scholars traveling 28 miles northeast of Rome to puzzle over the sprawling, poorly preserved architecture and to declaim the Epistles from the nearby Fonte Bandusia.

The Horace's Villa Project: 1997-2003 gathers evidence from archaeology, inscriptions, geography and tradition to attempt to answer the question: is this Horace's villa? The answers that the excavators unearth are as fascinating as the initial question and the reader will find this to be not only a detailed summary of the current and previous excavations but also a lively page-turner mystery full of innovative ideas.

This book chronicles the 1997-2001 excavations that were generated when classical philologist Bernard Frischer, a Horace scholar at the University of Virginia, became interested in finding out more about the partially excavated villa that had long been attributed to the famed poet. Because of Frischer's background, he could have been tempted to argue for a Horatian date for the villa, but instead he sought to seek its origins objectively. Even though the villa is in the right location in Sabine territory to fit Horace's own description of it (Odes 1.17-22) as being near the Digentia (Licenza) River and the Mons Lucretilis (Mount Gennaro?), its incredible size, surviving fresco and mosaic fragments and gaudy private baths all argue for a later date than the Augustan period.

Frischer and his philologist wife Jane Crawford, also at the University of Virginia, along with their doctoral student, Monica De Simone began restudying the site following renewed interest in the Roman poet in 1992, the 2000th anniversary of Horace's death. Less than scientific excavations made by Angelo Pasqui between 1911 and 1914 were interrupted by World War I and then ended by Pasqui's unexpected death in 1915, leaving the site in chaos and resulting in an attempt by a young Giuseppe Lugli, archaeological inspector of the area in the later 1920s, to make sense of Pasqui's notes and to attempt to excavate the site with American landscape architect Thomas D. Price of the American Academy in Rome. Lugli's efforts resulted in the organization and publication of much of Pasqui's work along with his own but no clear answers to the big question were offered, despite Lugli's insistence that the frescoes recovered and the flooring might suit an early imperial date. To make matters worse, modern restorations were effected at various times over the years, beginning with Pasqui. A further limited excavation by Adriana La Regina was made in 1957 but also failed to provide a comprehensive analysis.

Even though the association of the villa with Horace dates back to 1761 and Domenico De Sanctis' work, this site of potential international significance has never been the subject of prolonged investigation and no archaeologists have provided what Frischer has termed an "autopsy" of the site, combining present and previous work into one tome. The bi-millennium of Horace's death saw the opening of a Museo Oraziano in the nearby Orsini Castle of Licenza which joined the Licenza museum in displaying materials from the earlier excavations. The earlier excavators left the finds and stratigraphy in a chaotic state but through it all the tradition that the villa was that of Horace remained preeminent. In taking on the villa in 1996, Frischer conducted his own limited new excavations designed to understand the stratigraphy of the site and also to help clarify the work of the previous excavators.

The two new volumes are broken down into a volume of specialist reports and a volume of illustrations and data. The first volume is presented as an archaeological detective story, laying out the objectives of the team but not giving the results in the general introduction. The first volume also discusses the earlier excavators as well as their excavations and even includes a biographical sketch of Thomas Drees Price, the landscape architect who was Giuseppe Lugli's collaborator in the 1930 excavations. Having set the scene, the volume then leads to a series of chapters on the archaeological soundings, detailing the various sections of the villa, including the 20,000 square foot Residence, the Gardens (which offer great potential for future excavation and for the burgeoning field of Roman garden archaeology), the enormous Quadriporticus, and the elegant Bath Complex. This is followed by a study of the masonry structures by Monica De Simone, evaluating the previous excavators' chronologies and bringing in the latest evidence on dating through wall construction techniques, and attempting to distinguish the building styles used during three major periods of construction at the site.

This then is followed by the pottery and other material culture reports (garden material, bricks and brickstamps, architectural terracottas, marbles, coins, etc.) which reveal that what is left of the once elegant villa is not visually stimulating. The pottery is ordinary, the surviving finds mediocre. But is not through spectacular or elegant finds that the book impresses. It is rather with how the team interprets the meaning of the scant remains.

The earlier investigators did not pay enough attention to the obvious fact that the villa did not have just one owner. It continued to function as a residence until at least the third century A.D. The new studies showed that what is currently visible dates later than the time of Horace. Scant traces of what Frischer terms Period IA, the earliest phase of the villa, have been found below the current structure, and no overall plan could be made due to the subsequent construction and the limited nature of the new excavations. The villa had been sizeable but different and may have had no huge swimming pool and porticoed walkways or quadriporticus yet. It may well have been the simple rustic retreat for otium literarum that Horace mentioned: a modestly sized place near a spring and small wood with oak and ilex where he might sleep beneath open sky. Such a villa was provided for him by Maecenas, literary patron of Augustus, and upon Horace's death it would have reverted to the imperial fiscus, a massive discretionary fund which would allow the villa to be redistributed to someone else of significance within the imperial circle. Period IB is placed before A.D. 100 and possibly in the Neronian period when the earlier, simpler villa of Period IA was reconstructed into a significantly larger structure perhaps without the huge quadriporticus extending from the main domestic block. Traces of elegant wall painting including colorful monsters may date to this time.

Period IIA is presented as a phase closely following yet vaguely distinct from IB in which the bath complex was developed and some aesthetic changes were made in the large domestic block, including a new fountain in Room 8. The addition of the quadriporticus and the raising up of the garden level and the pool installation may belong to this time, showing a major upswing in luxury accommodations, accentuated by the addition of black and white mosaics in a number of rooms. The mosaics are carefully made and show intricate patterning, yet simple taste, no doubt allowing the elegant colored wall paintings to highlight the rooms. The date may be near the end of the first century A.D. Period IIB, between 130 and 150 A.D., witnessed the enlarging of the baths with new rooms and accentuated the luxurious feeling of the villa with new mosaics. But by Period IIIA the villa was in sharp decline and no new building occurred. In the fourth century A.D. the ruined villa was no longer suitable for habitation and the baths became a graveyard. After that few traces of later frequentation occurred.

In most excavated Roman villas no evidence of the owner survives. It is rare among the perhaps 3000 known villas that the archaeologist is lucky enough to unearth a series of tiles or lead pipes that are inscribed or stamped with a name for posterity. This was not the case at this villa, where the roof tiles and lead piping divulge not one but four different likely owners! In the earliest period one presumed owner was Manius Naevius, part of a Roman family of moderate prominence, just the sort of dominus who might have died, gone bankrupt or had the wrong allegiance in the Civil Wars of the later Roman Republic and had his villa taken into the imperial fiscus. If this is Horace's villa, a transfer of title could be how Maecenas passed on the villa to the poet. But Frischer et al are aware that although they have re-excavated a villa that dates back to at least Horace's time and probably earlier (pottery scraps suggest occupation here from the third century B.C. on), they have found no trace of Horace's presence and very little of the villa from his time. Also, there were other villas in the area at the time and this might be one of those (Horace's neighbor Cervius?). Furthermore, dates cannot be offered with precision because datable pottery and material culture are sparse and guesswork based on comparative stratigraphy and analysis of drain patterns and wall techniques is required along with the use of a detailed Harris matrix or stratigraphic interpretation system.

The book, however fascinating, is not without some problems. In presenting the work some questions arise which are not adequately answered in the text. Why are the periods of the villa divided up into A and B instead of just continuing with sequential numbers? There seems to be no justification for this as each division of time constitutes a distinct period, sometimes precise and sometimes more vague, but always distinct chronologically from the period of time preceding it. The dividing up of what seem to be distinct periods into mini periods or phases confuses the reader and seems to misrepresent the chronological development of the site.

Another problem is the appearance of a large early perimeter wall made of early opus incertum along and directly under the western limit of the later quadriporticus, a huge porticoed area enclosing a swimming pool. This perimeter wall clearly forms a distinct early phase, but what was its purpose? If it was there from the earliest time of the villa (Period IA), did it enclose an early predecessor of the later quadriporticus for which there is no other evidence? If so, this could undermine Frischer's theory that the site was only expanded in the Neronian and Flavian periods to create the mega villa whose ruins exist there now and his theory that the earliest villa was simple and more suited to Horace's taste. De Simone, who interprets this early perimeter wall, only states that its presence "presents evidence of a phase prior to the construction of the quadriporticus in the form we currently observe on the site" and that "the problem of the use of the area in this phase (i.e. Period IA) remains unsolved."

A more serious problem is that the plans illustrating the different periods at the back of the second volume do not correspond tightly to the textual discussions in the first volume and one is constantly searching to find which parts of the villa belong to which periods or sub periods. For example, Frischer's concluding chapter discusses the vastly different Periods IA and IB but foldout Figure 21 is only given the general label Period I and seems to highlight only his Period IA while not indicating site developments in his Period IB. The same problem occurs with the figure of Period II and Frischer's text discussion of Periods IIA and IIB. Even worse is the fact that De Simone's periodization of the villa in her chapter on masonry techniques differs sharply from that employed in Frischer's conclusions. To take just one example, she places the addition of the villa baths in her Period III (page 159) while he places them in his Period IIA (page 378). The foldout plans, keyed to agree with De Simone's interpretations, don't fit with Frischer's periodization. This causes considerable reader confusion until it is realized that each chapter author, De Simone and Frischer, has developed independently his and her own periodization and chronological phasing for the villa without coordinating them.

Another problem for the reader is attempting to read the first volume continuously from front to back. After several chapters, beginning particularly with the detailed discussions of the Residence, the text becomes so confusing that copious notes are required to follow all the soundings and trench descriptions. A much easier way to read this first volume is to read the general introduction, then skip to the section on conclusions by Frischer, and then to go back over the detailed sections, with the result that all the Periods and Sub-Period confusions become clear and fit into an overall scheme (at least until you read De Simone's separate periodizations). The photographs, while essential to explain each section, are generally of good quality but some of the reconstructions appear to have been initially generated in color and then reproduced in black and white at too small a size giving a rather dark look as in Figures 31 and 32.

For the most part the above complaints show what can result when books are produced by various specialists and students who then integrate their particular sections into an overall design with varying degrees of success. This problem, plus the examination and integration of earlier inadequately published material in storerooms and museums, make the chief archaeologist/author's task a difficult one. In this case, one more reading of the book by a professional editor outside of the project and possessing archaeological experience would have helped.

But these shortcomings do not destroy the quality and significance of the project or its directors. It is possible to follow the discussion of the villa architecture even with the difficulties encountered because the writing is so clear and the text has been provided with easily referenced sub-sections which allow convenient flipping around the first volume to track down vital references in other articles and to sort out discrepancies. There are fascinating detailed studies of the gardens and baths, a thorough analysis of the masonry structures and a complete review of the uninspiring surviving material culture of the place. Only the mosaics and the scraps of recovered wall paintings suggest the elegance that once exemplified this now humble ruin. Of particular interest is the careful topographical and geological study of the local soils and surrounding area and the paleo-botanical analyses.

An important article not usually included in a book of this type is by Luisa Del Giudice, dealing with the relationship of archaeology and local folklore. In it she stresses the lack of interest in the importance of the villa among the people of neighboring Licenza, with the exception of a few political officials and local intellectuals, particularly teachers. The failure to present such an important site for significant tourism is astounding to an American who would instantly think of the marketing possibilities and the cold cash that might be garnered from the souvenir concessions alone. But Italy is a country of uncountable riches and one more ruin apparently makes little difference to the agricultural society of this area.

These two volumes make an extraordinary contribution to Roman history and archaeology. Even though Horace's name was never found, the excavations revealed that the villa was elaborately rebuilt and considerably expanded in the post Horatian period. During this time the owner was the renowned Claudia Epicharis who may have been a high priced courtesan, a mistress within the imperial circle to M. Annaeus Mela (the brother of Seneca and father of Lucan) and a key member with Lucan of the Pisonian Conspiracy to assassinate the emperor Nero. In Period IB, perhaps, she took over the house and supervised the enlargement of the villa to some 20,000 square feet and over two stories. That this may have occurred in the 60s A.D. is plausibly argued by Frischer who sees her as the wife of Tiberius Claudius Abascantus, an official with the emperor Nero's treasury department. According to Frischer, when Nero built his getaway villa in Subiaco (villa Sublacensis), two day's journey from Rome, he needed a stopover place and it was the imperial custom to stay with aristocratic members of the inner circle along the way rather than risk staying at a low-class and possibly bug-infested inn. The Sabine villa was one day's ride from Rome and once it was expanded with gardens and a larger domestic area, it was worthy for a traveling emperor and his retinue.

But what happened to Claudia Epicharis who showed no interest in politics before the transformation of her villa? Did Nero make unseemly advances to her there? Arguing from archaeology and geography, Frischer and philological historian Vasily Rudich explain that she tried to conspire against Nero with Volusius Proculus, the leader of the fleet of Misenum (near Pompeii), and was given up to the emperor. She was tortured and twisted on the rack but would not give up the names of other conspirators and then she strangled herself with her breast-band, so that Tacitus found her to be a model of courage for her age even though she was a freedwoman (liberta).

The villa passed into other hands after the demise of Claudia Epicharis, probably reverting first to the imperial fiscus again. Tiberius Claudius Burrus, son of Tiberius Claudius Parthenius, was the next owner of record. Parthenius too was in the inner imperial circle as the cubicularius of the emperor Domitian and a patron of the poet Martial. He may have given the villa to his son and in the later first century A.D. created the beautiful baths and the unduly large quadriporticus since the Subiaco Villa continued to be used by the Flavian imperial family and stopovers were still needed. These allegedly continued because a new Vespasianic villa had been constructed at Aquae Cutiliae, 50 miles from Rome. However, like Claudia Epicharis before him, Parthenius became involved in a plot, successful this time, to kill an emperor. Domitian was murdered in his own bedroom at his colossal residence on the Palatine Hill.

The next villa owner whose name appears at the villa on a lead water pipe in the baths is the senator and legatus of Africa Publius Hostilius Firminus whose love of luxury led him to abet the corrupt practices of African proconsul Marius Priscus. For his part in the corruption, involving a cosmetics scam and extortion, the proconsul was indicted by the senate and heavily fined while Firminus was given a minor punishment. After the expansion of the bath complex in the late Hadrianic or Antonine period, the Sabine villa declined in importance, no new building took place, and the site deteriorated into the ruin it has become today.

In this work the authors have done more than just provide an archaeological report. They have reviewed the evidence from past explorations of the site and supplemented it with new carefully placed excavations and created a badly needed summa for the site up to the present day. Furthermore, not content to present the evidence, they have tried, in the words of Daniel Kies, to "think outside the box" and imagine how the villa proceeded through history. In this they have offered a particularly valuable and creative contribution. Of course the original objective, proving whether or not it was the villa of Horace, was not able to be answered. It was an imperial villa in the right location and possibly of the right size although further excavation is needed to determine its original appearance. The excavators have resisted the urge to force the evidence to make this the villa of Horace but at the same time they have not only published fully the data from their investigations but they have also cleverly hypothesized why the villa evolved as it did.

The authors could not have imagined at the outset that the spate of owner impressions on bricks and piping would reveal that this villa was a place where such emperors as Nero and Vespasian likely spent the night en route to their own villas. Moreover, the villa appears to have been the home of not one but two major conspirators against the emperors Nero and Domitian, respectively. One of them, Claudia Epicharis, is one of the most fascinating and courageous ladies in all of Roman history. Vasily Rudich half jokingly suggests in the first volume that in light of the current work the villa should be renamed the "Villa dei assassini imperiali." It's not a bad idea!

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