BMCR 2020.11.07

The Roman villa in the Mediterranean basin: late Republic to late Antiquity

, , The Roman Villa in the Mediterranean Basin: Late Republic to Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xxxv, 599, 12 p. of plates. ISBN 9781107164314 £140.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

 Marzano and Métraux’s edited volume, “The Roman Villa in the Mediterranean Basin”, presents a collection of 25 papers and is poised to become a standard reference on the archaeology of the Roman villa from the late Republic through late antiquity.[1] In a brief “Introduction”, the editors frame the volume’s papers as witnesses to “the expansion and proliferation of villas in the Mediterranean Basin under Roman hegemony.” Its goals are equally wide-reaching: to bring attention to recent discoveries and interpretative models; and to sketch a path for future interpretative and analytical studies. These impart some methodological cohesion to a mix of site reports, broad historical surveys, and thematic analyses, which are organized into four sections: villas in the Bay of Naples; villas in the Mediterranean provinces; the late antique villa; and the reception of the Roman villa in the (early) modern era.

Considered as a single entity, the volume is an important synthesis of the extant corpus of Roman villas excavated throughout the Mediterranean. With an impressive bibliography, evidence from around the empire, and essays by experts from different scholarly traditions, the book is well-positioned to serve scholars looking for an English-language orientation to the archaeological corpus. Specialists and non-specialists alike will find it a useful starting point for research, thereby fulfilling its call to further intensive investigation of the Roman villa.

In this reviewer’s opinion, however, there is a slight disconnect between that call and the volume’s highly traditional methodological and interpretative approaches. Most chapters present architectural studies of the pars urbana, familiar territory in villa scholarship. As such, interpretations rarely break new ground, and many actually summarize or build on recent monographs in which the author’s claim is explored in greater depth. This does not diminish the importance of the collection as a reference, but the absence of coordination between papers in terms of novel research axes or investigative models is conspicuous. Given the large number of contributions, my review highlights methodological or interpretative cohesion within individual sections, together with brief summaries of the papers therein.

Early chapters review scholarly approaches to the villa. The first, co-authored by Marzano and Métraux, focuses on historiography. It weighs literary and archaeological evidence in a consideration of long-standing historical questions and investigative approaches, e.g., origins of the Roman villa; literary tropes; post-antique manifestations. There are extended discussions of the surviving agricultural treatises (which the authors treat with caution), and the villa rustica, economics, and enslaved labor (which is, unfortunately, seldom discussed in successive chapters with the exception of Marzano’s). The vast territory covered here is commendable, but broad survey of the historiographic bases does not necessarily prepare the reader for the (primarily architectural) contributions that follow. A second introductory chapter by Rothe considers definitions of the villa in archaeological scholarship. It begins with the literary testimony, but quickly turns to basic approaches to the archaeology and the evidence from the (non-Mediterranean) provinces. Rothe’s salient point——that archaeologists do not entirely agree on what constitutes a villa in the archaeological record—helps rectify certain discrepancies in later papers.

Part I is concerned with late Republican and early Imperial villas in the Bay of Naples. The approach of authors here varies, but most uphold traditional interpretations of the villa as a metonym for elite identity. Of particular interest to contributors is the villa’s role in facilitating interactions among the elite in the name of hospitalitas, which reflects the scholarly turn towards the social character of the Roman villa. A good example is  Wallace-Hadrill’s investigation of atria and their location in late Republican villas. Using the Villa of the Mysteries, but especially Vitruvius, Wallace-Hadrill argues that atria fulfilled social obligations; business did not cease when late Republican villa owners went to their country estates, and rural atria provided space for receiving guests.

Two papers on Villa A at Oplontis further treat the visitor’s experience, with some overlap. Clarke summarizes recent findings, but his analytical focus is the coordination of space and decoration at Villa A, and ways in which it capitalized on its cliffside location. Zarmakoupi’s essay builds on her recent monograph and considers both the incorporation of Hellenistic architectural traditions and the development of a Roman appreciation of landscape.[2] The photographs in Zarmakoupi’s and Clarke’s papers are effective illustrations of the viewsheds that both highlight, but the plan of the site (fig. 4.1) is small and difficult to read. Howe’s paper on villas at Stabiae is interested in peer-polity interactions, and gestures towards the growing importance of locations beyond Rome for the projection of social grandeur in the early Empire. Two site reports—on the Roman villa at Positano (Campanelli et al.) and the (late antique) “Villa of Augustus” at Somma Vesuviana (Aoyagi et al.)—are also included in this section.

Marzano’s piece on the coastal villa’s involvement in the production, exchange, and transport of goods (wine, oil, but also fish, garum, and salt) is a welcome departure from discussions of the pars urbanain part I. Marzano surveys stand-out examples of Italian maritime villas, but the chapter consistently incorporates later evidence from southern France and North Africa, thereby  extending discussion beyond the Bay of Naples for the first time. Marzano concludes by reminding readers that, although excavations (and previous chapters) privilege residential quarters, villas are productive entities. This is essentially a synopsis of material discussed at greater length in Marzano’s recent work, but indicates fruitful directions for research.[3]

 Part II presents villas around the Mediterranean Basin. Most papers are syntheses of the provincial corpus, with each region given its own chapter. Contributions tend to follow a basic format: a chronological review of the emergence and development of the villa in the given region, with idiosyncrasies highlighted. This section is thus an excellent English-language resource for anyone looking for some initial direction in provincial iterations of the Roman villa, but scholars already familiar with this evidence may be dissatisfied by the superficial summary of a great wealth of evidence.

The papers on villas in the western provinces survey sites in a chronological fashion. The approach of Gualtieri to “peripheral” villas in southern Italy is characteristic of this: sites from the 3rd—1st c. BCE are linked to Roman military presence; Imperial-era evidence suggests a certain standardization of architectural elements and the identities of villa owners; and late antiquity witnesses the villa’s heightened role in reception and representation. This basic chronology applies to Sicily too, as Wilson shows, but change over time is harder to track—the Sicilian corpus is dominated by the late antique pars urbana. Farther west, villas appear somewhat later, in the 1st c. CE, as demonstrated by Teichner’s chapter on Iberian villas and Buffat’s piece on Gallia Narbonensis and Gallia Aquitania. Both authors survey a great number of sites, proceeding chronologically, but the latter includes a smart comparison of micro-regional variations.

Other papers venture East, where study of the Roman villa has proved problematic because of its long-standing association with a western aristocratic identity.[4] Bowden and Papaioannou, however, highlight rich but underutilized corpora in the Adriatic and Ionian coastlands, and Roman Greece respectively, thereby problematizing the villa as a thoroughly western concept. Both present the standard chronological review of the evidence, which methodologically links their sites to those in previous chapters.

Part II stands out for the variety of definitions it proposes for the villa in archaeology. Weiss’ paper on houses in Roman Galilee argues that the domus can and should be considered a “villa-like urban mansion”. That villas in the Levant were rare is further suggested by Tal and Roll’s re-identification of the villa at Apollonia in Israel as a mansio. But even in the western Mediterranean, Wilson’s chapter on North Africa complicates synthesis of the villa as a rural, economic phenomenon. His review of literary, epigraphic and iconographic evidence suggests the region was home to productive elite villas, although sites identified in the rural hinterland generally lack partes rusticae. Instead, villas tend to cluster in coastal or suburban areas. Bonanno’s study of villas in the Maltese Archipelago is another outlier—it distinguishes purely residential rural villas from those with olive presses. Bonanno’s typology is based in part on the Punic legacy of Maltese villas, since Punic construction forms continued into the Roman period. From this and other papers, however, more work on regional variations of the Roman villa as both a structure and a concept is in order.

Of note in this section is Brogiolo and Chavarría Arnau’s paper on northern Italian villas, which eschews part II’s chronological approach and focuses on late antique manifestations. Chavarría Arnau considers the relationship between villa mausolea, churches, and socio-economic networks, while Brogiolo investigates connections between long-lived villas and/or baths, Ostrogothic rulers, and the post-Roman world. This chapter leans into the late antique villa as a locus for slippages between public and private, Roman and barbarian, late antique and early medieval, thus paving the way for part III.

Part III’s papers approach late antique villas thematically, with discussions of decorative and architectural elementsjuxtaposed with analysis of the cultural identities of later villa owners. The thematic focus yields strong papers, but the demise of the villa is noted only in passing; a paper on the afterlife of villas in the post-Roman period would have been welcome. Ripoll’s chapter dispels arguments for the imperial domini often assumed to inhabit Hispania’s late antique estates, and investigates late antique tools (especially mosaics) for status projection in a traditional, yet innovative, manner. Similar ideas are advanced by Métraux, who deftly uses late antique literature and biographies to consider not only the behaviors and preoccupations of domini, but also the villa as an interface between historical past and contemporary present; the latter is born out in the material record by atria and portraits in some Gallic villas. Bowes then analyzes the villa in the wake of Christianity. Building on her first monograph, the author uses literary and archaeological evidence to signal the villa’s formative role in the development of early Christian practice, despite occasional ambiguities in the archaeological record.[5] The Christianization of the villa, she argues, also correlates with the structure’s ideological role: it had long been used to shape notions of the aristocratic self.

Part IV explores the legacy of the Roman villa in two reception pieces. Du Prey investigates early modern reconstructions of Pliny the Younger’s villas based on his letters. According to the author, there is a surprising degree of correspondence between the ancient texts and later reconstructions because the letters are ekphrases, which ask their readers to participate in rhetorical exercises of visualization. Lapatin’s paper turns to the Getty Villa in Malibu and its Roman-era forebear, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. Lapatin shows how the plan of the Villa dei Papiri was adapted to suit the topography of the Malibu canyon in the 20th c., underscoring the symbiotic relationship between villa architecture and landscape. The chapter concludes with a survey of recent modifications to the Malibu villa, a subtle reminder that Roman or Roman-inspired villas respond and react to their visitors.

In summary, the book offers a comprehensive overview of the excavated corpus and the current state of Roman villa studies. Its content is valuable, but its potential as a handbook is limited by its size (over 600 pages) and price ($180). Endnotes appear in each chapter, but readers must consult the full bibliography at the end of the volume. I noticed only a few errors (e.g. Cato’s De Re Rustica, p. 402). There are a decent number of illustrations and a glossary of key terms, but plans are often small and occasionally lack the information necessary to interpret shading or numbering of individual spaces. As always individual readers will surely find some chapters and sections more engaging than others, but all stand to continue, if in different ways, conversations about Roman villas.

Authors and titles

1. The Roman Villa: An Overview, Annalisa Marzano and Guy P.R. Métraux
2. The Roman Villa: Definitions and Variations, Ursula Rothe
3. The Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii and the Ideals of Hellenistic Hospitality, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
4. The Building History and Aesthetics of the “Villa of Poppaea” at Torre Annunziata: Results from the Oplontis Project 2005-2014, John R. Clarke
5. Landscape at the “Vila of Poppaea” (Villa A) at Torre Annunziata, Mantha Zarmakoupi
6. The Social Status of the Villas of Stabiae, Thomas Noble Howe
7. The Roman Villa of Positano, Adele Campanelli, Giovanni Di Maio, Riccardo Iaccarino, Maria Antonietta Iannelli, Luciana Jacobelli
8. Maritime Villas and the Resources of the Sea, Annalisa Marzano
9. The “Villa of Augustus” at Somma Vesuviana, Masanori Aoyagi, Antonio De Simone, and Girolamo F. De Simone
10. Roman Villas in Southern Italy, Maurizio Gualtieri
11. Villas in Northern Italy, Gian Pietro Brogiolo and Alexandra Chavarría Arnau
12. Roman Villas in Sicily, R.J.A. Wilson
13. Villas in South and Southwestern Gaul, Loïc Buffat
14. Roman Villas in the Iberian Peninsula (Second Century BCE—Third Century CE), Felix Teichner
15. Roman Villas in the Maltese Archipelago, Anthony Bonanno
16. Roman Villas in North Africa, R.J.A. Wilson
17. The Roman Villa at Apollonia (Israel), Oren Tal and the late Israel Roll
18. Houses of the Wealthy in Roman Galilee, Zeev Weiss
19. Villas in Roman Greece, Maria Papaioannou
20. Villas of the Eastern Adriatic and Ionian Coastlands, William Bowden
21. Late Antique Villas: Themes, Guy P.R. Métraux
22. Aristocratic Residences in Late Antique Hispania, Gisella Ripoll
23. Christianization of Villas, Kimberly Bowes
24. Conviviality versus Seclusion in Pliny’s Tuscan and Laurentine Villas, Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey
25. The Villa dei Papiri: Herculaneum and Malibu, Kenneth Lapatin


[1] The volume is based on a conference of the same name, co-sponsored by the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Konrad Adenauer Conference Center in Jerusalem and the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation of Castellamare di Stabia. Some conference participants contributed papers to this volume, but many more were added after an editorial committee extended invitations and reviewed submissions.

[2] Zarmakoupi, Designing for Luxury on the Bay of Naples: Villas and Landscapes (c. 100 BCE – 79 CE). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[3] E.g. Marzano, Harvesting the Sea: The Exploitation of Marine Resources in the Roman Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2013.

[4] E.g. Wilson (chapter 12); C. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[5] Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.