BMCR 2023.05.02

Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsanlagen römischer Villen im republikanischen und kaiserzeitlichen Italien

, Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsanlagen römischer Villen im republikanischen und kaiserzeitlichen Italien. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. xi, 520. ISBN 9783110714296.



The latest entry on ‘villa’ in the Oxford Classical Dictionary states that ‘villas ranged in character from functional farmhouses to luxurious country seats for the élite’, before defining ‘the classic Italian villa’ as ‘comprising not only a luxurious dwelling for the use of the owner on visits to the estate (pars urbana) but also working farm buildings (pars rustica) and storage buildings and barns (pars fructuaria)’; this segregated structure, the reader is informed, ‘is perfectly illustrated by the excavations at Settefinestre’.[1] That villa, i.e. Settefinestre, located in the hinterland of Cosa in central Etruria, has arguably provided a striking canvass for the modern study of the phenomenon known as villeggiatura, i.e. the Roman elites’ pursuit of otium at villa estates, including productive ones, away from urban centres. More specifically, following its archaeological exploration by Andrea Carandini and his team, Settefinestre was hailed as the ‘type estate’ of the slave-run Roman villa—the ‘villa schiavistica’.[2] Settefinestre, as Michael Feige’s Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsanlagen römischer Villen im republikanischen und kaiserzeitlichen Italien recalls, benefitted indeed from the neat separation of different partes, as did many other villas in its surroundings, in Etruria, neighbouring Latium, and beyond. But as Feige’s analysis of 124 productive estates in Roman Italy highlights, there was more to their design than what the notion of Settefinestre as a ‘type estate’ can possibly shoulder. In brief, Feige’s detailed presentation and discussion of the architectural challenges constituted by oleo- and viticulture as well as arable cultivation illustrates a notable counter-model on the Bay of Naples to the separation of ‘rustic/productive’ from ‘urban/domestic’ parts characteristic of Settefinestre—and by extension to the historical narrative of the rise of the ‘villa schiavistica’ in the republican period.

Feige presents the results of his research into the spatial organisation of agricultural villas in Roman republican and early imperial Italy across 520 heavily illustrated pages: ‘Der Fokus der Untersuchung liegt hier auf der Verbindung zwischen der wirtschaftlichen Aufgabe der Villen und ihrer Architektur’ (15). Following a customary introduction (‘Einführung’, 1-19), Chapter 2 details the production facilities and spaces (‘Produktionsanlagen und -räume für Wein, Öl und Getreide’, 21-119), before Chapter 3 localises these in the estates’ structures (‘Produktionräume im räumlichen Gefüge der Villengebäude’, 121-164). Chapter 4 explores subsequently several underlying contexts (esp. historical, geographical/geological and climatic) to situate the observed architectural developments and patterns (‘Hintergründe der Entwicklung der landwirtschaftlichen Villen in Italien’, 165-205). A short conclusion (‘Zusammenfassung und Ausblick’, 207-209), an appendix (211-15, on cultic and representational dimensions),[3] and a catalogue (217-470, allocating a unique identifier to each site: e.g., ET-01 Settefinestre) close the book.

Feige starts from the generic notion of the villa as a non-urban dwelling (‘ein extraurbanes Wohngebäude’, 3), which, when combined with productive activity, is analytically classified as an agricultural estate (‘die rein moderne Kategorie der landwirtschaflichen Villa’, 3). Feige’s data collection is based on documentation of production facilities pertaining to oil, wine and/or grain cultivation, besides evidence for the estates’ layouts, or at least for the spatial organisation of the facilities. Given these taxing premises, Feige’s harvest of 124 rural estates is concentrated on Latium (49 villas) and Campania (41 villas), augmented by Settefinestre and seven further villas from Etruria— reflecting the discipline’s longstanding focus on these regions. Transpadana, Liguria, Aemilia, Umbria, Picenum, Lucania (subsuming Bruttii: LU-05 Villa di Camerelle) and Apulia (subsuming Samnium; see below) make up together just 26 estates; Histria, Venetia and Calabria go empty. Consequently, Feige’s findings concern fundamentally the central western stretch of the peninsula.

Feige’s is not a comprehensive study: it does not offer a complete overview of productive facilities and/or rural estates in Roman Italy, let alone of agricultural production per se;[4] instead, it details the patterns that are observable for those estates with sufficient remains to address the spatial organisation of the selected productive activities in the villas’ architectural fabric, thus to speak to their socio-historical development. Feige’s approach and findings in his core analytical chapters can best be illustrated with some tantalising examples.


Press arrangements and regional traditions

Following earlier scholars (Brun; Baratta), Feige differentiates several press types and arrangements, emphasising regional patterns, besides technological continuity. The presses’ technology and dimensions distinguish those on the Bay of Naples from those elsewhere, indicative of local traditions: ‘eine lokal bis regional verbreitete Tradition in der Konstruktionsweise der Pressen’ (44). The press room arrangements, too, document regional preferences— ‘regionale Traditionen für die Konstruktionsweise der Pressenräume’ (62)— from smooth treading floors (of cocciopesto) with drainage holes around Vesuvius (e.g., CA-11: Villa di M. Livius Marcellus in Boscoreale) to platform presses with elevated press beds and drainage channels elsewhere (e.g., AP-02: Villa di S. Maria di Canneto sul Trigno, near Samnite Terventum, modern Trivento). Both arrangements, however, are shown to have been fit for purpose, including the specialisation reflected in the smaller presses around the Bay. Feige sees in the successful maintenance of such different approaches and techniques the agency of local landowners: ‘lokale Landbesitzer (müssen) innerhalb dieses Entwicklungsprozesses einen entscheidenden Einfluss gehabt haben’ (204).


Storage areas and environmental conditions

Notwithstanding some variation, the detailed study of the positioning especially of the estates’ storage areas demonstrates two broad patterns, once again pertaining to the Bay of Naples on the one hand, and elsewhere on the other, with the former benefitting typically from southern/western storage positioning, sometimes combined with ‘feritoie’, airing slits (e.g., CA-16: Villa del fondo Matrone in Scafati), and the latter from northern ones (e.g., LU-04: Villa di Baricelle/Marsicovetere in inland Lucania). Feige contextualises this distinction by reference to the different climatic conditions (esp. wind direction, humidity, sun exposure) that necessitate differentiated responses to protect the goods during storage in diverse ecological environments. The result is an appreciation of the conscious maximisation of the estates’ operations and, hence, the orientation of the owners toward market (and profit) across the board; as Feige notes for instance with regard to the Roman Campagna: ‘Die archäologischen Reste […] zeigen also eine deutliche Anpassung an die naturräumlichen Gegebenheiten der Landschaft. Der Prozess […] offenbart Strategien zur systematischen und planvollen, agrarwirtschaftlichen Nutzung der Landschaft’ (179).


Grain cultivation and subsistence production

Exceptions aside, the limited access to and sizes of the identified threshing floors (40-140m2), all located in Campania (and all but one around the Bay of Naples), makes threshing with animals and the use of carriages there unlikely. Additionally, the regular lack of (sizeable) mills or the widespread existence of one mill only (even if it is the mola asinaria: e.g., CA-15: Villa della Pisanella in Boscoreale), implies the sale of the threshed grain rather than further market-oriented processing; this is underscored by the small sizes of the ovens and their physical separation from the grain handling areas. Feige logically assumes concentration on subsistence production, at best augmented by small-scale, local onward sale: ‘die Vesuvvillen (produzierten) Backwaren vor allem für die Selbstversorgung’ (119).


Space arrangements and villa typology

The estates document basically a two-fold approach to the arrangement of the productive and domestic spaces, with the bulk demonstrating the division into partes rusticae and urbanae, sketched earlier for Settefinestre, that has become the hallmark of the villa estate in modern scholarship (e.g., LA-02: Villa dei Volusii, outside Lucus Feroniae, near modern Fiano Romano), while those on the Bay of Naples defy any clear division of working and living quarters (e.g., CA-20: the Villa Regina estate in Boscoreale, which groups diverse types of rooms along and around a central courtyard). Feige therefore concludes that there existed no single architectural concept of a productive estate: ‘weder in der Architektur noch auf der ideologischen Ebene der Organisation eines wirtschaftlich orientierten Landgutes (existierte) eine einheitliche, bauliche Idee oder Form einer villa rustica’ (165). Moreover, the different estate types co-existed chronologically, thus challenging the idea that the regularly smaller and more compact southern estates (often specialising in one or other sector) represent an earlier developmental phase; instead, they all constituted sophisticated responses to the respective regional conditions and economic opportunities: ‘Beide Konzeptionen existieren demnach zeitlich parallel zueinander, waren innerhalb ihrer jeweiligen Siedlungs- und Wirtschaftsnetzwerke erfolgreich und sind somit nicht als einander ablösende Modelle zu betrachten’ (164).


Estate dimensions and servile labour

The analysis illustrates stark differences in overall estate sizes, with some villas, especially in Latium, growing excessively large (e.g., LA-40: Villa Metro Anagnina, south-east of Rome, with 4600m2, however nowhere near the largest). The increase in overall estate dimensions over time has fuelled a narrative of the rise of (servile) labour exploitation in the late republican period, climaxing in the image of slave-run latifundia. But Feige’s thorough analysis demonstrates essentially continuity in the productive space dimensions irrespective of the enlargement of domestic space, broadly indicative of consistency in the volume of agricultural labour exploitation at individual estates: ‘Daraus folgt, dass das bisher vorherrschende Modell einer allgemeinen und gleichmäßigen Entwicklung der wirtschaftlichen Landgüter in die Richtung großer, mit Sklaven betriebener Anwesen […] nur einen Teil des Phänomens wiedergibt und dem heterogenen, archäologischen Befund der Villen nicht vollständig gerecht wird’ (207).


There are many further treats to savour in Feige’s oeuvre—from the comprehensive exploration of closed and open storage spaces (the latter another speciality of the notorious Bay: 97-8), via the detailed documentation of attention paid to hygiene in the press room arrangements (demonstrating close alignment with the concerns expressed in the written sources: 62-6), to the observation of striking similarities in size and layout of presses around Vesuvius that cannot be explained through individual choice (thus opening a window on a monopoly business by a local firm or firms: 67-9).

The catalogue itself is a gem, providing for each of the 124 estates a plan, GPS coordinates, a short description (including ofthe preservation status), a brief discussion of the chronology (not always secure), and further bibliography. While Feige’s approach throughout the book tends to the descriptive and methodical, even superficial regarding history and historiography, the insights derived from the attention paid to what are seemingly tedious material minutiae emphasise the need to ascertain the same kind of information for a greater number of estates in all regions of Italy, as well as for all types of productive units—small and large, thus to be able to compare and contrast Feige’s findings, and to ultimately put the study of agricultural production on the peninsula on a surer footing. The observation that estate size alone cannot speak to the economic role and social location of rural dwellings implicitly challenges reliance on survey data for historical reconstruction. While Feige’s focus on productive activities that produce clear archaeological remains makes sense within the remit of his work, the results emphasise moreover the need to go beyond a concentration on the Mediterranean triad and to find ways and means to document and analyse a wider range of productive activities at rural estates— from tile manufacture to textile production.

A wealth of broader questions presses forward too. Notably, if the local elites in the Bay of Bays were responsible for the regional villeggiatura, is it still appropriate to call their estates Roman villas? And if these same elites found no issue with the close proximity between working and living quarters, did they conceptualise the relationship between free (owners) and enslaved (labourers) differently to their peers elsewhere? Likewise, what to make of the thorny concept of Romanisation if the coming of Rome did not notably interfere with estate culture on the Bay of Naples? If, moreover, continuity in the use of productive facilities was typical, where does this leave the debate on technological progress? And how does all this influence the wider discussion on the nature of the ancient economy— seemingly ‘primitive’ regarding the technological stagnation and simultaneously ‘modernist’ regarding the exploitation of new markets and economic opportunities? Feige is to be thanked for bringing a detailed analysis to the table that raises these and many more questions.

The production quality of the book is high, the proof-reading poor. Despite its topic, the volume does not make for good in-flight reading to Ciampino: it weighs two kilos.



[1] M. L. Thomas, ‘Villa’, OCD 5th|e-edition (28 January 2022).

[2] A. Carandini, Settefinestre: una villa schiavistica nell’Etruria romana (Modena, 1985).

[3] An extended publication of the discussion presented in the appendix is available through De Gruyter’s Open Access.

[4] cf. the misplaced critique by E. Dodd in AJA 126.3 (2022), 461, centred on wider socio-economic quantification.