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Home Away From Rome

May 22, 2010

Paul Bennett in Smithsonian:

Roman emperors constructed dozens of villas over the roughly 350-year span of imperial rule,from the rise of Augustus in 27 B.C. to the death of Constantine in A.D. 337. Since treasure hunters first discovered the villas in the 18th century (followed by archaeologists in the 19th and 20th), nearly 30 such properties have been documented in the Italian region of Lazio alone. Some, such as Hadrian’s, at Tivoli, have yielded marble statues, frescoes and ornate architecture, evidence of the luxuries enjoyed by wealthy, powerful men (and their wives and mistresses). As archaeological investigations continue at several sites throughout the Mediterranean, a more nuanced picture of these properties and the men who built them is emerging. “This idea that the villa is just about conspicuous consumption, that’s only the beginning,” says Columbia University archaeologist Marco Maiuro, who works with Fentress at Villa Magna.

In fact, most imperial Roman villas were likely working farms or factories beneficial to the economy of the empire. “The Roman world was an agriculturally based one,” says Fentress. “During the late republic we begin to see small farms replaced by larger villas.” Although fish and grains were important, the predominant crop was grapes, and the main product wine. By the first century B.C., wealthy landowners—the emperors among them—were bottling huge amounts of wine and shipping it throughout the Roman Empire. One of the first global export commodities was born.

Maiuro believes that the economic power of the larger villas, which tended to expand as Rome grew more politically unstable, may even have contributed to the empire’s decline, by sucking economic—and eventually political—power away from Rome and concentrating it in the hands of wealthy landowners, precursors of the feudal lords who would dominate the medieval period. “Rome was never very well centralized,” says Maiuro, “and as the villas grow, Rome fades.” [More]

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