We had a great tour of Villa di Livia in the north of Rome the other day. A good guide who is passionate about the subject sure makes a difference, as does speaking enough Italian to understand one.
The villa was built along the Via Flamina, traces of which are visible today north of Rome in the Prima Porta area. Livia Drusilla, wife of the emperor Augustus, owned it with her family. It was a country residence from the Imperial age set on a promontory with a view down the tiber valley toward historic Rome. Downtown, we’d say.
A villa in ruins is a treacherous landscape for the brain. You can look at the nice mosaics, wonder at the size and location, and see all the wonderful holes in the ground, made perfect, at times, with the edge of a mason’s pointing trowel wielded by an archaeologist. But then nothing.
Over to the right we’re looking into the construction of a simple, yet revolutionary, wall, designed with triangular tiles and filled with rubble—a wall design that proved to be far sturdier than wall designs that preceded it.
Livia’s villa, of course, had baths with all the trimmings. The “help” worked tirelessly to keep the fires burning under the floor you see to the left.
But did you ever think about the ecological disaster that came with the popularity of Roman baths? Enormous amounts of wood were consumed. Then there was the arthritis folks suffered from their plunges into hot, then cold, then hot again. Yeah, it might wake you up, but…
Archaeology is slowly waking up to the fact that people really want to see how their social class lived. Enough with the treasure hunts.
The rich and powerful at Villa di Livia were served from below the mosaic floors. Folks scurried through tunnels to take care of everything while remaining pretty much unseen. The stoked the bath fires, cooked, and kept the place going from underground, like many other Roman villas. We can get a good glimpse of these tight spaces because of Valiant Americans fighting WWII.
Yes, one of their bombs did a pretty darn good job of opening up the excavations.
And what are those grooves in that nice mosaic floor over there? It’s the plow line. The villa was covered for a long while, and farmers had little idea of what lay below.