Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Possible Imperial Villa Found

An enormous Roman villa has recently been unearthed north of Rome in the Sabine Hills. Dating from the 1st century CE, the villa is believed to have been the country home of the Emperor Vespasian. Archaeologists at the site say the that the size and location of the villa point to Vespasian, though they admit that they have found no inscriptions or any other archaeological proof as to the owner's identity. Though this discovery is indeed special, it demonstrates a phenomenon that has been going on in classical archaeology since the birth of the field. Throughout the history of of Greek and Roman archaeology, erroneous attributions have been made to artifacts without any justification what so ever. Heinrich Schliemann and his "Mask of Agamemnon" comes to mind as an early example. Also, the countless number Roman statues attributed to famous people is astonishing. It was common practice one upon a time to dig up a bust and proclaim that it represented whoever you thought it did. Many positive identifications of Roman statues have been based on coin portraits, but that is a more recent science. You can still go to museums today and find a "Marius" or "Brutus" statue that could in reality be anyone.

I'm not saying that the villa found in Italy is not Vespasian's, but I am saying that simply finding a sumptuous villa in the Sabine Hills does not mean that it was the home of an emperor. If there are more facts to support the hypothesis that the villa belonged to Vespasian, where are they? I realize that a Discovery Channel story isn't the proper venue to document archaeological discoveries, but I'm suspicious when claims are made with little to no evidence presented. I don't particularly blame the archaeologists for making such a claim; I'm sure the excitement of the dig is overwhelming. Also, headlines stating that you've found an emperors villa are far better than saying you've found "some guy's" villa. I guess you could say headlines first, facts later.
Now for a little about Vespasian, or Titus Flavius Vespasianus to be precise. Vespasian was born in 9 CE during the reign of Augustus. Growing up during the reign of the Julio-Claudians, he probably never thought about becoming emperor himself. After obtaining public offices and military posts, Vespasian took park in Claudius' invasion of Britain in 43 CE as Legate of the Legion II Augusta. After Britain he became Consul in 51 CE, after which he retired from public service only to hold office again in 63 CE, this time as governor of Africa. After returning from Africa, Vespasian joined Nero on his tour of Greece. It was there that Vespasian apparently fell asleep during one of Nero's performances, ending his political career. In 66 CE, Vespasian's political exile ended with his appointment to Judea to suppress the revolt there. The appointment Judea was to prove fortuitous, for it was from here that Vespasian got to watch the downfall of Nero and the subsequent civil war from a distance. Always the popular general, Vespasian was urged by his troops to seek the purple and he actively did so in 69 CE. While Vespasian remained in Egypt to secure the grain supply, his forces were put under the command of Marcus Antonius Primus, who defeated Vitellius and secured Rome for Vespasian. The next ten years were spent undoing the extravagances of Nero and the crippling bankruptcy of the civil war. Vespasian died in 79 CE having set the stage for his sons Titus and then Domitian to succeed him. Despite his many achievements, Vespasian is probably best remembered by the world as the man who built the Flavian Amphitheater, known today as the Colosseum.