Lavish Roman villa that proved irresistible to despotic emperor


ROME LETTER:Recent restoration work at the beautiful and vast Villa Dei Quintilli has been a revelation, writes PADDY AGNEW

FOR THE Italophiles among you here is a thought: the next time you fly into or out of Rome on Ryanair, you might want to consider making a little stopover at nearby Villa Dei Quintili.

The point about this little- visited, sumptuous second century Roman villa is that it is on the Via Appia Nuova, 10 minutes by car from Ciampino airport, the one used by Ryanair.

The area between the Via Appia Antica (Appian Way) and the Via Appia Nuova has long been considered a great archeological treasure. Lined with cypresses and pines and with stretches of the original Roman paving clearly visible, the Via Appia tends to be atmospheric, all the more so since it was the place where wealthy ancient Romans buried their dead.

Curiously, 2,000 or so years later, the Via Appia has not yet yielded up all of its treasures. A couple of weeks ago, the Ministero per I Beni Culturali (the arts ministry) proudly invited us for a walk around the huge Villa Dei Quintilli to admire recent restoration work.

Among other things, this has revealed not just some startling new mosaics but the splendidly effective workings of a posh, ancient Roman loo.

Before describing the villa any further, however, a word of warning: so lavishly appointed and so attractive was this villa, in its then countryside location, that it prompted the envious attention of the emperor Commodus (AD 161-192).

Now Commodus was the sort of fellow best left alone.

The son of emperor Marcus Aurelius, he was the first emperor in 80 years to have taken the throne thanks to birth rather than merit. By all accounts, he was cruel, vain and a violent megalomaniac.

For example, he loved to perform as a gladiator, dressed in a loin skin and playing the part of the Hercules, son of Jupiter.

His “performances” were pretty gruesome. On one day he is alleged to have killed 100 bears, while on other days he accounted for scores of hapless gladiators. The point about these “contests” was that the animals were probably heavily tethered so that they could not fight back, while his gladiator “adversaries” were equipped with useless wooden weapons, if any at all, while he of course was heavily armed.

The splendid Villa Dei Quintili had been built by two brothers, Condianus and Maximus Quintilius, two brave soldiers, consuls in Greece and Asia Minor and both authors of books on various agricultural topics. When Commodus noticed the villa, he decided that he wanted it.

To this end he contrived a plot against himself implicating the two brothers, had them killed and confiscated the villa. It was said that Commodus maintained a harem of 300 boys and girls with the whom he “indulged in lengthy orgies and revelled in decadent luxuries”. Remind you of anyone around here?

The good news about Commodus is that he came to a sticky end, strangled in his bed by a fellow called Narcissus who was employed as his wrestling partner and who was part of a plot to kill him. The good news about Villa Dei Quintili is that a highlight of the tour is a one-man show in which an actor portrays all the emperor’s cruel vanity. Alas, for the time being, this little show is only in Italian.

When the villa was first discovered it was called Roma Vecchia (Old Rome) because it was so large that the first archeologists became convinced the ruins occupied too much land to have been anything other than another town. Walking around the villa, or what remains of it, you get a strong sense not just of the wealth of a certain class of ancient Roman but also of the sophisticated lifestyle.

Villa dei Quintili boasts a series of splendid reception areas, hot and cold thermal rooms and a sort of modern-day sauna. Intriguingly, the most recent digs unearthed a splendid ancient Roman “loo”, complete with “throne” and four- person (male, one presumes) latrine. All of this, too, is clearly linked up to a sewage system driven by the villa’s own aqueduct.

Open to the public since 2000, the villa was visited by just under 9,000 people last year. This is not an enormous number, given that Rome attracts somewhere in the region of 30 million tourists annually.

Based almost all the way out to the Roman ring road, the infamous Raccordo (GRA), it is clearly not easy to get to Villa Dei Quintili. A number 664 bus travels in that direction but in Roman traffic it could take you a long time. Alternatively, you can do as this correspondent did and take the metro all the way to the end of the line at Anagnina and hire a taxi from there. If you make the effort you will not be disappointed and it is open seven days a week.

By the way, little changes around here.

Once upon a time, Commodus cast his greedy, vicious eyes on the property. Nowadays, building speculators gaze longingly upon the splendid green areas around the Appian Way.

Dr Rita Paris, the archaeologist who heads the Soverintendenza body which looks after the Via Appia and environs, has more than once received threats because she has defiantly blocked attempted illegal building in the area.

Plus ça change.