by Roderick Conway Morris

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Sheila Gibson/Royal Holloway, University of London
Axiometric reconstruction of the Vicus, or Village, near Pliny's Villa, 1996

Pliny and Co. in Ancient Rome's Malibu

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 5 July 1991


Less than twenty miles from the centre of Rome is a 10,000-acre tract of virgin forest. It is the park of Castelporziano, the Italian President's seaside country home. Within this closely-guarded domain lie the remains of the villas and village that were once ancient Rome's most exclusive seaside resort.

In 1984, British archaeologist Dr. Amanda Claridge, now assistant director of the British School at Rome, pulled off a considerable coup when she obtained permission to excavate at Castelporziano. As the first phase of her investigations nears completion, a remarkable picture is emerging of what was once 'Rome's Malibu'.

'This landscape,' said Dr. Claridge, as we drove into Castelporziano, waved on by carabinieri with submachine guns and bullet-proof jackets, 'is unique in Italy. Amazingly, it still looks very much as it did 2,000 years ago'.

In the 1st century AD, wealthy Romans were already building private villas on this attractive stretch of coast, and when the Emperor Augustus set the seal on its fashionability by building one for himself there too, he transformed the hinterland into an imperial hunting park. After the fall of Rome in 475 AD, the estate fell into neglect, and much of the area turned into a malarial marshland. Passing through several owners over the centuries, it was bought by the State in 1872, after the reunification of Italy, as a country seat and hunting park for the royal family. When the monarchy was abolished in 1946 following a referendum, Castelporziano was made over to the Italian Presidency, since when it has been used to entertain guests such as President Johnson, Queen Elizabeth, Tito, Sadat and John Paul II.

A series of wooded sand dunes marks the old Roman coastline (the modern coast is about half a mile away). In antiquity, explained Dr. Claridge, the now rather flat and featureless shoreline was very picturesque, with dozens of sandy coves, inlets and promontories. The ancient holiday villas were built right on the water's edge.

One of them belonged to the Younger Pliny, whose letters give a vivid picture of life in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Writing in around 100 AD, he enthuses to his friend Gallus about this weekend retreat. He is particularly enamored of the dining-room: 'it runs out towards the shore, and whenever the sea is driven inland by the south-west wind it is lightly washed by the spray of the spent breakers. It has folding doors and windows as large as doors all round, so that at the front and sides it seems to look out on three seas.' Pliny also tells of the cool terrace, the shady vine pergola, the views of the other 'lovely houses' along the shore, and his much-admired, heated swimming pool 'from which swimmers can see the sea'.

A highly successful lawyer with a busy city practice, Pliny is appreciative of being able to get quickly to and from the office - 'it is seventeen miles from Rome, so that you can spend the night there ... without having to cut short or hurry the day's work' - and at pains to extol the simplicity of rural life. There is, he says, plenty of firewood nearby, excellent sole and prawns, and just beyond his neighbour's house, the vicus, or village, 'which can satisfy anyone's modest needs'. It is on the vicus that Dr. Claridge has been concentrating the excavations that are yielding a wealth of new archaeological evidence for Roman life by the sea.

In the forum, or village square, is a twin-basined fountain, which, judging by the hundreds of fish-hooks and thousands of fragments of jugs, cups, and clam- and oyster-shells that have been found there, was certainly the haunt of fishermen, or even, said Dr. Claridge, the location of some ancient oyster-bar. Beyond the fountain are the remains of numerous dining-rooms, looking onto courtyards or out to sea, and of baths and plunge-pools. Unusually, not only the water was heated but, by an ingenious system of flues, also the surrounding walls. The most astonishing discovery of all is a beachside, Olympic-length swimming pool, 50 metres by 10, lined with waterproof cement. Nothing like it has been found before in the Roman world.

Given the proximity of the villas owned by the Roman uppercrust, including the Emperor, it is hardly surprising that the vicus's amenities should have been so sophisticated. 'There are three baths for hire,' writes Pliny, 'a great convenience if a sudden arrival or short stay makes us reluctant to heat up the bath at home.'

For wealthy professionals, politicians and aristocrats, the coast was mainly a winter and spring resort. In the summer, the rich, like Pliny, went to the cooler villas in the foothills of Tuscany and the Apennines, while the vicus complex catered more for middle-ranking civil servants and prosperous tradesmen escaping the city heat. Then, said Dr. Claridge, the dining-rooms and baths would commonly have been hired by administrators' clubs and trade associations, whose members 'would come down here for a night or two, have a banquet in the evening, visit the baths in the morning, and, if they didn't have to get back to Rome, start all over again in the afternoon.' (Much as Italian ministry employees of the twentieth century have their own club-houses, bars and beach-huts on the Lido di Ostia.)

Roman beachside culture was almost as wasteful and 'throwaway' as today's. Well-ordered municipal rubbish pits to the north of the vicus are crammed with not only huge quantities of broken wine amphoras, high-quality pottery and expensive glassware but also iron and bronze fittings, even coins, that in a less prosperous community would have been recycled.

The heyday of the vicus was in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, ('the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous,' according to the 18th-century historian Gibbon), but even as the Roman Empire declined the resort's fortunes remained surprisingly buoyant. 'It was one of those pockets,' said Dr. Claridge, 'that seem to have gone on very successfully into the late Roman period. In the 4th and 5th centuries it was smaller, but by no means impoverished.'

As we made our way back along the deserted forest roads, Dr. Claridge added: 'The boundaries of the present park are almost exactly those of the imperial park in the 1st century AD. Curiously, it's still in many ways a fossil imperial estate: the President has his praetorian guard in the form of the carabinieri, there are still the forest guardians, the descendants of the imperial guild of gamekeepers, and still they're all living here with their families on the estate. One thing's changed though: the wild boar have certainly got tamer since they stopped hunting here in 1978, and made the park into a nature reserve'.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023