Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On Scipio's Villa


Scipio Africanus the ElderImage courtesy of  Wikipedia
Scipio Africanus the Elder
Today I was listening to one of Professor Steven Tuck's lectures in his series "Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City" and  I was intrigued to learn that Dr. Tuck ascribes the introduction of Roman villa architecture to none other than Scipio Africanus.  Not only did Scipio come back from conquering Carthage with a boatload
of money, but he subsequently ran afoul of other members of the senate, particularly Cato the Elder, so eventually chose self exile to free himself of the political bickering.

According to Seneca he cried “It is my wish,” said he, “not to infringe in the least upon our laws, or upon our customs, let all Roman citizens have equal rights. O my country, make the most of the good that I have done, but without me. I have been the cause of your freedom, and I shall also be its proof; I go into exile, if it is true that I have grown beyond what is to your advantage!”

So, Scipio took his hard earned wealth and moved to the seaside town of  Liternum.  There, he constructed a personal residence of significant proportions that would be emulated and embellished by Rome's later elite.


Two hundred years after Scipio's death, Seneca visited the villa and we are fortunate to have an extant copy of his observations.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, sculpture by Puerta de ...Lucius Annaeus Seneca in Cordoba Spain.  Image courtesy of  Wikipedia


"I have inspected the house, which is constructed of hewn stone; the wall which encloses a forest; the towers also, buttressed out on both sides for the purpose of defending the house; the well, concealed among buildings and shrubbery, large enough to keep a whole army supplied; and the small bath, buried in darkness according to the old style, for our ancestors did not think that one could have a hot bath except in darkness. It was therefore a great pleasure to me to contrast Scipio’s ways with our own. Think, in this tiny recess the “terror of Carthage,” to whom Rome should offer thanks because she was not captured more than once, used to bathe a body wearied with work in the fields! For he was accustomed to keep himself busy and to cultivate the soil with his own hands, as the good old Romans were wont to do. Beneath this dingy roof he stood; and this floor, mean as it is, bore his weight." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Scipio's Villa


I assume the forest (sometimes translated as "park") enclosed by the villa's walls represents the first vestiges of what would later become the peristyle garden.  Although the structure was probably palatial for the time period, Seneca, tutor to the emperor Nero in the 1st century CE and well acquainted with the lavish accommodations of the imperial court, is obviously appalled by the modest nature of Scipio's bathing facility.


"But who in these days could bear to bathe in such a fashion? We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors; if our marbles from Alexandria are not set off by mosaics of Numidian stone, if their borders are not faced over on all sides with difficult patterns, arranged in many colors like paintings; if our vaulted ceilings are not buried in glass; if our swimming-pools are not lined with Thasian marble, once a rare and wonderful sight in any temple-pools into which we let down our bodies after they have been drained weak by abundant perspiration; and finally, if the water has not poured from silver spigots." Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Scipio's Villa


Seneca goes on to point out that Scipio probably only washed his soiled limbs on a daily basis and did not fully bathe but once a week since he toiled at honest work and had no need to rid himself of perfumed oils like later members of elite Roman society.  I found this interesting because I often think about how our own society has been influenced by the Romans and wonder if my parents view of weekly bathing back in the 1950s and 60s was ultimately a European adoption of a ritual handed down from conservative merchant-class Romans who also did not use perfumed oils excessively.


Seneca also makes much of the fact that Scipio bathed almost in the dark as his bathing chamber featured only "tiny chinks-you cannot call them windows-cut out of the stone wall in such a way as to admit light without weakening the fortifications..."  I think Seneca should have, instead, marveled at how much safer the Italian countryside was in his time as opposed to the early 2nd century CE.  After all, Scipio had just defeated Hannibal a few years before Scipio retired to Liternum and Hannibal had ravaged much of the surrounding Campanian countryside during the Second Punic War.  It's hardly surprising, then, that Scipio would have been careful to preserve the strength of his walls rather than carelessly focus on aesthetics.


Old fisherman or Dying Seneca 2nd century
CE Roman copy of Hellenistic original.
Photographed at The Louvre by Mary Harrsch
Seneca also should have pondered Scipio's reputed mystic nature.  Perhaps Scipio found that bathing in a relatively dark chamber encouraged the visitations of prophetic dreams.  Most of what I had read about Scipio up until now described his military strategies and his political activities so I was not aware that some ancient sources, including Livy, reported that Scipio was prescient.  Polybius, on the other hand, attributed Scipio's successes to good planning, rational thinking and intelligence, which he perceived as a better indication of divine favor than prophetic dreams.

"His [Livy's] account is more literary than historical, more dramatic and careless. He was not very critical of sources. In his effort to promote Roman patriotism he reduces Roman strength and increases that of the enemy. As for his attitude toward Scipio, he did not assume the mystical religion bit was purely 'a cloak and tool'..."
"The closest we can come to Scipio is the writing of Polybius, the eminent Greek general and historian, who composed his history of Rome some 60 years after Scipio's active career...He was, however, a Stoic. This philosophy insisted on the rationality of the universe and the existence of natural causes for historical events. This philosophy certainly helped him in comparison with the more mystic ideas held by others, but in Scipio's case it caused Polybius trouble."
"Polybius' sources besides the Scipio family and Laelius, were Greeks, on both the Roman and Carthaginian side. These Greeks followed the school of thought of Alexander the Great - that of a mystic leader. They were perhaps the original "image makers". They liked to surround the idea of the leader with a divine glow. If they could not explain something, they said it was due to divine intervention. Hence they developed the Legend of Scipio. Polybius was anxious to refute this legend. [However,] He admired Scipio as his Stoic HERO, so made him a supremely rational genius. The result was a kind of caricature, a cunning individual who purposely plays on the superstition of his followers and uses religion for his own ends. Polybius makes it seem Scipio spread these ideas of his divinity himself, while disbelieving them." - John Sloan, Scipio Africanus, Publius Cornelius, (The Elder) (237 - 183 BC), son of Publius Cornelius Scipio



So called Patrizio Torlonia. Escultura de Marc...Image courtesy of Wikipedia
A rather sour-faced Cato the Elder
Sloan also mentions that some scholars point to Scipio's Etruscan origins and the widespread acknowledgment of Etruscan mystical gifts as the source of belief in his prophecy.  Whatever the reason behind this legendary aspect of his nature, I find it quite intriguing.


I noticed another interesting tidbit about Scipio in my research, too.  He supposedly wore his toga in the Greek fashion, resembling the dress of Greek poets and artists.  He was well known to be an avid Graekophile but this overt demonstration of his embrace of Greek culture did not endear him to many of the staunch Roman traditionalists, particularly Cato the Elder.  Yet, Scipio also introduced the practice of being clean shaven, perhaps emulating images of Alexander the Great, but not typical of Greek philosophers and poets of the time.  Definitely, a man of unusual contradictions.  Perhaps what frustrated Cato the Elder so much was that he couldn't pigeon-hole Scipio into any particular category making it difficult for Cato to mount an all out political attack on the man.


Cato did ultimately succeed in driving him away, though.  Apparently, Scipio took his resulting bitterness to his grave, reportedly ordering a tomb inscription that read:  "Ingrata patria, ne ossa quidem habebis"—ungrateful fatherland, you will not even have my bones!" (although we don't really know where Scipio was ultimately buried and have never recovered any funerary monument with these words.)  


I was curious whether any effort had been made to find Scipio's villa and learned that an initial excavation of Liternum was begun in 1923 and continued until 1937 but apparently no evidence of the villa was unearthed.  A UNESCO volunteer excavation was launched in the 1970s but it, too, did not reveal the site of Scipio's last days. Then in 1988 a more extensive excavation was launched.


"The remains as they stand today date mostly from the the early imperial period. The standing monuments consist of a temple, a basilica and a small theatre, positioned on the west side of the forum with a large open area in front. These are contained within a surrounding wall onto which are abutted a number of small rectangular buildings that are thought to be shops.
"The temple is in a typical Roman style set on a high podium of locally quarried tufa, with the emphasis of approach from the front of the building, the facade of which would have dominated the space in front of the temple. One complete and one partial column are all that remain of the temple facade.." 
"To the left of the temple lie the scant remains of the basilica. The brickwork in opus reticulatum suggests a date for the building between the second half of the first century BC and the first century AD, although the existing structure would almost certainly have been built to replace an earlier building on the site. The remains of the basilica today are unimpressive, but the vestiges of the marble that originally decorated the building, visible in one or two places where modern 'quarriers' haven't yet found it, give some indication of a rather grander past for the building."
"The other main structure on the site, to the right of the temple, is a small theatre of the imperial period. The remains show that the theatre follows a typical Roman plan. After removal of dense vegetation the scaena or stage building, and the cavea or seating area where clearly visible. The upper part of the cavea had collapsed, creating the impression that the theatre was much smaller than it actually had been. Although very small, the theatre would have been quite adequate for a town of this size. It might be surmised that the population had grown from the three hundred families of the original foundation, but probably not by much." - Jim Devine, University of Glasgow, Liternum: A Campanian Coastal Town




So, it seems that Scipio remains as elusive as ever.  As for Scipio being credited with the development of one of the first villas, though, it seems the jury is still out on that one too.  Helsinki scholar Eeva Maria Viitanen points out that the "Auditorium Villa", excavated in the 1990s, indicates there was a luxurious residential complex constructed as early as the 6th century BCE.


The Villae Regina, a villae rusticae unearthed at Boscoreale near Naples, Italy
was one of 30 small holdings situated  on the lower slopes of Vesuvius and
 on the adjacent plain of Sarno.  These 
small- and medium-sized 
properties
 were family-run or employed
 a few slaves.  Photographed 
by Mary Harrsch.
"The building has a very long history, starting from the Archaic period, and its earlier phases are also fairly well perserved.  What is special about this site is the rebuilding of the early small farm as a large and luxurious complex with what are probably separate living quarter and productive parts towards the end of the 6th century BCE.  In comparison with other sites of the period, the built area is enormous and it remains very large among its peers until the 1st century BCE, when the villa becomes quite normal in size among the many other large country houses.  It has been suggested that the Auditorium Villa was in fact a country residence for the head of a Roman elite family, who thus asserted his right over the landscape inhabited by members of his clan.  Such residences would have been relatively rare which is why they probably have not been found before.  The other farms were small in size and there would not have been intermediary forms between the very large and the small.  The possible model for these large residences might have been the slightly earlier Etruscan elite palaces, such as Murlo.  It is also claimed that there were no Catonian small or medium-sized villae rusticae in the 3rd-2nd centuries BCE.  The development into the 1st century BCE villa would have been faster and the changes would have happened closer to this boom period than suggested before.  The economic explanation echoes the common model of war booty invested in land, as external funds were needed to establish the new large villas and that the owners would have represented a much more heterogeneous group of persons than before." - Eeva Maria Viitanen, Locus Bonus: The Relationship of the Roman Villa to its Environment in the Vicinity of Rome


But whether Scipio inspired the widespread development of Roman villa architecture or not, he certainly was a passionate and gifted individual that I plan to study further.  I hope that by giving up those "triumphs with their withering laurels" he found those "lasting rewards that keep forever fresh and green" Cicero described so eloquently in Scipio's Dream.








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4 comments:

Narukami said...

Excellent article.

I like Scipio ten times more err I first learned about him.

He was a most remarkable fellow who truly believed in the concept of "res publica." A true Roman in the best sense of that word, both on and off the battlefield.

Thanks for the insightful essay.

Rawra said...

Creepy picture but none the less an interesting read!

Romanio said...

I was wondering about the truth to Scipio's "Etruscan" origins.

There is no evidence that his family gens (Corneii family) was Etruscan

What origins are we talking about?

Romanio said...

I was wondering about the comment Scipio's Etruscan origins

There is no evidence that he was etruscan. His family gens was the Corneii family.

What origins are we talking about?

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