New research into the opulent winery of a villa south of Rome suggests that spectacle was just as important as production for a wine-loving elite. The Villa of the Quintilii was a sprawling complex on the Appian Way owned by the Quintilii brothers, who were consuls in AD 151 (and authors of a lost agronomical treatise). When the emperor Commodus had them killed in AD 182/183, he took over their property, including the villa. During his reign, a circus was built at the site, which also had a theatre, a bath complex, and high-quality statuary.
Excavations of the circus area in 2017-2018 unearthed the first traces of a winery, whose construction destroyed part of the circus and thus must have taken place after the reign of Commodus (d. AD 192). An impression from a stamp found in the winery names Emperor Gordian, providing a clue as to when it was built or renovated. Gordian I and II ruled only for a few weeks in AD 238, so the winery (or its renovation) probably dates to the reign of Gordian III (r. 238-244).
The winery, as Emlyn Dodd, Giuliana Galli, and Riccardo Frontoni write in their recently published report of the excavations in Antiquity, had typical features – a grape-treading area, two mechanical presses, a collection vat, and large sunken storage jars (dolia) in the cellar (cella vinaria). But what is remarkable is the level of luxury. A telling sign that form was valued at least as much as function comes from the treading area, normally lined with cocciopesto (waterproof concrete) but here with impractical red breccia marble, very slippery when wet. There was also a fountain-like façade, through which the liquid would have poured out of the vat, adding a touch of theatricality to the normal wine-making process. As the authors write in Antiquity, ‘Wealthy Romans cultivated a luxurious notion of rusticity, romanticising the role of the rural worker and celebrating the landowner as commander of nature.’ This winery’s decoration fits in with these notions.
At the centre of the winery is the cella vinaria, surrounded by rooms (possibly dining rooms) on three sides. These rooms, decorated with geometric marble tiling, have wide entrances opening on to the cella and affording diners views of the unusually well-appointed hive of activity. Only one of the three dining rooms has been excavated so far, and there are hopes to investigate the other two so as to shed light on the activities taking place there.
One other villa associated with the emperor and with a similarly extravagant winery is known: Villa Magna, 50km to the south-east. It has been suggested that Villa Magna was the site of a vintage ritual, and, though there is no direct evidence, the Villa of the Quintilii might also be linked to this ritual. Emlyn Dodd (previously at the British School at Rome and now at the Institute of Classical Studies) said, ‘It is possible that at a slightly later date, and given the incredibly similar (and unique) luxury winery architectures at both sites, the site of the opening vintage ritual was moved from Magna to Quintilii.’ The location of the Villa of the Quintilii, closer to Rome and on the Appian Way, would have been more convenient for the emperor.
Images: E Dodd/Antiquity Publications Ltd; S Castellani/Antiquity Publications Ltd