My Walk along the Via Appia (part 10)

This is part 10 of my report about my walk along the Via Appia, from the Circus Maximus to the Villa of the Quintilii some 8 kilometres further to the southeast. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 can be found here.

By the time I had left the casale of Santa Maria Nova, I had made up my mind: it was exceptionally hot, I was tired and I wanted to get back to my hotel. As my final act of that day, I would walk over to the remains of the Villa of the Quintilii, have a look there and then take a bus back to the city centre. However, I had not realised just how huge this Villa was. I must have spent at least 45 minutes exploring the estate and then obviously I could not ignore the small museum near the exit either. So all in all, I spent much more time at the Villa than I had originally planned, but it was well worth it.

Remains of the Villa of the Quintilii.

The Villa of the Quintilii

The name of the villa derives from the brothers Sextus Quintilius Condianus and Sextus Quintilius Valerius Maximus, who were both consul ordinarius in the year 151. It seems unlikely they were the first inhabitants here. In fact, there seems to have been a villa here as early as the late Republican era. For the Imperial era complex, archaeologists have identified several phases, starting with the reign of Trajanus (98-117) and Hadrianus (117-138). The core of the complex was built in the Hadrianic era. The complex was subsequently extended during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161) and then Marcus Aurelius (161-180). This must have been the time when the villa was acquired by the two brothers. The men must have been loyal servants of Antoninus Pius and two men who are presumed to have been their sons served as consuls under his successor Marcus Aurelius, in 172 and 180 respectively. But then on 17 March of the latter year, Marcus Aurelius died in Vindobona and his son Commodus ascended the throne. And then everything changed for the Quintilii.

Remains of the Villa of the Quintilii, seen from the Via Appia Nuova.

Part of the residential area.

In 182, there was a conspiracy against Commodus in which the emperor’s own sister was involved. It was a colossal failure, but it seems to have left Commodus in a permanent state of paranoia. He responded by orchestrating a purge of everyone he believed was complicit in the plot to murder him. Among the victims were Sextus Quintilius Condianus and Sextus Quintilius Valerius Maximus. There is no evidence that they had anything to do with the attempt on the emperor’s life, but they were learned men, rich and powerful, and therefore a threat to an emperor whose rule was becoming ever more authoritarian. Commodus had them strangled and confiscated their splendid estate on the Via Appia. The son of Valerius Maximus, called Condianus like his uncle, was in Syria at the time. When he heard that he had been sentenced to death as well, he devised a clever plan to escape. He drank the blood of a hare and then fell off his horse on purpose. Spitting out the blood, he pretended to be dead. Just before he was cremated, he replaced his own body with that of a ram and disappeared. It is not clear whether he was ever caught, but in 193 a man claiming to be Sextus Condianus reported to the emperor Pertinax and demanded his wealth and property back. The man turned out to be an impostor and the Villa of the Quintilii remained imperial property.[1]

After Commodus, several other emperors made changes to the complex. The final building phase seems to have been around the time that the emperor Gordianus III (238-244) was on the throne, and this coincides with the early phase of the Crisis of the Third Century. The estate was in use until the end of the fifth century and then abandoned. During the Middle Ages, the large nymphaeum from the reign of Commodus which was built directly on the Via Appia was converted into a watch tower. The tower was part of a castrum such as the one at the Tomb of Caecilia Metella (see part 7 of this series). The Villa of the Quintilii was acquired by the Italian state in 1985 and opened to the public in 2000. It is so large that several decades ago people still assumed that an entire settlement must have once stood here.

Panoramic view of the estate. The residential area and thermal facilities are on the far left, the nymphaeum and Via Appia on the far right.

Remains of the nymphaeum.

Exploring the Villa

I decided to explore the former nymphaeum first (image on the left). There is not much to see today, but the size of the building is impressive. Between the nymphaeum and the villa complex was a long covered portico of which parts have been preserved. The large open area between the road and the complex has been identified as a ‘hippodrome garden’ (Giardino ad Ippodromo) from the Hadrianic era. I take it the terrain was not used for horse races, but was merely called this because it had the shape of a circus. I doubt emperors liked to have horses stampeding across their lawn.

The silhouette of the villa complex can be seen from afar. This is especially true for the walls of the baths that were part of the villa. The parts that are left are some 14 metres high. See the first image in this post: the ruins on the right are the walls of the frigidarium, the cold water baths. Visitors can enter this large room and admire the remains of the floor of polychrome marble (see the image below). Around the corner are latrines. On the left are the ruins of the caldarium, the hot water bath. The complex also had a tepidarium for bathing in lukewarm water.

Interior of the frigidarium.

Remains of the theatre (?)

Ludus-viridarium or pleasure-garden.

Part of the complex is a large oval structure which I at first misidentified as a private arena for gladiatorial fights (see the image on the right). The brochure about the Villa of the Quintilii that I was given informed me that it was in fact a ludus-viridarium, a pleasure-garden. Southeast of the thermal area and the garden was the residential area, with a large area for receiving guests. Of the residential area only the foundations remain (see the image above). This part of the complex is less impressive that the thermal area. I also spotted a semi-circular area here that may have been a theatre, although I am not entirely sure (see the image above). The Villa certainly had a stadium for horse races, some 400 metres long and 100 wide. This is difficult to spot though, and the area was fenced off when I visited the Villa of the Quintilii myself.

The museum of the Villa is small, but interesting. Particularly noteworthy is a statue of Zeus Bronton, ‘thundering Zeus’. This was a composite deity from a Phrygia, basically a amalgam of the Greek god Zeus and a local deity. Zeus Bronton was first and foremost and agricultural god who protected crops and herds. Apparently he had a sanctuary close to the Via Appia and the Villa of the Quintilii. This is in fact the only known sanctuary not in Phrygia. We have no idea who was responsible for taking the cult of Zeus Bronton to Italy and Rome, but the statue seems to have been made at the end of the second century or the beginning of the third.

Zeus Bronton (left) & Cautes and Cautopates (right).

Ichthus symbol.

The museum also has a few items on display which are connected to Christianity and the cult of Mithras. One of these items is an alabaster slab with the Greek word ΙΧΘΥC written on it. As my readers will probably know, this is short for Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ, or “Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Saviour”. The letters were chiselled below a solar wheel (a symbol borrowed from paganism), also known as the circular ichthus symbol. Such a wheel had all the letters of the word IΧΘΥC combined into one unique symbol. The slab dates from the third or fourth century and was previously in the Museo Kircheriano.

In one of the service corridors near the tepidarium, a simple relief featuring Mithras and the tauroktonos was found. It was made in the third century and discovered during excavations carried out in 2002-2004. Also present in the museum are statues of Mithras’ helpers, Cautes and Cautopates (see the image above). The latter is unfortunately now headless.

The visit to the museum of the Villa of the Quintilii concluded my Walk along the Via Appia. I will certainly return to this wonderful part of Rome in the near future. There is still plenty to discover!

The End


[1] For the story of the Quintilii, see Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book 73.5-7 and Historia Augusta, The Life of Commodus 4.


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