With its art, cuisine, architecture, natural beauty, and history going back thousands of years, Italy is a gold mine for any tourist. When it comes to archeological treasures from ancient times, few places possess more to tempt and amaze the visitor than the home of Ancient Rome.
Remember that Rome during ancient times stretched far beyond the Rome of today; in fact, it stretched far beyond the confines of the boot-shaped peninsula we now call Italy. At the height of the Roman Empire, its territory extended as far as England to the north, North Africa to the south, Portugal to the west, and the Black Sea to the east.
Ancient Roman Society Near Pompeii
At the time of the cataclysmic volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, Roman society was well-established and thriving near Pompeii. This Ancient Roman city, annihilated by lava and ash as the Empire was galloping towards its apex, is today one of the most visited excavation sites in the world.
Pompeii is the brightest star in Italy’s galaxy of archeological wonders. The sheer expansiveness of the ruins is mind-boggling. When you figure that Pompeii is an entire Roman city that’s been painstakingly chiseled out of a pumice straight-jacket, it’s even more mind-boggling. But the thing that leaves the most profound impression on visitors is, without question, the plaster casts of human forms that record the last agonizing moments of inhabitants’ lives. To see the positions in which these poor souls met their end in the firestorm is moving beyond words.
The Excavations Around Vesuvius: Macro and Micro Looks at Ancient Roman Society
The historic eruption of Vesuvius was one of the greatest disasters the world has ever known but Pompeii was not its only unfortunate victim. The volcano also claimed the communities of Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Oplontis on that fateful day almost two thousand years ago.
Although they suffered a tragic end, the towns consumed by Vesuvius were frozen in time, which has been a glorious gift to our modern world. The pumice encasement has kept the remains of these societies in optimal states of preservation that we can marvel at today.
The excavations around Vesuvius fall into two different camps: a macro-look at entire urban centers (Pompeii and Herculaneum) and a micro-look at the luxurious seaside dwellings of Roman nobility (Stabiae and Oplontis).
Stabiae and Oplontis: Homes of the Ancient Roman Rich & Famous
In Ancient Roman times, Stabiae and Oplontis were communities around Mt. Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples. This coastal area was dotted with opulent residences and vacation homes of the elite Roman class.
At both Stabiae (near present-day Castellammare di Stabia) and Oplontis (today’s Torre Annunziata), we can visit examples of these grandiose residential complexes of Ancient Rome’s rich and famous. The 18th-Century unearthing of Villa Arianna and Villa San Marco at Stabiae marked a turn in archeologists’ approach to excavation, thanks to Swiss architect and engineer Karl Weber.
Weber believed that the dwellings at Stabiae should be preserved in their entirety so that their decorations could be appreciated in the original context. At the time, however, architectural treasures such as frescoes, mosaic floors, and sculptures were typically carried off to fill museums, reflecting a complete disregard for the value of the structure itself. Sometimes the villas were backfilled with dirt after the choicest artifacts had been pillaged, as was the case at Stabiae.
Further up the coast at Oplontis, a different excavation story unfolded. Here, two villas were discovered; one a palatial residence and the other a building for agricultural use.
Villa Poppaea: The Lavish Residential Complex at Oplontis
The palatial residence at Oplontis was discovered at the end of the 16th Century but a full-scale excavation wasn’t begun until 1964. Sadly, the restoration project was poorly managed and some frescoes were lost, but overall the decorations of the home have remained amazingly intact.
It is surmised that the villa was the residence of Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina, when she was away from Rome. Dating back to the 1st Century BCE, the villa was sumptuously adorned. Its many tall windows looked out onto the garden with a view of the sea beyond. Perhaps the most stunning feature was the huge pool, measuring 61 x 17 meters (200 x 56 ft). Looking out onto the pool were dining rooms, lounging areas, and apartments for guests. At one time, the complex contained private thermal baths.
The cool thing about Villa Poppaea is that it feels like a home. Ok, it’s an empty, sprawling mansion with bare spots on some of the wall and floor treatments, but it does have a roof on it, which is unusual for ruins, and it feels like a home. It’s not a bunch of rocks that require imagination to contrive how it must have looked back in its day. When you walk through Villa Poppaea, you get a real sense of the opulent dwelling it once was. Frescoes are everywhere, and in pretty remarkable condition, as are the mosaic and marble floors.
The interesting thing about Villa Poppaea is that the remains were void of humans. Most of the sculptural elements were missing as well. This is due to the fact that renovations were taking place in the villa at the time of the calamity.
The effect of the eruption was particularly violent at Oplontis due its close proximity to the sea. As the molten lava rushed into the water, it created a sort of tsunami that brought a unique type of destruction to the city. This force caused roofs to collapse, walls to be cast asunder, and columns to break and be tossed laterally, which made the reconstruction a very tricky project indeed.
Oplontis: The Perfect Thing to Pair with Pompeii
Whatever disastrous mess might have existed at the time Villa Poppaea was excavated and put back together, you would never know it standing inside the villa today. The dwelling gives the visitor another view of life in ancient times, an intimate look into the luxurious home life of the noble Roman class. It’s a much different experience than the urban sprawl of Pompeii or Herculaneum, and in that sense a perfect complement. It also doesn’t take much time to visit; a half hour could be sufficient (although the writer of this article spent an hour there and went up and back through the complex a couple of times).
Pompeii is a one-of-kind archeological experience not to be missed, and Herculaneum is fascinating and extremely popular as well. Having said that, visiting both Pompeii and Herculaneum in a day might be a bit like smelling too many perfumes for some folks; at a certain point you just get a bit numb.
This is where Villa Poppaea presents itself as an ideal alternative. You might not have ever heard of Oplontis or Villa Poppaea, but it is a brilliant way to balance out a day exploring ruins in the shadow of Vesuvius.
To get a sense of how fabulous Villa Poppaea is, check out this 4-minute video on YouTube.