Excavation Oplontis was buried under a deep layer of ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, AD 79.
Excavation Oplontis was buried under a deep layer of ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, AD 79.
Excavation Oplontis was a Roman city that, like the nearby Pompeii, was buried under a deep layer of ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, AD 79.
It is today the location of the under-visited Villa Poppaea, the villa of the wife of Emperor Nero, which was excavated in the mid-20th century. It’s a grandiose holiday villa from the 1st century B.C. that houses which are considered to be some of the finest examples of Pompeian wall paintings in the familiar bright vermilion and turquoise hues.
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Oplontis was a town near Pompeii, in the Roman Empire. On August 24, AD 79, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried it under a deep layer of ash. It is today the location of the Villa Poppaea, the villa possibly associated with the second wife of Emperor Nero,was excavated in the mid-20th century, wrapping up in 1984, and is currently open to the public.
A second villa, the Villa of L. Crassius Tertius, was discovered in 1974, 300 metres east of the Villa of Poppaea,during the construction of a school. It was named following the finding of a bronze seal bearing Crassius’ name.
The name “Oplontis” most likely refers to the baths in the area of Oncino, but today the name commonly covers the group of villas in the middle of the modern town of Torre Annunziata, also known as Torre Nunziata in the local Neapolitan dialect.
A large number of artifacts from Oplontis are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.
The pictorial decoration, with faux doors and columns, is correlated to actual architectural features, thereby creating tricks of perspective and correspondences between the real and the imaginary. The numerous details of the painted decorations, consisting of masks, baskets of fruit, torches, and birds, are of very high quality. The villa was originally adorned with numerous sculptures, most of which were Roman copies of originals of the Hellenistic sphere of the 3rd-2nd century B.C.
Access: Via Dei Sepolcri, 12 – Torre Annunziata (NA)
3 sites: Pompeii, Oplontis, Boscoreale (valid for 3 consecutive days and for one entrance/visit per site)*.
Full: € 14.00**; Reduced: € 8.00**
November to March
8:30 – 17:00 (last entrance at 15:30)
April to October
8:30 – 19:30 (last entrance at 18:00)
last admission one hour and a half before closing
1 January, 1 May, 25 December
The Villa Poppaea is an ancient Roman seaside villa (villa maritima) situated between Naples and Sorrento, in southern Italy. It is also referred to as the Villa Oplontis, or more precisely as Villa A by modern archaeologists. The villa itself is a large structure situated in the ancient Roman town of Oplontis (the modern Torre Annunziata), about ten meters below the modern ground level. Evidence suggests that it was owned by the Emperor Nero, and believed to have been used by his second and rather notorious wife, Poppaea Sabina, as her main residence when she was not in Rome.
Like many of the frescoes that were preserved due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, those decorating the walls of the Villa Poppaea are striking both in form and in color. Many of the frescoes are in the “Second Style” (also called the Architectural Style) of ancient Roman painting, dating to ca. 90-25 BCE as classified in 1899 by August Mau in the book Pompeii: Its Life and Art(Berry, 171). Details include feigned architectural features such as trompe-l’œil windows, doors, and painted columns.
Frescoes in the caldarium depicting Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides are painted in the “Third Style” (also called the Ornate Style) dating to ca. 25 BCE-40 CE according to Mau (Berry, 170). Attention to realistic perspective is abandoned in favor of flatness and elongated architectural forms which “form a kind of shrine” around a central scene, which is often mythological (Berry, 170).
Immediately to the west of the triclinium is a large oecus, which was the main living room of a Roman house. Like the caldariumfrescoes, the room is also painted in the Second Style. The east wall includes some wonderful details such as a theatre mask and peacock (Wallace-Hadrill, 27).
Much attention has been paid to the allusions to stage painting (scenae frons) in the Villa Poppaea frescoes, particularly those in Room 23 (Wallace-Hadrill, 27; Coarelli, et al., 372; Clarke, 117).
Rediscovery & Excavation History
The Villa of Poppaea was first discovered in the eighteenth century during the construction of the Sarno Canal which cut through the central hall of the villa (Clarke, 22). Between 1839 and 1840 explorations of the site were undertaken by Bourbon excavators who removed several paintings from the villa .The excavators used a tunneling technique that was also employed at Herculaneum, and uncovered part of the peristyle and garden area (Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium, 79).
Excavations continued again from 1964 until the mid-1980s, at which point the site was excavated to its current level. It was during this final round of excavations that the massive swimming pool, measuring 60 by 17 meters, was unearthed. The villa’s southernmost portions have been left unexcavated because of the physical limitations of the complex, which has been compromised by its position beneath the modern city of Torre Annunziata and the construction of the Sarno Canal .
Historian and archeologist Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski began excavations on the gardens at the Villa Poppaea in 1974, and by 1993, 13 gardens had been discovered. Among these was a peristyle garden in the original portion of the villa. There, Jashemski and her team found evidence of a large shade tree next to a fountain; they also found a sundial, and the remains of a rake, a hoe, and a hook.
Another garden in the grounds, this one enclosed, featured wall paintings of plants and birds, and evidence of fruit trees growing in the garden’s corners. Two courtyard gardens also featured wall paintings. A large garden that Jashemski describes as “parklike” extends from the back of the villa (The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius, vol. 2, 295). There her team discovered cavities that had once housed the roots of large trees, believed by specialists at the Ministero dell’Agricultura to be plane trees.
Also found were what seemed to be the remains of tree stumps. These were analyzed in the lab, but as the wood had changed to calcium carbonate, the exact species of the trees could not be identified from the remains of the stumps. However, one large branch still retained some of its original cellular structure intact, and examination of this material under a microscope proved that the branch came from an olive tree.
Other trees at the Villa Poppaea were also identified, including lemon and oleander; a carbonized apple found on the site indicates the former presence of apple trees. According to Patrick Bowe in Gardens of the Roman World (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004), modern-day replanting of the Villa’s gardens was undertaken only after the gardens’ original plant types and location were known.
The site of Villa B lies approximately 300 meters to the east of Villa A, and like Villa A, it is a building of the Roman era that was destroyed by the 79 C.E. eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Though located very near the luxurious and sprawling Villa A, Villa B is strikingly different in what it preserves, and from its remains we can also surmise that it had a very different function from its opulent neighbor. Whereas Villa A is clearly a luxury villa designed for otium, or leisure, Villa B may not even be a villa in the traditional sense, but rather some type of emporium or distribution center. Its spaces are meant not for leisure but for negotium, or industry. Moreover, the presence of two nearby roads, and what may be a row of townhouses to the north, suggests that Villa B occupies a position in a small settlement or town, perhaps even the town of Oplontis itself.
The structure’s plan reveals a central courtyard surrounded by a two-story peristyle of Nocera tufa columns. Excavators uncovered and restored more than seventy rooms, on both ground- and second-story levels. On the ground level, barrel-vaulted rooms, each with a single large doorway, line all four sides of the courtyard. These ground-floor rooms preserve little or no decoration and reveal masonry predominantly in opus incertum and opus reticulatum. Excavators found remnants of a wooden stairway to the upper floor at the northeast corner of the peristyle; its impression is still visible in the wall plaster. At the south corner, a low structure comprised of thin rubble walls may have been a latrine. The eastern side preserves what seems to be the primary entrance into the courtyard. On the south side of the building, and facing south, eight storerooms open onto a what may have been a large portico. To the west stand the partially-excavated remains of two rooms that belong to another building. To the north, a small street separates Villa B from what appears to be a row of two-storied houses (also only partially excavated) that faced the north side of the villa. During coring operations sponsored by the Oplontis Project in 2009 and 2010, geologist Giovanni di Maio found evidence of a road to the east of the villa, in an area that is still unexcavated. This road is likely to be a north-south road running along the eastern facade of the complex; it was probably from this road that one entered the courtyard.
A preliminary examination of the remains suggests that Villa B was originally constructed at the end of the second century B.C.E., as evidenced by the use of Nocera tufa columns typical of that period. Brick repairs to that peristyle and the extensive use of opus reticulatum—both typical of post-62 C.E. earthquake construction at Pompeii—may suggest a renovation of the structure in the years before the eruption of 79 C.E.
Villa B preserves very little evidence of decoration. Only simple white plaster of a type common to utilitarian spaces in Roman buildings survives on the ground floor. The upper-floor rooms preserve some simple painting schemes, most datable to the Fourth Style (C.E. 45-79). These include simple designs of color fields with carpet borders. There is a fragmentary Nilotic painting, later covered by Fourth-Style painting, as well as a painted lararium. Preserved in another room is a fragment of schematic Second-Style decoration (ca. 50 B.C.E.), a carry-over from an earlier decorative phase.
Beyond the unique physical structure of Villa B, perhaps the most significant aspect of this site is the fact that it preserves unparalleled material for new study in several underrepresented areas, including human remains, foodstuffs, coins, jewelry, and transport vessels. In the courtyard and ground-level rooms, excavations uncovered over 400 amphorae. Perhaps the most significant of these are the stacked amphorae still in place at the northwest corner of the courtyard. That these amphorae had been cleaned and stacked upside down to dry tells us that they were meant to be re-used at the site (fig. 3. Amphorae in northwest corner of courtyard). Supporting this assumption is the discovery of a small stone oven nearby containing a small pot with pine resin, suggesting that—among other things—in this courtyard workers prepared storage amphorae, certainly for wine, and possibly for oil and garum (the famous fermented fish condiment of ancient Rome). Extensive paleobotanical remains found in some amphorae and piles of carbonized pomegranates, hay, and walnuts found in the south rooms indicate that Villa B probably functioned as a site for the storage and distribution of foodstuffs.
Of equal interest as evidence of commerce and accumulation of wealth are several items: a strongbox, over 200 coins, jewelry, and a seal ring. The strongbox, found in the peristyle, may have fallen from the upper floor. It had a wooden framework plated with iron leaves and inscribed “Pythonymos, Pytheas, and Nikokrates, the workers of Herakleides, made [this].” Its exquisite decoration consists of inlay designs and figural bosses in silver, copper, and gilded bronze typical of late Hellenistic decorative design. Furthermore, its intricate locking system was so advanced that similar mechanisms continued in use until the nineteenth century.
The coins, ranging in date from the late Republic to the time of Vespasian, hold the potential to shed light on questions of monetary circulation, inflation, and commerce in the region. As for the jewelry, further study is needed to understand the different points of manufacture, as well as the techniques employed. The seal ring bears the inscription L.CRAS.TERT. Such rings created seals for business dealings. It is on the basis of this seal that one scholar determined that the owner of Villa B was L. Crassius Tertius, a hypothesis, however, that requires further investigation; alternatively, he could have been the administrator (procurator) rather than owner.
The most important find, and one that—properly studied—can shed light on pressing questions, is the discovery of the skeletons of 54 individuals in room 10, one of the large ground-floor rooms that opened onto the southern portico). These were people who had gathered in this room to escape the eruption, and presumably to await rescue from the sea, overcome by the hot gas and poisonous fumes of the first pyroclastic flow that hit Villa B. They are a gruesome reminder of the human toll taken by Vesuvius. Because they were found in two distinct groups, some scholars attempt to distinguish the skeletons in terms of social status. Those at the rear of the space, bearing no money or jewelry, would be servants and slaves, whereas the group near the entrance to the space would be elites—this because some of them were found with considerable wealth in the form of coins and jewelry