Winery of the Emperors: The Villa of the Quintilii

Roma Vecchia

Back in the eighteenth century archaeology as a modern discipline was just beginning in Italy. The first excavations, as unscientific as they might have been, were being carried out at Pompeii and Herculaneum and many individuals were beginning to wonder how they might best preserve the collapsed ruins of ancient Roman buildings around the city of Rome itself. 

Amidst this evolution of the discipline of Roman archaeology, there was a curious belief amongst the inhabitants of Rome itself. On the edges of the city, in what would have been the suburbs of the Eternal City in ancient times, there were the surface remains of what appeared to be a town of some description. The locals referred to it as Roma Vecchia or ‘Old Rome’, a statement of their belief that this complex of buildings covering many acres of land must have been an urban center of some kind. [1]

Little did they know, however, that Roma Vecchia was actually the sprawling villa of a particularly wealthy family, the Quintilii. In the second century AD, they had built an enormous complex of buildings here, ones which were eventually confiscated by Emperor Commodus and taken into his personal possession in 182 AD. [2]

Moreover, recent research has revealed that the Villa of the Quintilii was home to one of the most striking wineries of the ancient world, one replete with fountains that poured wine and a production unit next to a vineyard and a chariot racecourse. Here we examine the emerging details of the winery at the Villa of the Quintilii. 

Ancient Rome at the magnificent Villa of the Quintilii.

Ancient Rome at the magnificent Villa of the Quintilii. | Image Source

Who were the Quintilii?

So who were the owners of this vast estate? The gens Quintilia were one of the oldest patrician families of Rome. A member of the family, Sextus Quintilius, had obtained the consulship, the senior magistracy of the republic, all the way back in 453 BC. Another member, Gnaeus Quintilius, had been appointed briefly as dictator of Rome during the Samnite Wars of the fourth century BC. 

This prominence continued down to the end of the republic and into early imperial times. For instance, Publius Quintilius Sex, served as consul alongside the future emperor Tiberius in 13 BC and thereafter held the position of governor of Syria and then Germania. 

The heads of the family in the mid-second century AD, when the Villa of the Quintilii was built up into the grand estate which it became, were Sextus Quintilius Valerius Maximus and Sextus Quintilius Condianus. These two relatives had the curious distinction of both serving as consuls in 151 AD during the time of Emperor Antoninus Pius. Thus, the Quintilii were an ancient and esteemed Roman aristocratic family, one which had benefited enormously in financial and material terms from Rome’s conquest of much of the known world. [3]

The Villa of the Quintilii

The Villa of the Quintilii is a colossal estate that the Quintilii family began developing just outside the city of Rome along the famous Appian Way, the main Roman road from Rome south towards Naples. The villa was seemingly first built during the reign of either Trajan or Hadrian in the first quarter of the second century AD, but it was added to over time. 

As one would expect, the core of the villa was a large manor house, but this was simply the start of a huge complex of buildings. These included a thermae or baths, a hippodrome or chariot racing track and even the villa’s own private aqueduct to deliver water around the estate. 

The villa was dotted with funerary tombs to the Quintilii family, monumental buildings, and great statues decorating the space. When Gavin Hamilton, an architect and classicist, visited the site in 1776 he noted that the remains of colossal statues could still be seen around the site. These included great marble busts of the deities Adonis and Bacchus which Hamilton had removed and sent back to England where they ended up in the British Museum. [4]

Terraces and outhouses would further have looked out over the Appian Way and visitors here in the second century would have been able to see Rome in the distance and the traffic of people to and from the city towards southern Italy. 

All told, given the size of the estate and the number of buildings and economic activities carried on here, it is possible to imagine the Villa of the Quintilii being home to hundreds of individuals at a given time in the second century AD, many of them from the Roman elite and many being slaves who kept the estate functioning. [5]

The Emperors Take Over

The Villa of the Quintilii soon came to public attention. How could such a vast complex not? During the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher emperor whose Meditations granted him lasting fame, the emperors and the imperial household were regularly entertained there. This tendency for the emperors to weekends outside of Rome at the Villa of the Quintilii became even more acute under Aurelius’s successor, Emperor Commodus, but eventually, Commodus moved to acquire direct possession of the estate.

From the Historia Augusta, an anonymous collection of biographies of Roman emperors from Hadrian onwards, we learn that Commodus faced a plot early on in his reign. This was led by a cousin of his named Quadratus and the emperor’s elder sister Lucilla, with the support of Tarrutenius Paternus, the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard and a powerful figure at Rome as a result. 

They conspired to have one Claudius Pompeianus assassinate Commodus, but Pompeianus’s nerve gave way as he drew his sword on the emperor and the plot was betrayed. In the days that followed Commodus had the conspiracy fully investigated. Some individuals he drove into exile, some were executed and some who were only dimly involved had lands or wealth taken from them. [6]

It is unclear it the Quintilii brothers were actually involved in the plot, but in any event, their vast villa outside Rome was confiscated by the emperor in the aftermath of the conspiracy. It is plausible that he simply used the episode as an excuse to steal their estate from them. Whatever the reality, the result was the same: Commodus ended up in possession of the Villa of the Quintilii and its vast winery in the 180s AD. 

The Winery of the Quintilii

A picture of the excavated winery at the Villa of the Quintilii

A picture of the excavated winery at the Villa of the Quintilii

While excavations have been intermittently carried out at the Villa of the Quintilii for decades, it was only in April 2023 that news was released about the discovery of a vast winery that made up part of the complex here. The details were provided by the project leads Emlyn Dodd, Giuliana Galli, and Riccardo Frontoni and published in the journal Antiquity. 

What Dodd, Galli, and Frontoni described was a winery sitting next to a large complex of vineyards and orchards where the fruit for pressing was grown. Treading areas where slaves pressed the grapes prior to fermentation were located near the main estate and unusually were fitted with red marble presses, rather than the concrete ones which were typical of Roman wineries. 

The resulting grape juice was then funneled into ceramic dolia or storage jars which were set into the ground, a standard winemaking technique in Roman times that guaranteed a relatively stable microenvironment for fermentation. The pipes running from the presses to the fermentation vats were also connected to a series of three fountains which at different times could have been set to flow with either grape juice or wine. 

Curiously, the presses, fountains, and fermentation dolia were all located around the periphery of what was effectively a dining courtyard. The theory that Dodd and the other researchers have consequently put forward is that Commodus and his successors would have sat eating here watching the various stages of wine production being carried out around the perimeter of the dining areas. [7]

Evidently, the winery was in use by the emperors for decades after Commodus first confiscated the Villa of the Quintilii into imperial possession. The name Gordian is found stamped on a large vat for wine collection which has been found at the site, the Gordian in question most likely being the Emperor Gordian who reigned from 238 AD to 244 AD. Thus, over half a century after it came under imperial ownership the great winery here was still central to the imperial estate. 

Conclusion

It is remarkable that the extent of the winery at the Villa of the Quintilii has only been discovered in 2023, over two and a half centuries after excavations first began here. It is indicative of the manner in which modern archaeological techniques are allowing for more and more detailed reconstruction of ancient buildings. As such, the work being undertaken here and elsewhere will continue to shed further light on ancient viticultural practices in the decades to come. 

Further Reading:

Emlyn Dodd, ‘The Archaeology of Wine Production in Roman and Pre-Roman Italy’, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 126, No. 3 (2022), pp. 443–480. 

Emlyn Dodd, Giuliana Galli and Riccardo Frontoni, ‘The spectacle of production: a Roman imperial winery at the Villa of the Quintilii, Rome’, in Antiquity, Vol. 97, No. 392 (April, 2023), pp. 436–453.

G. J. Hamilton and A. H. Smith, ‘Gavin Hamilton’s Letters to Charles Townley’, in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 21 (1901), pp. 306–321. 

Charlotte Higgins, ‘Lavish ancient Roman winery found at ruins of Villa of the Quintilii near Rome’, The Guardian, 17 April 2023. 

On this Day

31 December 192 – On in this day in 192 AD the Roman Emperor Commodus was drowned to death by a wrestler named Narcissus in his bathtub. Commodus is known for many things, most of them negative, most famously his obsession with slaughtering animals in the Colosseum rather than ruling the Roman Empire effectively. His unscrupulous nature has long been noted. One of the less commented upon aspects of this, was his confiscation of the vast Villa of the Quintilii outside Rome in the early 180s AD. Commodus had long coveted this enormous estate and used a conspiracy against him in 182 AD as an opportunity to seize the estate. It was home to one of the ancient world’s most astonishing wineries, one where fountains flowed with wine made right there on the estate. A chariot hippodrome overlooked the winery, meaning that the Villa of the Quintilii became a species of an imperial weekend getaway for the emperors of the late second century AD. [9]

16 April 2023 – On this day in 2023 an article appeared in the academic journal Antiquity which provided the first extensive details concerning a winery at the Villa of the Quintilii in what would have been the suburbs of Rome in the second century AD. Here it was identified how a winery had been built in the center of this great estate on the outskirts of Rome. Grapes were collected from vineyards close to the site and then crushed in red marble presses, before the grape juice was put into fermentation vats called dolia. Most interestingly, the presses and vats were connected to three fountains which could alternately be made to pour with grape juice or wine. The resulting spectacle would have been watched by rulers such as the Emperor Commodus who dined at a dining room and courtyard overlooking the winery. Evidently this imperial winery was functioning for decades and was still in operation as late as the reign of Emperor Gordian between 238 AD and 244 AD.[10]

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References:

[1] G. J. Hamilton and A. H. Smith, ‘Gavin Hamilton’s Letters to Charles Townley’, in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 21 (1901), pp. 306–321.

[2] http://www.romeartlover.it/Appia2.html [accessed 18/4/23]. 

[3] ‘Quintilia’, in William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (London, 1873). 

[4] G. J. Hamilton and A. H. Smith, ‘Gavin Hamilton’s Letters to Charles Townley’, in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 21 (1901), pp. 306–321.

[5] Cornelius Vermeule, ‘Graeco-Roman Statues: Purpose and Setting – II: Literary and Archaeological Evidence for the Display and Grouping of Graeco-Roman Sculpture’, in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 110, No. 788 (Nov., 1968), pp. 607–613. 

[6] For the text of the relevant passages, see http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Commodus*.html [accessed 18/4/23]. 

[7] Charlotte Higgins, ‘Lavish ancient Roman winery found at ruins of Villa of the Quintilii near Rome’, The Guardian, 17 April 2023; Emlyn Dodd, ‘The Archaeology of Wine Production in Roman and Pre-Roman Italy’, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 126, No. 3 (2022), pp. 443–480; Emlyn Dodd, Giuliana Galli and Riccardo Frontoni, ‘The spectacle of production: a Roman imperial winery at the Villa of the Quintilii, Rome’, in Antiquity, Vol. 97, No. 392 (April, 2023), pp. 436–453.

[8] Geoff W. Adams, The Emperor Commodus: Gladiator, Hercules or Tyrant? (Boca Raton, Florida, 2013); Olivier Hekster, Commodus: An Emperor at the Crossroads (Leiden, 2002). 

[9] W. Adams, The Emperor Commodus: Gladiator, Hercules or Tyrant? (Boca Raton, Florida, 2013); Olivier Hekster, Commodus: An Emperor at the Crossroads (Leiden, 2002).

[10] Emlyn Dodd, Giuliana Galli and Riccardo Frontoni, ‘The spectacle of production: a Roman imperial winery at the Villa of the Quintilii, Rome’, in Antiquity, Vol. 97, No. 392 (April, 2023), pp. 436–453; Charlotte Higgins, ‘Lavish ancient Roman winery found at ruins of Villa of the Quintilii near Rome’, The Guardian, 17 April 2023. 

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , By Published On: July 18, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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