Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vespasian's birthplace, and scene of his death, discovered in Italy

In the year that sees the bimillennial anniversary of the birth of the Emperor Vespasian, it is very exciting to think his country palace in the town of his birth may have been discovered. Vespasian is the emperor best known for the construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre, or Colosseum, in Rome, but he was of relatively humble origin and came from a village called Falacrinae in modern Lazio.
Archaeological teams from the British School at Rome and the University of Perugia have excavated part of a large villa with baths and colonnades at a place they believe to be ancient Falacrinae. The existence of the villa is known from literary sources but until recently no traces had been found of the emperor’s birthplace.
The excavations revealed an ancient cemetery, a chapel of (probable) medieval origin and the villa. The villa is notable for the paving of what appears to be the principal room. The pavement is made up of polychrome marbles quarried in North Africa of the most precious quality. It seems as though the walls of the room were also lined with marble. Two other rooms are decorated with very fine mosaics, and the general luxury of the villa, plus its age, seem to point to an imperial residence.
Dig Director Professor Coarelli signals caution since there is no absolute evidence, such as an inscription, but considers that the dating, the quality of the environment, the place and the outstanding decoration of the villa, all point to the fact that it may be a residence of the Flavian dynasty.
Suetonius tells us that every summer Vespasian retired to his country villa near Rieti, and it was there that he died of an intestinal inflammation. On 23 June of 79, Vespasian knew he was dying and asked to be helped to stand as he believed "an emperor should die on his feet".  His last words were said to be “oh dear, I think I am becoming a god”: a good example of his reputation for being down to earth and a great wit. We don’t really know that much about the details of his 10 year administration of the Empire, apart from the fact that he turned his attention to fiscal matters, including the famous tax on public toilets (a wonderful story I may have to retell another day!).
Professor Coarelli hopes that the villa and the surrounding excavations will throw light on how a large residence like this affected the surrounding rural community in these relatively early days of the empire. I will aim to follow the story here.

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