Roman Villa of Piazza Armerina
A luxurious Roman villa from around 320 CE
The Name of the Villa
The excavations of the villa have unearthed no information about the identity of the villa or its owner. Travel guides from antiquity, the Itinerarium Antonini, gives the third last mansio (station for rest and change of horses) on the Catania-Agrigento road as Philosophiana, located 45 roman miles before Agrigento. This falls in the region of the villa.
About 5km to the south of the villa is the more modest location of Sofiana, where Roman remains are clearly associated with the latifundium Philosophiana. The very name "Sofiana" appears derived from the ancient name of the site. Sofiana is the most likely candidate for the mansio on the main roman road. The stations on the road were normally named after the latifundium on whose territory they were located, so the latifundium of the villa was probably named Philosophiana.
Who Was the Owner of the Villa?
Several theories have been proposed about the probable identity of the first owner of the villa. Gentili and others assumed the villa could be attributed to the Roman emperor Maximianus Herculius. His argumentation parts from the presence of images of ivy leafs in many of the mosaics in the villa, a decorative element often associated with Maximianus Herculius. The villa has also been ascribed to Maxentius, the son of Emperor Maximianus Herculius, and to Claudius Mamertinus, who was prefect of Illyricum, Italia and Africa under Julian the Apostate.
Another theory departs from the fact that there are elements in the villa from both the military sphere and the civilian world. The entrance has had all the characteristics of an arch of triumph and remains of military insignia can be found on the walls besides the entrance arches. There are also certain military elements in some of the mosaics, such as soldiers. On the other side the whole complex is inherently civilian, and major parts of the mosaics contain references to literature and poetry, which together with the name of the villa leads to believe that the owner of the villa was an accomplished intellectual.
At the time of the building of the villa military and civilian careers had been separated for decades, since the reforms of Diocletian. No single person could have both military and civilian responsibilities. There is, however, a known exception. C. Ceionius Rufius Volusiano had been Prefect of the City of Rome, a civilian responsibility, and consul under both Maxentius and Constantine I, but he had also been prefect of the praetorian guard (a military post) under Maxentius, for whom he had suppressed a rebellion in Africa, where he incidentally also had huge estates. His son, Ceionius Rufius Albinus, was consul in 335 and Prefect of the City. Albinus was also a renowned writer on logic, geometry, history and poetry. Traditionally the honorary crown of a poet was made of ivy, explaining the repeated use of leafs of ivy in the decorations of the villa. Furthermore, in the only surviving official inscription dedicated to him, he is given the title philosophus, just as the latifundium. In favour of a father-son occupation of the villa is the fact that there are two private apartments in the villa and two separate halls for receiving clients, in both cases a larger and a smaller.
This theory, like all the others, is only supported by circumstantial evidence. The bottom line is that we don't know who commissioned the villa and that we probably won't know, unless some unambiguous inscription is found in the future. In the mean time we can summarise what we do know with a reasonable certainty about the owner: he was very wealthy and powerful, probably a member of the senatorial class or the imperial family; he had property in Africa; he made money from the capture of wild animals for the venationes in the Colosseum and elsewhere; he was fond of hunting; he was a lover and patron of music and poetry; he used leaves of ivy as a personal or family symbol; he was almost certainly pagan; and last but not least, he supported the factio prasina in the races in the Circus Maximus.
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