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Villa Hadriana (detail)
Villa Hadriana (detail)

Hadrian's Villa (Villa Hadriana) is a large Roman villa built by the emperor Hadrian in the early second century CE. The villa was a sumptuous complex of over 30 buildings, covering an area of at least 100 hectares (c. 250 acres), maybe even 300 hectares, of which much is still unexcavated. Hadrian's Villa is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The villa was Hadrian's preferred residence when he was in Rome. His choice of an imperial palace outside Rome, instead one of the several palaces in Rome, was probably influenced by the miserable relations he had with the senate and the local Roman aristocracy.

Hadrian was born in Spain, just like his predecessor Trajan, and the senate and the local aristocracy had trouble coming to terms with another provincial on the imperial throne.

The way Hadrian had assumed power only reinforced their opposition to him. Trajan's adoption of Hadrian on his deathbed was immediately cast in doubt, and when four military leaders, all Roman aristocrats who had been close to Trajan and hence possible contenders for the throne, were assassinated immediately after Trajan's death, the senate immediately suspected Hadrian of having ordered the killings.

Hadrian only arrived in Rome eleven months after Trajan's death, and denied any wrongdoing, but his relationship with the senate never recovered from the crisis. As a consequence Hadrian stayed very little in Rome. He travelled extensively throughout most of the empire in two prolonged periods, in 121-125 CE and in 128-134 CE, and when in Italy he preferred to stay away from Rome. A grandiose imperial palace outside Rome, but not too far away, was the perfect answer.

The ruins of the residential area
The ruins of the residential area

The Villa Hadriana became the imperial residence. The villa was located just outside ancient Tibur, modern Tivoli, some 28 km E. of Rome. It stood on a hillside, surrounded by two minor tributaries to the Aniene, which flows into the Tiber just N. of Rome. Tivoli, and hence the villa, was easily reached from Rome by land via the Via Tiburtina and by boat on the Aniene, which was navigable at the time.

Other reasons for choosing that particular location for the villa were more practical. Tivoli was (and still is) famous for the travertine quarries, but there were also ample supplies of tufa and of pozzolana and lime for the production of cement. The water resources at the site were very abundant. The hill on which the villa stood was surrounded by two small streams, and the hills behind Tivoli provided water for four of the aqueducts that supplied Rome. Especially the baths of the Villa of Hadrian required vast amounts of water.

The villa complex was vast in scale, spreading over an area of c. 2×1 km. The central part of the palace was a traditionally structured villa, oriented on a NW.-SE. axis on the side of a hill. It included (from the NW) a garden with a elongated fountain and a view towards the valley, two buildings often identified as a Greek library and a Latin library, a large courtyard followed by the main residential part of the palace, which included a building with Doric columns. Further back was another grand court with a portico and richly adorned rooms, the so-called Golden Court (Piazza d'Oro) due to the very rich finds from there.

The Hospitalia or guest house
The ::Hospitalia:: or guest house

On the NE. side of the imperial palace were rooms for guests, the Hospitalia with bedrooms and a large triclinium. Further down the N. slope was the so-called Terrace of Tempe with a vantage point on the lower valley, the Pavilion of Tempe.

To the SW. of the libraries stood a strange circular building, which is usually called the Maritime Theatre. It consisted of a colonnade around a small lake with an central island with what appears to have been a small residence. Besides this structure was a large hall, probably an audience hall, called the Hall of the Philosophers, and a bathing complex with a sun heated room, the Heliocaminus Baths, both aligned on an almost N.-S. axis.

In the back, on the S. side of the building with Doric columns, stood the barracks of the guard.

On the N. side of the hill, below the terrace in front of the libraries and apparently somewhat detached from the rest of the complex, stood a Greek theatre and a portico with a round Temple of Venus.

A large part of the complex is oriented on a E.-W. axis. It dominates the SW. slope of the hill, and some parts are constructed on an artificial platform which houses the servant accommodation. Closest to the imperial palace and the barracks of the guard were a building with a peristyle pool and a cryptoporticus. Further W. and at a substantially lower level was an elongated nymphaeum, previously often thought to be a stadium due to the particular shape. Next was a building with three exedrae, probably a triclinium. The largest structure on the E.-W. axis was the Poikile, which was a huge rectangular colonnade with a pool in the centre. Half the structure rests on a large artificial platform.

The large baths
The large baths

To the S. of the Poikile, still on the SW. slope on the hill and partly dug into it, was another part of the complex, aligned on a more N.-S. axis. Here were two bathing facilities, the small baths and the large baths, separated by some large halls of unknown purpose. Attached to the hillside behind the large baths were more barracks, known as the Praetorian Pavilion. The dominating feature of this part of the villa is the Canopus, which is an elongated lake surrounded by a colonnade. A the end of the lake was a Temple of Serapis, dug into the hillside.

On the hill above the Canopus were probably gardens and other buildings, but this area is only superficially excavated. This includes a circular structure, maybe a mausoleum, several underground passages and a Temple of Pluto. S. of the Canopus was another set of buildings, oriented on a mostly NW.-SE.-axis, which included a panoramic vantage point, gardens and some structures identified as an Academia, after the famous Academy of Athens. These two parts of the villa are not accessible to the visitors.

Below much of the complex run a series of underground roads, passages, storage facilities and slave quarters. Most of the infrastructure needed to run such a huge complex was neatly tucked away, out of sight, out of mind.

The original purpose if the individual buildings is often unknown. Of certain identification are the three bathing facilities, the Poikile (a porticus miliaria used for walks after dinner), the actual imperial residence (the Residential Villa, the Building with Peristyle Pool and the Building with Three Exedrae), and finally the servant accommodation in the substructures on the W. side and in the Praetorian Pavilion, which is connected to the underground service facilities.

Due to the loss of all the upper parts of the buildings, it can be very hard to get an idea about how the villa appeared at the time of Hadrian. The visitor today can "see through" the villa, and easily get an impression of park-like open spaces, but this is misleading. What now appears as open spaces could have been a narrow passage, a dining room or a tall domed hall, but that is all but lost now.

The ancient villa have been much more city-like, with more closed spaces, surrounded by walls and domes now lost. Many of the buildings stood several storeys high, but are now almost completely collapsed.

This article has been split into 7 separate sections. Use the menu below to jump to another section.

  1. Introduction
  2. The Meaning of the Individual Buildings
  3. The Building Process
  4. Works of Art and Building Materials
  5. The Villa after Hadrian
  6. Literature and Links
  7. Photographs

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This page is linked under the names "Hadrian's Villa", "Villa of Hadrian", "Villa Hadriana", "Villa Adriana" and "Hadrians Villa".

Copyright © 2004 René Seindal, last changed 2004-10-19

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