One of the most famous palaces in the world rests inaccessible to this day, buried under a volcano, Mount Vesuvius, in southern Naples. No one can visit it, no one could yet fathom all its secrets. And its owner could still be resting in its ruins. Who, one wonders, is this unknown multimillionaire of antiquity who owned the sunken splendor? What tragic story is still hidden under the lava on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius?
The most famous villa in the world
The palace, the Villa of the Papyri, is an enormous Roman complex discovered in the 18th century right next to the buried ruins of the Roman city of Herculaneum. It lies buried deep in the tuff, trapped under six mudslides that Mount Vesuvius spewed over the coast near Naples in the year 79. The ruins of the palace were discovered in 1750 by the Swiss Karl Weber, and commissioned by the Spanish Bourbon kings. The exploration was done from the bottom of the local wells through narrow tunnels in the brittle stone.
The villa got its name after charred scrolls were found in a small annex of the main building. To this day, they are the only completely preserved library from Roman times ever found. Since papyrus does not last more than one or two centuries under normal circumstances, only a few scrolls have been preserved. In the villa, they survived as charcoal blocks, which are however difficult to read.
What was also recovered through tunnels from the villa, which is still buried today, kept the world in suspense over the centuries: in addition to the papyri, most precious mosaics, frescoes and furnitures were found and, above all, an incomparable collection of otherwise rare ancient bronzes.
Although the villa broke in its center due to the force of the waves of mud and lava that fell upon it, and therefore has never been fully excavated to this day, it inspired the world. Films, books and exhibitions speak of it. In the National Museum of Naples, a room is dedicated solely to the mosaic floor of its Belvedere. Getty had his museum in Los Angeles built in its image. What he didn’t know is that he was following an incomplete model. It was not until much later that an immense trench was dug down to the ancient beach and it was discovered that the villa had been multi-storied. Both, its discoverer Weber and Getty, had assumed that it had only had a one-story main building with a loggia. Yet, it was located on a slope and had not only two lower floors, but also a swimming pool by the sea. All this lies walled in the tuff to this day and nobody has yet touched the biggest part of the villa.
A trunk with textiles was recently found and it is known that the lower floors contain clothing, furniture and the like. However, the trunk was once again walled up. Further exploration seems too costly, too risky (conservation wise and stability wise), and to make matters worse, there are still inhabited buildings above the villa.
Yet, one question remains unanswered after all the research and studies: That of who lived in the villa at the moment of its demise.
There is circumstantial evidence in this criminal case and I take the liberty of discussing it here. All of this with the caveat that what follows is a hypothesis…albeit an intriguing one.
The clue of the charred library
The villa may therefore have originally belonged to Piso and it is therefore called Piso’s villa to this day. However, Piso died long before the villa sank and therefore could not have been living in it when it sank. On the other hand, recent research in the waters off Baia, north of Naples, has identified a villa whose plumbing is clearly stamped with the name Lucius Piso. This need not be a compelling exclusion of Piso from the villa at Herculaneum. There were several Lucius Piso. But Baia was close to Caesar’s villa, now the castle of Baia, and thus Piso would probably have preferred a villa in Baia for political calculation and prestige.
However, the Piso library may have been inherited by Piso’s daughter, Calpurnia, who had been given as a bride to the aging Caesar at the age of 17 and found herself a widow just a few years later. There are theories that Caesar originally had the villa of papyri confiscated by one of his political enemies. This would have given his wife the right to live in the villa after his assassination, even though in all likelihood she would not have inherited it under Roman inheritance law and the villa would have remained in the possession of Caesar’s family, the Julii.
However, this would explain the presence of the library. Such a place of residence would not be improbable for Calpurnia. Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina lived only a little further in Oplontis in a villa also buried by Vesuvius long after her death.
The question remains who was living in the villa of the papyri when it sank. Someone who was rich for sure. But probably also someone who, according to the above, was close to the imperial family.
The dynasty of the Julians perished with Nero’s suicide. Their property passed to the new emperor Vespasian and from him to his son Titus – the emperor who ruled when Herculaneum sank.
Did the villa belong to Emperor Titus? One may at least assume so.
Circumstantial evidence: The letters of Pliny
There is other circumstantial evidence and we find it in the two world-famous letters of Pliny the Younger, which he wrote to the historian Tacitus thirty years after the sinking of Herculaneum. In these, the young Pliny describes how his uncle, Pliny the Elder, died. Pliny the Elder was not only a great naturalist, but also an admiral of Rome’s fleet and a close friend of the emperor. He perished while trying to bring a desperate rescue to the coast buried by Vesuvius. What we know of his death, however, is blurred by the turmoil of time.
On the one hand, his nephew describes the events from hearsay and after a long time. For another, he wrote in Roman capital letter script on papyrus. The text is teeming with abbreviations; punctuation had not yet been invented at that time. Therefore, only four contradictory copies have survived. What they say allows conclusions, but also creates misunderstandings.
For example, Pliny the Younger writes that his uncle received a letter on the day of the catastrophe asking him for help, and he then set the emperor’s fleet in motion. The few versions of the story diverge as to who sent this letter and where Pliny went. A friend, a certain Rectina, whose husband was a Tascus or Cascus, appears several times in the interpretations as the sender.
However, a closer look shows that it is a rather improbable scenario that the translators want to sell us.
For one thing, it is unlikely that an admiral like Pliny would have had the right to rush to the aid of an insignificant friend with the imperial fleet. On the other hand it is astonishing that this friend should have possessed carrier pigeons of the emperors troops. But how else could the message have been delivered, with the sea in turmoil and the wind blowing against the coast?
It is therefore much more likely that Pliny was summoned to help by someone in command or disposing of power and of soldiers. And already Winkelmann noted that the place built much later over the lava fields of the site of the ancient ruins was called Resina. It was renamed only after the excavations in Ercolano (Herculaneum). From Rectina to Resina it is not a long way, even if this conclusion has been contradicted for reasons of linguistic development. Yet, I still think that Pliny the Younger speaks of the place or villa Rectina, not of a person. A grammatical form in the letter (in the small word exterritae), says however, whoever wrote, was a woman.
It can be assumed – without, and this is underlined, being sure of it – that Pliny was called to help from the Villa of the Papyri or a nearby building. Pliny went to Rectina, and tried to land on the beach of Herculaneum. The Villa of the Papyri had only a small private harbor. In addition, hundreds of dead bodies were found in the boat hangars of Herculaneum, and just in front of them an overturned boat and the body of a Roman legionary.
All this paints the picture of a dramatic rescue attempt that Pliny had to abandon with burning sails. He remained trapped on the coast, since in antiquity ships could not cross back against the wind, and finally perished from poisonous gases in Stabbiae, where he had fled.
Meanwhile, in Herculaneum, the volcano engulfed the city and nearby villas, the ground sinking 4 meters lower. Waves of mud rolled over everything.
When calm returned, the new beach was hundreds of meters further into the sea.
The evidence of the unpainted walls
After all this, the question remains who lived in such a richly furnished villa by the sea and had so much authority to call the fleet to help. And who went to the grave with it.
One thing seems certain: the person remained unknown to the young Pliny, even after the fact. His uncle received a letter from Rectina, but the younger does not know from whom. Otherwise, one may think, he would have mentioned this.
A circumstantial fact is added. When the two still unknown floors of the villa were finally found in the 21st century, only a very small area of the second floor was excavated. In this they found something astonishing: the painted walls were as fresh and bright as if they had been decorated only yesterday – and the rest of the wall was white.
17 years before the fall of Herculaneum, it had already been damaged by a violent earthquake and apparently the villa was being restored at the moment of its fall.
And when does one usually restore? … When there is a new inhabitant. It could be, therefore, that the villa had just been taken possession of by an important person.
But who could have been this so rich and yet so secret new inhabitant who moved there just before the fall of Herculaneum? There is a promising candidate, and even a female one.
“Against her will and against his”.
The great Suetonius describes the life and the imperial coronation of Vespasian’s son and successor, the Emperor Titus, who ruled since June 24, 79. In doing so, he uses a famous line in reference to the accession: “Berenice he sent away from Rome, against her will and against his.”
Who was this Berenice and where did Titus send her?
Queen Julia Berenice of Judea was Titus’ form of Cleopatra.
Few other ancient figures – except perhaps the Pharaoh of Egypt herself – have inspired as many painters, playwrights, novelists and opera composers as this Berenice. See her list on Wikipedia. Her unhappy affair with Emperor Titus, set against the dramatic background of the first Jewish-Roman war, became a symbol of the conflict between passion for love and reason of state. In the process, Berenike’s figure was so idealized by the poets that today one can hardly recognize the historical person behind the legend.
Berenice was eleven years older than Titus and the granddaughter of the Herod of the Bible. At the age of 13, she was married to a wealthy Jew from Alexandria who died before they could consummate the marriage. Later she was married to her uncle Herod from Chalcis in Lebanon and after his death she lived with her brother, the new king Herod Agrippa II. The latter led to rumors of incest, which Berenice never got rid of, not even by the quickly dissolved marriage with Polemon of Cilicia (who, by the way, was a descendant of Marc Anton).
Since Berenice, like her brother, was on the side of Rome and even counted as belonging to the house of the Julii, she incurred the wrath of her own people when the first Jewish revolt against Roman rule broke out in 66. She initially tried to mediate, but an angry mob set fire to her palace and that of her brother, forcing her to flee with her treasures and her bodyguard to the camp set up by the Romans outside the walls of Jerusalem.
It was in this camp that General Vespasian, who was governor of Syria on behalf of Emperor Nero, and his son Titus arrived in 67 AD to put down the rebellion. And it was in Vespasian’s tent that the fateful encounter between Berenice and the young prince took place….
While Rome sank into civil war after Nero’s suicide, Titus remained in Judea, according to Tacitus, driven by “the extreme desire to see Berenice again”, because “his young heart was not insensitive to the charms of this queen”.
When Vespasian was proclaimed emperor, he received the support of Berenice and King Herod Agrippa, who themselves remained in Judea to support Titus in the suppression of their own people and to applaud the burning of the temple in Jerusalem.
After the end of the revolt, Berenice accompanied Titus to Rome, where they shared the imperial residence with the apparent intention of marrying. However, political problems soon arose. The Romans did not like the idea of a foreign queen marrying the heir to the empire. They could allow the concubinage of an emperor who was already the father of male heirs, but not the concubinage of an unmarried prince in the prime of his life. A second Cleopatra was not wanted. Under pressure Titus separated from Berenice, she returned to Judea only to come back to Rome twice.
Vespasian’s advisors tried everything to thwart the future emperor’s planned marriage to a foreign woman who, moreover, was too old to bear children. Titus, however, had a senator, who tried to seduce Berenice, executed even before he took office. Berenice achieved such great influence that Quintilian, an eminent lawyer at the time, reports a trial before Vespasian’s crown council, the subject of which concerned Berenice and in which she herself sat on the panel of judges while he pleaded as counsel before it.
After Vespasian’s death in 79 AD, Berenice was thus with Titus, now emperor. But a marriage to the Oriental queen threatened political stability in the eyes of the Romans. Titus was forced to send her away against his will and hers (invito, invitam, says Suetonius) because of the enormous public criticism.
Exactly when this happened is disputed. Yet, probably Berenice was banished from Rome immediately after Titus’ accession to power, which took place on June 24, 79. According to Pliny, the volcanic eruption happened on August 24, 79, although today we assume a somewhat later date.
Rejected by Titus, the woman, who had already seen herself as an empress, had to go into hiding. Her traces disappear so completely from history that not even the date and circumstances of her death are known. Where did the Cleopatra of the new emperor disappear to?
Did Berenice die in the Villa of the Papyri?
Let’s just again summarize this story, to which 40 operas and countless plays were dedicated, about which Corneille, Racine and Mozart wrote. Berenice and Titus love each other. She has no future in Judea. He has no other wife and loves Berenice. He designates his brother Domitian as his successor. Titus owns a villa in Baia. And – as hypothesized above – a second one in a straight line on the other side of the Gulf in Herculaneum. What if Titus hid Berenice in the Villa of the Papyri?
That would explain why there was a renovation ongoing, why there was a military presence and a female letter-sender, and why there were so many art treasures. It would also explain why Pliny, who would certainly have been privy to the emperor’s secrets as an admiral of the fleet, immediately rushed to the queen’s aid.
It would also make understandable why Titus was so struck by the fate of the cities on Vesuvius, and formed a commission to dig in them for goods and for the dead. The first curator of the Villa of the Papyri, Camillo Paderni, reported in the 18th century that he had come across traces of ancient rescue attempts in the Villa of the Papyri.
Did Titus at least want to be able to bury Berenice? And is the ill-fated queen still buried in the Villa today?
Titus died two years later. His last words were: ‘I have made only one mistake in my life’. Did he talk about having sent Berenice to Herculaneum?
This is hypothesis. But who knows?
Read more in the archaeology-Thriller ‘From Hidden Places‘.