A newly uncovered ancient Roman winery featured marble tiling, fountains of grape juice and an extreme sense of luxury

Recent excavations in the Villa of the Quintilii revealed the remains of a unique winery located just outside Rome.

The building, located on the Via Appia Antica in the mid-third century CE, portrays an opulence that is rarely seen at ancient production sites.

This complex shows how the elite Romans combined utilitarian functions with lavish decoration and theater to create their social and political standing.

I was one of the archaeologists who studied this newly excavated area. Our article on Antiquity explains the details of this find.

View of the winery excavated at the Villa of the Quintilii, Rome. S. Castellani, the Author provided

The Villa of the Quintilii

We know from names inscribed on a lead pipe that the rich Quintilii Brothers owned the 24 hectares of ancient Roman villas. They served as Consuls between 151 and 152 CE.

Commodus’ bust in the Glyptothek of Munich. Wikimedia Commons

In 182/3 CE, the Roman Emperor Commodus killed the brothers.

Initiating imperial ownership, he took possession of the villa and other properties.

This site is known for its beautiful decorative architecture. It includes coloured marble tiles, fine statuary that has been recovered over the past 400 years, as well as a massive bathing complex.

A large circus was built for chariot races during Commodus’ reign.

In 2017-18, while trying to find the beginning gates of the Circus, the first traces a unique winery was revealed.

Read more: Unearthing Falerii Novi’s secrets in the hot Italian summer: an archaeologist reports from the dig

A luxury Roman imperial winery

The large complex is built on top of the starting gates of the circus, which makes it a date after Commodus’ reign.

The complex has features that are common to ancient Roman vineyards, including a grape treading space, two wine presses, and a vat for collecting grape must (the grape juice along with the skins, seeds, and stems), as well as a cellar with large clay pots for fermentation and storage sunk in the ground.

The decoration and arrangement is nearly unmatched in the ancient world.

Aerial view of the winery excavated at the Villa of the Quintilii. The production areas (A-D) are located at the top of the image, and the cellars (E) with adjoining dining rooms (F), in the lower part. Photo by M.C.M S.r.l. and adaptation in Dodd Frontoni Galli 2023. Author provided.

Nearly the entire production area is covered in tiled marble veneer. Even the treading, which is normally covered with waterproof Cocciopesto Plaster, has been covered in red Breccia Marble. The combination of this luxurious material and its practicality (it’s very slippery when it gets wet unlike plaster) conveys a sense of extreme luxury.

Reconstructed ancient Roman Wine Press at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, Italy. E. Dodd is the author.

The treading area is flanked by two enormous mechanical lever presses that are used to press the grape pulp.

The theatre of production would have been enhanced by the size and scale these presses, working in harmony up and down.

This area was where the grape juice from pressing and treading flowed into a rectangular long vat. An impression of a stamp was placed in this vessel, naming the short-reigning Emperor Gordian. (deposed 244CE). This is a confirmation of the date that a building was constructed or renovated.

Here is where the real show would have started.

The liquid must of grapes is poured out like a fountain from the vat, and then through a facade that measures around one metre high. This facade closely resembles an Roman nymphaeum .

The view from the excavated kitchen over the basement with its facade of niches, fountains and raised production areas. E. Dodd is the author.

Water was pumped out from the two ends, while must poured out of three central niches. The water was then redirected underground via a network of lead pipes.

The niched façade was originally covered in a decorative veneer made of marbles of white, black, grey and red colours. Some pieces are still attached, and others were discovered in the layers excavated.

The original position of eight clay jars buried in the cellar, with its marble-lined channels. E. Dodd is the author.

The grape must was transported from the façade into the open-air cellar by a system of thin, open channels made of white marble.

It was then poured into 16 clay jars that were buried ( defossa), large enough to accommodate a human. Eight skeletons were found during excavations.

Around the cellar, three rooms were laid out in the same opulent geometric tiled marble as those in the other parts of the villa.

Imagine the Emperor and his entourage reclining on the floor, watching and eating the production of fresh pressed cane juice and enjoying the freshly pressed product.

In one of the dining rooms, a geometric coloured marble floor tile ( opus Sectile ) was discovered. S. Castellani, Author provided

Ancient Italy’s theatrical vintage ritual

Only Villa Magna is 50 km to the south east, near Anagni.

The winery, which was also marble-clad, was used just before the Villa of the Quintilii in the early second century to the early third. It had a dining area that allowed a view of the production areas.

In Marcus Aurelius’Letters from his tutor fronto we get a glimpse of the Villa Magna activities in 140-145 CE. He describes the imperial banquet while listening and watching the workers treading the grapes.

Roman sarcophagus, ca. 290 CE) depicting a vintage scene, with cherubs treading grapes in a basin for wine. Getty Villa Museum, Malibu. Wikimedia Commons

This was likely part of an ancient vintage ritual that was tied to the opening ceremony of the harvest. This ritual may have also taken place at the Villa of the Quintilii facility, which was built a little later.

The winery, with its lavish marble-clad areas, was the “theatre”, for this sacred performance.

The answer to one tantalising question is still a mystery: Was the spectacular winery of the Roman Emperor’s early third-century CE moved from Villa Magna, to the Villa of the Quintilii or vice versa?

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