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The Monumental Villa at Palazzi di Casignana and the Roman Elite in Calabria (Italy) during the Fourth Century AD


In the fourth century AD, the early imperial Villa at Palazzi di Casignana, located on the Ionian coast, 15 km south of the ancient Greek colony of Locri (Italy) was rebuilt on a grand scale. The addition of two sets of baths, apsidal rooms, lavish wall marble veneers, and exquisite floor mosaics made it comparable to other important Late Antique villas, such as that at Piazza Armerina in Sicily. This study examines the architecture and decorative apparatus of the villa in order to better understand the historical and cultural context of this fourth century remodelling. Comparative analysis with other Roman villas from the same period leads to some obvious and provocative hypotheses with regard to the function of the rooms, and the role of the surrounding estate. The opulence of the villa and the 15 hectares of land that surrounds it, are evidence that Locri and its territory hosted a wealthy elite in the fourth century AD. This study argues against a long-held belief in the field of archaeology and history that Bruttii was impoverished or insignificant during the late imperial period. Archaeological data from the region, in particular from the Villa at Palazzi di Casignana, has provided an incentive for us to re-examine ancient and modern sources in order to reassess the economic fortunes of Bruttii at this time. It is likely that the abundance of natural resources of the region prompted the late Roman elite to invest their fortunes in this part of the Empire. Literary and archaeological evidence suggests that wine-making was among the most profitable sources of revenue for the late Roman elite in Bruttii. A large number of wine amphorae (Keay 52) have been unearthed in the region, strongly suggesting that there was a large-scale production of wine in this area. Recent studies contend that these amphorae were manufactured in Bruttii, and there is ample archaeological evidence showing that they were exported to distant regions of the Empire, including Greece and France. Even at the Villa of Palazzi di Casignana, a large number of these amphorae has been discovered, indicating that the villa may have been an important local hub for wine-making. In addition, the largest and most lavish room of the Villa at Palazzi di Casignana, Room I, which is inserted in the seafront sector of the villa, is considered at length. By comparing this Room to similar ones found in other late Roman villas, this study investigates the possible functions of this space and the likely role that the villa had in the area of Locri during the fourth century AD. Although there have been extensive excavations at the villa's site during the past few decades, and a detailed archaeological report has been recently published, it is premature to draw definite conclusions about the function and ownership of this outstanding complex. There is no doubt that the Villa at Palazzi di Casignana stands as a significant evidence that in Locri and its territory resided a wealthy elite during the later centuries of the Roman history and that Roman Calabria is worthy of deeper and broader exploration.

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