Thu, Aug 22, 2013 - Page 7 News List

Underground tunnels served Roman privacy

The Guardian, ROME

Amateur cavers have mapped a vast network of tunnels underneath Hadrian’s Villa outside Rome, leading archeologists to radically revise their views of one of ancient Rome’s most imposing imperial retreats.

Lowering themselves through light shafts found in fields around the 120 hectare site, local speleologists have charted more than 2km of road tunnels — passages where, in the second century, oxen pulled carts loaded with luxury foods for banquets and thousands of slaves scurried from palace to palace, well out of sight of the emperor.

“These tunnels lead us to understand that Hadrian’s Villa was organized less like a villa and more like a city,” said Benedetta Adembri, the director of the site, who is planning, in the autumn, to open stretches of the tunnels to the public for the first time.

Hadrian built his country hideaway near modern-day Tivoli to escape the noise and crowds of Rome, but managed to take half the city with him.

Archeologists have identified 30 buildings, including palaces, thermal baths, a theater and libraries, as well as gardens and dozens of fountains.

“We think the villa covered up to 250 hectares but we still don’t know the limits,” Abembri said.

Abandoned after the fall of the Roman empire, the villa was taken apart piece by piece over the centuries leaving weed infested ruins.

That is where an Italian association of archeo-speleologists, equipped with ropes, and remote-controlled camera mounted vehicles, has entered the fray, exploring the pristine tunnels under the site, as well as the 14.5km of sewers and water pipes hooked up to the local aqueducts.

“What we are exploring is, to a certain extent, the real villa, because the tunnels will show us where the confines of the property really are,” said Marco Placidi, an amateur caver, who has led the search.

Placidi’s team was the first to drop through light shafts to wander through the tunnels. They have mapped a main tunnel, 2.4m wide, which runs more than 1km to a circular spur, about 700m long, which could been used to turn one-way carts. The cavers also found the entrance to an uncharted tunnel, double the width, at 5m, that could accommodate two-way traffic. It is presently packed with soil almost to the roof.

“It could lead to buildings we know nothing about,” said Vittoria Fresi, an archeologist who has worked with Placidi.

Hadrian, a soldier and poet, lauded for his “vast and active genius” by the British historian Edward Gibbon, started his wall across England in the year 122 to keep out invaders. He was also rebuilding the Pantheon in Rome, and had ordered a 900-seat arts area in the center of Rome.

He was a stickler for privacy. After bringing thousands of slaves and functionaries with him to his new villa, he surrounded his personal quarters with a circular moat, still evident today, with access by a bridge.

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