The late antique villa

The latifundium


Located in a valley that just brushes the Gela River, the Villa Romana del Casale is the pars dominica (master’s residential area) of a larger latifundium (large landed estate) centred on the mansio located on Contrada Sofiana. The latifundium relevant to the master’s villa, cited in the Itinerarium Antonini, is known as the Filosofiana.  After the initial abandonment of the countryside between the 1st and 3rd century AD, the Praedium became an organizational centre during the renewal of agrarian policy in Sicily which followed the foundation of Constantinople. 


The functions of the villa in the fourth century AD


The central role assigned to the countryside within the economic framework of the time meant that villas were no longer considered Lucrezian templa serena, suburban places exclusively reserved for brief periods of otium, but also the seat of negotium, bustling centres of economic activity. The otium negotium, which concerned work done in the fields and the sphere of production, now coexisted with the otia that accompanied intellectual activities and philosophical meditation. This theory is corroborated by the discovery of the villa’s pars rustica west of the entrance area, with the remains of a room divided in three parts by pillars and a second room south of this one, both identifiable as stock areas for the storage of agricultural products.


The presence of multiple receiving and state rooms reflects the late antique villa’s need to satisfy a number of different functions and to include spaces for the management of the activities of the dominus as well as that of the villa. Thus the negotium was also flanked by the officium, for the handling of administrative activities. All of which transformed the late antique Roman villa into a city in miniature, bringing about a transfer of the city macrocosm to the suburban microcosm, so much as to cause the fifth-century historian Olimpiodoro Tebano to exclaim that the villas “were like a city and that they in fact contained a thousand cities” (frag. 57).


The structure and its axes


The Villa del Casale rests on the slopes of Mount Mangone and comprises three large levels, which follow the line of the terrain. Starting from the monumental entrance and the baths, one goes up a level to the peristyle, to then rise up another level to the ambulatory of the “great hunt” and the basilica. The floor of the basilica, a space which abuts on the mountain, is in fact slightly inclined since it follows the slant of the ground.


It is interesting to note that, as much as the structure is adapted to the environment, it tends to close the spaces rather than open them up to the exterior: walking through the villa one does not encounter views onto the landscape, and its porticoes are oriented toward the interior.


This “introversion” is also expressed by the non-axiality of the spaces. Diocletian’s palace in Spalato, with its perfectly symmetrical organization, is an example of a proportional, organized structure. The Villa del Casale, on the other hand, at first glance seems to be unsystematically arranged.


In reality, careful observation of the structure reveals that there is an internal logic to the building’s design. Salvatore Settis identified four constitutive nuclei:
– the monumental entrance;
– he quadrangular peristyle and the rooms around it;
– the baths;
– the ovoid peristyle and the triapsidal hall.


The uniqueness of the Villa del Casale is also found in the doubling of the peristyle, with the ovoid portico acting as an alternative to the quadrangular one. They share a common feature, an upward progression, leading to the most magnificent and important rooms of the residence.


Public and private


A villa of this level of magnificence reflects all of the complexity of the life and activities of a high-ranking figure during the late empire. Within it one may in fact discern a number of different routes, some public in character, others private.


The most official route is certainly that which runs from the monumental entrance, through the vestibule and the southern part of the quadrangular peristyle, to the ambulatory of the “great hunt” and so to the basilica, a public reception space. The sequence peristyle-ambulatory-basilica is usually found in imperial palaces, but it is not their exclusive purview, also being found in private villas like the Villa di Patti in Sicily.


The peristyle and the ambulatory also serve to put the service areas and the apartments of the dominus, which are instead part of the private route, into communication. For this reason it is important to emphasize that the distinction between public and private in the villa is not sharply defined. Recent research has revealed that the term ‘private’ does not correspond to the same concept in the Latin world. One can speak in fact of spaces “reserved” for important guests. And so the ovoid peristyle and the triapsidal hall can be considered pars privata: not because destined for the sole use of the dominus, but because luxurious spaces kept in reserve for important guests and events. Finally, one also finds spaces of double significance, such as the baths, a space that is both public and private, being accessible both from within the villa and from without.


The decoration and its meaning


The richest aspect of the Villa del Casale remains up to the present day its magnificent decorative program. The opus sectile marble that originally decorated the walls and floor of the basilica express the importance and official nature of the space.


The mosaics, which are still intact in almost all of the rooms, in particular represent an exceptional survey of the iconography typical of the end of the third and first half of the fourth century. It is not certain whether all of the work was done in the same period, since one can detect stylistic differences between the figurations in the triapsidal triclinium and those in the rest of the residence.


Among the subjects depicted in the floors mosaics, a number of different themes can be picked out. Of special interest are the “realistic” scenes that celebrate the figure of the dominus, the master of the house, such as the mosaic of the adventus in the vestibule and the “small hunt”, or that refer to Rome and its circus shows, like the “great hunt” and the quadriga race in the gymnasium.


The mythological scenes also express thematic continuity: in the apotheosis of Hercules who defeated the giants, in the figure of Orpheus who dominated the land animals and that of Arion, who tamed those of the sea, one finds a heroic exaltation of the patron through images of the triumph of reason and virtue over the wild forces of nature.


Finally, the genre scenes, such as the busts representing the seasons or the xenia, hospitable gifts of fruit, fowl or fish, as well as the numerous scenes of putti in the guise of fisherman or grape harvesters, form part of the so-called “cycle of the latifundiai” these, too, being targeted to celebrate the dominus through display of the richness and productivity of his land.

 Presumed limits of the Filosofiana latifundium

Presumed limits of the Filosofiana latifundium It is held that the term Filosofiana finds confirmation in the abbreviation on the brick stamps (FILOSOF) found last century in the archaeological park in Sofiana . This find is to be assigned to a period of tremendous development of the area, contemporaneous to the constitution of the late antique latifundium (source: Carandini 1982, p. 24).

 Villa del Casale, axonometric reconstruction with the storerooms at the entrance



Villa del Casale, axonometric reconstruction with the storerooms at the entrance (drawing by E. Gallocchio, source: Pensabene 2010, p. 4).

 South elevation of the Villa del Casale showing its development on three terraces (drawing by Guido Meli).


South elevation of the Villa del Casale showing its development on three terraces (drawing by Guido Meli).

 Axes of the nuclei of the villa Each nucleus


Axes of the nuclei of the villa Each nucleus is built on a pair of perpendicular axes, apparently detached from the others but in reality at least one axis of each is traced to a “centre of radiation” located at the central point of the large fountain in the quadrangular peristyle, which unifies the whole structure (source: Settis 1975, p. 880).

 Public and private routes within the villa


Public and private routes within the villa