Located just five kilometres from Pompeii, the so-called Villa Poppaea at Oplontis in the modern city of Torre Annunziata is one of the finest examples of aristocratic Roman residences. Renowned for its magnificent frescoes and its majestic position overlooking the coast of Campania, Villa Poppaea was apparently owned by Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina. The villa was badly damaged in the AD 62 earthquake and then destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. It was declared World Heritage by Unesco in 1997 along with Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The name of Oplontis is found on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a medieval copy of an ancient map of the roads of the Roman Empire. It was part of the suburban area of Pompeii on which it depended administratively. The Villa Poppaea was built in two main phases. The oldest part of the building dates back to about the middle of the 1st century BC and was organised around a Tuscan atrium with magnificent paintings in Second Pompeian Style with illusionistic depictions of architectural elements and views of landscapes. The villa overlooked the sea to the south with a large peristyle and a large garden (viridarium) with porticoes to the north. Around the atrium were sumptuously decorated rooms for resting, dining and sitting.
The complex was later extended to the east. This new wing housed several reception and service rooms set in extensive gardens overlooking a vast swimming pool (61×17 metres). A large portion of the sculptures that decorated the villa were found around the swimming pool. These improvements were ongoing at the time of Vesuvius’s eruption.
According to an inscription on an amphora that refers to one of Poppaea’s slaves or freedmen (“SECUNDO POPPAEAE”), the villa may have belonged to the family of Nero’s second wife (the gens Poppaea).
After the Vesuvius eruption, the villa lay for centuries beneath six metres of layers of lapilli and ashes and then a thick layer of mud. It was first discovered in 1590 during the construction of the Sarno Canal which cut through the central hall of the villa. However, little was done at that time to explore the site further. The excavations of the site restarted between 1839 and 1840 and were undertaken by Bourbon excavators. Due to lack of funds, work was again suspended, and it was not until the mid-1980s that systematic excavations finally started on a full scale uncovering about 60% of the villa. More than one hundred rooms have been excavated so far.
A large number of artefacts from Oplontis are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.