Oplontis – Villa Poppaea

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 Campagnia, 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.

Coordinates: 40° 45′ 25.2″ N, 14° 27′ 10.8″

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.

Plan of the excavations of Oplontis.

According to an inscription on an amphora that refers to one of Poppea’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.

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View of the viridarium (ornamental garden) and tablinum (reception space).
The Tuscan style atrium was the main entrance to the villa in ancient times. It is richly decorated in the Second Style with illusionary architecture.
The central impluvium (water tank to collect rainwater) of the atrium with the original floor consisting of white mosaic embellished with a polychrome meander border.
On the north side of the atrium is a viridarium, a small enclosed garden. Its walls are decorated with red and black panels containing garden scenes with images of plants and birds along the lower frieze.
The villa was equipped with private baths. The baths had a tepidarium, a room with mild heating and a calidarium, a hot room. This space was transformed into a sitting room and walls were frescoed in the Fourth Style.
The eastern wall of the great sitting room (5), one of the most elegant and luxurious rooms in the villa. It had frescoes in the Second Style depicting a view of a sanctuary of Apollo and the Delphic tripod. At the sides of the tripod, the decoration is enlivened by peacocks and theatrical masks.
Another sitting room (8) is located between the atrium and the southern peristyle. It is decorated in the Second Style with themes based around perspective views of theatrical backdrops (scaenae frons).
The North wall of the sitting room (8) was also richly decorated with Second Style frescoes.
Fresco detail depicting a basket of fruit covered by a very thin veil.
Two porticoes link the rooms on the southern side of the villa. This portico is decorated with columns covered with red and white scales and with white mosaic floors with bands of black. The walls are decorated in the Fourth Style with red panels above a lower black frieze.
A cubiculum (bedroom) with Third Style frescoes.
Second Style painting in the walls surrounding the viridarium (small garden).
The viridarium, a large open garden enclosed by the portico. This is the traditional space that was dedicated to rest and meditation.
The portico of the large garden has brick columns covered with white stucco. The walls are decorated the Fourth Style.
View of the northern side of the villa complex.
Fourth Style fresco detail depicting a bird pecking fruits.
The peristylium whose open central area was occupied by a fountain. It has four corridors with an Opus Signinum floor with marble inserts.
The rooms of the oldest part of the building and the most recent area with the pool are linked by this imposing corridor. Along the walls decorated with large panels in Fourth Style are resting benches painted in red.
Second Style painting in the walls surrounding the viridarium (small garden).
The 61×17 metre pool is the central element of the northern section of the villa and was added in the Julio-Claudian age. It was used for swimming, but its main purpose was a decorative one.

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Naqsh-e Rostam

The spectacular rock tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam are situated about 6 km northwest of Persepolis in the southern part of Iran. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in Iran and contains monuments of the Elamite, Achaemenid and Sasanian dynasties carved into the rock. The site features four burial tombs of Achaemenid kings believed to be those of Darius I, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II (Ochus), as well as eight Sasanian reliefs depicting vivid scenes of imperial conquests and royal ceremonies. It also features an Achaemenid stone structure whose original purpose has been discussed for several decades. The Persian name Naqsh-e Rostam, meaning “Pictures of Rostam”, refers to the Sasanian reliefs on the cliff which were thought to represent the mythical Iranian hero Rostam.

Coordinates: 29° 59′ 20″ N, 52° 52′ 29″ E

Naqsh-e Rostam was the necropolis of the Achaemenid dynasty where monumental royal tombs were cut out of the native rock at a considerable height above the ground. Similar to those at Persepolis, the tombs are characterized by their rock-cut façades and simple sepulchral chambers where the king was buried together with his relatives. The oldest tomb has an inscription (known as DNa) that explicitly assigns it to Darius the Great (c. 522-486 BC). The other three tombs are attributed to Xerxes (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC) and Darius II (c. 423-404 BC). A fifth unfinished tomb might belong to Artaxerxes III or Darius III (c. 336-330 BC), the last king of the Achaemenid Dynasts. The tombs were looted following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great.

I am Darius the great king, king of kings, king of countries containing all kinds of men, king in this great earth far and wide, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid, a Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, having Aryan lineage.

All Achaemenid tombs have similar features. They were carved in the shape of a cross with an access to a small chamber in their center. The upper register of the façade is showing the king standing on a three-stepped platform in front of a blazing fire altar, praying to the supreme god Ahuramazda whose winged symbol floats above. He is being carried on the shoulders of twenty-eight representatives of different subject nations.

The nationalities mentioned in the DNa inscription are also depicted on the upper registers of all the tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam. One of the best preserved is that of Xerxes I.
A.Davey [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The middle register, which gives access to the burial chamber, is adorned with four engaged columns with bull protome capitals, an imitation of the façade of a palace (perhaps the residential palace of Darius at Persepolis). The lower register remained undecorated.

The other important Achaemenid monument at Naqsh-e Rostam is the enigmatic tower called Kaʿba-ye Zardošt (‘Cube of Zoroaster’) situated opposite Darius II’s tomb. It is a rectangular-shaped stone structure, built of white limestone blocks. It stands 12.60 metre-high on a three-tiered platform with a thirty-stair stairway leading to a single chamber. Controversy over the function of the building still exists. Some archaeologists consider the tower a religious edifice, perhaps a fire temple used for igniting and worshipping the holy fire, while others reject this view and think that it may have served as a provisional royal tomb until the permanent tombs were finished or else a treasure house and a place for keeping sacred texts. The monument was later used by the Sasanian king Shapur I (AD 240-270) to record the accounts of his victories over the Romans (transcription of full text with English translation here).

Plan of the site. Achaemenid tomb facades are numbered in Roman numerals.
Sasanian reliefs are numbered r-8. (Courtesy U. Seidl)

The Sasanian rock reliefs, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, depict the investiture of Ardashir I, the victories of Shapur I, three scenes of Wahram II, the investiture of Naresh and a relief of Hormizd II. The Sasanians also built a large mud-brick fortification wall that runs around the major part of the sculptured cliff, with seven semicircular towers strengthening the structure. It is not clear whether the Sassanids had exact information about Achaemenians, but the fact that they carved reliefs next to the royal tombs of their Achaemenian peers showed a cultural and political strategy for imitating the past.

The only surviving monument from the Elamite period is a relief that was mostly obliterated when the Sasanian rock relief of Bahram II was carved over it. The remnants of the scene show an attendant standing behind two seated deities, faced presumably by a standing worshiper, and a head with a mural crown. Only the attendant at the right is preserved in its major features. The Elamite carving is believed to have been carved in two periods, the first one in the early first millennium BC, the other in about 700 BC.

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The Tomb of Darius I (right) and Artaxerxes I (left) and four Sasanian rock reliefs.
Sasanian rock reliefs from right to left:
Equestrian Relief of Bahram II – Relief of Shapur I – Relief of Hormizd II – Relief of Shapur II (damaged)
The Tomb of Darius the Great and the Double Equestrian Relief of Bahram II.
The upper register of the Tomb of Darius the Great showing the king praying to the supreme god Ahuramazda. An inscription in the top-left corner, known as DNa, mentions the conquests of Darius the Great and his various achievements during his life. Like several other inscriptions by Darius, it names the territories controlled by the Achaemenid Empire.
The Double Equestrian Relief of Bahram II (AD 276-293), located immediately below the tomb of Darius I the Great. In the upper register, the king appears to be throwing an enemy from his horse. In the lower register, the king is again battling a mounted enemy. Both reliefs depict a dead enemy under the hooves of the king’s horse.
This is the most famous of the Sassanid rock reliefs from Naqš-e Rustam. It depicts the victory of Shapur I over two Roman emperors, Valerian and Philip the Arab.
Shapur is represented on horseback wearing royal armour and a crown. His rule was marked by military and political accomplishments in the Caucasus, against the Kushan Empire in the east, and two wars with the Roman Empire.
Philip the Arab kneeling in front of the king’s horse., asking for grace.
The Achaemenid tomb III, attributed to Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424 BC). Like the other tombs, Tomb II is almost an exact copy of the final resting place of Darius the Great. The Sasanian relief below Tomb II commemorates an equestrian victory by king Hormizd II (r. AD 303-309). Immediately above the relief and below the tomb is a badly damaged relief of what appears to be Shapur II (c. AD 309–379) accompanied by courtiers.
The equestrian relief of Hormizd II. It depicts Hormizd forcing an enemy (perhaps Papak of Armenia) from his horse.
The Achaemenid tomb IV is attributed to Darius II Nothus (r. 423-404 BC). The Sasanian relief below is commemorating an equestrian victory by king Bahram II (r. AD 276-293).
Sasanian relief depicting king Bahram II battling a mounted Roman enemy. The enemy wears a Roman helmet and may represent the emperor Carus.
View of the Tomb of Darius I (right), Artaxerxes I (middle) and Darius II Nothus (left) and the five Sasanian rock carvings.
The Achaemenid tomb II attibuted to Xerxes, 486-465 BC. The upper register is identical to the relief of Darius’ tomb. As of 2019, conservation and restoration work is being carried out. The tomb has been exposed to wind and particles blowing with the wind, climate change, and other natural erosion.
The Sasanian relief depicting the investiture of Narseh, the seventh king of the Sasanian Empire (c. AD 293–303). Narseh was the youngest son of Shapur I. He had served as ruler of the eastern provinces (Sakastan, Sindh and Turan) and held the title of “Great King of Armenia” before becoming shah.
In this relief, the king is depicted as receiving the ring of kingship from a female figure that is frequently assumed to be the divinity Aredvi Sura Anahita. However, the king is not depicted in a pose that would be expected in the presence of a divinity, and it is hence likely that the woman is a relative, perhaps Queen Shapurdukhtak of Sakastan.
View of the Ka’bah-e Zardusht tower and the Achaemenid tomb I attributed to Darius II Nothus.
The Ka’bah-e Zardusht tower may have been used as a fire temple, a provisional royal tomb or a treasure house for keeping sacred texts.
Sasanian relief depicting the investiture of Ardashir I (r. AD 224-241), the founder of the Sassanid Empire. Ardashir I is seen receiving the ring of power by Ahuramazda, the creator and highest deity of Zoroastrianism. Both men are seated on horses and are crushing defeated enemies: king Artabanus under Ardašir’s horse and the devil Ahriman under Ahuramazda’s one.
Irina Mavritsina / Alamy Stock Photo
The “Grandee” relief of king Bahram II (276-293). On each side of the king, who is depicted with an oversized sword, figures face the king. On the left stand five figures, perhaps members of the king’s family. This relief was cut into the rock over an older, Elamite relief (8th century BC). A small figure with a remarkable cap is still visible on the right side of the relief.
Westend61 GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

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