The Art of Living with Caesars: The Calpurnii, the Villa of the Papyri, and Roman Home Architecture

“If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs taken from every part, so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight? Believe, ye Pisos, this book will be perfectly like such a picture…” — Horace, Ars Poëtica

I thought this week I’d talk about the structure of the Roman home, but it’s always more interesting to supplement abstracts with specifics, so I’m going to frame our discussion with an admittedly less-than-typical example: the estate known today as the Villa of the Papyri in the ancient city of Herculaneum, situated about 142 miles south of Rome.

Right next door to Mount Vesuvius, which I’m sure is just fine.

And to introduce us to this excellent example of Roman architectural splendor, we’re going to start with the family that probably owned this spectacular villa, the Calpurnii Pisones.

The Calpurnii gens was an ancient Roman family, with a long and dedicated history of service to the state. Though plebeian in origin, they claimed descent from Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome, and had been serving in consulships since 180 BC (the mark of a family “arriving” politically). The branch of the gens we’re concerning ourselves with is the the one with the cognomen Piso, which served heroically during the Second Punic War (201-218 BC) under Scipio Africanus, and would rise to undreamt-of heights by the time of the empire. In the 1st century BC/AD, the Calpurnii would find themselves second only to the imperial Julii in terms of prestige, and this was largely due to the efforts of one Pisone nuclear family — that of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius and his children.

[A side note: Due to the passage of time and that whole pesky matter of endlessly duplicating names that we discussed several months ago, some of what we “know” of the Calpurnii Pisones is conjecture, typified in their likely, but not proven, ownership of the Villa of the Papyri. Where I’m speaking circumstantially, I’ll try to make that clear. Much of what we do know is due to, once again, the scholarship of historian Ronald Syme, who shared my mild obsession with this family. It’s a heck of a cerebral ride to read through, but if puzzling out who is who in the Roman world is your jam, I’d recommend Syme’s The Augustan Aristocracy for your intellectual entertainment.]

Caesonius was a noted senator in the waning days of the Republic, a moderate politician with a known affinity for Epicurean philosophy. Epicureanism is often conflated with hedonism, because it holds pleasure to be the goal of life, but the Greek philosopher Epicurus defined true pleasure as the absence of fear and bodily pain, rather than simple sensual sensation. Epicureans lived to pursue peace of mind and virtue, and Caesonius’ love of this school of thought is part of the reason the Villa of the Papyri is generally thought to have belonged to him, because the house earned its nom de la célébrité from the truly epic library unearthed on its premises, the contents of which are extensively Epicurean. In addition to Greek philosophy, Caesonius was also a significant patron of the arts who counted the Syrian poet Philodemus among his sponsorships. The heavy representation of Philodemus’ works among the surviving scrolls in the Villa of the Papyri also strengthens Caesonius’ ownership claims to the estate.

But admittedly more important to the fortunes of the Calpurnii than his praiseworthy public career or his laudable creative support was something perhaps a little more ordinary. In a triumph of good timing, Caesonius found himself with an eligible young daughter right at the moment the most powerful man in Rome was on the hunt for a new wife.

Calpurnia Pisonis was probably about seventeen when she married Julius Caesar (forty-one) during his consulship in 59 BC. As with many Roman women, especially before the imperial period, we don’t actually know very much about her and much of what is said of her has long since passed into the realm of panegyric and legend. Contemporary sources talk of her as humble and shy, which could also explain her small historical footprint. These were important attributes for her to have possessed, seeing how she was following the ignoble exit of her predecessor, Pompeia, whom Caesar had been pressured to divorce due to rumors about her infidelity. But one can also easily see how a quiet, self-contained girl might suffer in comparison to the bold, erudite likes of Cleopatra.

A woman so famous Calpurnia’s neighbors were painting her on their walls.

Caesonius served as consul himself in 58 BC, his co-consul being eventual Ptolemaic power player and God’s Wife alum Aulus Gabinius. Cicero tried to stir up trouble for Caesonius for not protecting him politically, but there really wasn’t anything the famed orator could do to touch Julius’ father-in-law. However, one can tell that Caesonius was powerful in his own right, because he wasn’t afraid to stand up to his brilliant son-in-law. He spent years trying to mediate between Pompey and Caesar leading up to the civil war, but when Julius crossed the Rubicon and entered Rome as dictator, Caesonius left the city in protest. He would spend the war years working for that Epicurean peace, but after Caesar’s assassination, he made sure his son-in-law’s will was executed to the letter and that all proper funerary rights were observed. In one last bid for harmony, he would try mightily to hold the Second Triumvirate together until his death in 43 BC or shortly after. One begins to understand why traditional Epicureans generally eschewed politics.

Calpurnia survived (if not actually predicted, as Shakespeare claims) the Ides of March, but after Julius’ death she basically fades from the record. She was the one who made sure her husband’s papers made it into Mark Antony’s hands and not those of the Liberatores, but it is the last act of hers we are told of. As a widow, and particularly in the face of the tumultuous years of the Second Triumvirate, she would likely have returned to her father’s household, and perhaps to the tranquility of the Villa of the Papyri. It’s also very possible we don’t hear of Calpurnia during Octavius’ meteoric rise because she suddenly found herself with a more important task than involving herself with politics.

Calpurnius Caesonius is only known to have had one wife (possibly Rutilia Nudusia), but Calpurnia wasn’t his only child. He had one son, also Lucius Calpurnius Piso, because the Romans hate us all. But what is telling is everyone’s ages, and this is where I’m going to use a little math to tease out some conclusions. 

[Trust me, I was shocked, too…]

Caesonius was a exact contemporary of Julius, meaning he was born in 100 BC and died at roughly the age of 57. Calpurnia was born in 76 BC, making her father 24 years old at the time, which was a typical age around which Roman men married. Roman girls were usually closer to 16-18 years old, so we can guess that this was Rutilia’s age when she married Caesonius. 

Stay with me…

But here’s the thing, Lucius Calpurnius was born in 48 BC, making him twenty-eight years younger than his older sister Calpurnia. Assuming we’re not missing a second wife (which is possible), the youngest Rutilia was likely to have been at his birth was 44 years old, a late age to be pregnant even today and remarkable at that time. Meaning when Caesonius kicked the bucket in 43 BC, he left behind a 33 year old widowed daughter, a 5 year old son, and potentially a 49-51 year old wife who, if she was still alive, had survived a late pregnancy that was probably physically taxing , if not outright traumatic.

In short, it sure seems like little orphaned Lucius Calpurnius could use a calm, steadying force in his young life, and who better than his older sister renowned for her modesty and virtue? Roman families rose and fell on the merits of their men, and a young woman who’d always done the right thing would have known the only way for the Calpurnii to survive the civil war years was for her young brother to carry them forward. Her greatest duty then would be to see Lucius raised and educated properly to preserve their family, and Roman history is replete with strong women who do just that. Left a widow with no father to arrange another marriage and no children of her own, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine Calpurnia and Lucius filling the holes in each other’s lives. The good news is, that if this was the case, Calpurnia was wildly successful in her endeavors.

Ronald Syme (and me) loves Lucius Calpurnius, and really, it’s hard not to. In a world where everyone seems terrible and backstabbing, Lucius appears to have been genuinely nice and was popular with virtually everyone in his crazy, turbulent Julii relatives by marriage’s family. A downright astounding feat. Always loyal to Octavius, and later to his childhood friend, Tiberius, Lucius was by all accounts modest and hardworking, serving the empire in proconsular governorships in Syria and Asia, and later as praefect urbanus in Rome, a leading magistracy position. He was also a member in the priestly College of Pontiffs, which is why it is common for historians to call him Lucius Calpurnius Piso the Pontifex when differentiating him from his many relatives who shared his name. And proving that he could fight, too, he put down a major revolt in Thrace, earning the trappings of a triumph from the Senate, though he refused the actual parade.

A nice guy who knows how to keep Octavius from getting too jealous. A winning combo.

But it’s in this even-keel personality and his tastes that you can see the influence of his sister and his late father. Lucius is an Epicurean as well, perhaps from being raised amongst Caesonius’ vast library at the Villa of Papryi, and has a recognized love of Greek learning and poetry. As my flavor text alludes to, he was a patron of Horace’s (the Ars Poëtica is dedicated to him and his sons), as well as the Greek poet Antipater of Thessalonica. He’s also known for having enjoyed a glass of wine or two, just like Tiberius, but Epicureans always have a good time.

Tiberius was more of a Stoic than an Epicurean, but his own soldiers called him Biberius Caldius Mero (a pun on his full name meaning “Drinker of Uncut Wine.”

While the female bronze I used above is probably not Calpurnia, the other male bust is definitely Lucius, and both were excavated at the Villa of the Papyri, adding to the Calpurnii claims to the house; along with a bust of Scipio Africanus, a possible reference to the family glories earned in the Punic Wars.

Which returns us to the villa itself, one of the most beautiful houses in Herculaneum until the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD buried it, Herculaneum, and nearby Pompeii in almost 100 ft of volcanic ash. The estate was rediscovered in in the mid-eighteenth century by the Swiss engineer and architect Karl Weber, the first person to lead organized excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum. 

The villa used to sit directly on the coast, as you can see in the rendering above, with the main part of the house leading to a series of leveled terraces cascading down the cliffs abutting the sea. As the eruption of Vesuvius extended the coastline out, the site is now located more inland, and the lower arcades remain buried. But the top level is at least partially accessible, and we can do an imaginary walk-through to give ourselves a sense of what a Roman dwelling is like. Indeed, this might be rather more instructive, because the average single-family Roman villa was built as a one-level building, and only the extremely wealthy like Octavius or the Calpurnii were likely to own houses with multiple levels.

[Thank goodness for them, though. You have no idea how useful stairs and other rare Roman amenities like windows are from a narrative perspective…]

Anyway, one enters a Roman house like the Villa of the Papyri through the vestibulum, which is exactly what it sounds like, a vestibule, also called the fauces. The vestibulum opened up into the atrium, which served a similar purpose in ancient architecture as it does now.

Atrium

Unlike today (usually), the Roman atrium was open-ceiling, providing extra natural light and fresh water, as rainwater would be collected in an impluvium, a sunk cistern in the floor that served the double purpose of cooling the house. The atrium was the central hall of the villa, from which all other points of the house could be reached. It was also the first thing any visitor would see, so it was the place the family would keep their lararium, the altar of their household deities and their important ancestors. First impressions are key.

A small impluvium

Despite what you might expect, Julius didn’t have a place in the lararium of Octavius’ house. But before you get too impressed with Octavius’ modesty, you should know it was imperial policy that the Divus Julius, as a god, was too important to live in a mere family cabinet. So he stayed on the Via Sacra in his temple and his presence in Octavius’ house was probably made larger by his absence than it would have been by even a really nice bust.

A visitor would likely past through the atrium into the tablinum, which for lack of a more descriptive name was a study. The office of the male head of household, it would be where he would receive his clients and dependents. Because it was essentially a reception room, especially for one’s underlings, it, like the atrium, was usually impressively decorated with frescoes and statuary.

A fresco from the Villa of the Papyri, depicting Mount Vesuvius

In the Villa of the Papyri, the tablinum opens up onto a peristyle, or columned courtyard, with a large reflecting pool flanked by some of the loveliest statuary unearthed on the volcanic coast, stretching out to the lower level terraces.

In a house as large as this, there were multiple peristyles and several tablinae, one of which probably served as the villa’s famous library of over 1,800 scrolls. Which, in case you were wondering, are hard little carbon bricks that archeologists have spent several centuries painstakingly restoring to a state where we can tell you that most of them are about Epicurean philosophy and the poetry of Philodemus.

Who would’ve thought paper and searing-hot volcanic ash don’t mix?

Deeper in a dwelling, one would also find the triclinium, or main dining space, so named for the traditional formation of three dining couches arranged around a small, low table. Romans ate in a semi-reclined position while slaves stood by to bring dishes forward. In a villa of this size, there were probably multiple dining locations, possibly located separately on some of the lower terraces, as many of the guest accommodations would have been.

Triclinium

The halls off of the atrium and the first peristyle would have led you to other more private parts of the villa, the kitchens (culina), slave and servant halls, more gardens, and living quarters. Roman bedrooms were generally plain affairs used only for sleeping and few other activities. As I alluded to above, windows were hard to come by, but one was probably more apt to find them in the abodes of the wealthy like the Villa of the Papyri, where the extra ventilation was no doubt welcome during the night.

And there you have it, a brief tour of the Villa of the Papyri as it once was and of the people who might have once called it home. Assuming any of us can ever travel again someday, and Italy is a little too far away for you, know that the Getty Villa, an annex of the Getty Museum in Southern California, was specifically designed to resemble the Villa of the Papyri, and walking the museum’s halls and gardens will give a little taste of what the Calpurnii might have experienced strolling along their porticos at the edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea, courting volcanoes both literal and figurative.

The Getty Villa

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