I told you in July, my Loyal Readers, that Google Earth was da shiznit. Now, the Beeb reports that it has proven its scientific value. A computer programmer browsing near his home in north-central Italy found evidence of an ancient structure, alerted a local museum, and excavations proved that he had used the program to find the remains of a Roman villa.
If you have Google Earth, you can find the subject of the article at coordiantes lat=44.8817969025, lon=10.4218049862 (that’s 44° 52′ 54.5″ North, 10° 25′ 18.5″ East), in a wheatfield halfway between Parma and Viadana, next to a road called Stradone Frassinara just outside of the village of Sorbolo. Some farmer has been working this land for years, without knowing what he owns. I wonder if he’s pleased at the find of a cultural and archaelogical site on his property, or if he’s annoyed that he won’t be able to grow his crops there until excavation is complete.
The land has probably been used as a wheatfield continuously since at least the time of its former Roman master whose oval-shaped house once stood there — Roman country villas were largely self-supporting, so the owner and his household would have had to have grown all of their own food (grain, grapes and other fruits, and of course olives) as well as a surplus of all these crops to sell in a nearby city or maybe even Rome itself.
An oval shape was sort of unusual for Roman residential construction, but I have to imagine that it was built that way because of the owner’s preferences. That shape would make sense for a circus (for racing) or amphitheater (for plays and gladiatorial fights), but from the article the pottery that has been found appears to be consistent with household rather than entertainment use. The size of the foundation appears to be about four times as large as my house in The Estate At Louisville, with a structural footprint on the order of about a quarter of an acre. This would not be nearly big enough for a circus but would be about right for an above-ground amphitheater. But amphitheaters would only have been built in places that could support them, which is to say at least medium-sized cities, and this looks to have been geographically far away from a population that would support a community of actors and gladiators.
My thought was maybe it was a gladiator academy, but those were mostly located in Campania, not in what would have been one of the Gallic Provinces. Maybe the owner was a freed gladiator who invested his money wisely in land, and built his home to remind him of how he made his fortune. Or maybe he was just eccentric and, then as now, if an eccentric with money, can find an architect who will build a house in whatever shape is requested.
If you look in neighboring fields, you’ll see the outlines of some other structures that were probably related to this villa, like stables and granaries. To the south, you can see what I suspect was the road to this villa from the nearby Via Aemelia, which was the major highway going along the southern edge of the Po River Valley. Today segments of the Roman road still exist, and the route is also still in use, under the much less imaginative name of A13 (the “A” stands for “autostrada” much the same way that the “I” in “I-95” stands for “interstate” here in the U.S.). The proximity to the ancient equivalent of a freeway suggests that surplus crops grown here could easily have been taken to larger cities like Rome as cash crops.