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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Mar. 2003 update June 2014, April 2016
Oplontis +2 updates
Greek historian and geographer,
Strabo (63 BC – 24 AD), wrote that the stretch of
Italian coast from Cape Miseno
to Sorrento—the Gulf of Naples—seemed a single city,
so strewn was it with luxurious villas and suburbs
of the main city of Naples. The eastern end of the
bay, before the land swings out to form the
Sorrentine peninsula, is of course known today as
the site of two towns that met their doom in the
great eruption of Vesuvius in 79 a.d., Pompeii and Heculaneum.
The only large,
significant excavation at Oplontis is the "Villa of
Poppaea," referring to Poppaea Sabina, Nero's second
wife. That is at least a possible conclusion from an
amphora fragment bearing the name "Secundus," one of
Poppaea's servants. In any event, it was almost
certainly an imperial residence, opulently equipped
as it was with a 60 x 15-meter swimming pool, a
large number of rooms, intervening gardens and
courtyards, and murals on the walls that are still
splendid. Some of the extant murals are beautiful
examples of the so-called "second Pompeian style,"
depicting artificial architecture on the
walls—painted windows opened onto painted sea or
landscape or onto painted rows of columns that fade
away from the viewer through the use of perspective,
all to give the illusion of space. It was, no doubt,
one of the villas that impressed Strabo so much.
The "peacock mural" from Oplontis. It is remarkable
for the use of pseudo-perspective in the columns
and the trompe-l'oeil effect of the bird's tail.
The existence of such a regal residence is, in fact, noted in the Tabula Peuteringiana, a medieval copy of a Roman road map. The villa and whatever other structures made up the small town of Oplontis were buried in the great eruption, however, and it wasn't until the 1500s that the Spanish rulers of the Kingdom of Naples came across the ruins of the villa while building an aqueduct. And it was not until the mid-1700s that further excavation was undertaken in the same wave of archaeological interest that spurred Charles III and then his son, Ferdinand IV, to lay bare such antiquities as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Yet, Oplontis remained—and remains—relatively unknown; the swimming pool wasn't uncovered until the 1970s and the site, itself, was not open to public visits until the early 1980s. The excavation is not complete and never will be, since Oplontis, like Herculaneum, sits beneath a modern town. To get into the site, you walk down a ramp until you are at ground level, 79 a.d. (about 30 feet below the modern streets and buildings that surround Oplontis).
By far the most striking
thing about Oplontis is what you don't find—human
remains. And there are no lava molds of people
huddled together in death, as there are at Pompeii.
The Villa Poppaea was deserted when Vesuvius
erupted. In the wake of an earthquake that damaged
the town and villa severely in the decade before the
great eruption, people had moved away so
reconstruction could take place. Presumably, the
residents were elsewhere, making typical complaints
about how it took the Egyptians less time to build
the pyramids than it does for us Romans to put a few
bricks back in place, when real disaster struck.