As early as the Republic of Rome and then during the first centuries of Empire, the coastal area of the Bay of Naples was the site of a number of aristocratic residences. One of the best-loved places to put your aristocratic villa in those days was on the seaside slope of the great hill of Posillipo at the western end of the bay. The name Posillipo —Greek for "the place where unhappiness ends" expresses the sense of serenity that Imperial Romans must have derived from this lovely promontory. Recent excavations along the seaside in the area of the small island of Gaiola and the nearby coastal area of Marechiaro have uncovered numerous traces of Roman habitation, including the ruins of a theater built to accommodate some 2,000 spectators, and an odeion, a theater for musical performances.
A most singular bit
of construction, however, is the spectacular Seiano
Grotto, an 800-meter tunnel through the Posillipo hill
itself, from the western area of modern Bagnoli through to the
sea. It was apparently a private tunnel and allowed
easy access to the spectacular clifftop estate of
Vedius Pollio (see entry below). The tunnel was
probably built by Lucius Cocceus
Auctus, the same engineer responsible for the Galleria della Pace,*
a tunnel and important part of the fortifications of
the Roman Imperial Port in
Baia. Auctus also built the major tunnel that the
Romans used to get to Naples from the West. (Today, that tunnel parallels and
is between the two modern traffic tunnels that go from
Mergellina through the hill to Fuorigrotta. It was in
common use until the completion of the two recent
tunnels, one in the 1880s and the other in the 1920s.)
The Seiano Grotto is high and spacious; it was
ventilated by three air ducts opening on the sea. It
fell into disuse over the centuries, but was later
reopened by the Bourbons
in 1841. Bourbon restoration was extensive and
provides interesting comparison to the original Roman
masonry evident in many places. The Bagnoli entrance
(shown in the photo) has recently been restored and,
on occasion, the tunnel and grounds of the Vedius
Pollio estate may be visited (see item 2, below).
*Not "Gallery of
Peace," as one might plausibly translate. The tunnel
is apparently named for one Pietro Pace, a Spanish
adventurer and treasure hunter from the 1500s.
I finally got the opportunity to take a tour through the Seiano Grotto. We started at the Coroglio (Bagnoli) side and traversed the 700-meter tunnel to come out on the Posillipo side and then walked up and looked at the Imperial Villa of Pausylipon.
The information in the above entry is essentially correct, but needs some amplification. The name "Seiano" may be a misnomer for this impressive bit of engineering. The tradition that links the construction of the tunnel to the will of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, Tiberius' ambitious right-hand man and would-be successor, is probably wrong. More recent archaeological thought on the matter connects the gallery to Vedius Pollio, the builder of the spectacular villa, itself. The tunnel was a private passage for Pollio so he wouldn't have to take the long way home.
Pollio was an ex-slave from Benevento known for his industriousness, ambition, economic wheelings and dealings in North Africa and subsequent great wealth, and cruelty to his own servants. His villa is mentioned in a number of classical references as a worthy rival in luxuriousness to even the fabled villa of Lucullus, a few miles down the coast in what was Neapolis, itself. It was only after Pollio's death that the premises passed to Caesar Augustus, apparently in exchange for a promise by the emperor to honor Pollio's name with a public building in Benevento, a promise that Augustus reneged on. (Who knows why? Maybe Augustus just didn't like Pollio. There is one story that says that Pollio was about to put to death a servant who had just broken a dish. Houseguest Caesar Augustus was so appalled that he bought the servant and his entire family from Pollio and took them with him back to Rome—after ordering that the rest of Pollio's crockery be smashed. Name a building after you? I don't think so.)
When Augustus came into possession of the property, the tunnel then became part of the public network of roads that connected the important port of Pozzuoli to Naples, much like its sister tunnel that joined Fuorigrotta to Naples (near what is today the Mergellina train station); it was only then that the premises became an "imperial" villa. There are signs that the estate was still an imperial residence under Hadrian (the early 2nd century) and that the tunnel itself was in use as late as the fall of the empire, itself —the late 5th century. After that, it disappears from history until 1840 when the Bourbons rediscovered the Coroglio entrance to the gallery while doing some road building of their own. The tunnel was sealed in the 1980s and then reopened in the 1990s for the restoration that finished just two years ago.
The imperial premises
start a hundred yards or so from the exit of the tunnel
up a slope toward the cliff, itself. They consisted of a
residence, temple, amphitheater (capacity about 2,000),
an odeon (a covered theater), and a nympheum (a shrine),
all spread over a considerable area directly beneath the
height of the cape overlooking the isle of Nisida. One view is to that cape
and the bay of Pozzuoli beyond, including Nisida and the
larger island of Ischia miles away. The western panorama
is toward Naples, Vesuvius, and Capri. "Breathtaking"
doesn't begin to cover it.
What one sees today (photo, above), however, in the way of remnants of imperial splendor is shabby, indeed, and not just due to the ravages of time. The residence was rediscovered at about the same time as the tunnel, and, almost immediately, someone built a large private villa directly above the main amphitheater, using much of the original masonry for construction material. That villa is now abandoned and totally in ruins, and the adjacent amphitheater shows the ravages of that original depredation plus another century and a half of looting. Almost none of the looted marble and statuary has wound up in proper museums.
It is not clear whether
this Roman estate was built on the site of earlier Greek
structures or not. One interesting item that says
"maybe" is the fact that the rows of seats in the
amphitheater are hewn out of the stone itself, in the
manner of Greek amphitheaters, rather than being
freestanding. All of that remains to be determined as
restoration goes forward. The property, itself, is now
partially in private hands, but restoration continues on
that part of the property that has reverted to the
cultural offices of the state. The plans are ambitious.
So far, the amphitheater has been cleared of rubble and
the small odeon has been restored such that a small
public can enjoy performances of one sort or another
during the summer months overlooking the coast of
(update: April 2009) The
entire premises have now been restored and re-opened as
the Parco Pausilypon.
update: Dec. 2022. Thanks to Jeff Miller for bringing this item to my attention.
We tend to forget that there are always archaeologists at work somewhere. You don't just find something 2,000 years old and then move on. You stay on that site and work it until you get all you can. Case in point: this page. Archaeologists have just found a mosaic floor in the villa described above, the one Caesar Augustus got from that pig Pollio. The villa then passed down to other emperors. The unearthed mosaic has a white tile center surrounded by a double-layered black outline. The floor was the living room over the Gulf of Naples. The view here is to the south-west. The larger island is Nisida. Capri is in the background. You can visit the villa. No, that space is the emperor's.
(see also: "Old communities of Posillipo")