A Visit to Laurentum
the site of Pliny's villa near Ostia?
Along the coast south of Ostia in Flavia's time there were many seaside villas. Most of them were winter residences of rich Romans who needed to be close to the capital city. (Rome was only about 16 miles from Laurentum.) One of these villas is described in loving detail by its owner, Pliny the Younger, in one of his famous letters. In the Roman Mysteries, I assume that Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) inherited the villa from his uncle Pliny the Elder (also Gaius Plinius Secundus but without the 'Caecilius') who was a famous naturalist, writer and – for a time – admiral of the fleet at Laurentum. One day, Flavia and her friends pay a short visit to the old admiral at this villa.
above: Pliny's Laurentum Villa as imagined on the TV series episode 'The Secrets of Vesuvius'
It was only a few miles from Ostia to Laurentum, a pleasant drive along the coastal road. The carriage crunched up the gravel drive of Pliny's seaside villa less than half an hour after they had left Ostia. A door-slave in a red tunic met them on the steps of the butter-coloured villa and led them through cool rooms and sunny courtyards to a breezy dining room.
Flavia and her friends gazed around in amazement.
The room they stood in was surrounded on three sides by water. Only a low wall and spiral columns separated them from the blue Mediterranean. Jonathan and Lupus immediately went to the marble parapet and leaned over.
'Careful!' wheezed Admiral Pliny, shuffling into the room. 'We're right above the sea.'
(from The Secrets of Vesuvius page 17)
In book five of the Roman Mysteries, The Dolphins of Laurentum, Flavia and her friends return to this villa for an extended stay, this time with Pliny the Younger, who is only 17 years old at the time. Their adventures include diving for sunken treasure and encounters with dolphins. Jonathan's beautiful sister Miriam is with them and young Pliny is not immune to her charms!
right: Young Pliny and Miriam, from the BBC TV series.
Because I like to research my books as thoroughly as possible, on a recent visit to Italy I set aside an afternoon to visit Laurentum.
It is a mild day in mid-April and although rain had been forecast all week, so far I have been blessed with beautiful spring weather. I catch the 3.00 pm train from Ostia Antica and arrive at Cristoforo Colombo ten minutes later.
left: metro stop Cristoforo Colombo
My friend Silvano Sanges has given me a map and directions. Once out of Cristoforo Colombo station, I turn right, walk along 'Lungomare Amerigo Vespucci' a few hundred metres to the petrol station, then turn right again along 'Via Cristoforo Colombo'. It is very dangerous walking along 'Via Cristoforo Colombo' because there is no pavement. The traffic roars past me, only inches away. After about ten minutes I glimpse a road through some woods to my right.
Making my way through the trees I suddenly find myself on an peaceful and deserted road in a nature reserve. A sign informs me that I am in the Pineta Castel Fusano (Pine Woods of Castle Fusano). I am surrounded by whispering umbrella pines and oak trees. Although it's Saturday afternoon, the place is almost deserted: only a few elderly couples strolling, some kids on micro-scooters, one or two young people on bikes. After another five minutes I come to a crossroads and find the 'Via della Villa di Plinio' (Pliny's Villa Road). It runs along the course of the ancient Via Severiana. Septimius Severus - the Emperor who built the Via Severiana - lived about a century after Flavia, but his road was almost certainly built over the existing Roman coastal route.
The crossroads is called 'Piazzale del cinghiale': Wild Boar Square. There is a drinking fountain and picnic tables in the shade of the umbrella pines. I turn right and walk for a long time along a perfectly straight road between pine trees, hawthorns, myrtle, oaks and poplars. One or two people ride past on bicycles. The road is flat and smooth: perfect for cycling. It's another mile to Pliny's Villa.
After half an hour I reach a place where the main road curves to the right and a dirt path leads straight ahead to a barred metal gate. On the left is another track leading to a green barrier. Not knowing which road to take, I flag down an Italian woman on a bike and she tells me to go straight ahead. Typically there is no fence attached to the gate: you can walk right round it. In other words, the site of Pliny's Villa is always open. (On the official site of Castel Fusano, you are encouraged to contact the Sopraintendenza.)
I go around the gate and continue straight ahead. Passing some big umbrella pines on my left I suddenly see the ruins of a Roman villa with a modern brick arch. This is it: Pliny's villa. Or is it?
Have I found the site of Pliny's villa? The ruins are certainly those of a large house. There are clear remains of a large colonnaded central garden and rooms on the side. The baths are where I would expect them to be. But there is no trace of an atrium or the curved courtyard Pliny mentions. There is no sign of the 'sea-view' triclinium or Pliny's later additions. No ball court, and certainly no heated swimming pool... The bath complex does have wonderful black and white mosaics, typical of Flavia's period. I saw tritons (half man, half fish), seahorses, dolphins and a wonderful crayfish.
right: my plan of Pliny's Villa, based on his letter 2.xvii
Pretending to be Flavia, I go towards the sea-view triclinium. The coast is now a mile away and I find only a forest glade. Is that a fence beyond? Yes. Pushing through a hole in it I find myself on a new road, the 'Via dei Transatlantici'.
As I take notes, the sky grows dark. There is an ominous rumble of thunder and a few drops of rain fall on my notebook. They are blood red! Later, my friend Barbara tells me that this red rain is due to Saharan dust in the air. But what would the ancient Romans have made of such an omen? Luckily, after a few drops it eases off.
I walk towards the sea. At the place where the 'Via dei Transatlantici' meets the 'Via Litoriana' I come upon a sign telling me I am leaving the nature reserve. There is a list of some of the animals still found in this parkland: cinghiale (boar), tasso (badger), donnola (weasel), puzzola (polecat), martora (marten), volpe (wolf), istrice (porcupine), scoiattolo (squirrel), and lepre (hare).
Presently I reach the 'Lungomare Amerigo Vespucci', which is the present coastal road. Now I know where I am and can easily find my way back to the metro stop, Cristoforo Colombo.
Later, as I sit in a beach front cafeteria sipping a Coke and munching peanuts, I reflect that the villa I saw probably wasn't Pliny's villa. But it certainly belonged to one of his neighbours. And at least I have an idea of the flora and fauna of the area, even though the climate and location has changed somewhat in 2000 years.
above: mosaic of a crayfish
Best of all, I'm certain that in a future Roman Mystery there will be an ominous rumble of thunder followed by rain like drops of blood.