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Letter from Vesuvius

Digging on the Dark Side of the Volcano

Survivors of the infamous disaster rebuilt their lives on the ashes of the A.D. 79 eruption

September/October 2023

Vesuvius North SlopeHaving reached his mid-seventies, Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus, lived out his final days in a villa near the base of Mount Vesuvius. While traveling in the Bay of Naples, he fell ill and detoured to the ancestral home of his biological father’s family, the Octavii, near the city of Nola. In A.D. 14, at the age of 76, he breathed his last in the same room where his father had died, in the shadow of the great volcano.


Vesuvius MapThe villa’s exact whereabouts were eventually lost. Given its reported proximity to Vesuvius, most archaeologists presumed that the A.D. 79 eruption that destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, along with countless rural villas, had also buried the estate in a deep blanket of volcanic debris. It seemed unlikely that it would ever be discovered. However, in 1929, the director of excavations in Pompeii, Matteo Della Corte, was tipped off by a friend about Roman ruins on the north slope of Vesuvius in the town of Somma Vesuviana, just a few miles from Nola. Although Della Corte’s excavations were brief, a narrow, 30-foot-deep trench revealed a building covered by volcanic ash. Leading volcanologists of the time determined that this destruction layer was a result of the A.D. 79 eruption. The scale of the building, ornate columns, and fragments of expensive marble left the archaeologists in awe. The owner of such an extravagant property must have been someone extraordinarily wealthy, an affluent merchant or perhaps a senator—or even an emperor. Della Corte concluded that, given its location and grandeur, the villa must be the property where the emperor had died, and he named it the Villa of Augustus.


Although this was a seemingly groundbreaking discovery, political turmoil in Italy and lack of funding kept archaeologists away from the site for the rest of the twentieth century. At long last, in 2002, a joint Italian-Japanese team returned to the villa. Not only did the new excavations confirm the existence of a sprawling property, but it was even more extravagant than previously imagined. The team gradually uncovered a monumental entranceway that contained a series of rooms and colonnades built upon three terraces. These spaces were resplendent with colorful frescoes and mosaics, as well as marble statues worthy of the imperial family.


However, the team soon uncovered evidence that turned archaeologists’ interpretation of the site upside down. The volcanic debris that covered the villa did not originate, as previously believed, from the A.D. 79 eruption but from one that occurred four centuries later, in A.D. 472. “It was mind-blowing,” says archaeologist Girolamo Ferdinando De Simone of Suor Orsola Benincasa University, who was part of the team. Even more surprising, it was deemed likely that the grand complex had been constructed in the second century A.D., 100 years after Augustus’ death. This showed that the villa was, in fact, not associated with the emperor. Instead, this meant that it had been built at a time when most scholars believed the area was still largely deserted as a result of the damage of A.D. 79. “In one instant we discovered that the area was not as abandoned as people thought,” says De Simone.


Vesuvius Villa Augustus Apse
Lost Villas of Vesuvius