The so-called villa of Clodius at the Via Appia

Within the framework of the Danish-Italian research project it has been possible to undertake investigations of the Roman archaeological remains preserved inside Villa Santa Caterina, Castel Gandolfo, at the 13th mile on Via Appia (Fig. 1). The last scholar to study this complex was G. Lugli in 1914, and it has ever since been interpreted as a Roman villa, sometimes called the Villa of Clodius. While the 19th century prevalent identification of these structures as the Alban villa of P. Clodius Pulcher (or part of it) no longer persists, its interpretation as a late Republican villa has so far never been disputed. The preliminary results of the new investigations question the former interpretation and suggest that these remains should rather be interpreted as the sacrarium/sacellum of the goddess Bona Dea that literary sources relate to the fatal clash between Clodius and Milo at the 13th mile of Via Appia.

The Villa Santa Caterina, the site of these archaeological remains, was from 1830-1899 owned by the Orsini family, a wealthy aristocratic family, and is now in the private property of Società CENSE, Castelromano.

The site and the recent investigations

During four short field campaigns (May 2017-September 2019) we had the opportunity to clean and measure the ancient remains, and since 2022 we also carry out proper excavation in the site. We had the opportunity to conduct investigations and fieldwork that combines multidisciplinary investigations and technology including Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT), 3D-models, and Georadar. The investigations have resulted in important new knowledge about the ancient ruin that challenges the traditional interpretation of the building complex.

The literary tradition

Publius Clodius Pulcher (93 – 52 BC), the Roman politician living during the tumultuous years of the late Republican period, has become well-known through his mortal feud with Marcus Tullius Cicero and Titus Annius Milo. He is in particular remembered for his scandalous intrusion in the religious festival of Bona Dea – a cult reserved exclusively for women – when the celebration was hosted by Pompeia, the wife of Caesar (in 62 BC, Cic. Att. 1.12.3; Plut. Caes. 10). Cicero relates that Clodius had an Alban villa close to the Via Appia (Cic. Mil. 19), and that he was murdered on the Via Appia near Bovillae, just in front of a sanctuary of Bona Dea (18th January, 52 BC, Cic. Mil. 31). This is the reason why, for centuries, a large structure to the east of the Via Appia has been interpreted as the Villa of Clodius.

Previous investigations

The interpretation of the architectural remains at the 13th milestone has been much debated among scholars throughout the centuries, but since G. Lugli in 1914 no investigation has been conducted on the site (Fig. 2). Scholars have partly interpreted the structure as the ‘Villa of Clodius’, partly as part of the large imperial estate of Domitian, the Albanum Domitiani. The structure consists of recognizable elements such as a road, an entrance, an atrium, a peristyle, cisterns and a large structure built of large ashlars (opus quadratum), so far explained as a substructure or a fortification.

Considering the evidence from the literary sources previous scholarship has taken it for granted that the sanctuary of Bona Dea should be located on the western side of Via Appia. Recent investigations have, however, indicated that the structures can no longer be identified as a villa but should rather be interpreted as a sanctuary, and probably the very one of Bona Dea. This sanctuary is known to have been within the estate of a certain T. Sergius Gallus (Cic. Mil. 31).

More specifically, the overall plan of the complex shows similarities with sanctuaries of Bona Dea (Good Goddess, deity of fertility and health for the people, and protectress of the Roman state). Sanctuaries of Bona Dea are multi-functional complexes rather than ordinary temples. In addition to the shrine (sacellum), these buildings may contain a courtyard, a kitchen, a pharmacy, a porticus, a fenced area, as well as provision for water like fountains and cisterns. This is a significant breakthrough, not only for a completely new understanding of these structures but also for our interpretation of the site and the ancient landscape more generally.

Preliminary results

The investigations conducted in 2017-2019 consisted of a thorough cleaning and documentation of the visible remaining structures combined with geophysical prospection on the site and its immediate surroundings. In 2022, we obtained permission to combine these studies with proper excavation. As for a short description of the preliminary results, we refer to the preliminary reports: 2017-2018, 2019, 2022, 2023.