September 18 1999               Times-London
Agrippina the elder

Agrippina's villa found near Tiber

ARCHAEOLOGISTS who uncovered part of the fabled Villa of Agrippina - a long-lost centre of high-level plotting in imperial Rome at the time of Tiberius and Nero - say they are so elated by their finds that they will continue "for as long as it takes", despite the "disastrous" disruption to the Vatican's most cherished millennium project. This is the construction of a giant underground car park designed to ease the traffic pressure caused by millions of visitors descending on the Eternal City.

The discovery brings to life the era described in Tacitus's Annals, the great historian's penetrating account of Roman feuds and power struggles, and the poisonous intrigues vividly described by Robert Graves in his historical novel I, Claudius.

Last weekend archaeologists led by Claudio Mochegiani announced that workers tunnelling into the Janiculum Hill next to the Vatican to construct a spiral ramp into the new multistorey garage had called in scholars after coming up against a Roman wall. "We took the wall down because it was collapsing," said Carla Socrate, who was the first archaeologist to enter the site and is now leading the excavations. "We think it was the retaining wall of the villa, which was built into the hillside."

Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the British School at Rome, said the early years of the Roman Empire after the death of Augustus witnessed an "extraordinary" succession of emperors - Tiberius (AD14-AD37), followed by Caligula (AD37-AD41), Claudius (AD41-AD54) and Nero (AD54-AD68). Agrippina, granddaughter of Augustus, was the mother of Caligula and wife of the popular soldier-hero Germanicus, whom she believed should have succeeeded Augustus, but who was poisoned. Tiberius eventually exiled Agrippina to the island of Pandateria (modern Ventotene) near Naples, where she died of starvation.

The villa would have passed to her notorious daughter, also named Agrippina, who successfully schemed to put her son Nero in power, only to be murdered by him later. "I think that what we are looking at here is a rustically decorated garden pavilion dating to the 1st century," Professor Wallace-Hadrill said. "The imperial ladies of Rome loved their gardens, which they used for sexual intrigue as well as political conspiracies."

In the 1st century the area - which lies across the Tiber from the city centre - was dominated by Agrippina's extensive villa and gardens and the adjoining racecourse, which became the bloodstained circus where Agrippina's son Caligula and her grandson Nero had their enemies put to death. The Christian martyrs who met their end there included St Peter, and eventually the circus - ironically - became St Peters Square, Christianity's principal shrine.

Signora Socrate, 30, said that what had been found behind the retaining wall of the villa was "only the beginning". "There must be bigger rooms behind, probably magnificently decorated, perhaps with treasures such as frescoes and mosaics," she said, gesturing at the clay and rock deep in the hillside. Fellow archaeologists were painstakingly removing dirt and rubble with trowels, while on the Tiber embankment outside the bulldozers stood silent, waiting their turn.

Officials said what had been found was on Italian territory, just outside the Vatican City. "We have no idea what might lie over on the Vatican side," one said. "For all we know the builders have already destroyed priceless remains."

The villa and gardens of Agrippina - practically in the country, as far as the Romans were concerned - were bordered on one side by the Tiber, and on the other by a cemetery and the racecourse. Tacitus remarks that the place had "an unwholesome air" because of its proximity to the malaria-infested river, and Martial says the local wine was "terrible". But amid her shaded walks and fountains up on the Janiculum Hill, far from the power centres of the Palatine, Agrippina could plot revenge against Tiberius.

Fiorenzo Catalli, 49, a senior archaeologist, said the villa almost certainly had a porticoed entrance and two huge wings, with an open central courtyard. In addition, there were summer houses and other buildings in the vast grounds overlooking the circus. Seneca records that Caligula used to roam the gardens by torchlight while eminent Romans to whom he had taken a dislike were decapitated for his amusement.

The main discovery so far is a 10ft painted wall 30in below the present ground level, unseen by human eyes for nearly two thousand years. It has a floral border in ochre, red, green and black, and paintings of yellow and red birds - thought to be bee eaters - and flowers such as columbines. There are also stylised architectural paintings of architraves and columns. On the floor lie multicoloured slabs of marble from Greece, Tunisia and Turkey, which Signora Socrate believes may have fallen from floors above. "These are fine, sumptuous materials," she said. "This was without doubt an imperial palace."

Signora Socrate said the pattern of tufa stonework and brick makers' stamps in the drains (which flowed into the Tiber) also pointed to a great 1st-century building, with 2nd-century additions. She said the six archaeologists and two workmen assigned to the project were having to separate the villa's remains from material deposited during the construction of a nearby road tunnel in the 1940s, and were working "round the clock" so that the Vatican and the Rome authorities could decide what to do next. But historian Lorenzo Bianchi said the discovery showed that "you cannot dig in Rome without finding something. We knew Agrippina's villa was somewhere under here. Both the Vatican and the Italian side should have foreseen this before embarking on a gigantic car park."

Copyright 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.