The Villa of Tiberius is a ruined Roman villa complex located in the present-day town of Sperlonga, in the province of Latina on the western coast of Italy.
Sperlonga’s name derives from the “Spelunca” (Latin for cave or grotto), where a Republican villa was first constructed sometime between 30 and 20 BC.
During the reign of Emperor Tiberius (AD 14 to 37), the villa was expanded to serve as a coastal retreat for the Emperor to unwind away from his duties in Rome. The expansion included a peristyle surrounded by various rooms, a gymnasium, Roman baths, terraces, private moorings, and several pools fed by natural springs and salt water from a coastal lake.
The villa hosted elaborate dinner parties, with the focal centrepiece being a large natural cave containing a rectangular and circular pool, embellished with coloured opus sectile flooring, artificial stalactites and encrustations, statues called the Sperlonga sculptures, and a triclinium (a dining space with couches) centred on an island in the caves mouth.
Grand statues depicting mythological compositions had been popular during the time of the Julio-Claudians and can often be found in villa’s owned by members of the Imperial family.
In Sperlonga, scenes derived from Greek Hellenistic literature of Homer and Virgil show four episodes of Odysseus’ travels, depicting Odysseus and the giant Cyclops Polyphemus, Odysseus’ encounter with the sea monster Scylla, Odysseus’ trials during the Trojan War, and Odysseus stealing the Palladion (a statue of Athena) from Diomedes. On a niche in the cliff face above the entrance to the cave was also Ganymede carried up by the Eagle, a disguise of Zeus.
According to the Roman historian Tacitus, In AD 26 the roof of the caved collapsed while Tiberius was dining inside with his friend and confidant Sejanus.
Tacitus documents: “They were dining in a country house called the cave, between the gulf of Amuclæ and the hills of Fundi, in a natural grotto. The rocks at its entrance suddenly fell in and crushed some of the attendants; thereupon panic seized the whole company and there was a general flight of the guests. Sejanus hung over the emperor, and with knee, face, and hand encountered the falling stones; and was found in this attitude by the soldiers who came to their rescue.”
After the accident, Tiberius withdrew to Capri and spent the rest of his years removed from the administration of the Empire. He trusted Sejanus and Naevius Sutorius Macro to oversee the affairs of the Empire in his steed, but the two men instead plotted against Tiberius that ultimately led to their execution.
Header Image Credit : Carole Raddato – CC BY-SA 2.0