Researchers dig into ancient Rome

Montclair State researchers are preparing for a sixth summer at the University’s archaeological dig at the Villa of the Antonines in Genzano di Roma, Italy. Students and faculty have previously uncovered long-buried secrets of life during the Roman Empire there, including residential quarters and an amphitheater that may have been used by ruler Commodus as a gladiator practice arena.

For the past five summers, Montclair State undergraduate and graduate students have excavated the site of the ancient villa complex, accompanied by students from other universities such as Brown, Fordham, the University of Minnesota, Johns Hopkins and SUNY Albany, who have joined Montclair State’s field school for a month.

“The Alban Hills, where our site is located, was one of the very first places Roman emperors built imperial villas,” says Deborah Chatr Aryamontri, who co-directs the Montclair State Center for Heritage and Archaeological Studies Field School program with Timothy Renner, a classics and general humanities professor.

Aryamontri studied at The University of Rome – La Sapienza, where she developed strong ties with the Italian archaeological community. Because of her extensive training in classical field archaeology, the Italian government granted Montclair State exclusive permission to excavate the historic villa site. The researchers believe the complex belonged to the second-century CE Antonine dynasty that included emperors Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. “We think Antoninus Pius would surely have owned this villa,” says Renner.

Commodus – perhaps best known as the inspiration for the crazed nemesis of the title character in the movie Gladiator – may have killed animals in the amphitheater unearthed by the Montclair State team. Convinced he was the reincarnation of Hercules, Commodus’ rocky rule from 180–192 CE began the decline of the Roman Empire. 

Assisted by grant funding from the John J. and Rose Cali Family Foundation and private donors, University researchers learn more from the site each year and will eventually be able to place the villa within the broader context of the region’s other imperial villas.

“This villa may have been comparable to Hadrian’s in Tivoli, but it is hard to tell for certain, as some buried parts have been destroyed by modern development,” says Renner.