Archaeologists Find Roman Emperor's 1,900-year-old Summer Home in Turkey

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Lid of a sarcophagus from the Roman period, with a couple on it, Kibyratis
Lid of a sarcophagus from the Roman period, with a couple on it, Kibyratis Credit: Oliver Hülden, ÖAW-ÖAI
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

The lifestyle of Rome's imperial and elite families is little known beyond their triumphs in war, monumental legacies and gossip about their extravagances. Now the discovery of 1,900-year-old rural estates that they owned in today's southwestern Turkey shows how they lived in pastoral retreat, surrounded less by sycophants than slaves, and making money in the Eastern Provinces of the Roman Empire by exporting wine and manufacturing pottery.

One of the estates uncovered in the Kibyratis mountains belonged to the family of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161–180 C.E.), say the researchers from the Austrian Archaeological Institute.

Terracotta horse head from the Archaic period, from a Lydian settlement in the KibyratisCredit: Jörg Gebauer / ÖAW-ÖAI

The inland region of the Kibyratis had been relatively unexplored until an extensive archaeological survey began in 2008. The digs revealed large rural estates by the city of Kibyra that had hitherto only been known from inscriptions.

Four of them belonged to local and Roman nobles, including the imperial family, according to the analysis by the institute.

The archaeological remains were heavily damaged, but the buildings clearly featured mosaics, marbled wall decorations and clay water pipes. The agricultural focus of the estates is clear from the remnants of metal working, and marble press weights, almost certainly used in wine-making.

These agricultural enterprises seem to have not only generated wealth for their owners, but served as vacation homes.

Stone inscribed votive altar of Marcus Calpurnius LongusCredit: T. Corsten, picture edit by N. Gail

A votive altar found near one of the estates bears a poem describing a high-class hunting party. In the mid-2nd century C.E., Marcus Calpurnius Longus, a member of the honorable senatorial family of the Calpurnii living in Attaleia (today Antalya) travelled from the coast to the Kibyratis mountains to visit his rural property. During a hunting party he killed an ibex with spectacular horns and sacrificed it to the gods for the protection of his land and livestock.

Tower in Roman farmstead, Kibyratis, TurkeyCredit: Oliver Hülden, ÖAW-ÖAI

In the later decades of the 2nd century C.E., the Calpurnii lost their estate in the Kibyratis. It was given to the Imperial family, for reasons unknown.

Open-air sanctuary with rock-cut reliefs of the rider-god Kakasbos, found in the Kibyratis, Turkey.Credit: Oliver Hülden, ÖAW-ÖAI

We do know that one of the new owners was  Annia Cornifica Faustina, sister of Marcus Aurelius. From the little known about her, she was raised in Rome with her brother, the future Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last of the so-called “Five Good Emperors”, who would rule for nearly two decades, from 161 to his death in 180 C.E.

Finding the archaic settlement

As a city, Kibyra goes back millennia, but it only became an important regional trading hub after the Roman conquest of the region in the 1st century C.E..

Writing during the reign of Emperor Augustus around 2,000 years ago, the geographer Strabo mentions Kibyra specifically, “which could provide 30,000 foot-soldiers and 2,000 horsemen" (Strabo, Geography, 13.4).

Lydian tomb in the Kabalis with relief of a lion, Archaic period Credit: Oliver Hülden / ÖAW-ÖAI7

Austrian scholars have also identified the archaic-classical pre-settlement dating to the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E. This town was situated about 10 km from the later Hellenistic city on a small peninsula of Lake Gölhisar. At this time, the land was called Kabalis and belonged to the southern periphery of the Lydian empire, which was ruled by the legendary king Croesus. (It is not rare for cities to “move.”)

Studying pottery fragments found at Asar Tepe, close to the Turkish village SazakCredit: Oliver Hülden

A still open question to archaeological purists is whether there was rural pottery production in Asia Minor. It sounds trivial, but actual factories have been hard to pin down.

Remains of a pottery kiln by Asar Tepe: Rare evidence of industrial-scale pottery-making in ancient Asia Minor.Credit: Oliver Hülden

Clearly pottery was being made in the city of Kibyra itself, and at Sagalassos, 100 kilometers away. Otherwise, rural potters were unmentioned and unfound, barring a 2nd century C.E. inscription uncovered in Lycia, a region to the south of the Kibyratis.

However, at the foot of Asar Tepe, a small hill that belonged at least in part to the Calpurnii estate, the researchers found a surprisingly high concentration of fragmented ceramic vessels, along with the remains of around a dozen ovens. They were so ruined that their function could only be deduced based on traces of fire and residues – and the large number of pottery shards. They had to have been kilns.

Survey on Asar Tepe: At least part of this belonged to the Calpurnii estate. Here the remains of pottery production were found.Credit: Oliver Hülden

In addition, the remains of "mold bowls" were discovered, which were used to make ceramic vessels with low-relief designs impressed onto the interior surface. Clearly ceramics were being produced in the countryside of Kibyra in connection with one of the rural estates – and not only cooking ware but fine tableware.

The fields at the foot of the hill are still in use, and probably then also produced grain, olives and wine. The Romans were also making wine, going by the sheer number of press weights the archaeologists found in the region.

The agricultural produce was probably both sold locally and exported. In fact, the Roman economy was based on agriculture and most of the rural estates in the Empire served for this purpose. At the Calpurnii estate, they combined their mixed farming with pottery production.

Protected by Cybele

Stelai belonging to the rural sanctuary, Limyra Credit: Oliver Hülden, ÖAW-ÖAI

The evidence the archaeologists found for animal husbandry consists of farmsteads with ring walls, obviously built as corrals for sheep or goats. Near one of them a rock-cut relief of the goddess Cybele seated on a throne was discovered by the researchers.

A second relief shows a man, wearing a specific coat of the local shepherds, attacked by a wolf. Evidently the man survived this attack and subsequently dedicated the reliefs to the goddess in thanks for her ostensible protection.

While Marcus Calpurnius Longus went on a lucky hunt for ibices in the mountains of the Kibyratis, at about the same time, a shepherd celebrated his lucky escape from wolves in the same area. Neither probably thought that some 2,000 years, later archaeologists and ancient historians would be puzzling over the reconstruction of their rural lives.

Drawing of a mold bowl fragment, KibryatisCredit: Drawing by K. Kugler/ picture editing by N. Gail