Erika Zane profile

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Erika Zane

Royal Holloway University of London (2023)


Dr Erica Rowan


The environmental context, agricultural potential and location choices of Roman Villae in Italy


Between the late republican and the early imperial periods, villae emerged in the Italian countryside. This category of settlements has commonly been subdivided into villae urbanae and villae rusticae based on their functions. While the first group seems to have had only a residential role, as a luxurious country house, the second can be considered akin to modern farms, with residential and productive functions.

Although there are multiple studies on this important Roman socio-economic phenomenon, interpretations of the available archaeological evidence remain ambiguous. Luxurious villas set on lakeshores and coasts have been frequently labelled as solely representative residences. Nevertheless, the interpretation of their vocation is complex. A multi-proxy approach considering archaeobotanical data, environmental context, natural resources and location patterns, will radically improve the interpretation of villas located in these landscapes. The analysis of the available resources will be particularly fundamental as the elements necessary for agricultural production (e.g. soil fertility, sun exposure, slope) appear different from recreative ones (e.g. panoramic view, decorations).

In an exciting multi-disciplinary study sitting across classics, archaeology and geography, the environmental variables of villas’ surrounding landscape will be analysed through: (i) a Geographic Information System (GIS) to obtain agricultural potential maps of the studied areas, (ii) available archaeobotanical data from Italian luxury villas, and (iii) local/regional environmental reconstructions from lake records. The results will help to understand to which extent agricultural productivity could have influenced villas’ location and function. In line with RHUL’s Living Sustainably Catalyst, the outcomes will enhance our understanding of Roman Italy’s agricultural landscape and explore questions of deforestation, overexploitation and human impact on nature, as well as the potential vulnerabilities of a complex society to climate-induced environmental change in the Late Roman period. This provides critical historical context for current concerns over land use, ecological impact and ultimately our own society’s vulnerability.