Largest Roman domus in northern Italy reopens to public

The Domus of Titus Macro in Aquileia on Italy’s northern Adriatic coast has reopened to the public after a years-long project to construct a protective roof, restore its famous mosaics and excavate never-before-seen areas of it.

Aquileia was founded as a Latin Rights colony by Roman senators Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, Lucius Manlius Acidinus and Gaius Flaminius in 181 B.C. Its location on the river Natiso at the head of the Adriatic had been the endpoint of the profitable ancient trade in Baltic amber for centuries, and it was of military importance to Rome as a bulwark against the Celtic tribes of Cisalpine Gaul.

The senators seeded Aquileia with a large population from the start. A full 3,000 families settled the new city, reaching a population of 20,000 within a few years. Gold was found nearby in 130 B.C., and several Roman roads passed through the area, increasing its prosperity and significance all the more. At its peak in the 2nd century, the population reached an estimated 200,000 making it one of the largest cities in the world. (By contrast, today Aquileia has a population of 3,300.)

Titus Macro built his mansion in the burgeoning metropolis of the 1st century B.C. Occupying half of an entire insula of ancient Aquileia, an area of more than 18,000 square feet, the Domus of Titus Macro is one of the largest Roman homes ever discovered in northern Italy. It was lavishly decorated with mosaic floors of high quality from the 3D-effect checkerboard in the atrium to a dog hunting a stag

The name ascribed to the villa came from the inscription T. MACR. found on a stone weight with an iron handle, but the dwelling had many owners over time as it was continuously occupied until the Lombard invasion of the 6th century A.D. In addition to the private spaces — the tablinium (reception room), the garden, the dining room, living rooms, bedroom, kitchen — there were also four workshops on the eastern side. One of them was a bakery, as evidenced by the remains of the oven.

The mosaic floors of the villa were first encountered in the 19th century when Aquileia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As was the practice at the time, the most glamorous mosaics were torn up and exhibited in museums and the site itself was neglected. It was privately owned until 1958 when the state acquired the villa and it was treated for the first time as archaeological patrimony worthy of attention and research in situ. The mosaics that had been removed were reinstalled and the site opened to the public.

A new systematic excavation of the domus took place between 2009 and 2015. Conservators also used this time to restore the mosaics. The site was closed to make possible a major roofing project to protect its famously spectacular mosaic floors and to suggest with modern materials the original structure of the ancient mansion. The new additions were completed last year and now the dwelling is open to the public again.

The Aquileia Foundation has created a wee amuse-bouche video of 3D recreations of the domus as it looked in its heyday.

In this video, the director of Aquileia Foundation, archaeologist Cristiano Tiussi Erica, introduces the site, explaining the villa’s history and significance. You can see overhead views of the new protective roof and how well it integrates into the remains of domus, as well as the restored mosaics. It’s in Italian but the English captions are bearable.