By MORGAN BROWN/Montana State News

Ancient Romans knew how to live it up.

Quality of life before the twentieth century is often thought of as “nasty, brutish and short” as political philosopher Thomas Hobbes once wrote. Wars and invasions threatened countries and empires constantly, people lit their houses with candles and oil lamps, diseases ran rampant and famines plagued the earth. It is easy to think that ancients lived like animals.

Scholars who study ancient Rome and other cultures would beg to differ.

“Since 2007, I have been a part of a scholarly project at a very big and very luxurious Roman villa on the Bay of Naples that was buried in the same eruption that buried Pompeii in the year 79,” said Dr. Regina Gee, associate professor of art history at Montana State University.

Gee is working with a team of scholars under The Oplontis Project, whose mission “is to conduct a systematic, multidisciplinary study” of two ancient villas located in Oplontis, Italy. Gee is working to bring artifacts found from the villas to be viewed in three museums across the U.S. Because of Gee’s participation and scholarly contribution, the exhibit, which is called “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii,” will be featured at the Museum of Rockies from June to December 2016. 

“If I could just walk you through the villa and show you how many fountains there are,” said Gee. “It’s a technology that is every bit as sexy as anything we have now. I mean to have flowing water everywhere, all around you. We actually have one of the best ancient flushing toilets that was found in the villa.”

According to Gee, wealthy ancient Romans lived a very luxurious life, much unlike the common conception of a bloody, hungry daily fight for survival. “It’s like the Hamptons in New York. They just floated around dinner parties, mingling. The villas were not even for living. They were just places for entertainment,” Gee said.

According to PBS, wealthy Romans “lived in beautiful houses, often on the hills outside of Rome, away from the noise and smell. They enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle with luxurious furnishings.” The villas that Oplontis Project studies were similar to current day vacation homes.

“I sometimes think of it like the Yellowstone Country Club. Wealthy people come for a period of time, enjoy themselves and then they go home,” said Gee.

In order for wealthy Romans to live so extravagantly, they utilized slaves. According to Gee, a wealthy Roman would have four or five slaves who would follow him everywhere, tending to his every need. “One Roman thought about branding all slaves so that they would know who was a slave and who was a citizen. Then he realized that if the slaves knew how much they outnumbered the citizens, they would rebel and attack.”

Part of Gee’s mission, and possibly the biggest challenge as she designs the exhibit, is to represent the lifestyle of the slaves as much as possible. “We have graffiti, we have a few religious artifacts that we think belonged to slaves. But they’re almost the shadow life of villa,” Gee said. Most of the salvaged art and artifacts undoubtedly represent the lifestyle of the elite.

According to PBS, ancient Roman slavery was similar to 19th century slavery in America, with a few key differences. Slaves worked in the houses of the elite, ensuring their lavish and comfortable lifestyles, but slavery was not based on race. The PBS website states, “Their lives were harsh. Slaves were often whipped, branded or cruelly mistreated. Their owners could also kill them for any reason, and would face no punishment.”

“I want to represent their movement, what their perception and experience was within a large ornamental house. But it wasn’t just the villas. Slaves weren’t tied to land like in the American slave system. They were moved from point A to point to point B depending on what the owner wanted them to do next. Some beautiful slaves were ornaments. They would just stand in a room as decoration like a fresco or statue,” said Gee.

Gee is in the planning process of designing the exhibit. One-hundred forty artifacts will be featured in the exhibit, along with an interactive 3-D tour of the villa. Visitors will be able to use a video game system to “walk through” the villa, which will be displayed on a 3-D screen.

Scholars are currently developing course curriculum and classes based off of the exhibit, according to Gee. Her hope is that in the fall semester of 2016, the art, earth science, agriculture and architecture departments at MSU will all offer special, one-time classes that involve a deep study of the exhibit.

“Once this material comes to the states and is then transported back to Italy, it’s not leaving again. This is a one-time shot for us view these artifacts, and no one’s ever seen them before,” Gee said as she expressed the significance of the exhibit coming to the Museum of the Rockies.

Gee said, “Scholars are going to be coming from all over the United States to look at this material because we’re the only institution in the west who will show it. What we’re doing is very special.”

– Edited by Nicole Duggan

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