Sicily was famous in antiquity for its agricultural productivity, but comparatively few villas have been excavated in the island. We rarely know for certain who owned these Roman estates, unless inscriptions are found to help us. Roger Wilson tells us about his recent work at Gerace in central Sicily, where excavations have revealed the name of the landowner from c.AD 350 to 400, one Philippianus. How much can archaeology reveal about him?
Sometime soon after the middle of the 4th century AD, a young Sicilian landowner called Philippianus was looking at the large and solid store-building erected in an earlier generation on his estate, and noticed that a small repair to the roof was necessary. He had just constructed a kiln for manufacturing roof tiles, which were stamped with his name, so he could use those for the repair. As products of the first firing, they had not come out too well – they were green from over-cooking – but he used them nonetheless. They did not remain in place for long, as soon afterwards a severe earthquake shook central Sicily and brought about a catastrophic collapse of the store-building’s roof – it may be the one that the writer Libanius tells us about, which happened in or immediately after the reign of the Emperor Julian (361-363). Philippianus quickly realised that the structure was beyond repair, so he set about starting a new building programme. Over 1,600 years later, excavations at Gerace in the heart of Sicily are revealing traces of Philippianus’ activities and giving us a sense of the man himself, who is unknown to the pages of history.
Gerace lies in well-watered land 650m above sea-level, 10km south of Enna. The famous late Roman villa of Piazza Armerina is only 15km away. Gerace was not known as a Roman site until the corner of a mosaic was discovered in 1994, when a water channel overflowed in winter spate. Work that year uncovered the tops of the walls of a small ten-roomed villa, and demonstrated that a corridor and a dining-room had geometric mosaics; more but not all of those floors were uncovered in 2007. Since 2012, the University of British Columbia has been working at the site, dramatically increasing our knowledge of it. Geophysical survey has shown that there were at least half a dozen other structures apart from the compact villa, and excavation has begun to sample some of them. The estate buildings at Gerace are now known to have covered some 3.5ha.
Over 200 stamps on roof tiles have been found in the excavations, all of them issued on the part of Philippianus. There are 11 separate dies, and the practice of multiple stamping on the same roof tile (up to four) and the resulting cross-links between the dies make it certain that these stamps were in simultaneous use. of the 11 dies, seven name Philippianus, always in the genitive case (ending in ‘-i’, meaning ‘belonging to’ or ‘production of’). Three are rectangular, five are circular, and one is oval. of the circular stamps, one spells the name with an initial letter F instead of PH (above right), and another, in the form of a coin, has the letters arranged as a legend around a central standing horse, facing left. one of the rectangular stamps has the name in two parts with the letters superimposed to form two monograms, one either side of a horse’s head in profile (right).
In the context of rural production, it is highly unlikely that this name represents the tile-maker: no landowner would have permitted the name of an employee to appear so prolifically and so prominently on the roof tiles made on his estate. particularly intriguing are the references to horses. This might be just a play on the man’s name: Philippianus is cognate with Philippos, which in Greek means ‘lover of horses’. The steeds are, however, racehorses: on one type (not shown here) the animal is dressed with a plume attached to its head, and a palm branch, symbolic of victory, is spread before it. A victory crown with ribbons marks the separation of the first and last letters of ‘Philippiani’ in its accompanying inscription. the ‘coin-type’ die also incorporates the victory crown in its legend. So is it possible that Philippianus was a ‘nickname’, to reflect the man’s passion for horses? Or was his father crazy about horses before him and called his son that at birth, and when the latter grew up he continued the family business? We know from late roman literary sources that Sicily was one of the sources of supply of horses to Italy, and a medallion from Rome names a horse depicted on it as ‘the Syracusan’. Could Philippianus just possibly have been a breeder and trainer of ponies for the circuses of the roman world, perhaps even for the circus Maximus in Rome itself?
All images: R J A Wilson