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Empress Livia’s white hens

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ad Gallinas Albas
Ad Gallinas Albas

Ad Gallinas Albas: Few people know this name today, but two thousand years ago things were different. Known under it was a town nowadays called Prima Porta – near Rome, on Via Flaminia.

A legend repeated in ancient Rome said that once Livia while driving to her estate near Rome, witnessed an extraordinary event. An eagle appeared high in the sky. When it descended, Livia noticed that it was clutching a snow-white hen in its claws, which in turn held a sprig of laurel in its beak. The eagle flew towards Livia and dropped a hen (with a laurel…) at her feet. The Roman haruspices, who read various kinds of signs given by the gods, considered it a prophetic sign: a symbol of the great future awaiting Octavian, Livia’s husband. They ordered to take care of the hen and her future offspring and to grow laurel bushes from a single twig. And so it happened. On her country estate, Liwia started raising white hens (from which the town got its name), and an entire forest grew from a single laurel.

This is what the legend says, which, like many different stories about Augustus and Livia, seems to have been invented many years later only to justify the uniqueness of this first imperial couple. However, this does not change the fact that Ad Gallinas Albas was indeed a suburban retreat of Empress Livia.

The villa is located on a small natural hill, from where, with good visibility, it is probably easy to see Rome (unfortunately, on the day I visited this place, visibility was poor, and the overgrown slopes did not help). In the past, a paved road led to the property – a side branch of Via Flaminia. Fragments of this road can still be seen today at the entrance to the archaeological site.

The villa has a very difficult architectural layout, which is the result of its complicated history and numerous alterations. Its core dates back to republican times, and it was used until the 5th century CE, so about half a millennium! Changes in it were introduced by both Augustus, emperors from the Flavian and Severan dynasties. That is why what we see today in Prima Porta actually comes from the times of Livia only in part.

In the villa we will find the remains of a monumental atrium (interestingly, in the threshold of the vestibule there are lead traces of door fastenings to this day …), a huge peristyle with a swimming pool in the middle, a smaller peristyle with a garden, a large private thermal complex, the remains of a large garden surrounded by a portico and a guest wing.

Very interesting mosaics have been preserved in the villa (mainly from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE) and frescoes from the lower parts of the walls (mainly from the end of the 2nd century CE).

However, the most interesting element is definitely the UNDERGROUND DINING ROOM. Yes! A small pavilion was built in an artificial depression of the ground, accessed by narrow stairs. Today, its interior is quite gloomy (not to say: basement). But in the past, it was a luxurious triclinium where imperial banquets were held. The walls were covered with green and blue frescoes depicting a well-kept garden with numerous trees covered with fruit, shrubs and small garden architecture (fences, trellises, etc.). Between all this, artists-painters placed numerous birds. The barrel vault was covered with elegant blue and white stucco work. Today, the entire room is stripped of the described splendors, but you can see them in a special room in the Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme museum in Rome (a few photos are attached).

Another artifact found in Prima Porta and now adorning Roman museums is, of course, the magnificent statue of Emperor Augustus (now in the Vatican Museums).

The place is absolutely fascinating. Although it is only 20 minutes by train (leaving Rome from Flaminio station, next to Piazza del Popolo), practically no one gets there. For lovers of ancient Rome, this is certainly one of the greatest attractions in the immediate vicinity of the Eternal City. Simply “must see”.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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