Cave of Tiberius: getaway grotto

In the cave of Tiberius .Twelve thousand fragments in an Emperor’s sculpture gallery made a jigsaw puzzle for archaeologists…

In the late summer of 1957 a gang of men labored beneath the grilling sun, building a road along the Tyrrhenian Sea between Terracina and Gaeta. Just south of Sperlonga, 126 kilomerers below Rome, the new highway intersects an ancient Roman way known as Via Flacca.

At this juncture the Via Flacca cuts through a promoontory, on the south side of which are the extensive remains of a Roman villa. While the road gang was engaged in the area, this villa was being excavated by archaeologists working under the direction of Professor Giulio Jacopi, Superintendent of Antiquities for Rome and the Province of Latina.

—The anatomical and muscular details are finely and accurately drawn, and although the heads have been lost, thanks to comparisons made with the Polyphemus group at Hadrian’s Villa, we know that the protagonists were mature men, their careworn faces framed by untidy locks and unkempt beards. With necks violently twisted, and eyes sunken in their skulls, the half-open mouths express all their suffering and terror.
The figure of Odysseus stands out from the rest of the group – the remarkable quality recalling that of the frieze on the Pergamon altar. With his brow creased in a frown, eyes sunken, and mouth half-open, his unruly locks and wild beard in perfect contrast with his smooth pileus, this statue is one of the highest expressions of Middle/Late Hellenic art and the quintessential statue of Odysseus. —Read More:

The coastal region from Anzio to Baia is studded with the vestiges of villas occupied in Roman times by prominent citizens, who found them refuges from the pressures of public life and the strain of almost continual warfare. Here such men as Cicero, Hortensius, and Lucullus took their ease amid gardens embellished with statuary and fountains. In a short time it was clear that an archaeological find of the first magnitude had been made: an extensive complex of buildings bordering the several chambered grotto, which itself contained quantities of broken statuary of high quality. Both the building complex and sculptural remains appeared to span a period of four or five centuries.

—One of Sperlonga’s main attractions is the Grotto of Tiberius, a natural cave at the southern end of the beach, and the ruins of the villa the Emperor Tiberius built there during his reign (from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37). The complex is unfortunately fenced off from the beach, and to access the ruins and the museum (containing artifacts found on site and large plaster casts of the statuary that used to stand in the grotto) if from a small road half a mile inland. —Read More:

And the evidence of ancient authors, checked against their findings, left little doubt in their minds that one master of the grotto had been none other than Tiberius Caesar. What then began, was an upheaval in scholastic citadels. What brought this about was the finding of an inscription in several fragments which, when pieced together, showed the first five letters of the name Hagesandros, the entire name Athenodoros, and the last five letters of the name Polydoros.

Pliny had written in his Natural History,”Out of one block of stone the consummate artists, Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athenodoros of Rhodes made, after careful planning, Laocoon, his sons, and the snakes marvelously entwined about them.” Laocoon was the priest of Thymbraean Apollo who had warned the Trojans against admitting the wooden horse of the Greeks to their city and had been ignored. He had angered Apollo by begetting children, despite his vow of celibacy, and doing so within the temple precinct. As punishment, and as warning of Troy’s doom, Apollo sent two serpents to crush Laocoon and his two sons.

One of the exquisite treasures found at the Cave of Tiberius is a slightly larger than life size Ganymedes. Image:


(see link at end)…The most famous of these pleasure-caves is the Grotto of Tiberius, located adjacent to the ruins of a huge Roman villa (of which little remains), about half a mile south of the town of Sperlonga. Known to Christians as the Roman ruler during whose reign Jesus was crucified, Tiberius was a dour, cruel man who nonetheless was also cultured, well-read, and a lover of Greek poetry and art. At an unspecified moment, Tiberius took ownership of the villa, which had been constructed for an unknown owner in the first century BC, and also presided over the enlargement and deco

on of a cave that opens onto the beach at the foot of the villa’s property….

Under the direction of brilliant Roman hydraulic engineers, teams of stonemasons, sculptors and mosaic artists turned the rough seaside cave into one of the ancient world’s most extraordinary pleasure-grottoes — a sumptuous dining hall, sculpture exhibit and pool. The rough cave opening on a deserted stretch of beach that the visitor sees today bears little resemblance to what was there 2,000 years ago. White marble framed the opening, and the bare rock walls once were covered with panels of multi-colored marble. Intricately patterned mosaics spread over what is now an irregular, sandy floor. At the center of the grotto floor was a large, circular pool, apparently stocked with deadly-dangerous reptiles — archaeologists found the skull of an alligator in there. An invitation to take a dip in Tiberius’ pool must have been an unwelcome one indeed! The grotto also served as a stage set for several superb groups of statuary, among them works by some of the most famous sculptors of ancient Greece.

But for all its luxury, Tiberius never spent much time at this spot. He had nearly been killed by a rock-slide in the grotto, and after that the emperor moved to his villa on the island of Capri, never returning to Sperlonga. Later emperors used the villa, but by the end of the fourth century AD the site was abandoned, and it gradually fell into ruin. The villa disappeared, most of its stone carried off for use in later buildings. As for the Grotto of Tiberius — Christians reduced that to rubble, making a particular point of smashing the marble statues that had adorned the site. Many disappeared completely, pulverized into tiny bits that were then thrown into kilns and reduced to lime — the fate of countless works of Greek and Roman sculpture at the hands of Christians, who considered them the worthless remnants of a defeated paganism. And so Tiberius’ fabled grotto faded from memory, surviving only in references by ancient historians to the episode of the emperor being caught there in a rock-slide. What remained was unrecognizable — a silted-up cave used by fishermen as a place to repair their nets.

Workers constructing a new coastal road near Sperlonga in 1954 came across some curious ancient remains — ramps and terraces close to the sea — and archaeologists wondered if they might be connected with the Grotto of Tiberius noted by Roman historians as located in this general area. Excavations began in 1957, but the initial results were disappointing. All they found inside at first were roughly worked cave walls with bench seats along them, and the remains of fish-breeding pools on the beach in front of the entrance. They could have given up then, assuming that all they’d uncovered in the cave were fish breeders’ quarters. But as work went on inside the cave, the excavations produced a most remarkable discovery: a profusion of marble arms, legs, heads, torsos, and many smaller bits, lying every which-way in the circular pool at the center of the cave. Altogether, archaeologists found more than 7,000 fragments.

The highly expressive, emotional style of the faces, the beautifully rendered anatomy, and an inscription in Greek allowed archaeologists to recognize that they’d just made a truly spectacular find. The inscription (on one of the sculpture fragments) gives the names of three noted Greek sculptors of the late second century BC — the same who produced a famous ancient Greek statue, the “Laocoon” group, unearthed in Rome in 1506 and now in the Vatican Museums. Laocoon was the priest who warned his fellow Trojans against that notorious wooden horse, full of Greek soldiers, presented to Troy by the Greeks, and who was then punished by the god Apollo, who sent serpents to strangle and kill Laocoon and his sons. The story, found in Homer’s Odyssey, also appears in Latin literature, in Virgil’s Aeneid, which was still a new work in Tiberius’ time; it had been written for his predecessor, Augustus.

After many years of efforts and arguments, archaeologists have partially reconstructed some of the statue groups found in the Grotto of Tiberius. A museum, opened in 1963, was built near the site to house the statues found at Sperlonga. After trekking through the first room, full of forgettable pieces, the visitor comes to Room B — an amazing reconstruction from hundreds of marble fragments — part of a group that shows the attack of the monster Scylla on the ship of Odysseus. Scylla, who has the upper body of a woman (leave it to the Greeks to make their most fearsome monsters female!), a belt of rabid dogs, and the lower body of a fish-like dragon, is shown attacking Odysseus’s ship and grabbing several of his sailors, while the hero himself struggles valiantly against her. One particularly horrifying fragment shows Scylla’s enormous hand (more than 3 times life-size) grabbing a mariner by the hair. At the prow the helmsman sprawls at his post, still clinging to the helm, but with his head resting against the side of the ship, and on his face an expression of utter terror and despair. The well-preserved head of Odysseus displays deep-set eyes and dramatically wild hair and beard, but a facial expression more of determination than fear. Other groups, less complete, may have shown the blinding of the giant Polyphemus by Odysseus and his men, who drive a sharpened stake into the monster’s single eye, and another apparently showed Odysseus carrying the body of Achilles.

Why all this emphasis on Greek heroes? First, there’s the fascination among cultured Romans with the literature of the Greeks, an interest Tiberius shared. There was also the belief that certain places described by Homer were actually along this very section of the Italian coast. And then there was Virgil’s Aeneid, which in modern terminology might be called the “sequel” to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, claimed descent from Aeneas, and although Tiberius wasn’t a blood relative, he was Augustus’ successor, and had been adopted into the family line. Hence the many levels of relevance for these scenes. An Italian scholar characterized the various statue groups as “a veritable Odyssey in marble.” Read More:

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