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The Villa Jovis

Tiberius’ villa on Capri

Located at the edge of a tall cliff on the island of Capri is the large villa once owned by the reclusive Roman emperor Tiberius (r. AD 14-37).

Written by Josho Brouwers on

When Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, died in AD 14, he was succeeded by Tiberius. Tiberius was the son of Livia, Augustus’ wife, from an earlier marriage. There was little love lost between the two men, but since Augustus had survived all other intended successors he had been left with little choice.

Whereas Augustus had been a skilled politician, Tiberius was a military man. The two also had very different sensibilities. Augustus had lived in a relatively modest house on the Palatine Hill in Rome, near the houses of other prominent Romans. Tiberius had a grander vision for himself and is said to have built a huge, multi-storied house there. Indeed, the word “palace” derives from palatium, the old name for the Palatine.

Tiberius’ retreat on Capri

Tiberius had little patience for Rome’s politics and as time went on he grew ever more bitter. Eventually, he turned into a recluse and spent most of his time on the island of Capri, located in the Bay of Naples. Tiberius owned a number of villas on the island, but none of them as grand – or as remote – as the impressive Villa Jovis (Villa of Jupiter), located at the island’s northeast corner, at the top of precipitous cliffs, at an elevation of about 330 metres above sea level.

According to Suetonius (ca. AD 69-122), Rome’s biggest gossip, Tiberius engaged in all kinds of debauchery at the Villa Jovis. In his Life of Tiberius, he writes, for example (44):

On retiring to Capri he devised a pleasance for his secret orgies: teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri’s woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this “the old goat’s garden”, punning on the island’s name.

Capri was referred to by the Romans as “goat island”, and the name is thought to have been derived from capreae, the Latin word for goats. Pan was a Greek god with the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat. Pan and related creatures – i.e. panes among the Greeks, fauns among the Romans – were thought to be excitable creatures, similar to satyrs, so this image enhances Suetonius’ picture of Tiberius as an old lecher squirrelled away on a distant island.

The island of Capri today is still inhabited by wealthy people and the town’s restaurants and sights have drawn celebrities from all over the world. (For some reason, restaurants believe you’ll be more inclined to eat there if they hang framed photos outside that feature actors like Sylvester Stallone or Michael Douglas.) As a result, Capri is rather an expensive place to visit, so it’s best to bring sandwiches and only buy a drink or snack to take away. You can hop on a ferry in Naples and it’ll take you to the island within the hour, but be sure to check when the last ship back to the mainland leaves from the island’s harbour, to avoid any surprises.

A map of the Villa Jovis; source unknown. Note the cisterns in the heart of the complex.

To reach the Villa Jovis, you need to take the funicolare to the centre of town and then walk about 2 km to reach the archaeological site. Be warned: it’s a long climb up to reach the site and there are no shortcuts available, so it’s best not to do this during the hottest time of the day. You should also bring water along. You’ll come across a few points where you can refill your bottles if necessary.

The site itself is large, but you can explore it in a couple of hours. There is a path laid out that will take you around and through the complex in a counter-clockwise direction. You’ll start in the entrance area, then move to the servants’ quarters, where Tiberius’ servants (and slaves!) lived. You’ll then pass though the imperial quarters. A large part of the site consists of cisterns, where rain water was collected – the villa’s only source of fresh water. The final section that you’ll pass through is the villa’s bath complex.

The site has lots of signs that provide helpful information, so you’ll always have a good idea of where you are within the complex. You’ll still need to use your imagination to picture what the villa may have looked like at one point, but traces of floor mosaics and even paint on some of the interior walls will facilitate this. There are also a few lookout points where you’ll have an excellent view of the sea. These points are also great places for a makeshift picknick.