History

Villa Owned by Ben-Hur's Rival Identified

Archaeologists recover the remains of the villa belonging to the real- life individual that inspired the epic tale of Ben-Hur.

Archaeologists investigating the Tuscan island of Elba have identified the remains of the villa belonging to the real-life individual that inspired one of the principal characters in the epic tale of Ben-Hur.

Overlooking Portoferraio's bay, the once magnificent 1st-century B.C. estate, known as Villa Le Grotte (the Caves) because of the shape of its vaulted facades facing the sea, has long been believed to have been owned by Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, portrayed racing his rival Ben-Hur in the Hollywood blockbuster starring Charlton Heston as Ben Hur.

While Ben-Hur was a fictional villain, dreamed up in Lew Wallace's 1880 novel and immortalized in the 1959 MGM movie, the Messalla character was based on a real-world historical figure.

Photos: Excavating the Ancient Villa

Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus was a member of one of the oldest and most important families in Rome, the patron of the poet Ovid, and a commander at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., fighting for Octavian against the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

According to archaeologists Laura Pagliantini, Luisa Zito and Luisa Quaglia, of the Archeo Color Association, the now ruined villa, which is currently closed to the public, has long been associated to Messalla's patrician family but no evidence was ever found to confirm the speculation.

"The poet Ovid of whom Messalla was patron, recounts how he went to visit Messalla's son on Elba prior to his exile to Tomis on the Black Sea, but he doesn't provide any detail about the place he was staying," Pagliantini told Discovery News.

The villa where Ovid stayed as a guest could have been one of the three monumental residences which are known to have been built on Elba.

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Startling evidence about Le Grotte's owner came when archaeologists led by Franco Cambi, professor of methodology of archaeological research at the University of Siena, excavated the area just below the villa.

"We were looking for ancient furnaces used in the production of iron, but we ended up with a surprising finding," Cambi told Discovery News.

Along with the remains of a large collapsed building, the archaeologists found five dolia -- large earthenware vases -- complete with their covers. Each vase could hold between 1,300 and 1,500 liters of wine.

"Clearly, the site was a farm serving the Roman villa above," Cambi said.

Villa Owned by Ben-Hur's Rival Identified: Page 2

The vases were stamped with the Latin inscription "Hermia Va(leri) (M)arci s(ervus) fecit," meaning "Made by Hermias, slave of Marcus Valerius."

Other stamps on the vases feature the words "HE" for Hermia, and a carved dolphin.

Possibly hinting to his country of origin, in his stamps the slave referred to a story told by Pliny the Elder about a boy named Hermias who rode the sea on a dolphin at Iasos in Caria, now in Turkey. When the boy perished in a storm, the dolphin brought the body on the beach and lay down next to him to die.

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The archaeologists dated the farm to the 1st century B.C. The estate met its demise at the end of the 1st century A.D., when a fire destroyed everything. Fortunately the fire preserved materials made in raw clay, basically cooking them.

The dramatic fire is likely the reason why the Roman villa was also abandoned at the end of the 1st century A.D., its most precious furnishing taken away.

"Little has remained of the villa's original decorations, apart from fragments of white, grey and black mosaic floor and decorative plates representing the myth of Psyche," Pagliantini said.

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Only partially excavated in the 1960s, Le Grotte stretched toward the sea with gardens, porticoes, stairways and terraces with stunning bay views. A swimming pool encircled by a colonnaded porch, thermal baths, and rooms lavishly decorated with frescoes, marbles and statues made the site a luxury holiday residence.

"Villa Le Grotte is Elba's most important archaeological site, and this finding adds to its importance," archaeologist Lorella Alderighi of the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany, told Discovery News.

"We can imagine Ovid walking in the porticoed garden, perhaps declaiming his verses before saying goodbye forever to his friend and to civilian life," Alderighi said.

The remains of a swimming pool once encircled by a colonnaded porch reveal the magnificence of the site. Unfortunately little has remained of the villa’s original decorations.

Archaeologists investigating the Tuscan island of Elba have identified the remains of the villa belonging to the real-life individual that inspired one of the principal characters in the epic tale of Ben-Hur.

Overlooking Portoferraio’s bay, the once magnificent 1st-century B.C. villa has long been believed to have been owned by Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, portrayed as Ben-Hur in the Hollywood blockbuster starring Charlton Heston.

Now in ruins, the property was known as Villa Le Grotte (the Caves) because of the shape of its vaulted facades facing the sea, as it is shown in this 18th-century drawing.

While Ben-Hur was a fictional villain dreamed up in Lew Wallace's 1880 novel and immortalized in the 1959 MGM movie, the Messalla character was based on a real-world historical figure. Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus was a member of one of the oldest and most important families in Rome, the patron of the poet Ovid, and a commander at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., fighting for Octavian against the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

The now ruined villa has long been associated to Messalla’s patrician family but no evidence was ever found to confirm the speculation. It is known that the poet Ovid, of whom Messalla was patron, went to visit Messalla’s son on Elba prior to his exile on the Black Sea. However, in his account Ovid doesn’t provide any detail about the place he was staying.

Startling evidence about Le Grotte’s owner came when archaeologists excavated the area just below the villa. Along with the remains of a large collapsed building, five dolia, large earthenware vases, were uneathed. Each vase could hold between 1,300 and 1,500 liters of wine. Clearly, the site was a farm serving the Roman villa.

The vases showed they were made by a Messalla’s slave. Indeed they were stamped with the Latin inscription “Hermia Va(leri) (M)arci s(ervus) fecit,” meaning “Made by Hermias, slave of Marcus Valerius.”

Another stamp on the vases features the words HE for Hermia and a carved dolphin. Possibly hinting to his country of origin, in his stamps the slave referred to a story told by Pliny the Elder about a boy named Hermias who rode the sea on a dolphin at Iasos in Caria, now in Turkey. When the boy perished in a storm, the dolphin brought the body on the beach and lay down next to him to die.

The archaeologists dated the farm to the 1st century B.C. The estate met its demise at the end of the 1st century A.D., when a fire destroyed everything. It preserved however the materials made in raw clay, basically cooking them. The dramatic fire is likely the reason why the Roman villa was also abandoned at the end of the 1st century A.D., its most precious furnishing taken away.

Only partially excavated in the 1960s, Le Grotte stretched toward the sea with gardens, porticoes, stairways and terraces with stunning bay views.

The remains of a swimming pool once encircled by a colonnaded porch reveal the magnificence of the site. Unfortunately little has remained of the villa’s original decorations, apart from fragments of white, grey and black mosaic floor and decorative plates representing the myth of Psyche.

This reconstruction shows how the villa might have looked. Thermal baths, swimming pool, and rooms lavishly decorated with frescoes, marbles and statues made the site a luxury holiday residence.