Stabiae was an ancient Roman town, located close to the modern town of Castellammare di Stabia approximately 4.5 km southwest of Pompeii. It was positioned on a 50 m high headland overlooking the Gulf of Naples. Being only 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) from Mount Vesuvius, this seaside resort was largely destroyed by two metres of tephra ash in 79 AD.
Originally a small port, by the 6th century BC Stabiae had already been overshadowed by the much larger port at Pompeii. The town was destroyed by Lucius Cornelius Sulla on 30 April 89 BC during the Social War, a revolt by many of Rome's allies in the area. The Roman author and admiral Pliny the Elder recorded that the town was rebuilt and became a popular resort for wealthy Romans. He reported that there were several miles of luxury villas built along the edge of the headland, all enjoying panoramic views out over the bay.
According to the account written by his nephew, Pliny the Elder was at the other side of the bay in Misenum when the eruption started. He travelled by galley ship across the bay, partly to observe the eruption more closely, and partly to rescue people from the coast near the volcano.
Pliny died at Stabiae the following day, probably during the arrival of the sixth and largest pyroclastic surge of the eruption caused by the collapse of the eruption plume. The very dilute outer edge of this surge was the only one to reach Stabiae and left two centimetres of ash on top of the tephra deposits.
The archaeological remains of Stabiae were originally discovered in 1749 by Cavaliere Rocco de Alcubierre, an engineer working for king Charles VII of Naples. These ruins were partially excavated by Alcubierre with help from Karl Weber between 1749–1782. The ruins that had been excavated, however, were reburied and their location was forgotten until 1950, when a high school principal rediscovered them. The site was declared an archaeological protected area in 1957, and by 1962 many of the ruins had been again uncovered. The remains of both an Oscan settlement (oppidum) and the later Roman town were discovered.
The most famous of the findings at Stabiae are the villas that come from the time between the destruction of Stabiae by Sulla in 89 BC and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. As described above, Stabiae became a resort town during this time and was particularly favored for its view of the Bay of Naples and the surrounding mountains. Stabiae was also well known for the quality of its spring water, which was believed to have medicinal properties. The ideal placement and qualities of this location drew many wealthy Romans to build luxurious villas on the ridge overlooking the bay. These villas, which are described below, provide us with some of the most stunning architectural and artistic remains from Roman villas. 2004 saw an Italian-American collaboration between the Superintendency of Archaeology of Pompeii, the region of Campania and the University of Maryland to form the non-profit Archaeological entity, the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation (RAS). It is the RAS Foundation's prime goal to excavate, restore and build an archaeological park at the ancient site of Stabiae, a complex of seven or eight Roman villas according to recent geophysical surveys conducted by the University of Birmingham.
Before the age of the villas, however, an Oscan settlement existed in the region of Stabiae. In 1957 three hundred tombs dating from the 7th to the 3rd centuries BC were found in a necropolis associated with this town. Many pieces of pottery were found in these tombs and provide us with archaeological evidence that supports the dating of the Oscan inhabitants. It appears that the Samnites later took over the Oscan town in the 5th century.
Among the many villas found at Stabiae, the most famous are Villa San Marco, Villa Del Pastore, and Villa Arianna. Some of the other villas include Villa Carmiano, Villa del Petraro, and Villa Capella di San Marco.
Villa San Marco
This villa, deriving the name from a chapel that existed in its proximity in the 18th century, was the first one to be explored in the course of excavations in Bourbon times carried out between 1749 and 1754. The graphic and textual documentation of the Bourbon surveys was published in 1881 by M. Ruggiero M. in the book Degli Scavi di Stabiae dal 1749 al 1782 ("On the Stabiae excavations from 1749 to 1782"). The villa was re-buried after the removal of its furnishings and of the better preserved frescoes. Excavations were resumed on 1950 by Libero d’Orsi and O. Elia of the Archaeological Superintendency.
One of the largest villas ever discovered in Campania, measuring more than 11,000 square metres, it has an atrium, a courtyard containing a pool, a triclinium with views of the bay, and a colonnaded courtyard. There are also many other small rooms, a kitchen and two internal gardens. Villa San Marco also has a private bath complex that is made up of a calidarium, tepidarium, and a frigidarium. This villa is also important because it has provided frescoes, sculptures, mosaics and architecture, which show styles and themes comparable to those found in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Villa del Pastore
"Villa of the Shepherd" in English. This villa gets its name from a small statue of a shepherd that was discovered at this site.
This villa measures even larger than Villa San Marco, coming in at 19,000 square metres. The villa was rediscovered in 1967 and includes many rooms, large baths and luxurious gardens. It lacks, however, any domestic rooms, suggesting that it may not have been a residence. One hypothesis is that this is instead a valetudinarium (health spa) that would have allowed people to take advantage of the famous spring waters of Stabiae. It has not yet been fully excavated.
Named for the fresco depicting Dionysus saving Ariadne from the island of Dia (a mythological name for Naxos), this villa is particularly famous for its frescoes, many of which depict light, winged figures. It is difficult to get a clear sense of this villa, however, because it grew over the course of 150 years. It has one of the largest courtyards of any Roman villa; measuring two stadia in length. Another feature of Villa Arianna is its private tunnel system that links the villa in its location on the ridge to the sea shore, which was probably only between 100 and 200 metres away from the bottom of the hill in Roman times. The shoreline has since changed, leaving the archaeological site further inland than it was in antiquity.
- San Diego Museum of Art exhibition on Stabiae
- Restoring Stabiae website
- Account of Pliny's death (the famous letter by Pliny's nephew, Pliny the Younger, in Latin and English)
- Francis, Peter & Oppenheimer, Clive (2004). Volcanoes. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-925469-9.
- Parslow, Christopher Charles (1995). Rediscovering Antiquity: Karl Weber and the Excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47150-8.
- Encyclopædia Britannica Website
- Felice Senatore (2003). Stabiae: Dalla preistoria alla guerra greco-gotica. Edizioni Spano. ISBN 88-88226-15-X.
- Encyclopædia Britannica Website
Fresco of Villa San Marco in Stabiae – Perseus with the Head of Medusa