How Ancient Rome’s 1% Hijacked the Beach

The rich, the poor, and the battle for the Bay of Naples.

Published April 5, 2016
Part of our Battle for the Coastline series

About 400 years ago, a throng of dusty workmen laid down their shovels and huddled around an ancient painted wall—a fresco, technically—unearthed in a tunnel near Italy’s Bay of Naples. The men were at work on a massive construction project, burrowing through a hill to build a canal for a local armament factory and mill. No one expected to find fine art. But as the workmen dug deeper into the hill, they encountered wonder upon wonder—house walls painted blood red and sunflower yellow, fragments of carved inscriptions, pieces of Roman statues.

The architect supervising the project took little interest in the curious finds. But in the decades that followed, scholars deduced—correctly—that the costly canal had cut through a part of Pompeii, a Roman seaside town last glimpsed on a black day in August, 79 CE, when nearby Mount Vesuvius shook off centuries of sleep, hurling molten rock and other volcanic debris across the countryside. The scholars’ deduction launched an age of exploration. Art collectors, engineers, and eventually archaeologists combed the 80-kilometer-long bay and the neighboring island of Capri, uncovering the ruins of ancient seaside resorts and more than 130 waterfront villas belonging to Rome’s upper crust. The Bay of Naples, it transpired, was the Malibu of the ancient world.

Wealthy Romans, says classical archaeologist Elaine Gazda of the University of Michigan, were likely the first in history to snap up waterfront properties and build spectacular, sumptuous summer homes overlooking the sea. The coastal real estate boom that followed was unprecedented in antiquity. “We don’t really have ruins resembling these in the Hellenistic world,” says Gazda, who has studied villas along the Bay of Naples. “It’s a completely new phenomenon.”

But what exactly spurred this building boom? Why did Rome’s high society suddenly flock to the Bay of Naples and to many other coasts in the Roman Empire? The answer turns out to be far less obvious than one may think. The serene beauty of a waterfront view, the healthy sea air, the simple pleasure of boating during the hottest months of the year—these were all powerful draws. But new archaeological research suggests that many villa owners saw an economic opportunity, too, wringing profit from these coastal estates.


In Pompeii and other seaside resorts on the Bay of Naples, Ancient Rome’s upper crust vied to build luxury villas replete with costly frescoes, such as those that adorn the walls of Villa of the Mysteries. Photo by Macduff Everton/Corbis

The great villas weren’t simply pleasure palaces, after all; studies suggest that many of the properties housed thriving fish farms that catered to the almost feverish passion among wealthy Romans for the freshest seafood possible. As Seneca, an adviser to the emperor Nero, once put it, “A surmullet, even if it is perfectly fresh, is little esteemed until it is allowed to die before the eyes of your guest.” And the desire to capitalize on this hunger for freshness eventually pitted the very rich against the working poor, sparking one of the world’s earliest-known battles for the coastline.


Tucked away today in a quiet bedroom community outside Naples, the Roman ruins at Oplontis offer little hint to passing cars of an illustrious past. Half hidden behind a graffiti-inscribed barrier along Via Sepolcri, exposed walls are covered by a patchwork of tile and metal roofs, giving Oplontis the cheerless look of a construction site abandoned long ago. Only an official-looking metal gate and a small corner sign reveal the presence of one of Italy’s archaeological treasures.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Villa A at Oplontis, also known as Villa Poppaea, was one of the most lavish waterfront houses on the Bay of Naples. Perched dramatically on a cliff west of Pompeii, the villa was larger than Donald Trump’s palatial 3,600-square-meter country home in New York State, Seven Springs. And even in its crumbling decline, Villa A retains a note of grandeur. Decades of digging have revealed more than 90 rooms or discrete spaces, as well as costly frescoes, a 60-meter swimming pool, a heated bath chamber, extensive gardens, and large slave quarters. One of its most impressive rooms, a spacious banqueting hall, looked out on a courtyard with a panoramic view of the Bay of Naples—a careful piece of design. Wealthy Romans, says archaeologist William Bowden of the University of Nottingham in England, were fond of hosting dinner parties and a spectacular waterfront view would have been “highly desirable” for entertaining people.


This map shows Roman settlements in the context of the modern coastline and the city of Naples. Illustration by Mark Garrison

Ancient texts suggest that one of the first prominent Romans to occupy a villa along the bay was Scipio Africanus the Elder, a celebrated general who retired to his coastal estate in 184 BCE. And as the Roman navy proceeded to dispatch the pirates plaguing Italy’s coasts, and as wealth piled up in Rome after its conquests in the East, high society began investing in waterfront homes. By the first century CE, for example, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law seems to have spent his summers in a massive waterfront home at Herculaneum, while a grandson of the emperor Augustus appears to have holidayed in a clifftop villa in Surrentum. And some archaeological evidence suggests that one of Nero’s wives owned Villa A for a time.

Roman society frowned, however, on those who frittered away their days in idle luxury. Wealth had to be justified, just as it does now. “Today, people would sneer at the wealth of the Kardashians,” says Bowden, “They would [do that] because it’s not been earned in the proper way.” The same, he adds, was true in the Roman world. Multimillionaires couldn’t just laze around their summer homes and expect others to take them seriously. They had to stay busy on their estates, growing and harvesting something. “Large-scale production is part of the language of status, and having an active involvement in agriculture justifies the luxury of your home,” he says.


For decades, archaeologists regarded once grand seaside estates such as Villa A as pleasure palaces. New finds suggest that many wealthy Romans were aquaculturists who competed with local fishers for prime spots along the coast. Photo by Bildagentur-online/Sunny Celeste/Alamy Stock Photo

Some estate owners along the coast won the respect of their neighbors by the tried and true Mediterranean ways of planting olive groves to make oil and vineyards to produce wine. But the ocean itself presented a new possibility: aquaculture. The ancient Greeks and Mesopotamians had already devised methods for raising freshwater fish. But many of Rome’s wealthy patricians took a deep breath, and invested in something far more experimental: intensive marine fish farming along the shoreline.


More than a decade ago, as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, archaeologist and ancient historian Annalisa Marzano began looking at the economic enterprises that once flourished on the old Roman estates on Italy’s coast. Marzano had grown up in the small seaside village of Positano, an hour and a half drive south of Naples, and she was fascinated by archaeological reports of artificial fishponds known as piscinae on the shores below many Roman villas.

From the published drawings of these ponds and remaining ruins, Marzano could see that owners had spared little expense. Skilled workers had cut the piscinae out of rock shelves and used underwater concrete technology to form large basins. Masons then divided them with walls into separate enclosures suitable for keeping fish of different species and sizes, and equipped these tanks with openings, pipes, and channels. Often the enclosures formed pleasing geometric patterns in the water and were situated below villa terraces. From there, guests lolling about on banqueting couches could admire the flash and gleam of fish below.


Nearly 2,000 years ago, Villa A at Oplontis boasted finely painted walls and a spectacular view of the Bay of Naples. Some evidence suggests the villa was owned by a wife of emperor Nero. Photo by Mimmo Jodice/Corbis

In Roman times, says Marzano, the writer Marcus Terentius Varro dismissed these facilities as costly follies. The ponds “appeal to the eye more than the purse,” Varro wrote, “and exhaust the pouch of the owner, rather than fill it.” But Marzano, who now teaches at the University of Reading in England, suspected that there was more to the ponds than Varro let on. Many piscinae covered an area equivalent to about three or four tennis courts—too large, it seemed, to be eye candy or to simply produce food for the owner’s table. And a few of the ponds, she says, were “really impressive.” The largest—at the villa of Torre Astura, northwest of Naples—extended over an area of about 15,000 square meters, roughly the size of two World Cup soccer fields. To assess how well these ponds would have worked, Marzano teamed up with Giulio Brizzi, an Italian marine biologist who designs modern aquaculture operations.

Brizzi says that villa owners had to keep water in the enclosures well-oxygenated and free from toxic levels of ammonia, a gas excreted by fish, in order to keep the stock alive. The Romans had little knowledge of gases, but they were keen observers of the natural world and adept hydraulic engineers, as their aqueduct systems attest. To maintain the health of their fish, villa owners harnessed the ocean’s tides and employed a network of channels to manage water flow. High tides, for example, carried fresh seawater into the enclosures, diluting ammonia levels and boosting the amounts of oxygen. In addition, fresh water from nearby streams, rivers, or cisterns flowed through channels and pipes into the ponds, adding to the level of dissolved oxygen. The ponds weren’t particularly high tech, but “the Romans exploited to the maximum a rather simple system,” says Brizzi.

Rome’s upper crust was particularly fond of dining on species such as sea bass, gilthead sea bream, and surmullet—fish that inhabited estuaries, where fresh water from a river or stream flows into the sea. Local fishers likely knew where to catch these fish, and villa owners seem to have capitalized on this knowledge to help stock their operations. When water from the tanks flowed out to sea, the estuary-like discharge attracted both juvenile and adult fish into the ponds, where they could be easily captured. “So the Romans observed the natural habitat, and started to apply that [knowledge],” Marzano says.

By estimating the oxygen level and temperature in a pond, the two researchers calculated that an average-sized piscina could have sustainably produced as much as five tonnes of fish—nearly twice as much seafood as a wealthy family could consume, even if they threw a dinner party every night of the year and served only their own artisanal seafood to guests. At the far end of the scale, the immense fishpond at Torre Astura was capable of producing as much as 60 tonnes of fish sustainably—operations suitable for commerce, Marzano says. And many others agree. “Some of these fish production facilities are far too big than simply for private use,” Bowden says.


A painted peacock struts across the wall of a banqueting hall at Villa A. Photo by Mimmo Jodice/Corbis

The most likely markets for the surplus fish were in Roman cities, where affluent consumers were willing to shell out handsomely for large fish. The Roman poet Martial, for example, recounted how a single 1.8-kilogram surmullet sold for 1,200 Roman sesterces, the price of a human slave. And this sale wasn’t exceptional. In the first century CE, the emperor Tiberius was so incensed by the high cost of certain seafood that he considered regulating the prices commanded by fishmongers.

But delivering fresh fish to an urban market many kilometers away wouldn’t have been easy in an age before refrigeration. Dead fish go off quickly. Some Roman shipowners, however, seem to have devised a solution. In 1999, a team of nautical archaeologists excavated a Roman vessel that sank off Italy’s Adriatic coast some 1,900 years ago. Among the debris, the archaeologists found hundreds of storage jars packed with processed fish, as well as a strange but tantalizing object: a 1.3-meter-long lead pipe that penetrated the ship’s hull. After more than a decade of research, the team concluded that the ancient ship had a pumping system to help oxygenate an on-board fish tank—a technology described in some Roman texts.

Marzano admits that the evidence for live fish transport is still controversial, but she thinks the idea makes sense. Many of the villas, she says, had private docks that the owners could have used to load farmed fish onto ships. “And if we think of the Tiber River as being the main transportation route into Rome, then it’s possible these ships carried high-quality fish to market there,” Marzano says.


But while some Roman villa owners likely profited from aquaculture, not everyone rejoiced at the sight of fish farms springing up along the coastline. Local fishers regarded Italy’s estuaries as prime fishing grounds, and as villas and fish farms increasingly clustered around river mouths—where fresh water was readily available—clashes followed. In the second century CE, for example, fishers from two towns on Italy’s west coast appealed directly to the emperor Antoninus Pius for help. Villa owners were preventing them from casting their nets in front of the big summer homes. And this, they claimed, infringed upon their basic right to access the ocean.

Antoninus Pius seemed sympathetic, ruling that the fishers could fish where they chose in the ocean. According to Roman law, as one later scholar explained, “the sea is common to all and the shore too, just like the air. …” But the emperor added one curious caveat to his decision: he instructed the fishermen to stay away from the buildings and structures belonging to the villa owners.


Ancient Rome’s elite couldn’t just laze around summer homes like Villa A. They had to justify their wealth, producing wine or farming fish on their grand estates. Photo by Oliviero Olivieri/robertharding/Corbis

This caveat has long puzzled experts in Roman law. Many scholars, says Marzano, think it was likely intended to protect the privacy and pristine waterfront views of patrician property owners. But Marzano’s research provides another explanation. She thinks the fishers were setting their nets along the seaward walls of the owners’ piscinae, intercepting wild fish that the wealthy were trying to lure into their aquaculture ponds.

The fishers, of course, were merely trying to make a living, while the villa owners wanted to entice wild fish into their ponds in order to stock them. Both were trying to control a common resource—the coastline—and clashing in a distinctly modern way. One need only think, for example, of the battles waged in California between privacy-loving owners of waterfront properties and the surfers who demand access to the foreshore in order to catch the best waves.


Centuries of patient archaeological sleuthing along the Bay of Naples, from the discovery of Pompeii’s buried houses to the detailed studies on the production of villa fishponds, has cast a new light on the Roman world, a world of privilege and pleasure, a world of summer homes and seaside resorts, a world of large commercial enterprise and small business, and a world that looked to the sea for profit. It is a world that is eerily familiar today, as citizens and corporations compete for ownership of the coastline, a narrow strip of land holding some of the world’s most valuable real estate.

Our urge to control the ocean’s edge has a very ancient pedigree. Our challenge now—as then—is to make room there for all.

Read the rest of the Battle for the Coastline.