Discovering an Ancient Roman Villa: Torre de Palma

From the Lecture Series: Classical Archaeology of Ancient Greece and Rome

By John Hale, PhD, University of Louisville

Torre de Palma, the “Tower of the Palm,” is a Roman latifundia, or villa, far out in the westernmost province of the mainland of the Roman Empire, in modern-day Portugal. It was discovered in 1947 in a special way that is emblematic of certain kinds of discoveries.

Image showing Ruins of Vila Cardílio located approximately 3 km outside of Torres Novas.
Ruins of Vila Cardílio (Image: By Paulo Juntas/Public Domain)

The year was 1947, and on what is even today a great Portuguese farm named Torre de Palma, covering thousands of acres, a group of young men was sent out with their teams of draft animals to plow a field that nobody could remember ever plowing before. It had been used for pasture. It hadn’t been plowed because it was full of stones, but the landowner had decided he was going to tackle it that year.

The boys lined up in a long line abreast, as if they were a military phalanx, with their plows all at the same point. They would work their way down the field in an immense line. One of the young men, as he went along, suddenly felt his plowshare hit something hard, one of those stones. It bounced up out of the ground and came back down. As he was dragged on by the animals, he turned around and saw a scar in the soil as white as snow.

This is a transcript from the video series Classical Archaeology of Ancient Greece and Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

He was intrigued by this, and when it came time for the midmorning break, he went back to where he’d seen the white mark in the soil. He took with him a little tool to scrape off the soil that lay over this white thing.

It gradually took the form of a circle—and it was clear to him it was marble because there were marble quarries in that area. He was looking at the top of a Roman column drum, still in its original place. He knew this was something big.

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Uncovering the Muses 

He called the rest of the team, who brought their tools, and they worked down to the base of the column, where it was sitting on a mosaic floor. Working their way across the floor, figures started to appear in the mosaic: Women in robes, all in a row, nine of them, each of them carrying a little attribute, a mask of comedy, a mask of tragedy, a globe of the world, or a musical instrument.

By this time, the plow team realized they’d hit something important. They’d hit one of those artifacts that implies a much larger thing. Mosaics of this type are found in Roman houses of wealthy people. If they’re in the countryside, they are villa owners, the landowning family, and the heart of this great latifundia. The mosaics were probably in one of the public rooms. We now know they were in the dining room of this great house. But the mosaic alone was enough to imply everything else.

None of the young men could read, so they sent a runner across country to the village to get the schoolmaster. In the meantime, they worked away on clearing off the mosaic.

There is a legend universal in countries that have ruins in them that there’s treasure under ruins. So in waiting for the schoolmaster to come, they picked a corner of the mosaic and they busted down through it.

There was nothing underneath and they may not have gotten through the cement because, at Torre de Palma, the beddings for the mosaics are very thick. But along came the schoolmaster who spelled out the Latin inscription that ran across under these nine ladies. They were, of course, the muses, the goddesses of inspiration, each with her special attribute: Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania, and all the rest.

Picture of the mosaic floor depicting Apollo and Daphne, Villa Torre de Palma
Mosaic panel depicting Apollo and Daphne, from the Villa Torre de Palma near Monforte, 3rd-4th century AD, National Archaeology Museum of Lisbon, Portugal. (Image: By Carole/Public Domain)

Ironically, the inscription read: “Please do not deface this mosaic.” But it went on. It wasn’t about digging holes for it, looking for treasure. “Please do not deface this mosaic by using a hard broom.” It’s an interesting thing to think that this was an instruction to the servants cleaning the house. The 20th-century farm workers couldn’t read, but the Roman servants obviously could.

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The Largest Villa in Iberia 

The landowner came down and realized what had been found, that they had found the center of something that must be a vast complex. It turned out to cover about seven acres. It was a huge spread of buildings. It is, to this day, the largest Roman villa ever found in Iberia—Spain and Portugal—in terms of expanse.

That portion of the mosaic was only the entranceway to a vast dining room where the guests would have reclined on their couches, leaning on one elbow and eating with the other, with a space in the middle for entertainers, reciters, singers; also for the serving staff to get the food to everyone’s table. There was a well-worn path from the door where the muses were across the internal hallway to the kitchen door.

Then there was room after room after room around an open-to-the-sky square courtyard that had a little impluvium, a tank of water, in the middle and that probably had a garden around it, colonnades all around. It’s like a medieval cloister was the ancestor of that form of building.

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Celebrating the Master’s Prize Racehorses 

Picture of a mosaic of Stud Farm with Palm Tree and Palm Head adornments
Mosaic of stud farm with palm tree and palm head adornments (Image: By Ad Meskenss/Public Domain)

One of the truly wonderful discoveries is the mosaic in a hallway that is thought to lead to the master’s study or receiving area. In front, instead of walking across a carpet, you walked across another mosaic. It has five racehorses on it, five portraits of stallions with their names on little scrolls—names like Pelops, Hiberus, Leneus, Lenobatis. Some of those names have to do with wine—the place of sweet wines—along with Bacchus. It is thought those names are a clue that one of the products of this complex must have been grapes and wine.

Picture of a mosaic depicting the Triumph of Bacchus, Villa Torre de Palma
Mosaic depicting the Triumph of Bacchus, Villa Torre de Palma (Image: By Carole Raddato/Public Domain)

These five horses have little palm branches on their heads and, of course, the modern name for palm is “palma.” The palms had to come from somewhere else because this is not an area where palm trees grow naturally. The palm, which is on the head of all the horses, and a palm brand, which is on the hindquarters of one of the stallions, were emblems of victory in the ancient world. At the Kentucky Derby, a large blanket of red roses is put over the winner. In Roman horse races and any kind of athletic competition, the winner was given a palm. The scene in the Gospel where Jesus enters Jerusalem and the crowd strews palm branches in the streets communicates, “We are giving you the greatest accolade we possibly can. Here’s a palm branch for you.”

We know from the palms that these are winning racehorses. They’re the wrong number for a chariot team; there would be four rather than five horses. So it is more likely that we’re looking at stallions that are the pride of a stud farm and that you are being reminded as you come in to see the master with your petition or your request that these are the source of his power; these are the great champion horses that have been winning races and also siring foals that are carrying their blood stock into the future.

Common Questions About Roman Latifundia

Q: What exactly is a Roman latifundia?

While latifundia existed all over the world, the Roman latifundia were elaborate agricultural estates owned by rich owners which were confiscated by Rome in a type of eminent domain.

Q: How was the latifundia worked?

The people who worked on Roman latifundia were almost always slaves or peasants.

Q: Why were the Roman latifundia problematic?

When the Roman latifundia were confiscated by Rome, it displaced the small farmer, leading to financial ruin. This caused much displeasure in the populace.

Q: Did the Roman latifundia have anything to do with the fall of the Roman empire?

The Roman latifundia were one of many conditions provoking social issues that were a definite sign of social decay displayed during the fall of the Roman empire. It was a desperate attempt to hold on to power by the rulers of the empire.

This article was updated on December 28, 2020

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