Amazing Places

You Can Vacation in the Summer Villa of Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus

Where do you go when "fit for a king" isn't good enough? Someplace fit for an emperor, of course. During his rule from 14 C.E. to 37 C.E., Emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus summered in an open-air grotto overlooking the Mediterranean. And today, you can plan a visit for yourself, no imperial authority required.

A Sunny Resort for All Epochs

In a word, Sperlonga is gorgeous. You'll find the little village of about 3,000 people along the western coast of Italy, about halfway between Rome and Naples. With its sparkling white houses built into the cliffs, it almost looks Greek. But you can't get any more Italian than this beautiful city, especially since the emperor of Rome used to summer here a full 2,000 years ago.

Villa di Tiberio has been reduced to ruins; only short, thin walls remain of the former estate. But an atmosphere of pure relaxation still pervades the space. Broad, green lawns stretch out overlooking the sea, and a winding path takes visitors from the antiquarian fish ponds to the villa's centerpiece attraction: the grotto. The emperor is believed to have entertained his esteemed guests there, in the natural stone opening set over a serene pool of water.

Breezy seaside vibes weren't the only treasure found inside that grotto. It was also a rich statuary featuring a larger-than-life depiction of the myth of Odysseus. Unfortunately, most of the statues were crushed and destroyed in a cave collapse in 26 C.E., and the grotto and its statues went undiscovered until 1957. Today, after you kick back on the emperor's lawn, you can see what remains of the statues (and some modern reconstructions) at the nearby museum.

Giving Unto Caesar

You may recognize the phrase "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's" from the Bible, and Tiberius was the Caesar that they were talking about. He was emperor of Rome for most of Jesus' life, and would have been the Caesar on the throne at the time of the crucifixion. He actually gets a couple of shout-outs in the Bible, as well; by name, in Luke 3:1, and obliquely as the face on the silver coins that Judas took as a bribe.

For their own part, the Roman elite didn't take particularly kindly to Tiberius, either. He often found himself on the wrong side of historian Tacitus's pen, and he gained a reputation as a dark tyrant, shrouded in secrecy and overcome by political paranoia. But perhaps we should take that characterization with a grain of salt. As historian E.T. Salmon notes in "A History of the Roman World," "In the whole twenty-two years of Tiberius' reign, not more than fifty-two persons were accused of treason, of whom almost half escaped conviction, while the four innocent people to be condemned fell victims to the excessive zeal of the Senate, not to the Emperor's tyranny."

So maybe Tiberius wasn't such a bad guy after all — but with all of those political rivals, we understand why he needed a decent vacation spot.

Want to learn more about the Roman Empire immediately following the assassination of Julius Caesar? Check out E.T. Salmon's "A History of the Roman World: From 30 B.C. to A.D. 138." If you make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale, which helps support the work that we do.

Tiberius' Adoptive Father Augustus Caesar

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 14, 2017