Ancient Roman Villa Ruins in Sirmione: The Grottoes of Catullus

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Mediterranean Climate and Olive Trees at the Grottoes of Catullus

The Grottoes of Catullus (Grotte di Catullo), located in Sirmione on the shore of Lake Garda, are the remains of an ancient Roman villa. Despite being known as “caves,” this term was coined during the Middle Ages when the ruins were buried by dirt and vegetation, giving them a cavernous appearance.

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The villa is attributed to the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus. Historical evidence suggests that Catullus had a residence in the Sirmione area, as he describes a homecoming to his family’s villa at Sirmio in one of his poems. The construction of the villa dates back to the 1st century AD, but it was eventually abandoned.

In 1801, French general Louis-Alexandre Berthier initiated studies of the area during the Napoleonic occupation of Italy. These studies marked the beginning of modern archaeological interest in the site.

The area surrounding the Grottoes of Catullus has a Mediterranean climate, despite being located in the Po Valley. This unique microclimate supports the growth of hundreds of olive trees, contributing to the villa’s serene and picturesque setting.

Catullus: The Poet

Catullus, born around 84 BC, was one of the most prominent poets of ancient Rome. He was born into a leading equestrian family in Verona, Cisalpine Gaul. His family’s social standing allowed his father to host Julius Caesar during his tenure as Promagistrate of the Gallic provinces. Catullus’s surviving works, including his passionate poems about his love for “Lesbia” (widely believed to be Clodia Metelli), continue to be widely read and studied.

Catullus likely spent much of his time in Rome, where he fell deeply in love with Clodia Metelli, a sophisticated woman from the aristocratic Claudii Pulchri family. Clodia was the sister of the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher and the wife of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, a proconsul.

Architectural Features

The villa’s remains include various structural elements that provide insight into Roman architecture and living standards of the time. The ruins spread over a large area, reflecting the grandeur and opulence of the original structure. Excavations have uncovered parts of the villa’s intricate design, such as walls, floors, and mosaics, showcasing the advanced engineering and aesthetic sensibilities of the Romans.

Preservation and Tourism

Today, the Grottoes of Catullus are a significant archaeological site and a popular tourist destination. Efforts to preserve the ruins and the surrounding landscape continue, allowing visitors to appreciate the historical and cultural legacy of ancient Rome in this scenic part of Italy.

Images of the Roman villa in Sirmione

Catullus was one of the greatest Roman poet. His surving works are still read widely.

Image: Catullus reading to his friends. Stepan Bakalovich (1857-1936)

Image: Catullus reading to his friends. Stepan Bakalovich (1857-1936)

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Image: Leighton, Frederic - Acme and Septimius - c. 1868

Image: Leighton, Frederic – Acme and Septimius – c. 1868


A Pastoral: to Septimius

Septimius holding his beloved Acme
in his lap, said: ‘Acme, mine, if I
don’t love you desperately, and love forever,
continually through all the years,
as much as he who loves the most,
in empty Libya and scorched India,
I’ll fight against some green-eyed lion.’

As he spoke, Love, to left and right,
sneezed his approbation.
But Acme lifted her head slightly
and her charming red lips spoke
to her sweet boy’s intoxicated eyes:
‘So, Septimius, mea vita,
let us always serve this one lord,
that more deeply and more fiercely
the fire will burn my tender marrow.’

As she spoke, Love, to left and right
sneezed his approbation.
Now profiting from these good omens
their mutual spirits love and are loved.
Septimius sets his little Acme,
above the Syrians or Britons:
faithful Acme makes Septimius
her one darling and desire.
Who might see more blessed creatures
who a love more fortunate?

Translated by A. S. Kline

Tears for Lesbia’s Sparrow

Sparrow, my sweet girl’s delight,
whom she plays with, holds to her breast,
whom, greedy, she gives her little finger to,
often provoking you to a sharp bite,
whenever my shining desire wishes
to play with something she loves,
I suppose, while strong passion abates,
it might be a small relief from her pain:
might I toy with you as she does
and ease the cares of a sad mind!

Translated by A. S. Kline

In his poems Catullus describes several stages of their relationship:
initial euphoria, doubts, separation, and his wrenching feelings of loss.  [Wikipedia]


Image: Image: Sir Edward John Poynter, Lesbia and her Sparrow, 1907

Source: Wikipedia 1 , 2
Photo: commons.wiki ; Flickr

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