Hadrian’s Villa: Teatro Marittimo, temple terraces, Tholos and Greek theatre

Teatro Marittimo aerial

Hadrian's villa: Teatro Marittimo

We now head North-East towards the Teatro Marittimo. On an island of just 27 metres across, there was a construction with all kinds of small rooms. A 4 metre wide canal was dug out around the island, which in turn was surrounded by a round portico.

Hadrian's villa: Teatro Marittimo
photo: Riccardo Cuppini

Teatro Marittimo

The columns and the nine metre high round wall are largely intact. If you measure the diameter of the large enclosure, it matches the Pantheon to a tee, 43.3 metres. The island could be reached via two rotatable wooden bridges (see below map, n. 4). Excavations even dug up the wheels that were mounted below the wooden bridges.

The name, the maritime theatre, has nothing to do with the building’s purpose. There is little consensus between archaeologists as to what the meaning of the complex was. It is often thought that Hadrianus used the space to retreat and do some reading and relaxing. In this sense, it gets pointed out that the Teatro Marittimo is situated exactly between the ‘philosopher’s hall’ and the Greek and Latin libraries. They then add that the island itself also had a library. The island complex was provided with all sorts of rooms save a kitchen, which were usually present in Roman house, albeit much smaller than was customary.

The reconstruction of a library in Roman times

The reconstruction of a library in Roman times
photo: Cassius Ahenobarbus

There is one interpretation that posits that this strange complex was not just any miniature house, but a depiction of the universe with an observatory dome right at its centre. This is where the stars were consulted. The Piazzo d’Oro is the navel of the Villa of Hadrianus. The key to the meaning of this complex traces back to a description by Terentius Varo, who describes his bird house in detail. There are quite some similarities between this bird house that was built 170 years earlier and the Teatro Marittimo. For example, both have an island with a tholos that holds a canopy on top, a round canal and a round colonnade surrounding it.

Map of the Teatro Marittimo in the Villa of Hadrianus: 1. Entrance 2. Circular portico 3. Water canal 4. Moveable bridges 5. Pronaos (front hall) 6. Central canopy 7. Apse

Varro describes his bird house in detail. The classical author describes that in the tholos you could read the wind direction. In addition, it allowed you to consult the stars. After all, the stars held the key for the future. The entire whole, the canal, island and the tholas with its dome is nothing more than a miniature cosmos. It ‘was a depiction of the many animal, plant and mineral kingdoms.’

“People inhabited the island; fish swam in the canal water (aquarium), and the air was home to the birds, of which some transitioned from water to air, like the ducks that were often mentioned. In addition, the water could be checked through the water pipe system, so just like in the Golden House (Nero’s palace in Rome) rain could come down. The dome’s mechanism illustrated the movement of the planets and the stars, while the wind vane showed the wind direction. In antiquity, the wind was regarded as the driving force behind the movement of the stars and therefore largely influenced the horoscope.”

Cited from Henri Stierlin, Imperium Romanum part I of the Etruscans to the fall of the empire, Taschen, Cologne 1996 p. 178

Map Varro bird house
Reconstruction of the bird house
1. Entrance
2. Fishpond
3. Circular, wooden colonnade around the pond
4. Ring-shaped pond
5. Island with a marble tholos holding a triclinium
6. Birdsmouth joints
7. Dome above the central tholos, with wind vane

The conclusion is drawn from comparing the bird house of Varro and the Teatro Marittimo that the whole signifies an ‘aula regia after the universe, and we have to assume that atop the central canopy in the middle of the island, a bronze dome once stood. This likely held a mechanical planetarium to read the horoscope.’ (Henri Stierlin p. 178). We know of Hadrianus that he too regularly consulted the stars.

It is likely that nets in the portico or just above the canal prevented the birds, including ducks, from escaping the Teatro Marittimo. The fish swam in between the water plants in the canal. In the dome of the tholos, the emperor could read his future or that of the Roman empire. He had an amazing mechanism at his disposal to do so, built from different gear wheels.

Antikythera mechanism

Antikythera mechanism   Youtube  7.51 (minutes)

In 1900, fishermen surfaced a device that was named after the island of Antikythera  (Wikipedia). It measured 32 x 17 cm, with 30 gear wheels, each holding about 15 to 225 teeth. The casing of this gear construction contained an inscription that was eventually deciphered. Among other things, it lists the names of the constellations. It was discovered in 1974 that this mechanism could simulate the configuration of the heavenly bodies, at ‘any time in the past, the present or the future’. (Stierlin, p. 181).

After visiting this special island, we walk north and see on our right hand side the temple terraces. These terraces were likely once the vestibule of a large home. From that location one would enjoy a spectacular view over the entire valley with its many gardens, fountains, water bodies, trees and buildings.

Tholos of Venus        Side      Entablature         Model

Hadrian's Villa: Tholos of Venus
photos: Carole Raddato

If we continue towards the exit and divert Eastward, we see a small round temple: the tholos of Venus. As opposed to all other buildings in the Villa of Hadrianus, this little building was a copy of a Greek temple on the island of Cnidos devoted to the Goddess Aphrodite. Four columns with an entablement can still be seen today.

As we walk further we will see another theatre. This building is also quite small with a diameter of 36 meters, little more has been preserved.

Model of the Greek theatre     The remnants

photo model Greek Theater: Carole Raddato

We will probably check the neighbouring village, if we’re not too constrained on time. Tivoli. Unfortunately, the Villa d’Este is closed on Mondays, leaving us unable to view this famous villa from the Renaissance.

End of Tivoli