Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero

The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii

Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero

Victory (Nike) Alighting

Nike Alighting

Victory, (the Greek Nike) gazes downward as she descends from the sky, her feet not yet touching the ground. Her motion causes her garments to cling to the front of her body and flutter outward in back. Victory’s wings, now missing, were once attached to her back. They may have been made of bronze.

This Victory’s extended arms and the position of her hands suggest that she was carrying objects, perhaps a wreath and a palm. If the east garden was intended to evoke the Greek gymnasium where Greek youths trained for athletic contests, as has been proposed, the personification of Victory would likely have been understood as bringing the prizes for the successful athletes.


Statue of an Athletic Female Figure

Statue of an athletic female figure

This life-size marble statue of a female figure from the east garden has been called an Amazon, or Diana/Artemis (the sister of Apollo), or her protégé Atalanta. She stands here in front of a painting of a golden tripod, perhaps of the oracle in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and the garden scene beyond.

This statue was originally displayed in the east garden of Villa A along the far (east) side of the swimming pool along with 13 other sculptures, including the one of Victory (Nike) and the two busts of Hercules. The painted garden surrounding the tripod suggests the kind of greenery that would have created a contrived natural setting for this statue as well as the others that were aligned with it in the poolside display. Each of the sculptures stood in front of a tree and directly across from a column of the portico on the other side of the pool, typifying the Roman penchant for orderly arrangement.


The East Wing Garden Sculptures

The garden sculptures

Statue of Victory (Nike) and two busts of Hercules

Fourteen sculptures were once arranged along the opposite side of the 60-meter-long swimming pool in the villa’s east garden. There, as throughout the villa, themes of gods, heroes, athletes, and victory intertwined and gained further layers of meaning in relation to garden settings that were shaped by inventive architectural and horticultural forms. Four sculptures from the east garden are in this exhibition: two over-life-size heads of Hercules, a statue of Victory (Nike) alighting, and a statue of a huntress, perhaps Diana/Artemis or Atalanta. Along with other sculptures aligned along the swimming pool, they would have been appropriate in a Greek gymnasium, where young men were trained to compete in athletic games. Hercules was one of the patrons of the gymnasium, Atalanta was a fast runner, and winners of contests were awarded Victory’s wreath. We can imagine that at Villa A Roman youths swam or ran the length of the pool in front of these sculptures in competitions that emulated Greek games.

Gymnasia were also centers of intellectual life where lectures on literature, philosophy, and music were held. The east garden in Villa A would have been an appropriate setting for a life dedicated to otium (cultivated leisure).

Two Busts of Hercules

Bust of Hercules

Hercules was an especially favored mythological character in Villa A. The two busts shown here were displayed along the swimming pool in the east garden on tall rectangular shafts known as herms, an honorific form of pedestal. Hercules was a patron of the Greek gymnasium, which may be alluded to in the east garden. In these two sculptures the divine hero’s head is crowned with a wreath of grape leaves, perhaps referring to a Greek drinking party (symposium) where much wine was consumed. A Roman viewer might have understood these sculptures in either way—or in both ways.

Bust of Hercules

Inside Villa A Hercules appears in wall paintings in room 8, and in the north garden some of the centaur sculptures have some of his attributes, possibly in reference to his battle with the centaurs. The male centaur shown at the entrance to the Villa A gallery, for example, carries Hercules’s club, wears his lion-skin cape, and carries a boar—all emblems of this hero’s well-known Labors.

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