This is the loveliest of places—and also among the most mysterious.

After walking half a mile uphill into countryside, you will arrive at a great but ruined wall, some thirty feet high. A wide opening gives onto a long pool beyond which lies a calm vista of hills and valleys. Cypresses abound, together with holm oaks, beeches, hornbeams, and ancient olive trees. Maritime pines spread their lofty canopies like bursts of frozen green fireworks.

The twenty-first century dissolves into the second, for everywhere among the trees stand Roman ruins—broken colonnades, collapsed apses, steps up to higher terraces, steps down to underground tunnels, stretches of water and broken fountains, the surviving columns of a circular temple, a grassed-over open-air theater.

Here is what remains of one of the wonders of European architecture, the villa of the emperor Hadrian near Tivoli, less than twenty miles from Rome. It was an inspiration to Renaissance architects seeking to learn the secrets of the ancient world, and as well as stealing its ideas they stripped the walls of their marble facings and the floors of their mosaics. Every statue they could find they removed for their brand-new palazzi. At least 250 have been identified, and there were certainly many more around every corner in the villa’s heyday.

Among the portraits of emperors and images of gods, forty or more memorial statues of the emperor’s doomed lover, a young Bithynian called Antinous, looked down from niches and plinths, an inescapable, ubiquitous presence.

The word villa is a misnomer. This was no single building, but a township or a campus: more than thirty-five structures of one kind or another have been counted over an area of at least three hundred acres. It is a mark of its scale that, after being looted for centuries as if it were a city captured by drunken soldiery, so much remains.

The emperor did not commission a rural retreat for a tired autocrat; he had in mind a working and ceremonial center of government, hence the extraordinary number of banqueting rooms and reception halls. But, if we leave aside its practical uses, the most curious feature of the complex is that it was a representation in miniature of the Roman world as Hadrian saw it—or, more precisely, those parts of it that held most meaning for him. It was his metaphor in brick and stone for the empire itself.

Greece took pride of place. Here was a version of the Painted Porch of Athens, famous for its wall paintings and its association with the Stoic philosophers; and over there the Academy, the olive grove where the great Plato taught. The real Vale of Tempe is in Thessaly, land of sorceries and enchantment: it was here that Apollo, god of the sun, came after slaying a dark chthonic power, the Python, a serpent that guarded the center of the earth at Delphi, and replaced it with his famous oracle. This luxuriant gorge was evoked at the northern end of the villa.

Elsewhere, in a dip of the grounds a long rectangle of water was flanked by colonnades and statues, and was reportedly inspired by the Canopus, a canal and popular tourist trap outside Alexandria. At one end of the pool was a monumental half-domed open-air dining room, backed by a cooling display of fountains and falling water. In the pool lurked a marble crocodile, and marble images of Egyptian gods looked down benevolently on the emperor’s summer-evening parties.

“And in order not to omit anything, Hadrian even made a Hades,” writes an ancient historian, referring to the underworld where the dead eked out a gloomy half life. We do not know where this was located. One of the villa’s most remarkable features is that beneath the grand edifices where the emperor and his guests took their leisure or held their assemblies was a subterranean network of tunnels, storerooms, and windowless sleeping areas where servants and slaves lived and labored—out of sight, out of hearing, and out of mind—to provide all the necessary services for those upstairs in the light. But these utilitarian spaces were unlikely to have been the Hades that Hadrian had in mind.

Another possibility suggests itself. Toward the far end of the imperial estate rises a high upland, with few buildings on it, where Hadrian and his companions could ride and hunt. However, below rough fields one of the villa’s most astonishing features is to be found—four uniform passages, half a mile long in all and wide enough for a chariot to clatter along, join to form a rough rectangle or trapezium. A huge amount of labor went into their creation: 26,000 cubic yards of rocks had to be cut out and removed. Vents in the ceiling let in light and air at intervals. These long, dim corridors look and feel much as they did in Hadrian’s time. The atmosphere in them is chilly even on hot days.

They present an enigma, for they can be entered only from one end, the northern side of the rectangle. So what were they for? Perhaps here we find an allusion to the afterlife, a disorienting space for religious rituals where the living were able to reencounter the shades of great ancestors, and even lost lovers.

Equally enigmatic was the man who brought this wonderland into being. His villa raises more questions than answers about the strange personality of one of Rome’s greatest rulers, and to understand him fully we must visit the scenes of his life.

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