The Roman Villa Project: Archaeology, Paleobotany, and Sustainable Agriculture in Italy’s Sabine Hills

This video presentation, based on Chapter 7 of Usher’s new book about sustainable systems in antiquity (Plato’s Pigs and Other Ruminations: Ancient Guides to Living with Nature, Cambridge, 2020) summarizes multidisciplinary research the author is overseeing at a unique archaeological site in Italy’s Sabine Hills. The site comprises an ancient olive plantation at Agriturismo Le Mole sul Farfa in Mompeo, where substantial remains of a Roman villa rustica have been uncovered intact. The villa could well have belonged to Pompey the Great (106-48 BCE) and can be shown from ancient land records and archaeological evidence to have been in continuous use for agriculture for over 2,000 years. About 20 varieties of olive, DNA-tested as “unknown” (i.e., premodern), have been identified among the property’s 1,500-year-old trees. In addition to conducting a traditional archaeological excavation, we are establishing a tree nursery on location to propagate the ancient varieties of olive with a view to olive crop resilience in the face of climate change. This special site is at one and the same time a productive, working landscape and a monument to ancient agronomy and foodways. It is also a living seed bank where the biodiversity of the past is still on deposit. As a working organic olive farm and agriturismo, that investment is being conscientiously managed in the present for future generations. In its several facets, The Roman Villa Project exemplifies the ways in which the study of ancient environments can inform more modern environmental concerns.

M. D. Usher is Lyman-Roberts Professor of Classical Languages and Literature and a faculty member in the Environmental and Food Systems Programs at the University of Vermont (USA). For more information about The Roman Villa Project he may be reached at