Between the second and the third mile of Rome’s Via Appia, there is the villa of a man who went down in history as a failed “usurper”: Maxentius, who proclaimed himself head of the Empire at a time in late Antiquity when “an old world, after coming unhinged from its founding principles, was heading for failure” (translated from Santo Mazzarino, “L’impero romano”, vol. II, Laterza, Rome-Bari 2010).
Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius (278-312) played a crucial role in the fight for power that in the early 4th century sparked the end of the tetrarchy. Diocletian (244-313) had instituted it just a few years earlier, dividing the Empire into four parts assigned to two “Caesars” and two “Augustus”, hoping to curtail the growing uprising in the faraway territories under Rome.
Obviously, the division itself stemmed from great difficulty in holding the huge Empire together, and indeed was an early symptom of nearby collapse.
A full-blown civil war partly ended with the battle of the Milvian Bridge, in 312: on October 23rd of that year Maxentius – who in 308 had had his Praetorian Guard proclaim him “princeps” of Italy, Africa and part of Spain – was ultimately defeated by Constantine, who took over as sole ruler of the Empire’s “pars occidentis”.
But when he governed Rome, between 308 and 312, Maxentius had spurred extensive construction efforts to “re-launch” the capital city and help it return to its past glory, or at least to the look of past glory. He built the Basilica bearing his name, re-built the Temple of Venus, extended the Via Sacra and renovated the Aurelian Walls.
He also indulged himself with a magnificent “out of town” Villa, between the second and the third mile of the “Queen of streets”, as we mentioned.
On land that had belonged to the “gens Annia” during the last phase of the Republic, where in the 2nd century Herodes Atticus (a Greek aristocrat and politician) had built his “Pago Triopio”, Maxentius wanted a monumental palace, a circus where an audience of some 10,000 people could enjoy games, and a circular mausoleum for his son Valerius Romulus, who had died young.
Here is what is left of that wonderful complex: bare traces of a great, impossible dream of power.