When asked, “Which archaeological site should I visit, Pompeii or Herculaneum?” I will inevitably answer, “Go to Oplontis!”
The patrician villa excavated under the modern town of Torre Annunziata, belonged to the Emperor Nero, famous for his appreciation of music and the arts, but more so for his cruelty. The villa was home to his beautiful and devious wife Poppea until she died after her husband kicked her in the stomach when she was heavily pregnant. (She should have been more careful; Nero had ordered the murder of his mother Agrippina as well…)
While it is hard to imagine much domestic bliss within these walls, the villa itself is extraordinary to behold. It contains some of the finest and best preserved wall paintings to have survived from early Imperial times. Visiting Oplontis is like taking a voyeuristic tour into the lives of the imperially rich and famous. It is amazing how the aura of power and wealth is still palpable in the spacious hallways, frescoed walls and shaded garden with its vast swimming pool. It makes you want to walk on tiptoe or talk in a whisper; as if at any moment you might find yourself in the presence of the emperor, lounging in the calidarium or strolling along its cloistered porticos.
The complex was swallowed in ash during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Fortunately, the roof of the building survived, preserving the interior for posterity. Even the doors are visible, poignantly cast in the solidified ashes.