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We have identified the remains of a 1st-century-AD villa that was abandoned and demolished at the beginning of the 2nd century in order to build a grand aristocratic villa on the site. A fire destroyed part of the building in the late 3rd century, beginning a period of decline that would last throughout the following century. At the beginning of the 5th century, we detect new reforms that would result in the Late Roman and Visigothic villa that was in use until the 7th century.
After a long period of abandonment and plundering, the memory of the building and its Roman history were revived in the 16th century by the humanist, Lluís Pons d’Icart. Since the mid-20th century, a series of excavation campaigns has revealed a large part of the remains and has allowed us to trace the general lines of its history.
At the beginning of the 2nd century AD, a residential villa of exceptional size and luxury was built some 12 km from Tarraco.
The chosen site was a hillside near the beach, within easy reach of Tarraco, both by sea and overland, and close to a river. It had exceptional sea views and a pleasant climate most of the year. It is still an idyllic spot today.
The house had at least two storeys. The upper floor was arranged around a large
interior courtyard with a fishpond in the middle. This floor also had the main rooms and a gallery overlooking the garden and the sea. On the lower floor there were more rooms and a large dining room (triclinium). Following an open passageway to the garden, you came to the baths where there were cold and hot water pools (frigidaria and caldaria) with a sophisticated underfloor heating system, an open-air pool and latrines. On the beach there was another baths complex.
Wall paintings, mosaic floors, sculptures, fountains, artificial ponds and imported marble columns and plaques further embellished the spaces. Among the decorations excavated, of particular note are exceptional wall mosaics depicting the Muses and a painted ceiling with representations of the seasons of the year, two examples of the highly refined decoration.
It is not difficult to imagine the life of the hosts and guests in the villa. In the morning, they could stroll through the gardens, enjoy the views from the upper floor gallery and chat or read. In the evening they would have relaxed in the baths before going to the grand dining room (triclinium) to feast on a banquet while being entertained by readers, musicians and dancers. After dinner, they would have retired to their luxurious bedrooms.
In the winter of 122-123 AD, the emperor Hadrian visited Tarraco. We know that during his stay he presided over the Provincial Council –the meeting of the representatives of all the peoples of the province– that ordered the restoration of the Temple of Augustus.
When advance news arrived of the Emperor Hadrian’s visit months before, it must have caused quite an uproar in the town. There would have been many matters to take into account before the imperial visit. Without going any further, there would have been the question of finding a suitable place for him to stay. Perhaps in a villa on the outskirts of the town, which would have given the emperor respite from the hustle and bustle of the provincial capital. Could that villa have been Els Munts?
The location of the villa with respect to Tarraco, its large size, its sumptuousness and luxurious decoration, the find of a statue of Antinoüs –Hadrian’s favourite lover– or the inclusion of a large Mithraeum are all indications that allow such a hypothesis.
According to mythology, the Sun ordered Mithra to sacrifice the bull. The order was carried out inside the cave and from out of the body of the bull grew all the healthy plants and herbs. From its spine, wheat was germinated, and from its blood came wine. Before returning to Heaven now deified, Mithra celebrated his triumph with a grand banquet.
Mithraism was a religion in which only those who had been initiated could participate in worship and know its secrets. A person who wished to be initiated had to pass a series of tests. Its main ritual was the banquet that was held inside the Mithraeum. This space, which imitated a dark, enclosed cave, had a central aisle and small raised benches on either side where the initiates reclined to eat. At the head was the shrine with the image of the god sacrificing the bull.
The Mithraeum in the Roman villa of Els Munts is mainly noteworthy for its location and its size, almost as big as the Mithraeum in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, one of the largest known in the whole empire. It was common to find shrines to Mithra in towns and military camps, but not in villas. So what is such a Mithraeum doing in an aristocratic villa like Els Munts? That is an enigma we have yet to resolve.
In one of the rooms of the house we can see the remains of a fountain. The front of this fountain was decorated with a painting of Oceanos and there was an inscription telling us that the cistern had been built on the orders of Avitus and Faustina, the lord and lady of the house.
Faustina was the wife of Caius Valerius Avitus, an official originally from Augustobriga (Muro de Agreda, Soria) who was posted by the emperor Antoninus Pius to Tarraco, where he was duumvir, its highest authority.
Caius and Faustina wanted to leave their mark on the villa. In addition to having the cistern and the fountain built, they instigated a whole series of reforms to the baths, adding more pools, latrines and new sculptures. They also had a new mosaic laid in the passageway and had some of the rooms repainted.