THE SOUTHERN ITALIAN region of Puglia rolls across seemingly endless hills of golden grain that stretch in every direction. Bordered by the azure waters of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, this area at the heel of Italy is home to the bustling ports of Bari and Monopoli. Yet away from the coast and past the fortified medieval cities of Ostuni and Alberobello, the sunbaked landscape begins to feel uninhabited. Moving deeper into Puglia’s interior, the towns give way to single farmhouses, which, in turn, disappear, leaving only the gently waving rows of wheat that guard an agricultural legacy going back more than 2,000 years.

At the end of a two-track road that winds around ravines and through cultivated fields of wheat and chickpeas, a line of square trenches cuts deep into the rich soil. Under neat rows of modern crops lies the ancient site of Vagnari, named after an eighteenth-century , or farmhouse, that sits abandoned nearby. Here, between the first and early fourth centuries A.D., a succession of Roman emperors owned a 6,000-acre farming estate, the remains of which are only now beginning to be uncovered. Although such imperial farming estates are known to have existed throughout the empire, Vagnari is the first to be excavated, providing new insight into how a rural farm supplied emperors’ needs and provided them with a source of revenue. “Whether in Italy, North Africa, or anywhere else in the Roman Empire, imperial estates are grossly under-explored,” says archaeologist Maureen Carroll of the University of Sheffield. “We have ancient written evidence, such as inscriptions and historical texts, but that’s all that anybody has ever

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