Photos: The Secret Passageways of Hadrian's Villa

Emperor's palace

theater at Hadrian's Villa

Recently, amateur archaeologists have uncovered a network of underground passageways at the vast and decadent villa that the Roman emperor Hadrian built in Tivoli, Italy.

Beautiful grounds

crocodile statue at Hadrian's Villa

Elites, friends of the emperor and those who came on business of state would come through the main entrance and experience the opulence and beauty of the surroundings.

Two worlds

statues at Hadrian's villa

(Image credit: Santi Rodriguez |

But below ground, Hadrian's architects built a parallel world of underground passageways.

Invisible workers

hadrian's villa underground passageways

(Image credit: Marco Placidi)

The passageways allowed thousands of merchants, slaves and carts bearing goods to enter the villa and keep it running without causing commotion on the street.

Unknown passageways

map of Hadrian's Villa

(Image credit: Marco Placidi)

The existence of tunnels had been known for some time from ancient plans of the grounds and many had been excavated. But over centuries, most of the tunnels had been filled in with soil. So archaeologists suspected there could be other, as-yet-undiscovered tunnels in more remote parts of the villa.

Underground world.

underground tunnel at hadrian's villa

(Image credit: Marco Placidi)

So researchers enlisted the help of a group of amateur archaeologists and speleologists with Sotterranei di Roma, or Underground Rome, to help them excavate near a remote part of the Villa known as the academy.

Rappelling underground

spelunker enters a well

(Image credit: Marco Placidi)

The team rappelled into the caverns and carried countless buckets of dirt out.

Uncertain purpose

descending into underground passageways

(Image credit: Marco Placidi)

Some of the tunnels were just a few feet wide, while others were vast and spacious.

Tight squeeze

person wiggling through a narrow hole

(Image credit: Marco Placidi)

Sometimes they had to wriggle through incredibly narrow holes to keep working.

Narrow spaces

man at hadrian's villa underground tunnels

(Image credit: Marco Placidi)

Here, Sotterranei di Roma member Marco Placidi crawls through a small hole into the tunnels.

Grande Trapezio

grande trapezio roadway underneath hadrian's villa

(Image credit: Marco Placidi)

They recently found a completely new tunnel network, leading from the Academy to the Grande Trapezio, one of the major arteries in the underground network. Though it's still a mystery what this region of the network was used for, it was leading to the more private part of the Villa where Hadrian may have gone to be alone or with a few select friends.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.