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Roman villa

A Roman villa is a villa that was built or lived in during the Roman republic and the Roman Empire. A villa was originally a Roman country house built for the upper class. According to Pliny the Elder, there were two kinds of villas: the villa urbana, which was a country seat that could easily be reached from Rome (or another city) for a night or two, and the villa rustica, the farm-house estate permanently occupied by the servants who had charge generally of the estate. The villa rustica centered on the villa itself, perhaps only seasonally occupied. Under the Empire there were a concentration of Imperial villas near the Bay of Naples, especially on the Isle of Capri, at Monte Circeo on the coast and at Antium (Anzio). Wealthy Romans escaped the summer heat in the hills round Rome, especially around Frascati (cf Hadrian's Villa). Cicero is said to have possessed no less than seven villas, the oldest of which was near Arpinum, which he inherited. Pliny the Younger had three or four, of which the example near Laurentium is the best known from his descriptions.

The late Roman Republic witnessed an explosion of villa construction in Italy, especially in the years following the dictatorship of Sulla. In Etruria, the villa at Settefinestre has been interpreted as being one of the latifundia, or large slave-run villas, that were involved in large-scale agricultural production. At Settefinestre and elsewhere, the central housing of such villas was not richly appointed. Other villas in the hinterland of Rome are interpreted in light of the agrarian treatises written by the elder Cato, Columella and Varro, both of whom sought to define the suitable lifestyle of conservative Romans, at least in idealistic terms.

The Empire contained many kinds of villas, not all of them lavishly appointed with mosaic floors and frescoes. Some were pleasure houses such as those— like Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli— that were sited in the cool hills within easy reach of Rome or— like the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum— on picturesque sites overlooking the Bay of Naples. Some villas were more like the country houses of England or Poland, the visible seat of power of a local magnate, such as the famous palace rediscovered at Fishbourne in Sussex. Suburban villas on the edge of cities were also known, such as the Middle and Late Republican villas that encroached on the Campus Martius, at that time on the edge of Rome, and which can be also seen outside the city walls of Pompeii. These early suburban villas, such as the one at Rome's Auditorium site or at Grottarossa in Rome, demonstrate the antiquity and heritage of the villa suburbana in Central Italy. It is possible that these early, suburban villas were also in fact the seats of power (maybe even palaces) of regional strongmen or heads of important families (gentes). A third type of villa provided the organizational center of the large holdings called latifundia, that produced and exported agricultural produce; such villas might be lacking in luxuries. By the 4th century, villa could simply connote an agricultural holding: Jerome translated the Gospel of Mark (xiv, 32) chorion, describing the olive grove of Gethsemane, with villa, without an inference that there were any dwellings there at all (Catholic Encyclopedia "Gethsemane").

Architecture

By the first century BC, the "classic" villa took many architectural forms, with many examples employing atrium or peristyle, for enclosed spaces open to light and air. A villa might be quite palatial, such as the imperial villas built on seaside slopes overlooking the Bay of Naples at Baiae; others were preserved at Stabiae and Herculaneum by the ashfall and mudslide from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, which also preserved the Villa of the Papyri and its libraries. Deeper in the countryside, even non-commercial villas were largely self-supporting with associated farms, olive groves, and vineyards. Roman writers refer with satisfaction to the self-sufficiency of their villas, where they drank their own wine and pressed their own oil, a commonly used literary topos. An ideal Roman citizen was the independent farmer tilling his own land, and the agricultural writers wanted to give their readers a chance to link themselves with their ancestors through this image of self-sufficient villas. The truth was not too far from it, either, while even the profit-oriented latifundia probably grew enough of all the basic foodstuffs to provide for their own consumption.

Large villas dominated the rural economy of the Po valley, Campania, and Sicily, and were also found in Gaul. Villas specializing in the sea-going export of olive oil to Roman legions in Germany were a feature of the southern Iberian province of Hispania Baetica. Some luxurious villas have been excavated in North Africa in the provinces of Africa and Numidia, or at Fishbourne in Britannia.

Certain areas within easy reach of Rome offered cool lodgings in the heat of summer. Maecenas asked what kind of house could possibly be suitable at all seasons. The emperor Hadrian had a villa at Tibur (Tivoli), in an area that was popular with Romans of rank. Hadrian's Villa (123 AD) was more like a palace, as Nero's palace, his Domus Aurea on the Palatine Hill in Rome, was disposed in groupings in a planned rustic landscape, more like a villa. Cicero had several villas. Pliny the Younger described his villas in his letters. The Romans invented the seaside villa: a vignette in a frescoed wall at the house of Lucretius Fronto in Pompeii still shows a row of seafront pleasure houses, all with porticos along the front, some rising up in porticoed tiers to an altana at the top that would catch a breeze on the most stifling evenings (Veyne 1987 ill. p 152)

Late Roman owners of villae had luxuries like hypocaust-heated rooms with mosaic floors. As the Roman Empire collapsed in the fourth and fifth centuries, the rustic villas were more and more isolated and came to be protected by walls. Though in England the villas were abandoned, looted, and burned by Anglo-Saxon invaders in the fifth century, in other areas large working villas were donated by aristocrats and territorial magnates to individual monks, often to become the nucleus of famous monasteries. In this way, the villa system of late Antiquity was preserved into the Early Middle Ages. Saint Benedict established his influential monastery of Monte Cassino in the ruins of a villa at Subiaco that had belonged to Nero; Around 590, Saint Eligius was born in a highly-placed Gallo-Roman family at the 'villa' of Chaptelat near Limoges, in Aquitaine. The abbey at Stavelot was founded ca 650 on the domain of a former villa near Liège and the abbey of Vézelay had a similar founding. As late as 698, Willibrord established an abbey at a Roman villa of Echternach, in Luxemburg near Trier, which was presented to him by Irmina, daughter of Dagobert II, king of the Franks.

Examples of Roman villas

Architecture of the villa complex

Upper class, wealthy Roman citizens in the countryside around Rome and throughout the Empire lived in villa-complexes, the accommodation for rural farms. The villa-complex consisted of three parts.

The villa urbana where the owner and his family lived. This would be similar to the wealthy-person's domus in the city and would have painted walls and artistic mosaics on the floors.

The villa rustica where the staff and slaves of the villa worked and lived. This was also the living quarters for the farms animals. There would usually be other rooms here that might be used as store rooms, a hospital and even a prison.

The third part of the villa-complex would be the storage rooms.These would be where the products of the farm were stored ready for transport to buyers. Storage rooms here would have been used for oil, wine, grain, grapes and any other produce of the villa. Other rooms in the villa might include an office, a temple for worship, several bedrooms, a dining room and a kitchen.

Villas were often plumbed with running water and many would have had under-floor central heating known as a hypocaust.

Individual Roman villas

Note:for individual villas, see under their respective articles.

Further reading

  • Branigan, Keith 1977. The Roman villa in South-West England
  • Hodges, Richard, and Riccardo Francovich 2003. Villa to Village: The Transformation of the Roman Countryside (Duckworth Debates in Archaeology)
  • Frazer, Alfred, editor. The Roman Villa: Villa Urbana (Williams Symposium on Classical Architecture, University of Pennsylvania, 1990)
  • Johnston, David E. 2004. Roman Villas
  • McKay, Alexander G. 1998. Houses, Villas, and Palaces in the Roman World
  • Percival, John 1981. The Roman Villa: A Historical Introduction
  • du Prey, Pierre de la Ruffiniere 1995. The Villas of Pliny from Antiquity to Posterity
  • Rivert, A. L. F. 1969. The Roman villa in Britain (Studies in ancient history and archaeology)
  • Shuter, Janet 2004. Life in a Roman Villa (series Picture the Past)
  • Smith, J.T. 1998. Roman Villas

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