Roman villa

From Academic Kids

For general context, see Villa.

The Roman Empire contained many villas which were rather like country houses, though suburban villas on the edge of cities were known, such as the Middle and Late Republican villas that encroached on the Campus Martius, then on the edge of Rome.

The late Republic witnessed an explosion of villa construction in Italy. In southern Etruria the well-known 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. Other villas in the hinterland of Rome are interepreted 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.

By the first century B.C. the "classic" villa is a widespread architectural form, with many examples showing the use of atrium/peristyle architecture. This explosion of construction takes place especially in the years following the dictatorship of Sulla. A villa might be quite palatial, such as the imperial villas built on seaside slopes around the Bay of Naples such as at Baiae; others were preserved at Stabiae and Herculaneum by the ashfall from Vesuvius in 79 A.D., which also preserved the Villa of the Papyri and its libraries. Deeper in the countryside, villas were largely self-supporting, with associated farms, olive groves and vineyards. Large villas dominated the rural economy of the Po valley, of Campania and Sicily, and were 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. Cicero had several villas. Pliny described his villa in 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)

Missing image
Hypocaustum.jpg
Late Roman owners of villae had luxuries like hypocaust-heated rooms with mosaics (La Olmeda, Spain).

As the Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th and 5th centuries, the 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 5th century, in other areas large working villas donated by aristocrats and territorial magnates to individual monks often became the nucleus of famous monasteries. In this way the villa system of late Antiquity was preserved into the early Medieval period. Saint Benedict established his influential monastery of Monte Cassino in the ruins of a villa at Subiaco that had belonged to Nero; there are fuller details at the entry for Benedict. About 590 Saint Eligius was born in a highly-placed Gallo-Roman family at the 'villa' of Chaptelat near Limoges, in Aquitaine (now France). 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.

Some of the known Roman villas are:

  • Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, Italy
  • Fishbourne palace villa in West Sussex, England
  • Lullingstone villa in Kent, England
  • Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy.

Architecture of the villa complex

For general context, see Roman architecture.

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".

A villa was originally a Roman country house built for the upper class. According to Pliny, 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, which would center on the villa itself, perhaps only seasonally occupied. 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.

Roman writers refer with satisfaction to the self-sufficiency of their villas, where they drank their own wine and pressed their own oil, a symptom of the increasing economic fragmentation of the Roman empire. When complete working villas were donated to the Christian church, they served as the basis for monasteries that survived the disruptions of the Gothic War and the Lombards. An outstanding example of such a villa-turned-monastery was Monte Cassino.

Villas in Britannia

Numerous Roman villas have been meticulously examined in England. Like their Italian counterparts, they were complete working agrarian societies of fields and vinyards, perhaps even tileworks or quarries, ranged round a high-status power center with its baths and gardens. The grand villa at Woodchester preserved its mosaic floors when the Anglo-Saxon parish church was built (not by chance) upon its site. Burials in the churchyard as late as the 18th century had to be punched through the intact mosaic floors. The even more palatial villa rustica at Fishbourne near Winchester was built uncharacteristically as a large open rectangle with porticos enclosing gardens that was entered through a portico. Towards the end of the 3rd century, Roman towns in Britain ceased to expand: like patricians near the center of the empire, Roman Britons withdrew from the cities to their villas, which entered on a palatial building phase, a "golden age" of villa life.

Two kinds of villa plan in Roman Britain may be characteristic of Roman villas in general. The more usual plan extended wings of rooms all opening onto a linking portico, which might be extended at right angles, even to enclose a courtyard. The other kind featured an aisled central hall like a basilica, suggesting the villa owner's magisterial role. The villa buildings were often independent structures linked by their enclosed courtyards. Timber-framed construction, carefully fitted with mortices and tenons and dowelled together, set on stone footings, were the rule, replaced by stone buildings for the important ceremonial rooms. Traces of window glass have been found as well as ironwork window grilles.

Source

  • Veyne, Paul, ed. 1987. A History of Private Life : I. From Pagan Rome to Byzantium.nl:Romeinse villa
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