Introduction to Roman Villas

by Kayla Kane, Wellesley College ’22

The term “villa”
From the earliest use of the word, the term villa was applied to residential complexes outside city walls that included agricultural land and whose residents were engaged in some form of production. In the Republican and early Imperial periods, the term villa rustica may be applied to estates in the countryside, which are dedicated primarily to agricultural production and are often within a day’s journey from Rome, such as at Tusculum. Villas along the coast are referred to as, villa maritima, for example those found along the Bay of Naples. While such villas may have had some agricultural land, they were constructed to provide a place of refuge and relaxation for their owners (Marzano 2007, 83).

The Roman author Columella, writing in the 1st century AD, describes the ideal rural villa as having three components: the pars urbana (the residence), the pars rustica (the farm house), and the pars fructuaria (the storerooms) (De Re Rustica, Book I). He goes on to describe how to plan a villa so as to take advantage of sunlight in both the winter and the summer, and he says there should be a large kitchen, a bath, promenades, and accommodations for slaves. Columella’s detailed description presents an idealistic picture that does not necessarily match with archaeological evidence. Excavations of villas in Central Italy show that, although many villas have many of the features described by Columella, there is no standard pattern to how villas are organized. The specific layout of each site depends on its topographical and geographical location, whether the estate is used more for pleasure or for production, and the social status of the owner. Moreover, it is important to note that many villas show evidence of multiple owners and distinct changes in character over time; sometimes shifting from a pleasant country getaway to a site of more intensive agricultural production and sometimes shifting the other way.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_0106.jpg
View from the Gioiella-Vaiano Villa site across Lago di Chiusi towards the city of Clusium. This villa is situated in the lower Clanis (Chiana) River Valley and would have had access to Rome via the river and the road system. The villa was first established on this site in the 2nd c. BC. It went through several architectural modifications and probably several owners until it was abandoned in the early 4th c. AD.

Villas in the Landscape
Luxury Roman villas emerged in the Italian countryside during the Republican Period and remain a central feature of Roman elite lifestyle, cultural negotiation, and economic production until the 4th century AD (Zarmakoupi 2014, 1, 3). The Roman villa phenomenon is the result of Roman consolidation of independent farmsteads in the Central Italian countryside and the influx of wealth that arrived in Italy with the conquest of Hellenistic states in the eastern Mediterranean. Country villas allowed for the formulation of a new lifestyle away from the constraints of a city. In the late Republic and early Imperial Period, villas were concentrate in the suburbium of Rome. However, by the mid-1st century AD the villa estates of Roman elites are found throughout Italy and many Romans had more than one villa rustica. (Marzano 2007, 84). The senatorial elite and newly equestrian land owners, whose social image depended greatly on the appearance of their houses, adopted Greek architectural models, especially those of Hellenistic palaces, to project their cultural and economic influence.
(Zarmakoupi 2014, 9).

Villas and Roman Elite Lifestyle
Landowning and agriculture were traditionally considered to be the main source of income for Roman senators and other elites, although this is an idealization of agricultural activity symbolizing old times when “good citizens” were farming on their own land. Roman literary sources promote the perception of Roman villas as places to cultivate the mind as well as the fields. Agricultural treatises by Cato, Varro, and Columella, addressed primarily to the senatorial elite, conceptualize and celebrate the moral superiority of farming and a rustic lifestyle (Marzano 2007, 82-85). The ideal of the villa is expressed through the agronomists’ recommendations concerning the best location for the villa, its orientation, and its architectural typology. Some of these authors also condemn exclusively lavish villas in their neglect of agriculture, which in their eyes, renders them unproductive but may be connected to Roman sumptuary laws. Instead, they argued for a necessary coexistence between utilitas and elegantia — or ‘utility’ and ‘elegance.’ In addition, the Republican ideal of otium, or ‘leisure,’ became inextricably linked to the cultivation of the landscape and economic production (negotium). In the Empire, too, the idea of engaging in agricultural pursuits as a form of retreat is well attested (Marzano 2007, 85-87).

Materials from the Gioiella-Vaiano Villa excavations the indicate the site was a place of both pleasure (otium) and production (negotium):

Marzano, Annalisa. 2007. Roman Villas in Central Italy: A Social and Economic History. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Zarmakoupi, Mantha. 2014. Designing Luxury for the Bay of Naples: Villas and Landscapes (c. 100 BCE – 79 CE). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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