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Roman villa

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Roman villa

Roman Villa Rustica Model. Remnants of these types of villas can be found in the vicinity of Valjevo, Serbia
Roman villa
A Roman city house was limited in size. The very rich could afford luxurious country estates spread out across many acres.
Social structure
Class Association (occupants) Patrician, Senatorial class, Equestrian class, Plebeian, Freedman,
The Roman villa was a type of domestic building, often luxurious, and found in the countryside and at the seashore, although also in the periphery of urban centers.

Roman villa is a termed used to describe a Roman country house built for the upper class during the Roman republic and the Roman Empire.


  • Typology and Distribution 1
  • Architecture of the villa complex 2
  • Social history 3
  • Attested Roman villas 4
  • See also 5
  • Further reading 6
  • References 7

Typology and Distribution

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 was 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 fewer 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 Empire contained many kinds of villas, not all of them lavishly appointed with 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 of the villa complex

Floor mosaics: Camino de Albalate, Calanda, Spain

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. 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.[4]

  • The pars urbana where the owner and his family lived. This would be similar to the wealthy-person's in the city and would have painted walls.[5]
  • The pars rustica where the chef and slaves of the villa worked and lived. This was also the living quarters for the farm's animals. There would usually be other rooms here that might be used as store rooms, a hospital and even a prison.
  • The villa fructuaria 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 furnished with plumbed and many would have had an under-floor central heating known as the hypocaust.[6]

Social history

Some sumptuous Roman villas featured complex floor mosaics, such as Villa Armira in modern Bulgaria

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 operated as largely self-supporting units, 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 the image, either, while even the profit-oriented latifundia probably grew enough of all the basic foodstuffs to provide for their own consumption.

The late Roman Republic witnessed an explosion of villa construction in Italy, especially in the years following the dictatorship of Sulla (81 BCE). In Etruria, the villa at Settefinestre has been interpreted as being the centre of 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, all of whom sought to define the suitable lifestyle of conservative Romans, at least in idealistic terms.

Large villas dominated the rural economy of the Po valley, Campania, and Sicily, and also operated in Gaul. Villas were centers of a variety of economic activity such as mining, pottery factories, or horse raising such as those found in northwestern Gaul.[7] Villas specializing in the seagoing export of olive oil to Roman legions in Germany became a feature of the southern Iberian province of Hispania Baetica.[8] 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 villas had luxuries like hypocaust-heated rooms with mosaics

Some late Roman villae had luxuries like hypocaust-heated rooms with mosaic floors; mosaics are known even from Britannia. As the Roman Empire collapsed, villas in Britannia were abandoned. In other areas some at least survived; 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;[9] 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 Luxembourg near Trier, which Irmina, daughter of Dagobert II, king of the Franks, presented to him.

Attested Roman villas

See also

Further reading

  • Becker, Jeffrey; Terrenato, Nicola (2012). Roman Republican Villas: Architecture, Context, and Ideology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. p. 152.  
  • Branigan, Keith (1977). The Roman villa in South-West England. 
  • Hodges, Riccardo; Francovich, Riccardo (2003). Villa to Village: The Transformation of the Roman Countryside. Duck worth Debates in Archaeology. 
  • Frazer, Alfred, ed. (1990), The Roman Villa: Villa Urbana, Williams Symposium on Classical Architecture, University of Pennsylvania 
  • 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, Jane (2004). Life in a Roman Villa. Picture the Past. 
  • Smith, J.T. (1998). Roman Villas. 


  1. ^ The Cambridge Ancient History volume XIV. Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors A.D. 425-600. Edited by Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby. Cambridge University Press 2000. ISBN 978-0-521-3291-2. Part III East and West: Economy and Society. Chapter 12. Land, labour, and settlement, by Bryan Ward-Perkins. Page 333.
  2. ^ Andrea Carandini; Maria Teresa D'Alessio; Helga Di Giuseppe (2006). La fattoria e la villa dell'Auditorium nel quartiere Flaminio di Roma. L'ERMA di BRETSCHNEIDER.  
  3. ^ N. Terrenato, 2001, "The Auditorium site and the origins of the Roman villa", Journal of Roman Archaeology 14, 5-32.
  4. ^ Alexander G. McKay (1 May 1998). Houses, Villas, and Palaces in the Roman World. JHU Press. pp. 246–.  
  5. ^ Roger B. Ulrich; Caroline K. Quenemoen (10 October 2013). A Companion to Roman Architecture. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 387–.  
  6. ^ Jane Shuter (2004). Life in a Roman Villa. Heinemann Library. pp. 31–.  
  7. ^ Dyson, Stephen L. (2003). The Roman Countryside. London: Gerald Duckworth and Company. pp. 49–53.  
  8. ^ Numerous stamped amphorae, identifiable as from Baetica, have been found in Roman sites of northern Gaul.
  9. ^ There are further details at the entry for Benedict of Nursia.
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