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The Roman villa was constructed by the affluent and educated members of Roman society. Its purpose was to have a luxury country retreat to get away from the stressful demands of city life. Those individuals chose to use their leisure time in different ways were dependant on the design and décor of the interior and exterior of the building, as well as the location to fully maximise their most prized leisure time. The designs of the villas are not dependant on the bricks and mortar but on the choice of location, use of decorative art, sculpture and the surrounding landscape. The villa helped individuals to achieve the aspirations to make the best use of their leisure to the fullest.
The way in which villa owners chose to spend their leisure may have been influenced by philosopher’s interpretation on leisure. Philosopher’s such as Aristotle (384-322 BCE) who believed that leisure was the ‘ultimate aim or objective of human life’ (Price, 2008, pg11) this idea on leisure influenced and inspired the Romans. One of the main beliefs in his theory was that happiness, contentment and well-being was or should be the ultimate goal. The Greeks had a word to describe this state of mind, which was eudaimonia. More specifically Aristotle further developed this theory by suggesting that ‘leisure well spent’ (Price, 2008, pg12) was more rewarding and in return would result in happiness and well-being. Other philosophers believed that leisure was a vehicle to allow humans to achieve ‘the very best of which they are capable’ (Price, 2008, pg23). So leisure was celebrated in Roman culture as to be a highly important part of human existence to not only focus on health but to expand the mind. However this view was not shared through Roman hierarchy. The wealthier and affluent members of society were fortunate to indulge themselves in these leisurely pursuits. Unfortunately the lower and poorer classes were not privileged as their time was taken up by serving the upper classes and working. This is vividly demonstrated during gladiatorial games in the Coliseum. The lower classes as well as women were positioned the furthest away from the arena and the better and closer positioned views and seats were reserved to wealthy and important. Men such as senators and generals were closer to the Emperor, which in turn confirmed their high position in Roman Society. With this in mind we can understand the importance that the Romans gave to having a symbol to show off their wealth, education and interests, which was through their choice of Villa.
Another philosopher’s theory about leisure was that of Epicurus (341-270 BCE). Epicurus sees leisure as a means to an end and as a way to sooth the roughness that is created by stressful living, a pleasurable experience for body and mind and to be free from pain and anxiety (Price, 2008, pg27). His theories were similar to that of Aristotle in relation to the theory of human life. However both philosophers’ theories differed from each other in that Epicurus believed that anyone could enjoy leisure through simple pleasures (Price, 2008, p27).
A good example and understanding of epicurean theory can bee seen at the Roman villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. This particular villa was designed as more of a place of intellectual leisure to expand and nurture the mind. In this villas design it honoured Epicurus’ teachings by constructing a library to house texts of Epicurean philosophy as well as displaying a bronze portrait bust of Epicurus himself (Huskinson, 2008, 79). This blatant use of expensive materials can be seen as an object to highlighting the owners taste and interests to its visitors.
The followers of Aristotle and Epicurus took the knowledge of the philosopher’s theories and created villas all around the country as an inspiration. Due to reconstruction Villas such as that at Sperlonga proved to be one of the fines examples of how natural surroundings can be used to enhance the villas leisurely qualities. The design of this villa was so that its master and visitors were able to enjoy a theatrical learning experience. It also enabled them to honour the Gods and classical heritage and to ‘engage in certain kinds of activities for their own sake’ (Price, 2008, pg12). Whilst dining and socialising they are encouraged to partake in intellectual reflection making the most of the relaxing environment. This is all achieved through the grotto in the cliffs which set the scene for a number of multi figured statues depicting and playing out well know mythological stories of personal heroes and heroines for visual pleasure.
One of the fundamental points in the design of a roman villa is its location. The cities geography dictated where the villas are situated. There were seen as havens and as retreats from the stressful demands of city life, more specifically Rome itself. This concept has inspired one of the great writers and poets to indulge his mind in the relaxing pleasurable pursuits of leisure. The comparison made between city and country life was explored and the latter was preferred. This comparison was enthusiastically celebrated by the poet Horace (65 BCE-4 CE) through his Satires, such as Horace’s Sabine Farm: retreating from town. ‘In Rome, you waken me to advocate: get your arse in gear or someone will take your place.’ (Resources, 2008, p87) This is a fine example of how city life was viewed as ruthless and induces constant pressure to deliver. However in contrast he compares his farm ‘and yet I dream of getting back to this sweet place where Ill be free to read the classics, or to drift and drink away life’s worries’ (Resources, 2008, p88). This is another fine example of how important leisure was to a man of high status in Roman life. This was achieved in the design and geographical position of his country retreat. He favoured reading classics a pleasurable activity to unwind and feed the mind. This activity and way of life leans more towards Epicurus’ teachings about leisure by his theory that all beings want to be free from pain and anxiety (Price, 2008, p27).
Pliny the younger (61-c. 112 CE) also knew how the design of his beloved Roman villa would enable him to make the best use of his leisure time. Pliny the younger was a lawyer and career administrator who favoured his villa at Laurentum and wrote in great detail how the building was laid out and what he favoured in it. His personal account of it is one of pride, enjoyment and utter pleasure to live in. He appears to have designed every room, courtyard and window down to the smallest detail. In doing this he maximise the surroundings enabling them to work in harmony. He enthusiastically writes at how he enjoys being so close to the sea stating ‘moderate sized dining room and enjoys the bright light of the sun reflected from the sea’ (Resources, 2008, p92). ‘From this window too is a view of the sea beneath, this time at a safe distance’ (Resources, 2008, p91). He has also designed rooms so that it is manageable to study and read all year round when he talks about his courtyard ‘makes a splendid retreat in bad weather, being protected by windows’ (Resources, 2008, p91). He makes it sound so tranquil and soothing which he would have appreciated whilst indulging in his intellectual leisure pursuits ‘This profound peace and seclusion are due to the dividing passage’ (Resources, 2008, p91). The design of the villa enhances his state of mind and health to focus on his profession; his choice of leisure pursuits is one of focused relaxation time and to reenergize before returning to Rome from Ostia.
Paintings were also used in the design of the Roman villa to enhance the villas natural beauty and to blend in with it, especially with the villas close to the coast. Though much evidence has deteriorated over time, some examples survive. Such as that of three paintings from Sabiae, which was a town close to the coast near Naples. Although these painting are described as sacro-idyllic which represents a more idealised depiction of how the villa may have looked like, it does show large porticoes where figures are seen to be socialising and can take their leisure in the shade and fresh air by the sea. These images confirm the belief in Epicurus’ theory of creating stress free living and positive experiences for the body and mind.
Mosaics were also used to improve the design of the building and enhance the pleasant life in a Roman villa. The mosaics at Morton, near Branding, Isle of Wight are fine examples of Roman design and art in villas, which demonstrate the layout of the building and the choice of pattern, colour and content. Although this is a British example of Roman mosaic design, or Romano-British, it can be easily transported to a villa on the west coast of Italy. This firmly reinforces the ideas of enhancing the villa to make best use of the owner’s leisure. Mosaic is another intelligent way to enhance the villa’s design to highlight an often-neglected area, the floor. It was designed to demonstrate where the owner’s interests lay and how he wanted to illustrate his education, social status and cultural heritage. The Plan of Room Twelve at Branding is a stunning illustration of popular mythological stories with the circular centrepiece of Medusa and the gladiator holing a weapon ready to strike. The pattern framing the images must have complemented the interior of the room. It may have shown an interest in music through the half figures playing horns as well as Plan of Room Six at Branding which is a figure playing a stringed instrument surrounded by animals and birds. All these mosaics would have echoed the interests and leisure pursuits of the owner as well as making best use of design and art to create a pleasant environment to live in.
In conclusion it is fortunate that we have some existing remains to help us understand what was important to the design of a Roman villa. However some occupants have made their mark more defined through writing about their surroundings. It is only through the wealthy and powerful that all villas are designed to appeal to the owner’s interests and so in their leisure time. To understand the design, layout and décor is to understand the owner. Roman villas were large elaborate status symbols. The general idea or theme in the design in a Roman villa is to detach and recoup from the stresses of city life, which had its pressures and cut throat environment. The excavation of many villas that laid in ruin is extremely helpful in determining what was built and why. Nevertheless excavation is not entirely accurate on its own. It also relies on other sources such as art and literature (Huskinson, 2008, p80), which can prove to be more useful. Two themes stand out of what is important to a Roman villa owner. One being the enjoyment of nature and the other being the heritage of classical learning and mythology (Huskinson, 2008, p76), which remained a consistent factor and template of the design of the villa in the search of leisure well spent.
Jon Pike and Carolyn Price (2008), Leisure and the Purpose of Life (AA100 Book 4, Place and Leisure), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp 2-34.
Paula James and Janet Huskinson (2008), Leisure in the Roman Villa (AA100 Book 4, Place and Leisure), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp 64-98.
Audio CD (2008), Selling the Experience Machine, (AA100 Audio CD 4, Place and Leisure), Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Audio CD (2008), Roman Villa, (AA100 Audio CD 4, Place and Leisure), Milton Keynes, The Open University.