Essay: Roman villas and what they tell us about Roman leisure time

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‘Under the influence of the Greek culture the elite and well-educated Romans had an idealised concept of symposium, involving intellectual and philosophical conversations, reciting literature and having performances at their dinner parties’ (Lovatt, Audio CD, 2008, Track 8).
The concept of leisure is nebulous; there has never been a singular definition. While some might seek adventure and challenge, pursuing skills and activities to enhance their abilities and intellect, like the symposiums described above, others see leisure time as a way to get away from the hustle and bustle of life, to spend time in languorous relaxation. Some of the key ideas about what constituted leisure and what purpose it had for the Roman people came from Greek philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus. Both viewed leisure as a vital component of the human existence, but characterised it differently, and ascribed differing levels of importance to different aspects. Aristotle purported that intellectual reflection and reason itself were the primary purpose of leisure, and that only a select group, namely wealthy, educated men, were capable of determining which leisure activities were deemed worthy. Epicurus’ view however was that leisure was about simple pleasure for the benefit of a healthy body and mind, and that qualifying pursuits could be self-determined, even by women, children and animals. The Roman villa would either be a farm or a country house built not too far from the city in a rural area or by the sea, constructed mostly on a grand scale with all the luxuries and sophistication of the city life (Huskinson, 2008). In considering the Roman villas and how they reflected Roman views of leisure, it is important to view them within this wider framework of contrasting ideas, and consider how various sources of evidence corroborate or invalidate the definitions of leisure as defined by Aristotle and Epicurus. It is crucial to interrogate theses sources of evidence for any bias or inaccuracies.
Historical evidence is both literary and visual, including poems, letters, paintings, mosaics and the architectural remains of the villas themselves. Some of the key literary evidence comes from the Roman poet, Horace, who depicts the villa in his poem, as a functional, working farm placed in an idyllic landscape. He stresses the importance of escaping the hectic city lifestyle, ‘I have to navigate the crowd and bruise the slowcoaches, ‘What’s the hurry, friend, where’s the fire?’ […] while expounding wistfully on the simple pleasure afforded him by the relaxed villa life, ‘And yet I dream of getting back to this sweet place where I’ll be free to read the classics, or to drift and drink away life’s worries’. (‘Horace’s Sabine farm: retreating from town’, in James, 2008, p87-88). Horace goes on to describe some of the leisure activities in which he would partake with friends and companions, like intellectual conversations over dinner and good wine, ‘each guest can drink whatever he wants […[ And then we start to talk. But not about the price of other peoples’ houses, nor about the style of Lepos’ …

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