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

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  • 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’ dancing – our concerns are closer to home and more essential: whether money or morality makes men happy; if self-interest or affection quickens friendship; what goodness really is and where it’s found.’ (‘Horace’s Sabine farm: retreating from town’, 2008, p88-89). These are not superficial topics of conversation. This would certainly be demonstrative of Aristotle’s idea of leisure, ‘intellectual reflection is the supreme leisure activity and the crowning achievement of human life.’ (Price, 2008, p.28). However, it also fits with the Epicurean philosophy of leisure as pursuit of simple pleasure, particularly as Horace saw his villa retreat as an escape from his role within the higher echelons of Roman power. As Paula James states, away from the city, Horace and his friends were free from the need to ‘impress influential people at the centre of power.’ (2008, p. 68). Horace also describes the beautiful countryside surroundings, far removed from the crowded and sickly city. Sickly meant both literally and figuratively: he considered social climbing a moral disease as distasteful as physical malady; and the physical distance of the villa from the city would have guarded against the health risks that came from being in close proximity to so many people.
Historically, though they may well have owned country property managed by slaves, city-dwelling Romans had been disparaging of the countryside, considering it simplistic and unworthy of their time. But imperial expansion had made the Roman Empire wealthier than ever before, so when they fell into Augustus’ dictatorship, means and opportunity offered the possibility of leisure time and the wealth to create it (Morris, R.C, The New York Times, September 11th 2008). Romans, at least those who were male and not slaves, had previously been expected to partake in politics and other administrative pursuits so their presence was required in the city. With this requirement over, they had lots of time to fill and no need to remain in the city and so they began to look to the countryside.
Pliny the Younger, a celebrated lawyer and writer, describes his own villa at Laurentine as a breathtaking place, beautifully and harmoniously built to fully enjoy, for example, the ‘sun on both’ aspects, the ‘woods beyond’, with the sea ‘so near’. Great care was taken in the design and planning of the villa, and Pliny describes this all in elaborate, minute detail in his letters, writing of the hall which is ‘unpretentious, but not without dignity’ and ‘a room built in an apse to let in the sun as it moves round and shines in each window in turn’; indeed a whole suite of rooms and libraries and dining rooms and atriums. (Pliny the Younger, in James, 2008, p.91-93). This grandness is indicative of the regard in which Pliny, held the pursuit of philosophical and intellectual endeavours in their leisure time. He describes very carefully the beautifully designed gardens and covered arcades where the ‘atmosphere is never heavy with stale air’, and the extension with the carefully constructed studies and libraries; the perfect therapeutic atmosphere for his physical and mental well-being. He speaks of the escapism provided by his villa, the ‘profound peace and seclusion’ which makes ‘[him] feel as if [he has] left [his] house altogether.’ This description of simple tranquillity could be seen as corroborating the Epicurean view of leisure as the pursuit of simple pleasures. However, when considering the sheer size and scale of the building he describes, there is nothing simple about it; there is nothing simple about a ‘suite of rooms […] with the terrace on one side, the sea on the other, and the sun on both.’ (ibid.) Indeed, the descriptions call to mind images of grand Grecian buildings, which were imposing and magisterial but never simple. Roderick Conway Morris alludes to similar magniloquence, saying the ‘Colonnaded courtyards’ Pliny describes were ‘inspired by Greek and public and institutional architecture’ ( The New York Times, September 11th 2008). It is important to interrogate Pliny’s motives when examining his extensive record as evidence: his letters were written for publication, and no doubt were polished to give the best possible impression, so their reliability cannot be said to be unimpeachable. Morris also describes the painted landscapes and mosaic floors that were characteristic of Roman Villa architecture, which are discussed further below.
In their pursuit of great leisure spaces, the Romans found ways to bring the celebration of nature and grandness inside their villas too, with beautiful artwork and sculpture. Much of this artwork reflected the obsession with high intellect and classical tradition and mythology. Depictions of Troy and Venus were beautiful, yes, but also a way for villa owners to demonstrate their superior intellect and pursuit of higher things. For example, the Medusa mosaic as seen in the Brading Villa, and the image of Ceres are indicative of the classical representations seen on the villas. These were status symbols; visual reminders of the villa-owner’s intellect and appreciation of the classics for any visitors. There were also depictions of famous intellectuals, such as a bronze bust of Epicurus himself found at Herculaneum (Figure 3.6). The landscapes in which Roman Villas were built lent themselves to beautiful, natural artwork. However,it was also illustrated the Roman idea that nature could be enhanced by man-made features (James, 2008,p.77). The enclosed garden seen in Plate 4.3.7 shows a villa owner keen to experience nature — but a ‘better’, more controlled version. In Plate 4.3.9, the painting of a garden from Herculaneum is full of greenery but also man-made artefacts and objects like urns, trellis, pedestals and ornamental fountains. This concept of improving on nature’s natural beauty can also be seen, quite dramatically, at Sperlonga grotto, near Naples. An already impressive natural cave was expanded to include an island dining area, and further embellished with classical sculptures. (James, 2008, p 77). While there is much Epicurean, simple nature to be observed, it is clear that much of the artwork produced and chosen for display in Roman Villas substantiates the Aristotelian view of leisure as the pursuit of and appreciation for intellectual interests.
Though his own villa has yet to be discovered or identified, we can use what is known through architectural discoveries to verify some of the physical characteristics Pliny described. As previously stated, it is important to interrogate the architectural sources carefully. Archaeology can be problematic as a source, due to the inaccessibility of some sites, and the incomplete nature of many of the finds. Therefore, much of what has been learned has been pieced together and thus influenced by those who have done the piecing together. It is not necessarily infallible as evidence. Even so, there is much that can be gleaned from archaeological remains of Roman Villas which can inform our views of their concepts of leisure. This, combined with literary evidence, art and sculptures can be used to complement each other if scholars take into account that it is not practical to try and apply information we receive from one discipline to fit the other. It is important not to discount the literary sources above, though somewhat biased, as they generally provide a level of detail not found in piecemeal archaeology, but it is important not to assume these accounts are reliable.
It is clear that much of the evidence presented on Roman Villas helps us to understand Roman concepts of leisure and how Romans spent their leisure time to a great extent. The architecture and design of the villas themselves are reflective of classical Greek design, while the villas were filled with and surrounded by paintings and sculptures which depicted classical or literary images. Returning to the idealised concept of symposium, involving intellectual pursuits,(Lovatt, Audio CD, 2008, Track 8) Horace and Pliny both wrote of the peace and tranquillity afforded by their luxurious villas which stimulated such highbrow conversations over dinner and good wine. This evidence supports the Aristotelian concept of leisure as the pursuit of lofty and worthy interests, valued for their own sake. While there is evidence of the Epicurean view of leisure as simple pleasure, it is greatly outweighed by the opposition evidence. Whether this is reflective of all of Roman society is another matter entirely; we have seen quite clearly that the Roman villa lifestyle was reserved for those in the upper echelons of Roman society. Or, as Aristotle would say, the ‘excellent people.’

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