A Classical Roman Villa was a country house built for rich citizens during the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Even the city houses of the very wealthy were limited in size, but these citizens were able to afford country estates of many acres beyond the confines of the city walls. Those who were particularly well off had luxurious villas, which were lavishly decorated with mosaic floors, wall paintings and marble statuary. And it is these features, where they survive, that make visiting Roman villas a particular treat.
These country residences were often functioning rural businesses, with farmlands and vineyards. In such cases besides the principal residence with its baths and barns, there were also buildings that housed workers and slaves. Country residences were in some cases luxury retreats. Wealthy citizens of Rome liked to escape the grime and heat of the city in summer, and during this time of the year moved to their palatial retreats in the hills around Rome or even in the Bay of Naples. The Roman writer Seneca described this seasonal movement in his letters
as soon as I left that crushing air in Rome … I noticed an improvement in my condition. You can imagine just how invigorated I felt when I reached my vineyards
Perhaps the most well known, and certainly the most luxurious, country retreat is Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. But Hadrian was an Emperor and his villa was exceptional. The emperor disliked Rome and when not travelling he spent most of his at his country retreat; he required a ‘mini city’ from which to rule his Empire, one that could accommodate his staff and slaves.
Romans built many houses in the countryside throughout the Empire. Archaeologists tend to label any country house a villa, but the diversity of these is immense. Many of these in the different countries of today are open to the public, and offer an interesting perspective on what political and domestic life was like in the various Roman provinces. The presence of villas on the landscape was one of a handful of signs of the Romanisation of the indigenous population.
Guide to Roman-British Villas
Romano-British Villas have often been compared to eighteenth century English stately homes. These country residences were often large, opulent and obviously the residences of powerful and wealthy individuals. One of the earliest of these palatial villas can be seen just outside the city of Chichester, which has the largest collection of in situ mosaics in the United Kingdom. But not all the Romano-British villas were palatial, the vast majority were much smaller more modest farmhouses. Go to the Guide to Romano-British Villas