Thursday, November 03, 2011

For a wealthy Roman, was a villa nothing more than a retreat from the stresses of public life?

For a wealthy Roman, was a villa nothing more than a retreat from the stresses of public life? ~ Seannafair Máire-Róis Bríd De Maria

The wealthy Roman’s villa was a retreat from the stresses of public life; however, this was just one function of the villa. In fact there were many more functions; a place to exert and maintain their upper class status in society and their social network (which could include patrons), a place to flaunt their wealth and also perform estate related duties of their villa and sometimes civic work from the city was brought to the villa.

In this essay I will look at Aristotle and Epicurus and explore how their philosophy, particularly in relation to leisure values and nature, was an influencing factor in how the wealthy Roman used their villa. I’m also going to look at literary evidence from Pliny the Younger (61-112 CE) and Horace (65-8 BCE), and discover how they spent their time at their villas in Tuscany, Laurentum and Sabine. In combination with this I’ll illustrate how villa design and art can give us an idea of how the wealthy Roman created his life at the villa. With this evidence I will show you how the villa was not only a break from city life for the Roman but with some elements it became an extension of city life; many of the trappings of status, sophistication and control over nature were simply transferred to villa life. Of course evidence itself must always be questioned so at the end of the essay I will discuss how and why this was biased and impartial.

The educated wealthy Romans used the villa as a place where they could advocate their leisure pursuits in a way that was portrayed as intellectual. Their concept of leisure and how that projected into the function of their villa was influenced by the philosophies of Aristotle and Epicurus. Aristotle believed that how a human spent his leisure was greatly important and the best way to do this was through exercising reason (which he believed was the function of a human being) in intellectual reflection. Epicurus believed that the objective of human life was not eudemonia as Aristotle believed but ataraxia, a state of mental and physical tranquillity. Both philosophers condone intellectual activity as leisure and with the addition of Epicurus maintaining simple pleasures such as modest meals and conversations with friends help the human to attain and maintain ataraxia.

In Pliny the Younger and Horace’s letters we see Romans who used their villas for otium while espousing these Greek philosophical ideals. If we look at Pliny’s letters regarding his Laurentum villa we see it was situated near the sea and designed to maximise on the tranquillity of its natural environment. It had sea, mountain and woodland views with windows strategically placed to enjoy optimal sunlight. Inside it had study, guest and exercise rooms. The perfect place to attain eudemonia or if an Epicurean, ataraxia!

Pliny describes his villas with dignity and fondness, “You may wonder why my Laurentine place is such a joy to me” (Pliny, 1969, in James and Huskinson, 2008, p91). He states how he would have a short sleep and then while going for a walk he would read a Greek or Latin speech aloud. Horace is also appreciative of his villa in the Sabine Hills. In his letters he tells us how he’s prayed for “a modest piece of land, a garden, near the house a spring, above it all a patch of woodland” and how “Up here, I’m far removed from the throng” (Horace, in James and Huskinson, 2008, p87). Horace welcomed this villa as a retreat from persistent requests of colleagues in his post as secretary in the Treasury Tied in to leisure in the villa the Greek’s symposium became very popular in Roman culture. In a typical Roman villa the occupants would have held dinner parties where guests would recite Roman poetry as in the case of Horace who was a poet himself. Horace says in his satire “O these sacred nights and suppers, when we dine beside my hearth.” (Horace, in James and Huskinson, 2008, p88).

Although wealthy, Romans still had to work their time in the city was allocated to business and family matters in conjunction with military and political duties. In addition to this their leisure time had a social stigma attached. How they decided to use that time sent out a statement to society how wealthy and learned they were, and also who their acquaintances were. It distinguished them from the common everyday people. Villa life therefore was not always an escape from the politics, gossiping and large scale entertainments of city life.

In villas we see evidence of Colosseum entertainments depicted in mosaics and wall paintings and indeed many were strategically built near local amphitheatres. An important place where leisure, business and politicking were combined in the city was the public baths. A wealthy Roman had his own baths in his villa or if preferred he would build his villa near local public baths, which was in itself a luxurious symbol. In these examples we can see city functions filtering into villa life.

The villa started off as a working farm and because of this Pliny and Horace would have had to manage estate affairs which introduced a negotium element to the sacred leisure time at the villa. In Pliny’s letters he reveals that although he does give time to his tenants, they still feel neglected and the “boorishness of their complaints”.

(Pliny, 1969, in James and Huskinson, 2008, p90) give him added vigour to pursue the real reason why he comes to his villa; his literary accomplishments and activities in town.

If we now look at art of the villa another function is revealed in the various pieces housed there. Villas preserved under the volcanic ash of Vesuvius show highly ornate sculptures, mosaics and wall painting. The majority of the art was centred on enjoyment of nature and classical mythology. The owner would have not only the opportunity to display their wealth and cultural knowledge to guests but to also relax and enjoy the beauty of the art for themselves. The mythological figures, gladiators, philosophers found on the art work reveal that this art was not just decorative but had purpose and intention. Images such as these would have stimulated philosophical discussion from the onlooker. If the onlooker did not know who or what the symbol or person depicted was then this further enforced the intellectual superiority and status of the villa owner. Villa landscape paintings were often sacro-idyllic which not only induced a sense of calm and peace but also a display of self-aggrandisement for the villa owner.

Through the design of the villa itself the wealthy Roman was able to show his control over the natural world just as in the same way they would have exerted their authority in city dealings amongst colleagues and subjects. Garden ornaments proved that nature could be enhanced by manmade features; landscape or nature paintings proved that you needn’t be outdoors in a hot, sweltering day to enjoy your surroundings. At Sperlonga a villa owner has extended a natural grotto in the cliffs to form a dining room containing sculptures from the Odyssey. These popular mythological characters including god and goddesses such as Diana, Bacchus and Venus would have very much been consistent in keeping with the intellectual ideals of Aristotle and Epicurus. Indeed one villa at Herculaneum showed a bronze bust of Epicurus and a library of his texts.

While exploring evidence from villa buildings, paintings, archaeology and literature to establish how the wealthy Roman spent his leisure time, we need to take certain factors into consideration. To get accurate accounts we need to source from all four areas and corroborate or refute evidence and piece it together as in a jigsaw. For example evidence from villa buildings is scanty to say the least and a villa like Brading with well-preserved mosaics is rare to find. To get an accurate account of the villa layout and how it was used for leisure we would look at evidence from art and literature to try to get a fuller picture. We would look at paintings of villas and evaluate just how accurate the picture is by comparing it with archaeological evidence. For instance we have three paintings of seaside villas from Stabiae near Pompei which survived due to preservation from volcanic ash, from them we can see how the villa was used for leisure; there are large buildings strategically built to enjoy seascapes, enclosed gardens facing private jetties and large porticoes. What we must question against archaeological evidence is; was the villas actually of this size and of close proximity to the sea? Could it be that the painting was commissioned by the villa owner to add to his collection to brag to his guests? In this case we have a reconstruction from Villa San Marco at Stabiae and it does “suggest” (because archaeological data is incomplete) that the paintings have been correct in portraying the main archaeological features.

When looking at evidence from literature on the various functions of a villa for the wealthy Roman we should take into account the partiality of Pliny and Horace. Pliny left behind a prolific account of his life and in the words of Paula James “took great pains to polish his letters for publication” and “that even messages to family and friends have been (re)crafted to showcase Pliny as an intellectual force of his times”(2008 p.72). Pliny served under three emperors one being Domitian. He was tyrannical in his rule and did not give privileged treatment to the wealthy. Pliny would have therefore been careful in his writing not to upset the ruling elite and subsequently his villa was an escape and a safe place to show off his status also. Horace’s’ partiality in his writings would have been biased towards his patron Maecenas who gave him his villa in the Sabine Hills. Naturally one of the functions of his villa stay would have been to write in praise of his patron thereby maintaining a favourable connection with him.

Despite knowledge of an agenda behind Pliny’s letters, many archaeologists and historians have used his detailed descriptions of his villa to attempt reconstructions or transfer it to a blueprint of a house for themselves. An example of this is the eighteenth-century Chiswick House built by Lord Burlington. His intention was to replicate this as a place for “cultural leisure-time pursuits” (James. P, 2008, p. 84). It has many characteristics of the Roman villa including building and grounds with references to Pliny’s villa. Visiting a place like this can give us first-hand experience of how the wealthy Roman used his leisure time at the villa and the likelihood of its many other functions.

In summarising, this essay has dealt with how one function of the wealthy Roman’s villa was a retreat from the negotium of public life as its purpose was to serve as an otium against this. However this has not been a clear cut answer to the question asked having observed evidence that the villa’s function was not only a retreat but was a linchpin in the Roman’s maintenance of his upper class social status. The villa was used for wineing and dining with powerful acquaintances and exhibiting one’s wealth. We have looked at evidence from art, literature and villa design spanning across various centuries to support how the Romans conceived leisure time. It is interesting to note that classical beliefs on leisure as derived from Aristotle and Epicurus remained a consistent influencing factor throughout and the evidence found was homogeneous in supporting this.

It is worth remembering that our evidence does not represent a complete nor impartial picture of leisure time at a Roman villa. This is due to the fact of the subjective agenda behind much of the evidence which has survived. Perhaps with advancements in technology it will be possible in the future to further our understanding of the wealthy Roman’s concept of leisure and how that was acted out in the villa?

Bibliography Horace, Satires, Book 2, poem 6, translated by Richard Danson Brown James, P (2008),”Leisure in a Roman Villa” in Brunton, D (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Radice, B. (trans. and Ed.) (1969) Book 9, letter 36: to Fascus Salinator’ in The Letters of the Younger Pliny (revised edn), Harmondsworth, Penguin Seannafair Máire-Róis Bríd De Maria is an Irish born scholar in the field of the Arts and Humanities. Her interests are Irish Traditional music as well as rich and diverse traditions and heritage of North and South of the Emerald Isle . Her ancestors are Celts, Ulster Scots and Scandinavian Vikings. She lives in Ireland with her husband and two children and yes, her hair is gingery red.