Different philosophers at different times tried to define the concept of leisure. St. Augustine said that, as long as he was not asked to define the meaning of leisure, he knew what it was; but if asked about its meaning, then he could not definitely describe it (Toner 1995). Indeed, leisure is one of the few popular concepts that are excessively difficult to define. Despite the way it affected and redirected social progress, leisure has never had a single, universal definition. Simultaneously, it exemplified one of the foundational elements of social life in Ancient Rome. Swimming, wrestling, board games, and baths created an atmosphere of creativity and difference from monotonous work. Much has been written and said about Roman villas, their architectural and structural elements. However, the Roman Villa was not merely a product of construction; rather, it reflected the philosophy of leisure and pastime in Ancient Rome. For a wealthy Roman, villa was an effective retreat from the stresses and affluence of public life in the city. Roman villas fulfilled a number of functions, from socialization to philosophic contemplation, providing their owners with a unique opportunity to isolate themselves from the pressuring realities of urban life.
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The Roman Villa: A Retreat from the Stresses of Urban Life
The Roman Villa is a complex philosophic intersection between leisure space and leisure time; therefore, it is worth paying attention to (Toner 1995). Leisure space (villas) and leisure time (activities) do not automatically co-exist (Toner 1995). Rather, it is through the actions of people that the relationship between leisure time and leisure space is created, improved, and remade (Toner 1995). They can create a serious conflict; however, the Roman Villa enabled wealthy citizens to achieve and maintain the state of harmony between the place, time, and leisure activities, so popular and accepted throughout Ancient Rome.
Leisure philosophies of Aristotle and Epicurus inspired Romans to create villas everywhere around the country, far from urban noise and stresses. The Roman Villa was actually a house of might; a supreme symbol of the individual and collective power of the wealthy, their ability to control people and the environment. Moreover, it was the place where the wealthiest could exercise their social and political dominance to the fullest (Frazer 1998). The rapid development and spreading of the “villa” culture reflected the striving of the richest layers to conquer natural environments away from the city (Frazer 1998). Needless to say, the Roman Villa was a luxury affordable for only the wealthiest (Frazer 1998). As a result, it was not only a measure of cultural and social development in Ancient Rome, but also a symbol of unquestionable, brutal, and ambivalent political power (Frazer 1998). To have or to live in a villa was the same as to enjoy a privilege, which only few could have. As a result, those few, who could afford to have and live in this type of building, used the opportunity to run away from the stresses of urban life and isolate themselves from the pressures and anxieties of city politics.
For wealthy citizens, the Roman Villa was a retreat from the stresses of public life. Leisure needs of the rich dictated where each villa was located and how it was designed. The Roman Villa had to be located away from Rome, to create an atmosphere of relaxation and provide a food for thought. This was exactly the case of Horace – a talented poet who celebrated the emperor and his regime and, for his deeds and achievements was granted a country estate not far from Maecenas (James 2008). That was the Sabine Farm Horace described in his poems and cherished until the end of his life. The villa life for Horace was nothing but a combination of good food and drink and socialization with friends (James 2008). Horace’s life in the villa went in line and supported Epicurean philosophy of leisure. It was later expressed and praised in Horace’s poems. In his story of a country mouse and town mouse, Horace (2005) praises the peace and solitude of the countryside (Book II Satire VI). Speaking of life in the city, the country mouse confesses: “This life’s no use to me: and so, farewell: my woodland hole, and simple vetch, safe from such scares, they’ll do for me” (Horace 2005, Book II Satire VI). Horace praises and prays to Mercury, to thank him for his Sabine farm (James 2008). His delight and emotions about being in the countryside are difficult to conceal. In his Sixth Satire, Horace speaks of the pressures and stresses he experiences, whenever he walks the streets of Maecenas (James 2008). Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Sabine Farm gives him a feeling of relief and a pleasure he would never experience in the city.
Pliny the Younger was another bright example of how the villa served the emotional and leisure needs of Romans. A talented lawyer, Pliny the Younger enjoyed the process of creating his villa near Laurentum (James & Huskinson 2008). The villa was designed in a way that maximized its leisure potential: with a large dining room, the bright sun coming through the windows, rooms designed and decorated to make them convenient for reading and study, and protected from the dangerous forces of nature and bad weather (James & Huskinson 2008). Apparently, villas were built to enhance the sense of self-satisfaction and create an atmosphere of peace and solitude. This is what many Romans sought in their villas.
The way Roman Villas were built reflected the main leisure and philosophic tendencies of the time. Actually, the form and organization of each villa were inspired by the descriptions of leisure created by Roman writers. In the writings of Columella, the villa was an embodiment of relaxation and the source of unique restorative powers; otium (or the harmony of nature) was opposed to negotium (the pressures and excesses of urban life) (Frazer 1998). Horace and Pliny the Younger described their villas in great detail. Pliny encouraged the architects to follow his recommendations and ideas. For Pliny the Younger, a Roman Villa was necessarily a sophisticated architectural creation, embedded into the surrounding landscape, with numerous loggias and terraces (Frazer 1998). The latter had to replace traditional walls, to give a feeling of freedom. This way Pliny would have an opportunity to retreat into the garden easily and invisibly and to enjoy the beauty of nature (Frazer 1998). As a result, the cultural and leisure life in the Roman Villa would differ dramatically from the one in the city. A Roman Villa had to be self-sufficient; otherwise, the pleasure of possessing it would be incomplete. This is why the owners were proud of having their own oil, pressing their own wine, and living a life of self-sufficiency, with no need to get back into the city (Frazer 1998). Probably, this is why the Roman Villa was considered to be the foundational element of Western architecture at times of Ancient Rome.
Certainly, not everyone could afford to build and use villas for their own satisfaction. Moreover, the feeling of ambivalence and ambiguity between the city life and the life in the country was not uncommon. Back to Horace’s Satires, the relationship between the country mouse and the town mouse is actually a reflection of hesitation: a wealthy Roman cannot decide whether he wants to live in town or near the countryside (Horace 2005). Such hesitation was natural for wealthy Romans, who were equally committed to both lifestyles and felt that their dominance and superiority were essentially about being able to make a change in lifestyle (Frazer 1998). At times, the city and the Roman villa caused schizophrenia of philosophies and meanings, which not all Romans could successfully resolve. Some Romans built their villas to re-establish and strengthen the force of urban ideology and power (Frazer 1998). That, however, was an exception rather than the rule, and most wealthy Romans used their villas to run away from the stresses of life in the city. Like Horace and Pliny the Younger, the rich citizens of Ancient Rome wanted to enjoy the power of retreat from the pressure of public life. Roman villas set up a clear boundary between public and private space (Hales 2003). Whether they spent their time with friends or in self-contemplation did not really matter, as long as the villa gave the power to run away from the pressuring realities of life in Rome.
For a wealthy Roman, villa was an effective retreat from the stresses and affluence of public life in the city. It fulfilled a number of functions, from socialization to philosophic contemplation, providing their owners with a unique opportunity to isolate themselves from the pressuring realities of urban life. The Roman Villa is a complex philosophic intersection between leisure space and leisure time. It had to be located away from Rome, to create an atmosphere of relaxation and provide a food for thought. Villas were built to enhance the sense of self-satisfaction and create an atmosphere of peace and solitude, but not all Romans could deal with ambivalence and duality of the urban-rural lifestyle. However, that was an exception rather than the rule, and like Horace and Pliny the Younger, wealthy citizens in Ancient Rome wanted to enjoy the power of retreat from the pressure of public life.