by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Pursuit of Leisure and the Rise of the Roman Villa


By Roderick Conway Morris
RAVENNA, Italy 12 September 2008
Superintendency, Pompeii
A fountain of a child with a dolphin
from the 1st century
is one of the objects showing
at the Complesso di San Nicolo
in Ravenna, Italy.

 

 

For the ancient Romans the word "otium" - the implications of which ranged from "a pause," through "ease" and "leisure" to "inactivity" and "sheer indolence" - was fraught with ambiguity. Its opposite, "negotium" (non-otium), denoted activity, involvement in public affairs and administration, and generally the doing of business, from which our word "negotiate" derives.

How the pursuit of "otium" became a way of life for the leisured Roman classes and gave birth to the classic Roman villa is the rewarding subject of "Otium: The Art of Living in the Roman House of the Imperial Age" in Ravenna, where the doors are thrown open to the Roman private house. The venue is the Complesso di San Nicolo, the great hall of whose former church is spacious enough to accommodate large sections of ancient mosaic, as well as detached frescoes, statuary, furnishings, fittings and other household objects, well over 100 of them in all. (The show continues until Oct. 5.)

The Romans were convinced that the previous rulers of much of the peninsula, the Etruscans, had been brought down by their increasing idleness and hedonistic self-indulgence. The old Roman virtues were puritanical, emphasizing simplicity, self-denial and hard work. During the Republican era, it was a prime duty of all free-born males of reasonable means to interest themselves in politics and administration, which involved spending a large part of their time in the capital and other urban centers.

The fall of the Republic and the institution of an imperial dictatorship by Augustus put the Roman ruling classes into a state of crisis. Deprived of their traditional role, what were they to do with their time? And where, given their almost constant presence in town was no longer required, were they to spend it? Otium had been thrust upon them. Moreover, the fruits of imperial expansion in the late Republic and early Empire had made them wealthier than ever.

One result was an explosion of private home building. And, as the exhibition demonstrates, the form this domestic architecture took was influenced both by exposure to Greek culture and the demands of a changing Roman society.

Greece had by then been absorbed into the Roman Empire and upper-class Romans were profoundly affected by this. "Captive Greece held captive her uncouth conqueror," as the poet Horace put it. With leisure hours to fill, cultivating one's sensibility and indulging in philosophical speculation, activities that traditionalists saw as all very well for the Greeks but not suitable for Romans, became respectable, even desirable pursuits. Indeed, the creation of an environment in which this new Greek-style otium could be practiced was a cornerstone of villa architecture.

The first section of the exhibition is appropriately lined with statues and reliefs of Greek philosophers and images of scholarly activity - more than likely in Greek, the study of the Greek language, literature and philosophy becoming a prime example of leisure time well spent and not frittered away in mere idleness.

Traditionally, urban Romans did not think much of the countryside. Like Karl Marx, they tended to write it off as the realm of "rustic imbecility." Aristocratic Romans owned vast estates worked by slave labor, which they might visit to inspect, but they would never have conceived of taking up residence there. Now the countryside was the perfect location, far from the distractions and hubbub of the town to spend leisure hours amid fresh air and tranquility cultivating the liberal arts. (Horace even made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that it had become rather vulgar to live in town.) And, after long years of civil strife, the new security ushered in by the pax Augusta made it possible to live safely in rural areas.

The ideal house ("domus") became the country house, or villa. But sophisticated Romans continued to look down on their country cousins. Pliny the Younger, that arbiter of correct country style, with his seaside weekend villa near Rome and an even grander one "in Tuscany" (the site is now in Umbria), relates in a letter how the rustic complainings of his tenant farmers in Tuscany "hasten me back to my literary and more urbane studies."

From the same villa, in another letter, he also defines in a nutshell the later notion of the "picturesque," when he says the view from it "seems to be a painted scene of unusual beauty rather than a real landscape."

Painted landscapes on the walls of villas, notwithstanding the natural ones that surrounded them, became the sine qua non of the well-appointed villa, as did mosaic floors, both illustrated with characteristic examples in the exhibition. So, too, did heated baths and swimming pools, however small.

Colonnaded courtyards, or peristyles, were absolutely de rigueur. These features were inspired by Greek public and institutional architecture - such as the famous gymnasiums and academies as well as the temple - rather than Greek domestic buildings. Roman houses differed radically from Hellenistic ones in that there were no women's quarters, where female members of the household were secluded and kept from view - a positively "oriental" practice to the Roman mind. Hosts and guests of both sexes mixed freely and shared the same table.

Urban men and, there is evidence to suggest, especially women were reluctant to spend time in the country without the amenities and creature comforts of the town. Women clearly had a significant say in the choosing of décor, fixtures and fittings, such as the utensils, tableware and lamps on show here. Despite the Augustan rhetoric of returning to the virtues a bygone age, women won new freedoms on a number of fronts during this period. We know, too, from scores of houses in and around Pompeii that women also partook of the opportunities of otium to develop their musical, literary and intellectual talents.

A section given to "Games for All Ages" opens a window into the world of children and more lighthearted pastimes. Roman children seem to have had as much unrestricted use of every part of the house and gardens as the women of the household. Their adoring parents sometimes gave them expensive toys. The star turn here is Crepereia Tryphaena's beautiful ivory doll from the Capitoline Museum in Rome with articulated limbs and minutely carved coiffeur, the image of the Empress Faustina's fashionable hairdo. This Roman Barbie also had multiple accessories, including little combs, a key, jewelry and an exquisite box, possibly for her makeup. Simple amusements included various games involving throwing knucklebones and dice, to which Romans remained addicted, also for the purposes of divination and gambling, into adulthood.

The literary and archaeological evidence brought together here reminds us that the Roman villa, less spectacular than the mighty aqueducts, bridges and monumental buildings, was nonetheless one of the great achievements of Roman civilization. A combination of Greek thought and public architecture and Roman planning and engineering, the villa was as agreeable and practical a living space as any constructed in human history.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016