The villa according to Roman authors

For ages, scholars and researchers have attempted to define just what Roman writers meant by the term villa. The word has been used to describe any type of rural dwelling. In a more limited sense, however, a villa was the locus of two separate and distinct activities – otium, meaning leisure time, but also time for study and reflection, and negotium, or business undertakings.

In the late 1st century BCE, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, building on the work of Cato the Elder and Varro, published De Re Rvstica, a twelve-volume work on agriculture. In it, he defined the three main elements of the villa. These include the pars urbana, where the owner lived together with his familia, the pars rustica, where labourers, animals and farm tools were located, and the pars fructuaria, which held the equipment for processing and preserving the harvest. The author uses the term circa villam to describe the surrounding area, thus emphasising that the villa was indissociable from agricultural lands. By extension, a villa rustica may be thought of as a simple farm, and a villa urbana as a manor – the master's residence.

Opus agriculturae is a treatise by the 4th century CE writer Palladius that offers month-by-month instructions on farming, which was still being copied in the medieval period. Palladius uses the military term praetorium for the residence of the dominus (master), underscoring the fact that the villa was a seat of power rather than a place for mere relaxation.


Rustic calendar

Mosaic pavement from the late 2rd or early 3rd century, from Saint-Romain-en-Gal.
Musée d'archéologie nationale de Saint-Germain-en-Laye no. 83116 © RMN / Jean Schormans
Interactive document - Portrait of Columella

Portrait of Columella

Portrait of Columella, in Jean de Tournes, Insignium aliquot virorum icones. Lugduni: Apud Ioan. Tornaesium 1559.
Centre d'Études Supérieures de la Renaissance - Tours
Interactive document - Latin manuscript of Palladius (14th century)

Latin manuscript of Palladius (14th century)

First page of the Latin manuscript of Opus agriculturae by Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus Palladius. Copied onto parchment, this manuscript, which dates to the 14th century, is the oldest one in the Fonds Bonafous.
Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon, Ms 6038 folio 1
Interactive document - Mosaic of the Greek Authors

Mosaic of the Greek Authors

The philosopher Metrodorus. Late 2nd century CE.
Collection musée Rolin d'Autun (90.5.93) © Ville d'Autun, musée Rolin, clich