Roman villas were magnificent structures built using stone, wood and brick. The walls were made from opus caementicium (Roman cement) that were later faced with stone. The villas’ tiled roofs could be both sloping and flat, while the floors were made of concrete. Throughout Roman history the villa adopted many architectural features, which changed over time-however, the villas were always designed around an open courtyard and pool. During the summer it was important that light and air were accessible, while at night, the inner recesses were lit by oil lamps. The villa was divided into several suites; these included rooms for family and guests and an accommodation block for staff and slaves. Around the central villa, there were also animal sheds and granaries.
The Roman villa was not simply a house but a symbol of its owner’s power and position within society. Therefore, each upper-class Roman sought to impress and intimidate his associates with the building of fine houses constructed within luxurious settings.
Within the city walls there was little space, and the Roman villa tended to be small and compact. For this reason the upper classes often took country residences; these houses were used during the hot summer months and were designed as a dwelling for the family, their slaves and estate workers.
The Romans were also interested in agricultural profiteering, so these country villas had landholdings – known as latifundia – and through them, the Roman elite became largely self-supporting, exploiting grain, olive groves and vineyards. They were proud of their self-sufficiency and were able to cultivate fruit and vegetables, as well as keeping fish farms. The Romans also enjoyed ocean-side villas, which provided healthy sea air and brief periods of relaxation before returning to the stress and congestion of city life.
Villas were very much multifunctional residences. As well as being designed to house offices and meeting rooms, they were also used to entertain important guests. They had reception areas, dining rooms, baths and libraries. Like notable English stately homes, they became dynastic symbols of their era.
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Mosaic-making is an ancient art form that was used in eastern traditions long before the birth of the Roman civilisation. However, the Romans perfected the practice using natural materials such as tiles, pebbles and glass. These would be cut into fragments, known as tesserae. They would be placed by a master craftsman on a floor of smooth plaster to create interesting and colourful imagery. The Romans could create vast floors of mosaic that could measure up to ten metres (30 feet) long, often opting for magnificent scenes of wildlife, hunting and gladiatorial contests. From time to time, they also used amusing and even practical images – one villa was designed with a floor of mosaic food; if any morsel were dropped from the table it would go unnoticed.
Fishbourne Roman Palace
Discovered in 1960, Fishbourne Roman Palace, in West Sussex, England, had four wings that were lined with colonnades. It also featured courtyards, halls and a bathhouse equipped with underfloor heating. The Roman palace is thought to have been built on a larger scale than the greatest European palaces. Erected during the 1st century AD, it was embellished with gardens, pools and statues. The house was occupied and extended over several hundred years – each resident improving the dwelling and creating beautiful decorative mosaics, the most famous being the Dolphin mosaic, which is located in the north wing. The house eventually succumbed to fire and was destroyed in 270 AD, after which it was abandoned. There are mixed theories as to the ownership of the villa, but it may have belonged to client kings or Roman leaders – one of whom is thought to be Tiberius Claudius Catuarus whose ring was discovered there.