Roman Villas were country houses built for the elite where urbanites could escape the heat of a Roman summer and return to the more old-fashioned pursuits of the countryside or take time away from the city to relax. However, they were also an escape from the stresses of Public Life in Rome.
Rome was a very hierarchical society with the Emperor at the top followed by the elite and then the masses. This affected all aspects of life including who was allowed to sit where at the Games. For the elite they had to be seen to be publicly supporting the Emperor and were always on show.
This was particularly important for the elite as they had their own hierarchy due to a system of patronage. This meant that it was very difficult to relax in Rome as there was an ever present danger of offending someone who had influence over their circumstances. These relationships needed constant attention to ensure that the patronage continued.
It was this constant pressure in Rome that made a villa an essential retreat from the stresses of public life for a wealthy Roman. This was particularly true during the time of the Emperor Domitian from 81 to 96 CE. Domitian was very autocratic and made the elite feel nervous about displaying their wealth or power in Rome so they spent more time in their villas to escape from the emperor’s sight.
However, even when the wealthy went to their villas, they were unable to leave Rome behind completely. Villas were part of the competition to demonstrate status and sophistication. This meant that rooms were richly decorated with works of art and the size and location of a villa were also important.
Therefore, whilst Public Figures needed to escape from the stresses of public life by going to their villas, they were unable to escape completely. However, it is also important to look at whether there were other reasons why they went to their villas by considering the available evidence about what happened there.
Leisure in Rome was merely an extension of the politics that made life there stressful so did not give any respite to the wealthy. Organised activities such as the Games at the Coliseum and the chariot racing at the Circus Maximus were put on and controlled by the Emperor as a means of unifying Rome and keeping dissent at bay. The elite had to attend to show their support and, more importantly, to be seen by the masses showing their support. Therefore whilst villas were essential for escaping from the stresses of Rome, they were also an essential part of leisure for wealthy Romans.
The use of art to decorate villas also gives an insight into life there. The subjects of the art, such as the sculptures, were often taken from classical mythology and high culture. However, at the same time they were also an ostentatious display of status, showing again that public figures could not escape completely from the social hierarchy of Rome and the need to continue the public displays of status even in the countryside.
I feel that for public figures it was important for them to escape to their villas to get away from the particular pressures that they faced in Rome. However, it appears clear that they were unable to escape completely as the need to maintain public displays of status appropriate to their place in the social hierarchy and the pressures of work remained, albeit less than in Rome. Looking at what happened in those villas, escaping from the pressures of Rome was not the only reason that public figures had villas. They were an opportunity to indulge in the intellectual in beautiful locations that were specifically designed to encourage contemplation, an activity that would have been difficult in Rome. They were also an opportunity to relax and unwind by undertaking physical activity and spending time outdoors communing with nature.