The Landscape Guide




Farming villas

The Romans inherited the villa gardens which, in both Italy and Greece, had been developed in Hellenistic times. Romans came into possession of these villas just when country life - which in an earlier day was not available to the Greeks - was the dominant idea all over Italy. Country life - res rustica - was the distinguishing, if not the one, cry of the Roman gentleman. Only in passing did the Romans visit their town houses. After Rome had moved in an utterly different direction, and they had almost completely forgotten how their towns had started as market-places for country farmers, Romans were still unwilling to abandon their old allegiance to the soil, their piety towards the land of their fathers.

With what pride does Tullius Cicero, the busy lawyer, insist that the villa where he stays at Arpinum is his real home! Certainly the Tullian family had lived there from remote times; his sacred places, his own people, and many traces of his forefathers were there. So, when his friend ventured to object that he did as a fact live in Rome, it was with a full conscious- ness of the nature and growth of the town that he answered: “ True, I and every citizen, we all have two homes: one comes by Nature, the other by the State: if Cato is a native of Tusculum and adopted by the Roman State, he is by nature and family Tusculan, but as regards the State a Roman, and he has one home in locality, another in law.”

The original farm properties were not called “ Villa,” but “ Hortus,” in the Twelve Tables of the Law; and it was on the revenues from arable lands and enclosed gardens that the wealth of the Roman depended; it was in fruit and in vegetables. And so in earlier times it was for the sake of the State that good cultivation of country property was insisted upon. We have it on Cato’s authority that people were punished for neglecting their farms, or letting them get dirty, and for not taking proper care of their tree-gardens. Buildings were unimportant except as giving cover for fruits, animals and men; and Cato’s dictum is always the same, “ First plant, then build.” There is very little known about these early villa sites; but the aged Cato plainly shows his disapproval of the strong tendency to luxury in his day, when he insists that his own villa must be quite simple and unadorned, and must not even have the walls plastered.

But the villa of the man who first adopted the pure Attic style, and through whom its light spread into his own land—the country house of Scipio—was always kept in the fashion of his fathers, showing no trace of the Hellenistic manner of life. Seneca paid a visit to Liternum near Cumæ, where the great man spent his last years, and found his house built of freestone; it must have given the effect of a knightly castle of the Middle Ages, with its ramparts and towers. The park was enclosed by a high wall, and beyond the buildings and the court there was a very large pond, big enough to serve a whole army; but the bath was narrow and dark in the old style, “for our forefathers thought that if a place was to be warm, it must be dark.”

If we want a picture of the outside of Scipio’s country house, we must turn in thought to the early Italian villas which lie on the borderland between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and we shall find that the Medici Villa at Careggi, before it was first rebuilt and still had a battlemented roof, and lofty towers also battlemented, and bulwarks, and a garden with a high wall round it, was not unlike the villa of the Scipio family at Liternum. Seneca also says of the villas of Marius, Pompey, and Cæsar, which were on the high ground above Baiæ, that they looked less like villas than castles or even watch-towers. These seemed, moreover, by their warlike aspect, to have lost Scipio’s idea of simplicity; at any rate the villas of Marius near Misenum were considered too magnificent, too foolishly grand, to befit the warrior who owned them.

Marius was really of the generation whose manner of life was denounced by Seneca when he compared it with Scipio’s. “ Who could endure to-day to wash as Scipio washed? He would feel poor and squalid unless his walls sparkled with precious stones, if he had no Alexandrine marbles or Numidian inlays, if his windows were not glazed. The baths of today are called bat-holes, unless there are wide windows to let in the full daylight, so that bathers may get a combined view of sea and land.”

In the very last days of the republic the luxury of the villa life was much greater and more common. In Cicero’s family, for example, the generation before his had broken with the tradition of the dark and narrow homestead. Cicero, when he first expressly describes his villas, gives credit to his father’s love of building, in that the family house at Arpinum was now a comfortable bright home, whereas in his grandfather’s day it had been a small villa such as their ancestors had lived in, and such as could still be seen in the villa of Curius in the Sabine hills. But Cicero himself supplies the best example of that passion for building and buying which had taken hold of the Romans.


Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see

A rural scene (in the logia of the Villa Medici at Careggi)