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The Roman Empire contained many villas which were rather like country houses, though suburban villas on the edge of cities were known, such as the Middle and Late Republican villas that encroached on the Campus Martius, then on the edge of Rome. The late Republic witnessed an explosion of villa construction in Italy. In southern Etruria the well-known villa at Settefinestre has been interpreted as being one of the latifundia or large slave-run villas that were involved in large scale agricultural production. Other villas in the hinterland of Rome are interepreted in late of the agrarian treatises written by the elder Cato, Columella and Varro, both of whom sought to define the suitable lifestyle of conservative Romans, at least in idealistic terms. By the first century B.C. the "classic" villa is a widespread architectural form, with many examples showing the use of atrium/peristyle architecture. This explosion of construction takes place especially in the years following the dictatorship of Sulla. A villa might be quite palatial, such as the imperial villas built on seaside slopes around the Bay of Naples such as at Baiae; others were preserved at Stabiae and Herculaneum by the ashfall from Vesuvius in 79 A.D., which also preserved the Villa of the Papyri and its libraries. Deeper in the countryside, villas were largely self-supporting, with associated farms, olive groves and vineyards. Large villas dominated the rural economy of the Po valley, of Campania and Sicily, and were found in Gaul. Villas specializing in the sea-going export of olive oil to Roman legions in Germany were a feature of the southern Iberian province of Hispania Baetica. Some luxurious villas have been excavated in North Africa, in the provinces of Africa and Numidia, or at Fishbourne in Britannia.
Certain areas within easy reach of Rome offered cool lodgings in the heat of summer. Maecenas asked what kind of house could possibly be suitable at all seasons. The emperor Hadrian had a villa at Tibur (Tivoli), in an area that was popular with Romans of rank. Hadrian's Villa (123 AD) was more like a palace. Cicero had several villas. Pliny described his villa in letters.
As the Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th and 5th centuries, the villas were more and more isolated and came to be protected by walls. Though in England the villas were abandoned, looted and burned by Anglo-Saxon invaders in the 5th century, in other areas large working villas donated by aristocrats and territorial magnates to individual monks often became the nucleus of famous monasteries. In this way the villa system of late Antiquity was preserved into the early Medieval period. Saint Benedict established his influential monastery of Monte Cassino in the ruins of a villa at Subiaco that had belonged to Nero; there are fuller details at the entry for Benedict. About 590 Saint Eligius was born in a highly-placed Gallo-Roman family at the 'villa' of Chaptelat near Limoges, in Aquitaine (now France). As late as 698 Willibrord established an abbey at a Roman villa of Echternach, in Luxemburg near Trier, which was presented to him by Irmina, daughter of Dagobert II, king of the Franks.
Some of the known Roman villas are:
- Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, Italy
- Fishbourne palace villa in West Sussex, England
- Lullingstone villa in Kent, England
- Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy.
See also: Roman architecture
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