Typology and distribution
Pliny the Elder (23-79CE) distinguished two kinds of villas: the villa urbana, a country seat that could easily be reached from Rome (or another city) for a night or two; and the villa rustica, the farm-house estate permanently occupied by the servants who generally had charge of the estate. The villa rustica centered on the villa itself, perhaps only seasonally occupied. Under the Empire a concentration of Imperial villas grew up near the Bay of Naples, especially on the Isle of Capri, at Monte Circeo on the coast and at Antium (Anzio). Wealthy Romans escaped the summer heat in the hills around Rome, especially around Frascati (cf. Hadrian's Villa). Cicero allegedly possessed no fewer than seven villas, the oldest of them, which he inherited, near Arpinum in Latium. Pliny the Younger had three or four, of which the example near
Laurentium is the best known from his descriptions.
The Empire contained many kinds of villas, not all of them lavishly appointed with mosaic floors and frescoes. In the provinces, any country house with some decorative features in the Roman style may be called a "villa" by modern scholars. Some were pleasure houses such as those — like Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli— that were sited in the cool hills within easy reach of Rome or — like the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum— on picturesque sites overlooking the Bay of Naples. Some villas were more like the country houses of England or Poland, the visible seat of power of a local magnate, such as the famous palace rediscovered at Fishbourne in Sussex. Suburban villas on the edge of cities also occurred, such as the Middle and Late Republican villas that encroached on the Campus Martius, at that time on the edge of Rome, and which can be also seen outside the city walls of Pompeii. These early suburban villas, such as the one at Rome's
Auditorium site or at
Grottarossa in Rome, demonstrate the antiquity and heritage of the villa suburbana in Central Italy. It is possible that these early, suburban villas were also in fact the seats of power (maybe even palaces) of regional strongmen or heads of important families (gentes). A third type of villa provided the organizational center of the large holdings called latifundia, which produced and exported agricultural produce; such villas might lack luxuries. By the 4th century, villa could simply connote an agricultural holding: Jerome translated in the Gospel of Mark (xiv, 32) chorion, describing the olive grove of Gethsemane, with villa, without an inference that there were any dwellings there at all.