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Ancient Roman Luxury Villas, Italy

Ancient Roman Luxury Villas

Ancient Roman Luxury Villas

By Marco Stojanovik

The villas of Ancient Rome were typically country Roman houses for wealthy people built in the times of the Republic and the Empire. Popular locations included on the lakes of Northern Italy, in the hills to the East of Rome, on the bay of Naples, and outside of Pompeii. They were established as retreats from the hectic pressures of everyday city life; the pleasures of the country setting were perceived to provide much needed recuperation. But they also acted as symbols of villa owners’ power and status. Over time they become increasingly more luxurious and extravagant, vast sprawling affairs of richly decorated rooms and gardens.

Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of Ancient Roman Luxury Villas as part of our 13 day guided tour of the lakes and landscapes of Northern Italy. Over the tour we travel from Milan to Venice experiencing along the way the sights of the region’s bright lakes, azure seas, mountainous borderlands, vineyards, and historic towns including Verona, Trieste, Trento, and more.  We visit the luxury villa of Desenzano as part of a full day exploring the spectacular Lake Garda surrounded by mountain villages and peaks. This article explores the historical types and features of these luxury villas to assist your tour.


Cross section illustration of Roman villa


A Retreat from City Life

The villas of Ancient Rome all tended to have an extra-urban characteristic – the structures most often found in rural, suburban or coastal settings. Indeed, powerful and wealthy Romans built these villas as a retreat from the rigorous pressures of the city.

Ideologically the villas’ natural surroundings provided restorative powers, or otium, an important counter balance to the excessive but necessary daily business of city life that sustained them economically, or negotium. They provided an idyllic setting for a spiritual withdrawal from everyday life in order to improve the mind via learned pursuits and philosophical contemplation.

Langhe vineyards in the countryside, Grinzane Cavour,  Piedmont, Northern Italy.

Types of Villas

The Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) distinguished two types of Roman villas: the villa urbana, a country seat located within easy distance of the city for short stays; and the villa rustica, a functioning farmhouse estate permanently occupied and worked on by servants and a supervisor.

The villa rustica were often self-sufficient containing olivegroves and vineyards and the facilities and equipment for processing agricultural production. Grapes and olives were particularly processed to make wine and olive oil. Even the most luxurious villas often had a connected pars rustica, the productive part of the building, in addition to the pars urbana, the urban zone for enjoying life.

A number of suburban villas, or villa suburbana, on the edge of cities were also built up, particularly under the Roman Empire around the Bay of Naples, Rome and Pompeii.

Ruins of Catullo’s Villa at Sirmione, on Lake Garda, Province of Brescia, Lombardy, Italy.

Luxurious Villas’ Features

Over time as wealth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the upper classes, the Roman villas became ever more luxurious. Especially into the period of the Roman Empire they were utilised as visible statements of power. Opulent decorations including rich and elaborate mosaic floors, wall paintings, and marble statuary all suggested the elite status of the owner.

The famous “erotic” mosaic in the bedroom at the Roman villa at Casale (Sicily, Italy). 2000 years old.

Although the architecture diversified immensely, these luxurious villas are best understood as sprawling affairs consisting of several distinct parts. Many rooms were included for entertainment, dining, leisure and reception, as well as specialised facilities including hypocaust-heated baths. The rooms of the villas often focused internally around courtyards, while terraced gardens of abundant flora and fauna surrounded by columns opened outward to natural surroundings.

Perhaps the most notable is that of Emperor Hadrian’s grand pleasure villa complex located at Tivoli in the hills to the east of Rome. Roman Emperor Hadrian’s villa, or Villa Adriana,  contains over 30 buildings, covering at least a square kilometre, and included pools, baths, fountains, classical Greek and Roman architecture, landscaped gardens, wilderness areas, and cultivated farmlands.

Statues in Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Italy.

The Roman Villa of Desenzano del Garda

The Roman Villa of Desenzano del Garda is Northern Italy’s most important and best preserved great late antiquity villas extending over a hectare of prime land on the beautiful southern shore of Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake. It is named after its owner Magnus Decentius (died 353) – a usurper of the western portion of the Roman Empire against emperor Constantius II.

The Roman’s ruins of the villa provide insight into the sprawling complex of buildings that this once was. It consisted of various rooms including residential quarters, a large formal dining room covered by a dome roof, a wing for representation, and rustic structures for agricultural activities. Additionally, it contained a statue-adorned courtyard surrounded on all sides by porticos and a garden enclosed at the back by fountains.

Desenzano del Garda, Lombardy, Italy, ancient Roman villa ruins and mosaics floor

You can visit the Roman ruins of the once large and luxurious villa of Desenzano del Garda as part of our 13 day guided tour of the lakes and landscapes of Northern Italy. Enjoy the attractions of well-preserved vivid floor mosaics, a museum of artefacts collected during excavations, and stunning lakeside views.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals.  For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

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