Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

LIFE IN THE ROMAN WORLD OF NERO AND ST. PAUL

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THE COUNTRY HOMESTEAD AND COUNTRY SEAT

Throughout the romanized parts of the empire--in other words, wherever Romans settled, in Italy, Spain, Gaul, Britain, and also wherever the richer natives imitated the Roman fashions--the house in any city or considerable town was built as nearly as possible after the type described.

In the country the poor naturally had their much simpler cottages and cabins of a room or two, commonly thatched or shingled, knowing nothing of hall and court and all these arrangements of art and luxury. In the case of the more well-to-do country people of Italy--the larger farmers, wine-growers, olive-growers, and the like--the homestead was of a kind which made for simplicity and comfort. It was in such homes that one would find the most wholesome life and the soundest moral fibre of the time.

Normally the homestead would be a large, and often a rambling, building of one storey, except where a tower served as a store-room for the mellowing wine or a loft for the mellowing fruit. When we read in Horace about the liberal stack of wood to be kept in readiness near the hearth, and about the wine-jar drinking in the smoke in the store-room we must think of his country homestead on the Sabine Hills, not of a house in Rome, for at Rome there was no blazing hearth to sit round and no smoky tower-loft for the ripening of the Caecuban.

You enter an open court or yard, round the sides of which may run the stalls of the horses and oxen of the farm, the tool-rooms, the lofts of hay and corn, the quarters of the labourers--herdsmen, ploughmen, vine-dressers--and the great farm-kitchen. It is in this kitchen that you will find the bright hearth in winter-time, where all the members of the homestead gather round the fire. It is here that they then all eat, and in it the women of the establishment perform their work, spinning and weaving and mending. Off from the court will be situated the wine-press, or the olive-press, the-granaries, the fruit mellowing on mats, and the various rooms or bins where wine is fermented and stored, or where the olive-oil is treated and stocked. Commonly a more retired court will contain the private rooms of the owner, and somewhere in the homestead will be found the fowl-yard, with its hens, ducks, geese, and guinea-fowl, the sties, and the preserves for various toothsome animals, including perhaps dormice and snails.

[Illustration: FIG. 45.--PLAN OF HOMESTEAD AT BOSCOREALE.]

Frequently a Roman of the city affected a country house of this character, to which he would flee during the tyrannous reign of the Dogstar or the Lion---in other words, during that hot season of the year which requires no description for those who have been so ill-advised as to sojourn in Rome in July, August, and early September. Many of his town slaves he would take with him, and what was a holiday for him was also a holiday for them. His rural homestead would possess great charm for the quieter type of man who had no real love for the pomps and shows the rattle and tumult, of the city. The vision of wholesome country-produce--of fresh milk and eggs and vegetables, and of tender poultry--is one which still attracts our city-folk. But the vision, then as now, was often subject to disillusion. Complaints are many that you had to feed the homestead in place of it feeding you, and when Martial has given a pleasant picture of a family reaching the gate of Rome with a coachful of the typical produce of the country, he ends by suddenly letting you know that they are not coming in from their country house but are going out to it. The complaint of the English seaside town that there will be no fish "till the train comes in from London," is thus a sufficiently old one. Yet the same Martial supplies another picture, painted with such zest of frank enjoyment that we are at once convinced of its truth. Some portions of it perhaps admit of translation in the following terms:--

Our friend Fundanus' Baian seat, My Bassus, is no pleasance neat, Where myrtles trim in idle lines, Clipped box, and planes unwed to vines Rob of right use the acres wide: 'Tis farm-life true and countrified. In every corner grain is stacked, Old wines in fragrant jars are packed: About the farmyard gabbling gander And spangled peacock freely wander: With pheasant and flamingo prowl Partridge and speckled guinea-fowl: Pigeon and waxen turtle-dove
Rustle their wings in cotes above. The farm-wife's apron draws a rout Of greedy porkers round about; And eagerly the tender lamb
Waits the filled udder of its dam. With plenteous logs the hearth is bright. The household Gods glow in the light, And baby slaves are sprawling round. No town-bred idlers here are found: No cellarer grows pale with sloth, No trainer wastes his oil, but both Go forth afield and subtly plan To snare the greedy ortolan.
Meanwhile the garden rings with mirth, While townfolk dig the yielding earth: No need for the page-master's voice; The saucy long-haired boys rejoice To do the manager's commands. At morn 'tis not with empty hands The country pays its call, but some Bring honey in its native comb, Or cones of cheese; some think as good A sleepy dormouse from the wood; And honest tenants' big girls bring Baskets with "mother's offering."

The visit to the country in the season of the "mad star" and the scirocco was as necessary to the ancient Roman as is his villeggiatura to the modern. But there were other seasons when he fled from town. If to the heat of summer he sought the hills, in the colder he might seek the south of Italy, and in spring or autumn the seaside at various points the mouth of the Tiber to southward of Salerno, might run away from inconvenient business or ceremonies, or through a mere desire to get rest or sleep or change. He might wish, as Cicero and Pliny did, to get away from the "games" and to study and write in quiet. He might fancy that his health called for baths in the hot springs on the Bay of Naples, or for sea-bathing somewhere on the Latian or Campanian coasts. To put it briefly, he was very much like our worried, bilious, or exhausted selves. His life of ceremony was a hard one, and often he ate and drank too much. But whereas nowadays we can make free choice of any agreeable spot, since every such spot possesses its "Grand Hotel" or "Hotel Superbe," where we can always find the crowd and discomfort which we pretend to be escaping, the Roman idea was different. It corresponded more to that of our English nobles, who, in Elizabethan or Queen Anne days or later, built themselves country seats, one, two, or more, indulging in architectural fancies and surrounding all with spacious gardens, ponds, and rockeries. The Roman man of wealth created no hotels. He dotted his country seats about in places where the air was warm for winter and spring, or cool for summer and autumn, by the seashore, on the lower hills, or high on the mountain side. You would find them on the Italian lakes or elsewhere toward the north. In greater numbers would you find them on the hills near Rome, at the modern Tivoli or Palestrina, on the Alban heights near what are now Frascati, Albano, or Genzano, along the shore at Antium, Terracina, Baiae, Naples, Herculaneum, Pompeii, Castellamare, and Sorrento.

Perhaps it is not too much to say that more than a hundred and twenty miles of this coast were practically a chain of country houses. The shore of the Bay of Naples has been compared to a collar of pearls strung round the blue. Wherever there was a wide and varied landscape or seascape, there arose a Roman country house. We are too prone to assume that the ancients felt but little love or even appreciation of scenery, and to fancy that the feeling came as a revelation to a Rousseau, a Wordsworth, or a nineteenth-century painter. That Roman literature does not gush about the matter has been absurdly taken for proof that the Roman writer did not copiously enjoy the glories presented to his eyes. But, though Roman literature does not gush, it often exhibits the same feelings towards scenery which at least a Thomson or a Cowper exhibits. Perhaps it was so accustomed to scenic beauties that it took for granted much that an English or German writer cannot. At any rate we are sure that the Roman chose for his country seat a site commanding the widest and most beautiful outlook, and that he even built towers upon his house to command the view the better. In this respect he was like the mediaeval monks, when they chose the sites of monasteries at San Martino or Amalfi, and his love of a belvedere was probably quite as great as theirs.

The country seat differed widely from the town house. We must forget the plan which has been given above, with its hall and court lighted from within, and made private from the passing crowds in the street. In the country there is no need of such an arrangement. Moreover there are no formal receptions to necessitate the hall, and there are ample gardens to make the peristyle superfluous. Here the walls of the house may break forth into large and open windows, while all around may run pillared verandahs. Built in any variety of shape, according to the situation and the fancy, it may contain an immense variety of sitting-rooms, dining-rooms, bedrooms, facing in every direction to catch the sun, the shade, the breeze, or the prospect, as the case may be. Not that magnificence is any more neglected than in the great English country seats. The pillars and pavements are as rich as means allow, and works of painting and statuary are perhaps even finer and more numerous than in town; there is more time to look at them, and there are better facilities for showing them off. Many of the best works of ancient sculpture now extant in the museums have come from such country seats. There were of course vulgar houses in bad taste, where the owner's notions of magnificence consisted in ostentatious extravagance and a desire to outdo his neighbour. As now, everything depended either on the culture of the man or on the amount of his good sense in leaving such matters to his artistic adviser.

Outside the house lie the gardens and grounds. For the most part these are laid out in the formal style adopted so often in more modern Italy and favoured so greatly in England in the early eighteenth century. Perhaps the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, though of course not ancient, may convey some approximate idea of the prevailing principle. Along one side of the Roman house we should find a smooth terrace ornamented with statues and vases, to be used as a promenade. There are straight walks and avenues between hedges and trees and shrubs--cyprus, laurel, box, and other manageable plants--cut to the shape of beasts and birds and inanimate objects. There are flower-beds--of the rose, the crocus, the wallflower, the narcissus, the violet, but not, for example, the tulip--laid out in geometrical patterns. There are trellis-work arbours and walks covered with leafy vines or other trailing plants. There are clumps of bay-trees, plane trees, or myrtles, with marble seats beneath. There is either an avenue or a covered colonnade, where the ground is made of soft earth or sand, and where the family may take exercise by being carried in a litter up and down in the open or under the shade. There are greenhouses and forcing-houses, where flowers are grown under glass. There are fish-ponds, fountains, and water-channels, with artificial cascades and a general suggestion of babbling streams. Out beyond lie the orchards and the vegetable gardens, where are grown most of the modern fruits, including peaches, apricots, and almonds, but not yet including either the orange or the lemon.

The country immediately round the mansion of the wealthy man was commonly his own estate. A portion of this was frequently woodland, affording opportunities for hunting deer, wild boar, and other game. For the boar the weapon was a stout spear, and the general practice of the sportsman was to wait at a certain spot until the beast was driven towards it by a ring of beaters. Deer were caught in nets or transfixed with javelins while running. In more open places the hunter, accompanied by hounds, rode after a hare. But though far too much of Italy was taken up by preserves of this unproductive kind, the large estates were mostly turned to agricultural purposes. Different owners, different practices; but the possessor of a number of country seats would in some cases work the land for himself by means of slaves--often in disgrace and labouring in chains--under the direction of a manager or bailiff, while in others he would parcel out his land on various terms among free tenants. It is gratifying to discover that in bad seasons a generous landlord would sometimes remit a portion of his dues, and that he recognised various obligations of a grand seigneur to his district. Among them was the keeping up and beautifying of the local shrines and contributing to buildings and works for the public comfort.

Such would be the country seat when established landward. By the seaside, especially in a much-frequented resort like Baiae, the room was more limited and the equipment modified. The extensive garden would be absent, and the height of the building increased by a second or even a third storey. It was no uncommon thing for such a "villa," as it was called, to stand out on a promontory, where it could be greeted by the sea on either side. In many cases it was actually built out into the sea on piles or on a basis of concrete, and the occupant made a special delight of fishing from his window, and of letting the true sea-water flow into his swimming bath.




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