"Noble Romans maintained villas as rural retreats from the pressures and distractions of public life in the city, but the villa was not just a luxurious vacation home. It was part of the tradition of Roman noblesse-the presumption was that it helped its patrician owner serve society better by providing a fresh perspective on life through periodic communion with the natural world of the countryside.

"Like many traditions, this one was rooted in nostalgia for earlier and simpler times. During its first few centuries, Rome grew gradually from an agrarian village on the Palatine Hill into a good-sized country town. Real urbanization probably began as early as the sixth century B.C. with the city's first major public work, the draining and paving of the Forum Romanum the marketplace in the valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills. By the late second century B.C., all of Rome's seven hills and the valleys between were densely built up, and the only land under cultivation within the city walls consisted of small garden plots behind the houses of wealthy citizens.

"One result of Rome's urban growth was that many of its leading citizens were country born and never felt completely comfortable in the city. The public image of Cato the Censor, a native of the provincial town of Tusculum, was built largely on his vigorous defense of the ideal of the Roman citizen-farmer. Other country folk who moved to town also promoted the proposition that life was purer and more genuinely Roman than urban life. In his book The Ancient Roman City, Williams College classicist John Stambaugh points out that the writer and antiquarian Varro, who came from a rural town in the Sabine hills, 'took up Cato's refrain about the moral superiority of the old Roman rural life, which would become commonplace in the literature of the Augustan Age.' By Pliny's time, the Roman aristocrat's villa 'indulged his traditional addiction to the soil, to the ideal of the citizen-farmer like Cincinnatus,' according to Stambaugh. 'No noble roman had done any serious farming since the third century B.C., of course,' he points out, 'but that did not dim the appeal of a quieter, more pastoral life than could be found in the city.'"

--Excerpted from The Pliny Project by Henry Lansford