Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero

The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii

Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero

Daily Life in Villa A

Villa A was occupied by a diverse and continually changing population: its owners and their relations, a staff of slaves and freed slaves still employed by their former masters, and guests with their own retinues of attendants. Slaves were the most constant inhabitants of the villa, guarding and maintaining it while the owners were absent. Many wealthy Romans owned multiple properties, including houses in the city and country villas, and spent only a fraction of the year at each estate.

Though part of the Roman familia, slaves were considered disposable property with no autonomy. They performed all the labor required to keep the villa running and to allow their owners ample leisure. Work for slaves in Villa A included agricultural labor in fields, vineyards, orchards, pressing rooms, and fishponds; maintenance and housekeeping; gardening; working as craftspeople and smiths; carrying litters and driving carts; guarding doors; entertaining; performing business functions as secretaries and administrators; and assisting their owners with dressing and personal grooming.

A crucial task for the slaves in a luxury villa was preparing and serving food. Most Romans ate breakfast at about dawn and a small lunch at noon. Dinner, which could consist of many courses, was the largest meal of the day. Villa A had several grand reception spaces designed for entertaining and impressing guests, including at dinner parties. Some Romans ate dinner as early as 3:00 pm, though others dined in the evening—the more elaborate the dinner party, the earlier it began. Romans engaged in all of their activities during daylight hours because artificial lighting was poor, and it was dangerous to travel at night.


One Roman's Day at His Villa

The wealthy politician and author Pliny the Younger, who as a young man witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, wrote to a friend describing his typical routine while at his villa. His idea of leisure was to spend as much time as possible writing—he composed his work in his head, then dictated it to a slave secretary for transcription.

Pliny woke at sunrise and wrote while still in bed, then went for walks, cart drives, and horseback rides—all the while writing or thinking about writing. He sometimes hunted, bringing along his secretary. On some days, he visited his tenants or took care of official business, though he avoided those duties when possible. He took a nap, read aloud to himself, exercised and bathed before dinner. He dined with only his wife or with friends, and they were entertained with music or comedy. At the end of the day, he strolled with some of his attendants, most likely slaves who were educated enough for cultured conversation. We can imagine how Pliny's slaves assisted him with each of these activities during the day.


The Service Courtyard and Household Shrine

3D reconstruction

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On the screen is a view of the service courtyard, parts of which are digitally restored here. All the walls are decorated in the “zebra stripe” design that imitates marble. As you move around the courtyard you can see into a large space with the remains of the household shrine on the back wall.


Daily Life


Marble sundial from Villa A

Without mechanical clocks, sundials were one of the main instruments villa owners and their slaves used to keep track of time—both the hours of the day and the seasons. This is a rare Roman sundial that preserves its original bronze gnomon, the part of the sundial that casts the shadow. Vertical lines indicate the twelve hours of the Roman day. To mark the seasons, winter solstice, equinox, and summer solstice are indicated horizontally. The shadow of the gnomon would lengthen or shorten and cross these horizontal lines as the seasons progressed.

The length of a Roman hour changed with the seasons. Each day was divided into day and night starting with sunrise and sunset. Those two periods were each divided into twelve hours of equal length, which were referred to as the "first hour" after sunrise, the "second hour," the "third hour," and so forth. Daytime hours, then, were longer during the summer than during the winter. As a result, Roman appointment times must have been quite flexible. Slaves nevertheless were expected to perform their duties according to their owners' schedule, so those working at Villa A must have kept an eye on this sundial, which was located in the service courtyard 32.

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