Beyond the city, everything-behaviour, culture, decisions, religion, perception —was in antiquity about producing livelihood from the environment.

Greed, refinement and Varro’s villa satire

We begin, however, with a text which has endlessly been used against that proposition. The passage is the scene-setting of the strange third book of Varro’s Res rusticae: the date is 50 BC and the occasion is the assembly for the election of aediles outside the gates of Rome at a place called the People’s Farm, Villa Publica (3.2.1-18).2 In it we meet Appius Claudius Pulcher, head of one of the oldest and noblest families in Rome, brother of the infamous demagogue P.Clodius and the no less notorious Clodia, Lesbia to Catullus, and are not surprised to be told (3.17.1) of his villa, which stood nearby on the level ground to the northwest of Rome between the city and the Tiber, that it was plastered with fine paintings and statues, including works by Greek old masters, and that it was expensively equipped for the life of luxury, deliciis sumptuosa.3 Much has been made of the contrast that Varro’s speaker draws between this and the ancient Villa Publica, and between this and the productive farms of the Italian countryside: Pulcher has no farmland, no mares, no oxen; his villa is useless, inutilis.