For ages, scholars and researchers have attempted to define just what Roman writers meant by the term villa. The word has been used to describe any type of rural dwelling. In a more limited sense, however, a villa was the locus of two separate and distinct activities – otium, meaning leisure time, but also time for study and reflection, and negotium, or business undertakings.

In the late 1st century BCE, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, building on the work of Cato the Elder and Varro, published De Re Rvstica, a twelve-volume work on agriculture. In it, he defined the three main elements of the villa. These include the pars urbana, where the owner lived together with his familia, the pars rustica, where labourers, animals and farm tools were located, and the pars fructuaria, which held the equipment for processing and preserving the harvest. The author uses the term circa villam to describe the surrounding area, thus emphasising that the villa was indissociable from agricultural lands. By extension, a villa rustica may be thought of as a simple farm, and a villa urbana as a manor – the master's residence.

Opus agriculturae is a treatise by the 4th century CE writer Palladius that offers month-by-month instructions on farming, which was still being copied in the medieval period. Palladius uses the military term praetoriumfor the residence of the dominus (master), underscoring the fact that the villa was a seat of power rather than a place for mere relaxation