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The word is derived from the Latin name Palātium, for Palatine Hill in Rome which housed the Imperial residences. In many parts of Europe, the term is also applied to ambitious private mansions of the aristocracy. Many historic palaces are now put to other uses such as parliaments, museums, hotels, or office buildings. The word is also sometimes used to describe a lavishly ornate building used for public entertainment or exhibitions.
The earliest known palaces were the royal residences of the Egyptian Pharaohs at Thebes, featuring an outer wall enclosing labyrinthine buildings and courtyards. Other ancient palaces include the Assyrian palaces at Nimrud and Nineveh, the Minoan palace at Knossos, and the Persian palaces at Persepolis and Susa. Palaces in East Asia, such as the imperial palaces of Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, large stone and wooden structures in the Philippines and China's Forbidden City, consist of many low pavilions surrounded by vast, walled gardens, in contrast to the single building palaces of Medieval Western Europe.
A villa was originally an ancient Roman upper-class country house. Since its origins in the Roman villa, the idea and function of a villa have evolved considerably. After the fall of the Roman Republic, villas became small farming compounds, which were increasingly fortified in Late Antiquity, sometimes transferred to the Church for reuse as a monastery. Then they gradually re-evolved through the Middle Ages into elegant upper-class country homes. In modern parlance, "villa" can refer to various types and sizes of residences, ranging from the suburban semi-detached double villa to residences in the wildland–urban interface.
Archaeologists have meticulously examined numerous Roman villas in England. Like their Italian counterparts, they were complete working agrarian societies of fields and vineyards, perhaps even tileworks or quarries, ranged round a high-status power centre with its baths and gardens. The grand villa at Woodchester preserved its mosaic floors when the Anglo-Saxon parish church was built (not by chance) upon its site. Grave-diggers preparing for burials in the churchyard as late as the 18th century had to punch through the intact mosaic floors. The even more palatial villa rustica at Fishbourne near Winchester was built (uncharacteristically) as a large open rectangle, with porticos enclosing gardens entered through a portico. Towards the end of the 3rd century, Roman towns in Britain ceased to expand: like patricians near the centre of the empire, Roman Britons withdrew from the cities to their villas, which entered on a palatial building phase, a "golden age" of villa life. Villae rusticae are essential in the Empire's economy.
A mansion is a large dwelling house. The word itself derives through Old French from the Latin word mansio "dwelling", an abstract noun derived from the verb manere "to dwell". The English word "manse" originally defined a property large enough for the parish priest to maintain himself, but a mansion is no longer self-sustaining in this way (compare a Roman or medieval villa). 'Manor' comes from the same root—territorial holdings granted to a lord who would remain there—hence it is easy to see how the word 'Mansion' came to have its meaning.
Within an ancient Roman city, aristocratic or just wealthy dwellings might be very extensive, and luxurious. Such mansions on one hill in Rome became so extensive that the term palatial was actually derived from the name Palatine hill and is the etymological origin of "palace". Mansions of considerable size and state significance are called palaces.
Following the fall of Rome the practice of building unfortified villas ceased. Today, the oldest inhabited mansions around the world usually began their existence as fortified castles in the Middle Ages. As social conditions slowly changed and stabilised fortifications were able to be reduced, and over the centuries gave way to comfort. It became fashionable and possible for homes to be beautiful rather than grim and forbidding allowing for the development of the modern mansion.
In British English a mansion block refers to a block of flats or apartments designed for the appearance of grandeur. In many parts of Asia, including Hong Kong and Japan, the word mansion also refers to a block of apartments. In modern Japan, a "manshon" (マンション), stemming from the English word "mansion", is used to refer to a multi-unit apartment complex or condominium.
In Europe, from the 15th century onwards, a combination of politics and advancements in modern weaponry negated the need for the aristocracy to live in fortified castles. As a result, many were transformed into mansions without defences or demolished and rebuilt in a more modern, undefended style. Due to intermarriage and primogeniture inheritance amongst the aristocracy, it became common for one noble to often own several country houses. These would be visited rotationally throughout the year as their owner pursued the social and sporting circuit from country home to country home. Many owners of a country house would also own a town mansion in their country's capital city. These town mansions were referred to as 'houses' in London, hotels in Paris and palaces in most European cities elsewhere. It might be noted that sometimes the house of a clergyman was called a "mansion house" (e.g., by the Revd James Blair, Commissary in Virginia for the Bishop of London, 1689–1745, a term related to the word "manse" commonly used in the Church of Scotland and in Non-Conformist churches. H.G. Herklots, The Church of England and the American Episcopal Church).
As the 16th century progressed, and Renaissance styles of architecture slowly spread across Europe, the last vestiges of castle architecture and life changed; the central points of these great house, great halls, became redundant as owners wished to live separately from their servants, and no longer ate with them in a Great Hall. All evidence and odours of cooking and staff were banished from the principal parts of the house into distant wings, while the owners began to live in airy rooms, above the ground floor, with privacy from their servants, who were now confined, unless required, to their specifically delegated areas—often the ground and uppermost attic floors. This was a period of great social change, as the educated prided themselves on enlightenment.
Until World War I it was not unusual for a moderately sized mansion in England such as Cliveden to have an indoor staff of 20 and an outside staff of the same size, and in ducal mansions such as Chatsworth House the numbers could be far higher. In the great houses of Italy, the number of retainers was often even greater than in England; whole families plus extended relations would often inhabit warrens of rooms in basements and attics. It is doubtful that a 19th-century Marchesa would even know the exact number of individuals who served her. Most European mansions were also the hub of vast estates.
A castle (from Latin: castellum) is a type of fortified structure built during the Middle Ages by predominantly the nobility or royalty and by military orders. Scholars debate the scope of the word castle, but usually consider it to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble. This is distinct from a palace, which is not fortified; from a fortress, which was not always a residence for royalty or nobility; and from a fortified settlement, which was a public defence – though there are many similarities among these types of construction. Usage of the term has varied over time and has been applied to structures as diverse as hill forts and country houses. Over the approximately 900 years that castles were built, they took on a great many forms with many different features, although some, such as curtain walls and arrowslits, were commonplace.
A European innovation, castles originated in the 9th and 10th centuries, after the fall of the Carolingian Empire resulted in its territory being divided among individual lords and princes. These nobles built castles to control the area immediately surrounding them and the castles were both offensive and defensive structures; they provided a base from which raids could be launched as well as protection from enemies. Although their military origins are often emphasised in castle studies, the structures also served as centres of administration and symbols of power. Urban castles were used to control the local populace and important travel routes, and rural castles were often situated near features that were integral to life in the community, such as mills, fertile land, or a water source.
Many castles were originally built from earth and timber, but had their defences replaced later by stone. Early castles often exploited natural defences, lacking features such as towers and arrowslits and relying on a central keep. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a scientific approach to castle defence emerged. This led to the proliferation of towers, with an emphasis on flanking fire. Many new castles were polygonal or relied on concentric defence – several stages of defence within each other that could all function at the same time to maximise the castle's firepower. These changes in defence have been attributed to a mixture of castle technology from the Crusades, such as concentric fortification, and inspiration from earlier defences, such as Roman forts. Not all the elements of castle architecture were military in nature, so that devices such as moats evolved from their original purpose of defence into symbols of power. Some grand castles had long winding approaches intended to impress and dominate their landscape.