What were houses like in ancient Rome?
The city of Rome was home to roughly 450,000 people. But where did they all live? From cramped insulae to the most decadent domus, Lauren Good explores the spaces Romans lived in…
The Roman Empire controlled two million square miles of land, and one in four people across the world lived beneath its rule. At the heart of this power network was Rome, a landscape adorned with temples and palaces, and home to roughly 450,000 people. But where did they all live?
This answer varies according to social status. The wealthy owned multiple residences both within and beyond the city walls, while those with a lower financial status were crammed into flats often containing just two rooms. By studying these spaces, we can gain an intimate insight into Romans’ everyday lives.
Where did the lower and middle classes live in ancient Rome?
Most of the city lived in insulae, a term that translates to “islands” in Latin. These were tenement blocks of five or more stories, even nine in some cases, despite Emperor Augustus making the legal height limit 68 feet, and then Trajan lowering it further to 58.
A fourth-century census reveals that there were over 40,000 of these buildings in ancient Rome, compared to fewer than 2,000 private residences. This high-rise building boom was not seen again until the Industrial Revolution.
Each living space within these buildings would usually contain just one to two rooms. The landlords of these buildings would rent out space at the very bottom to shopkeepers, which would spill out onto the street below. Just above this ground floor, there would be the most expensive flats, while the poorest tenants lived at the very top in tiny spaces called cellae. As water could only be pumped to the lower levels, tenants on higher floors had to use public latrines and source water from public facilities.
The lifestyle in these buildings was precarious. Due to their cheap construction and limited water supply, insulae often caught fire or collapsed, resulting in the plot being sold for a lower price, and then another insula would be reconstructed on the same site. Many wealthy Romans profited from this process.
What was a domus in Ancient Rome?
A Roman domus (Latin for “house”) was a residential building designed for one family. Found in almost all major Roman cities, these houses were occupied by wealthier residents. As with modern homes, the buildings shared many primary features and ranged in opulence.
What is the difference between a villa and a domus?
Many rich families in ancient Rome also owned separate country houses – villas. Due to there being more space beyond fortified cities, these residences were often grander and set within large plots of land.
Owners would often spend most of their time in these houses beyond the city walls as they allowed for a more opulent lifestyle, and return to their domus in the city for business affairs.
What rooms were in a Roman domus?
If you were to visit a Roman domus, you would first walk through the ostium (entrance) into the atrium. The atrium was a central part of the Roman home and led to other rooms in the house. These included a triclinium (dining room) and tablinum (office), where men would receive clients and conduct business.
The tablinum led into the hortus (garden). This space would have been used, much like today, for entertaining guests, or as a place for children to play. Alongside the hortus, wealthy Romans also had a peristyle (open courtyard) in their house.
Cubiculum (bedrooms) had a different purpose to their modern counterpart. While Romans did, of course, sleep here, they were also used to host guests and conduct business. These spaces were, however, when not being used for public means, were the only space in the Roman domus that did allow owners some privacy in their communal households.
What is an atrium?
The atrium was the central hall, and arguably the most important room in the Roman domus. As Dr Hannah Platt describes on the HistoryExtra podcast, it would feature “a marble basin, and this was located directly below a hole in the ceiling, which let in rainfall”.
There would also be a lararium (household shrine). This is where offerings were left for the household gods and other spirits, and it formed an essential part of everyday life.
In wealthy households, the atrium had a very public use. An example of this is The Salutatio, which would take place in the morning. Platt explains this custom: “Poorer members of society would be waiting as their dependants outside ready to be accepted into the atrium.”
“The owner of the house would hand out a gift,” she continues, “and that might be food or money or legal advice. And for that gift that they gave to their dependent, they would expect something back, whether that be in the form of voting at election time or accompanying the elite member of society as he made his way to the forum.”
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“The more people who were waiting outside his house to be admitted for the daily meet and greet session, the more power that household owner was displaying to his community.”
Public and private
It is important to consider the context of the wealthy Roman’s domus when analysing the activities that happened within it. Widely different to the modern home, the residences of the rich were not private retreats, but very much a public part of society.
A key part of constructing their owner’s image, they were as much a display of power as they were somewhere to sleep. Lavish houses were often constructed in a very visible part of the city, and plastered with art and frescos to provide positive impressions to guests.
Despite the very public nature of the atrium, it also appears to have been intended for private means. Platt draws from an archaeological excavation of “loom weaving weights”, and stories from the author Lucretius who talks about “children playing in the atrium”.
These considerations demonstrate that private and public really merged in this room: “When we look at the atrium,” Platt says, “we can understand how complicated a role the Roman house actually played in society”.
What art would you see in a Roman domus?
The aesthetics of wealthy Roman houses, especially when we consider how many guests would enter, was of much importance. Wall paintings and frescos could depict a great number of elements from everyday Roman life, from the Gods to family members.
Did you know?
The term fresco originates from the Italian word ‘fresh’, as these paintings were made on plaster before it had dried. This allowed for the pigment to be absorbed into the wall’s surface, resulting in vibrant colours, and also made the art more durable.
The paint for frescos was made from plants, natural stones, and animal dye mixed with egg whites to thicken it.
Alongside these paintings, you would also find statues in a Roman domus. These could depict a wide range of subjects including famous people, relatives, divinities, or mythological figures.
Mosaics would also feature in the Roman home. Ranging from simple geometric patterns to complex scenes from mythology, they were made from different coloured pebbles, pieces of glass, or fragments of other miscellaneous materials.
A multifaceted city
Rome was one city, but it was experienced in many ways. The city’s elite enjoyed the very best in their homes – from their private courtyards to beautiful frescos that decorated the walls – while much of the city lived in, often, testing conditions. By studying these domestic spaces, we not only gain insight into the lives of Roman individuals, but also the society they lived within.
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