Ancient Houses

ancient roman homes, houses and villas

As with other aspects of ancient Roman life and Roman architecture, Roman homes, houses and Roman villas underwent a  degree of evolution, particularly as the fortunes of Rome impacted wealth, society, roman technology and standards of living.

A further factor to be taken into account is the vast period of time being considered when we speak of "Roman" homes and housing. Ancient Rome had a history which lasted over a thousand years and as such it is hardly surprising that the customs, needs and dwellings of the citizens should change.

Political affairs also affected location: Rome's civil wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey at the end of the Republican period meant that it was safer for the rich and important to have their sumptuous dwellings outside Rome's city walls on the nearby hills such as the Quirinal, Viminalis or Caelius or even in the Trastevere district where there was the added advantage of land to be employed for sumptuous gardens and parks.

In the centre of town the most over-populated areas where the plebeians dwelt tended to be the lowest and generally least salubrious, probably as they used to be marshes before being drained. The Suburra was the most famous or infamous of these.

As we look at ancient Roman houses and villas we will notice that their development was influenced by very real aspects such as:

  • Availability of raw materials
  • Advances in Roman building technology
  • Introduction of piped water
  • Development of Roman glass on an industrial scale, including for windows.
  • Development of roman painting
  • Development of a sophisticated market Roman economy
  • Access to wealth
  • Ready access to food and primary needs at the Roman forums
  • Pax Romana
  • Fires

To give some quick insight: Advances in hydraulics allowed the Romans to bring piped water into their homes, this meant that there was less need for water collection basins (impluvium) within the home. Coupled with advances in construction this enabled the buiding of multi-story apartment blocks. Glass at the windows allowed larger windows to be built to allow light in whilst keeping the cold out. Availabiltiy of raw materials allowed a broad variety of decorative techniques which acted in concert with the plasticity of brick and cement walls and suspended plaster ceilings to bring great innovation of interior spaces. Access to food and primary needs meant that it was no longer necessary to have your own vegetable patch and cities could be built up more intensively.

"Fires" as a source of development in Roman architecture and Roman houses might seem like a strange element to add to the list. Rome and ancient Roman buildings were very prone to fires due to the great use of oil lamps for internal lighting and cooking fires. The wooden structures within walls, floors and ceilings did the rest, as in the great fire of Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero. These fires were occasion for relatively regular destruction of artwork and buildings and their subsequent reconstruction. A famous example of this is the Pantheon, first built in traditional style by Agrippa during Augustus' reign but rebuilt in its glorious present form by Emperor Hadrian with its record breaking dome and central "oculus" like a traditional roman house compluvium/impluvium. On far smaller scale we have the evidence of reconstructions of Roman houses in ancient Rome, there are numerous examples of excavated houses with republican style mosaics which survived catastrophe and second/third style frescos on the walls which had clearly had to be rebuilt and repainted.

We can thus see how the study of ancient Roman society allows us the deepest of insights into the factors impacting the development of housing and urbanisation.

Early Roman Homes

The earliest Romans living on the Palatine hill were essentially farmers and shepherds, wearing animal skins as clothing and building their abodes of whatever construction materials were readily available. Archeological digs on the hills of Rome have brought to light a number of clues as to what these huts were like and when they were built.

Roman mythology and tradition places the founding of Rome around the 8th century BC but in fact archeological finds suggest early settlements as early as the 10th century BC.

These early huts were generally rectangular or lozenge shaped. They were made by planting large trunks into the ground, say three per side. The walls would be made by filling the space between them with smaller sized wood and straw/mud.

The roof cover would have been held by wooden beams meeting in the centre at the vertex (ie a traditional roof shape) and supported by one or more trunks standing in the centre of the hut. Roof covering was probably of straw. A hole in the roof allowed smoke from the internal fire to escape.

Evolution of Roman Houses

The layout of Roman houses was essentially Etruscan-Italic in origin, possibly driven by the early concept of a single communal space where a fire burned to keep people warm.

Superficially, the evolution of Roman houses is relatively simple to understand and has made even easier thanks to the finds around Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii in particular allows us to see a snapshot of the evolution of Roman houses from the 3rd century BC through to the 1st century AD when the volcano erupted, although other sites also give us some good insights, such as Ostia and other locations across north Africa, middle east etc.

Relatively "modest" Roman houses such as that of Trebius Valens (Reg III, Ins.2, #1) give an impression of the richness which Pompeian architecture reached and its context within city life:  at one time it's facade was particularly interesting due to the numerous large electoral inscriptions on it with personal political recommendations of the house's owner and advertisements for the public games at the amphitheatre complete with the name of the "editer munerum" and gladiator pairs, champions and the fact that it would be covered by sails to protect the public from the sun. Inside the house was particularly noteworthy for second style paintings in one of the bedrooms, a room with black painted surfaces, a private bathroom behind the kitchen, a triclinium under a pergola with a chequered decoration, and a play of water pools with 12 fountains laid out radially in the garden

Older houses, such as "the house of the Surgeon" (VI,I,9-10), 4th-3rd century BC, had a rather more austere aspect with massive squared blocks making up its facade. The house derives its name from the exceptional collection of surgical instruments found here.

A simple rectangular area (atrium) with a hole in the middle of the roof let light and rainwater in. The rainwater was collected into a cistern for household use: there was no piped water yet. The roof could either be flat or inclined inwards to act like a funnel. Various rooms were laid out around the edges of this area. The two rooms either side of the entrance formed a short corridor which ran from door into the central atrium space. The most important room was at the opposite end of the atrium, opposite the front door: The "tablinum" was a sort of master bedroom where the family records were kept. The family dining table ("cartibulum") and fire were in the common space of the atrium between the tablinum and impluvium.

Rooms were called cubicula, they had little furniture perhaps a bed and a cupboard and were usually made for a single occupant. They didn't always have a door, a curtain might be sufficient. Light and air (and cold) entered through a window which for security as well as comfort was high and narrow.

Behind the house, to the other side of the tablinum there was a small vegetable garden which provided the basic Roman food for family needs such as the beans and pulses of the popular "satura" soup (a sort of minestrone).

The layout of early Roman houses was therefore highly symmetrical and space was focused around the central focus of the impluvium. This approach was reflected in architectural decoration by Roman mosaics with their central "emblema" and Roman painting and the sequence of Roman painting styles moved from the "first" style which imitated materials like stone and marble to "second" style which depicted theatrical three dimensional stage sets.

With time access to wealth, piped water, glass, food, materials, building techniques and skilled workers allowed the architecture of this basic type to be modified in numerous ways:

  • The central focus of the atrium gave way to an enhancement of the sense of space.
  • The family living areas shifted away from the street and towards the private garden and tablinum (which became a new central point as a sort of master study)
  • The vegetable garden gave way to an enlarged garden with decorative plants, fountains and art. This garden was transformed into an articulated living space with various rooms for the periods of good weather by surrounding the garden with a covered "peristyle": a covered doughnut supported by columns all around.

Building techniques allowed the atrium to grow in size through the use of more complex joists or columns. The compluvium (central hole in the ceiling) could be built and decorated in numerous ways, particularly as the size increased the use of pillars increased. The "tuscan" type of atrium ceiling was the most ancient and expensive since it avoided the use of pillars and as such required particularly large beams. The cheaper and more practical alternative was  to introduce 4 or more pillars to support the hole in the ceiling.

The layout of Roman houses evolved so that whilst it maintained symmetry with the front door the family living spaces receded away from the road and atrium towards the noble tablinum and the garden beyond it. The focus on the impluvium lost its importance in favour of the more open space of the garden beyond.

Further wealth allowed yet more expansion in all dimensions with a parallel shift in decorative techniques of mosaic and painting. A wonderful example of this is the 3rd century AD villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily. Pompeii gives us examples of Roman house with two front entrances, essentially two atrium blocks side by side, one of blocks used more as a service area whilst the other + garden/peristyle to the rear were for the noble family. Wealth also permitted a degree of expansion in the vertical direction by adding extra floors to the house.

The layout of Roman houses had thus extended in all directions, destroying the focal centrality of the atrium in favour of a more open layout - the town house equivalent of the large villas on the coast on the bay of Naples.

Roman Houses During the Republic and Empire

Roman houses developed into highly sophisticated buildings. The houses of the rich Patricians were veritable multi-storey wonders on the coast or sprawling villas whilst the poorer classes, the Plebeians or Plebs, as in all times and ages were gradually reduced to live in unhealthy slums. The great fire of Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero is said to have burned down the greater part of these slums in order to make way for his enormous palace called "the Golden House" or Domus Aurea.

The progress of the early Roman empire in terms of peace (pax Romana), wealth and relativley large cities with higher population densities came hand in hand with the progress of technology and civil engineering which allowed such population concentrations to thrive: plentiful food and water supply, streets and pavements allowing ordered transport and mobility, ports to carry merchandise to and from, drains and sewers to keep the city clean.

Clearly such a situation tends to raise the value of each square meter of land, providing an incentive to build higher buildings which can utilise such investment to the full. From the residential point of view and Roman housing this is particularly evident in the development of multi-storey apartment buildings.

Rome apartments

Roman town planners are also famous for having invented the first apartment blocks, called "insula" or "insulae". Some examples of these apartment buildings can still be seen in cities such as Rome or Ostia (Rome's harbour). Interestingly they are not to be found at Pompeii where the highest building had something like three floors and the norm was just a single floor. In spite of its wealth Pompeii had not outgrown its limits as attested by the many large gardens and relatively undeveloped areas to the east of the city, ie availability of space and population density was clearly a strong factor in whether or not apartment blocks were built up.

Roman apartment buildings could be as high as 5 or 6 floors and measure some 10 metres in length and 20 metres in height.

The insulae in the poorest areas could be built out of extremely bad materials such as clay, straw, wood and crude bricks and often owed their structural strength to the support of neighbouring buildings, not a healthy situation. This accommodation, with very little by the way of hygiene was generally regarded as a temporary stepping stone towards something of higher quality.

The apartments at Ostia give us a good example of what the next step up might have been. There are various examples of insulae dating to the reign of Emperor Trajan (ie when the Empire was at its greatest extent) with the same apartment layout being repeated various times over. These buildings were obviously intended as low cost high quality housing for an increasingly rich middle class present in Ostia at the time as the port of Ostia was itself enlarged and improved. The plans of these buildings show a great deal of thought for use of space and functionality.

The external walls of these buildings are in opus reticulatum (small square blocks placed diagonally above one another) whilst the internal ones are in opus incertum (rather less ordered). There were fewer floors and each apartment had its own terrace and private access. Also at Ostia, there are various examples of apartments with frescoes and decorations of the typical yellow and red squares which were popular at the time: a good example of housing made for an increasingly rich entrepreneurial middle class.

Typical Roman House Plan

The middle-upper classes, made of professionals, merchants and nobles could clearly afford their own private houses, whether in the city or in the country. The "basic" house was focused around an atrium whilst a more elaborate and clearly larger variation on the theme was to add a peristyle around the back garden, thus almost doubling the overall footprint of the house..

Some of the more common Roman home terms are described in the table. The key letters to the left of the terms enable the various areas to be matched to the plan shown below the table:

a Ala Two rooms, opposite one another, facing onto the atrium. Their use is uncertain but may have been for storage, general use and, in Patrician houses, for displaying the face masks of their ancestors preserved from Roman funerals.
b Andron Corridor connecting the garden (hortus) and the atrium.
c Atrium In the most ancient times of Rome the atrium was the area where much of family life went on. The name "atrium" stems for the word "ater" meaning "black" due to the smoke of the fires used for producing light and keeping that area warm.

The atrium was rather like a central courtyard in the house with a rectangular opening in the roof above it (the compluvium) providing air and light. A rectangular basin in the ground (impluvium) corresponded to the opening above in order to collect rain water.

All major living areas of Roman homes had direct access to the atrium.

d Compluvium Rectangular opening in the roof, above the atrium of the house. It let in rain, air and light. Rain fell into the impluvium.

This may seem a mere technical detail but it is easy to see how it conditioned Roman architecture once light could be had through windows and water through pipes. This central element became inessential and hence allowed greater freedom of design of interior space with subsequent impact in all aspects of interior space design, such as mosaics and painting.

e Cubiculum A bedroom.
f Culina Kitchen
g Exedra An area at the bottom of the garden, at the end of the peristylium. It was more or less equivalent in function to the tablinum ie. for meetings, chatting and generally getting together.
h Fauces The corridor which led from the front door (ianua) to the main part of the house, the atrium.
i Hortus The garden. Closed in by a wall.
j Ianua The front door of the house. It was normally set a little further in from the road, leaving a small entrance area called the vestibulum. Notice the similarity with the word January (Ianuarius), first month of the year in the Roman calendar revised by Julius Caesar. Some more front door facts....
  • The front door had great significance for the Romans and hence had its own divinity from the earliest times: the two-faced Roman god Ianus whose temple was open during times of war and shut during peace.
  • The tradition of carrying one's bride over the doorstep dates back to Roman marriages.
  • It wouldn't be unnusual to have an image of a phallus over your front door as a luck charm to favour wellbeing, wealth and fertility in the home. See the Roman god Priapus.
k Impluvium A shallow rectangular section dug a little into the ground of the atrium to collect the rainwater which fell in through the compluvium. The water drained into a cistern underground which acted as water repository for the household.

The development of piped pressurised water diminished the need for the water collection cistern and  allowed the impluvium to be turned into a decorative fountain, contributing to the "centripetal" architecture focused around the centre of the atrium.

This might seem like a meaningless detail yet it belies the shift in architectural approach between central focus or one where the sense of space was enhanced by removal of centrality in preference for modularity: particularly evident in the development of Roman mosaics and Roman painting.

L Peristylium A range of columns around an area such as a garden. Rather like a cloister. It could even be made of two floors.
mm Piscina Pool/fountain in the centre of the peristyle/garden.
n Posticum Back entrance to the house.
o Taberna A couple of bedrooms, store rooms or shop with direct road access. The walls of the two rooms were the sides of the fauces (h). If this was managed by the household slaves and servants then it might have access from the atrium otherwise it would be made independent of the main household.

One particular taberna in Pompeii, attached to the back of a rich villa is an example of how an ancient Roman prostitution business might be run.

p Tablinum In Rome's earliest days the tablinum was the pater familias' private study. A sort of drawing room or lounge. It was situated on the Atrium on the opposite side from the front door (ianua). The interior was often decorated with frescos and art.

The tablinum would be closed off from the atrium by heavy curtains and from the garden by way of wooden doors.

q Triclinium The dining room. There would generally be three couches in this room (hence the name beginning with "tri"). Poorer houses might have a biclinium. The couches would be built at right angles to one another. Those  in the garden would be made of brick and then plastered or covered in marble. Those in the house itself would generally be made of wood.

The couches would be set around a table called "mensa". The leftmost couch was reserved for the master of the house, his wife and one of his sons or in the absense of a son for one of his liberti. The central couch would be for high ranking guests, particularly the spot next to the master of the house. The third couch would be for other guests.

The romans adopted the practice of eating in a lounging position from the Greeks. As we can see from numerous paintings of the time, reclining was generally reserved for men whilst women would sit.

Formerly it was habitual to eat in the atrium, tablinum or in a room called the "cenaculum" on the floor above the tablinum.

r Vestibulum The small hall area which separated the front door from the main road. Rich Patricians often started their day by taking visits from their numerous "clients (clientes) who would congregate in the vestibulum early in the morning.

Some further notes:

  • Windows were generally larger on the top floors than the lower ones. Windows were particularly popular on the side of the house facing onto the garden. Their manufacture was greatly owed to the advancements made in Roman glass production methods.
  • The Lararium, where the family spirits were honoured might be in a corner of its own, for example in the peristyle or a discrete corner of the atrium.
  • The compluvium above the atrium might have terracotta decorations such as palmettes. It might be supported by columns - eg 4 columns would be known as a "tetrastyle atrium".
  • The latrine was often next to the kitchen. Refuse from both kitchen and latrine would generally wash directly onto the road through the same drainage duct.
  • The kitchens were generally quite small. Cooking would be on tripods above open fires and coals. There might be an oven for baking bread which could in some cases double up to heat water used for the underfloor heating system.
  • Larger villas might have one or more rooms called an Oecus - a hall which could be used for receptions and meetings with friends.
  • Villas would even have their own roman baths. In their simplest form there would be two rooms: the first would be used as changing room and as tepidarium (luke warm water). The second was the caldarium. The rooms would have few if any windows in order to preserve the heat of the water. The bath might therefore be excavated in a basement area where it would be easiest to conserve heat.
  • The richest houses would have an extra bath called a frigidarium (an indoor cold pool) and a natatio (an open air swimming pool).

A plan view of a typical Roman house is described below. The first has a simple garden whilst the second has a peristyle around a pool and various other extra rooms.

Early Roman house. The vegetable patch/garden was at the back, through the tablinum.

Example of a later Roman house where the basic atrium module has been extended towards the back into the garden with its peristyle.

The family has progressively moved away from the street side of the house whilst rooms by the door have become service quarters, stores or some sort of public activity.

The size, number of slaves, activities and beauty of the furnishings, frescoes and mosaics all depended on the personal preference and wealth of the owner and hence varied greatly according to fortune and personal taste - an example of how Roman patronage influenced art production.

Roman houses would be run by the lady of the house with the aid of her slaves. Extremely rich Roman families would have a large number of slaves for a variety of tasks in the home, including one to tell you the time. The finds at sites such as Pompeii and Ostia have enabled a great deal of information to be derived about the types and varieties of such Roman homes.

More detail of the Roman houses at ancient Pompeii have been assembled in the essay about the architecture of ancient Pompeii.

Roman Villas and farms - Roman villae - were clearly rather different in nature to the "common" home of the Roman general public. The building in this case would be made with the specific purpose of assisting the extended use to be made of the building beyond pure living quarters:

- in the case of the elitist villa this would be to both show personal wealth, entertain and undertake personal business.

- in the case of the Roman farms - villae rusticae - the building had to support the process, storage and supply chain involved with the production of a variety of staple agricultural producs such as olive oil, wine and general horticultural produce.

More detail about Roman villas and farms - villae rusticae - has been included in this separate section.

Building Materials used in Roman houses

A more complete rendition of ancient Roman building materials requires a whole page of its own, however Roman walls would be made of brick and mortar whilst floors and roof would be of wood. Terracotta tiles would provide the roof covering. Lead plumbing might be used to get water into the building itself. Lighting was via windows or burning torches and oil lamps, which clearly made buildings highly subject to fire.

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