Housing in Ancient Rome

Housing in Rome
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A growing pressure for land in the larger over populated cities gave rise to the insula, apartment. The term insula had originally been applied to rectangular shaped town building plots. Six to eight apartment blocks could occupy one insula, and were usually designed around an open courtyard. However with most apartment blocks being three stories high, at least, this simply became a light well. The lower classes of Romans (Plebeians) lived in these apartment houses, called flats, above or behind their shops,which usually fronted the street at ground level. Even fairly well-to-do tradesmen might chose to live in an apartment building compound over their store with maybe renters on the upper stories. Their apartments might be quite roomy, sanitary and pleasant, occasionally with running water. But others were not that nice.

In the apartment houses, or flats, an entire family ( grandparents, parents, children) might all be crowded into one room. They had to haul their water in from public facilities. Fire was a very real threat because people were cooking meals in crowded quarters, and many of the flats were made of wood and mud brick. There were no toilets, so they used public latrines. Later designs seem to have been built more safely, with fired brick and concrete, but there were no other improvements as far as sanitation and standard of living.

Despite variations in quality and allegations of questionable safety and sanitation, the apartment block became the most common form of Roman housing, as families began moving into rented spaces owned by landlords.

Augustus limited the height of the apartments to 60 Roman feet, a maximum of 5 stories. Later, Nero imposed fire regulations.

Apartments out numbered domus style town houses 25 to 1 by the 4th century, remaining the main type of housing until the end of the Empire.

Roman Apartments

Roman Apartments above shops

Shops were a common feature fronting Roman streets, occupying the front portion of many houses and apartment blocks. In some cases, in seems, as though the shops were deliberately designed into the buildings, but in many others, they were obviously added later. Most were single room tabernae, but a large number also had rooms in the back for storage and/or production, in addition to a mezzanine floor for storage and living quarters.

Many shops had large masonry counters with ceramic jars built into them, mouths flush with the counter. These conveniences were used to serve wine and food to customers.

Some shops sold imported goods, while others, like bakeries, would make their wares on site. During the Empire, many shops were built in planned concentrated markets known as macella , while the town forum also acted as a focal point for business. Other types of shops, such as inns and brothels, were common, but unrecognizable unless built specifically for the purpose.

Shops in Rome
Roman Shops

The Roman townhouse, or domus, was a single family house. The most popular design for this structure was was based around the atrium, which had it's roots in early Etruscan homes. These houses had a single main room with many small rooms opposite the entrance, or, in many cases, a set of small rooms around a courtyard, from which the atrium developed.

Early Pompeian houses were built around an atrium, or a large, open main hall. Later, the compluvium was added, a sloped hole in the room through which to filter in light and air. By the second century BC, an impluvium had been developed. This was a large type of hole in the floor of the house which collected rain water that fell through the compluvium.

By the late second century BC, the design had been amended, adding many smaller rooms, a peristyle and/or courtyard, and sometimes baths. There was usually only one door and one or two windows which faced the street.

The size of the house was a reflection of the wealth of the owner. A nicer house might have the atrium, which served as a type of reception hall/living room, leading into the tablinum, where the family records (tabulae) and portraits of ancestors (imagines) would be kept. Other rooms could include cubiculi (bedrooms), triclinia (dining room), oeci (reception rooms), a kitchen and a lavatory. The wealthy might also have accommodations for baths or a library.

Another modified style is the strip house, especially common in the northwest provinces. In a strip house, a long side would be built facing the street, while one or more wings would extend behind. Where frontage was expensive, these types of houses may have been built with one narrow end facing the street, which usually acted as a shop.

Other variations on the design, in general, are an indicator of the wealth of the owner, and the building materials available. Houses were generally built with wattle or daub infill set on foundations of low stone. Mud brick was also commonly used. Interior decorations, which were often imported, were an even more reliable indicator of the wealth of the owner. Houses were usually painted red towards the ground and white above. A few have been found with additional stories and cellars.

Roman Townhouse
Roman Townhouse fronted by a shop

During the middle/late republic, a villa rustica was the term applied to a farmstead attached to an estate, complete with accommodations for the owner, should he choose to visit. By the second century BC, the term was also used for large country homes and retreats, and soon, the meanings became indistinguishable. Many villas probably performed both duties, gradually passing from owner to owner over time.

A villa's wealthy and luxurious feel differentiated it from typical farmsteads. In the widest sense of the term, a villa was a farmhouse whose Romanized architecture separated it from normal farmsteads, ranging in size from modest to mansion. Romans themselves were not consistent with the use of the term, and there are a great number of borderline cases.

In the eastern provinces, we are unsure what the status and role of the villa was, but during the Empire the villa developed throughout Africa, Spain, Gaul, Britain, Germany, and the Danube province. A villa was generally the product of successful farming, and while original funds may have been supplied from elsewhere, maintenance funds came from farming. Villa farm operation were generally dependent on a relatively local market, such as a town or city.

A villa, together with the land (ager) it was built on and worked, was known as a fundus or estate. Some villas may have been set aside for important officials and imperial farming operations. Different varieties of the villa developed over the years based on geographical location. The villa suburbana was a farming homestead built on the outskirts of a town, in order to farm adjacent land, and was very similar to the domus style townhouses. During the Republic, the villa rustica developed into a new, peristyle villa, built on a courtyard/garden with colonnaded porticos on all sides. Some were very large and complex. Seaside luxury villas, villae maritimae, were also very popular for the wealthy and Emperors.

The basic peristyle villa spread from Italy during the first century BC, and remains have been found of villas in Provinces conquered early in the Empire, such as Spain. Conversely, villas are scarce in Britain until the second century AD. Regional differences in villas reflected wealth and tastes of the owner.

The most simple villas are native cottage types resembling farm homesteads. They were usually augmented by adding a corridor veranda, and then a wing on either end. In outlying provinces, the courtyard villa developed as an addition to the wings and corridor. These had buildings on one-to-four sides of a courtyard, resembling a farmyard more than a garden. In villas operated by the more wealthy, a second courtyard was often built to separate the agricultural and residential functions of the villa.

A late development of the northern villas, like those found in the Netherlands and Britain, is an aisled building. This addition was rectangle shaped, with two rows of posts dividing the inside into a nave and two aisles. Advanced models of this type contain mosaics, fresco, and hypocaust heating, and baths, although many still maintained agricultural and industrial use.

Rooms within a villa are similar to those in a townhouse, though, many have several large rooms with unknown functions. These may have served as guest accommodations, servant and slave quarters, or simply storage.

Roman Villa
A Roman Villa

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