The early Roman town house was little more than a single room known as the atrium. The roof sloped inwards and downwards from all sides to a rectangular opening, beneath which was a basin, the impluvium, set into the floor to catch the rainwater. As time went on, small extra rooms were built inside the atrium against its walls, or separated off by partitions.
Click here for a diagram and description of the typical plan of a Roman house.
Town houses did not usually consist of more than one storey, though upstairs dining-rooms are sometimes referred to. Apartments above shops, however, reached by an outside staircase, were a feature of small towns.
Reconstruction of a street in Pompeii. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)
Urban congestion was a problem in Rome from early times. It has been estimated from statistics compiled at the time that in the second century AD there were 1782 houses in the city, providing accommodation for 50,000 people, many of whom would have been household slaves. The other 1.5 million lived in tenement blocks, six or even seven storeys high. Augustus limited their height to 20 metres: Trajan lowered this to 18. Many were cheaply built on unsound foundations. Collapsed blocks were commonplace, rent irregularities were rife, and sanitation was superficial.
Model of a Roman room in a well-to-do home. (VRoma: Museum of London: Paula Chabot)
Reconstruction of a simple room based on Roman houses excavated in Newgate, London. Furniture, food, and room are replicas. Artefacts on the table - tablets and stylus, dishes, board game - are original. (VRoma: Museum of London: Barbara McManus)
Comparatively wealthy flat-dwellers lived on the ground floor and had access to a public sewer. Even in the purpose-built new-town apartment blocks in in Ostia, it would appear that upstairs private latrines were not connected to any public sewer. Upper-floor tenants in Rome had to make their own arrangements, though there were public lavatories for those who could afford them. The rest had recourse to chamber-pots, the contents of which they emptied into a well at the foot of the stairs, or threw out of the window into the streets below, a practice still prevailing in eighteenth-century Edinburgh, which had a similar population problem.
Public latrines, such as this one in Rome, also served a social function. The trend extended to private houses: the villa at Settefinestre, near Cosa, built in 75 BC, sports a communal lavatory seating twenty people at a time. (VRoma: Leslie Flood)
For the rich, there were two kinds of villa, or country house. The villa rustica was a glorified farmhouse for the owner of the estate when he happened to be in residence.
From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969.
The villa urbana was where you luxuriated or retreated for a holiday from the bustle of life in Rome, or stopped off for a night on a journey. Cicero, who was by no means one of the richest men of his age, had seven country houses, each of which he used from time to time. Pliny the Younger, who was very rich, had at least four, including one in Etruria where he spent the summer, and the especially opulent one on the seashore at Laurentum, which was near enough to Rome, with a good road between, for him to be able to ride or drive home after a full day’s business in the city.
Central heating was invented by Sergius Oresta in about 100 BC. 1] Marble wall facings. 2] Mosaic floor on cement. 3] Bricks on brick piers. 4] Wall flues. 5] Hot air from furnaces. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)
Rich Romans lived in houses in town, and often had villas in the country as well. The poor lived in multi-storey apartment blocks (insulae), which were insanitary and often dangerous.
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