HOUSING IN ANCIENT ROME

 

 

 

When a woman married she moved to her husbandís home: never the other way round. Since young people entering into their first marriage invariably stayed within their class, the home the new bride entered would not be dissimilar to her old one. The richer they were, of course, the larger and grander the accommodations would be, but there were no prestige neighborhoods, and a palatial home could be surrounded by a slum. The residents would have nothing to do with each other, but the very rich and the very poor could be neighbors, perhaps as we will see in a moment even living in the same building.

†††††† Outside the downtown core of large cities, we have today grown accustomed to wide streets and suburbs with a plethora of large, single-family homes. These things are possible only if there is a transportation system capable of getting people from home to work to shopping, friends, and entertainment, and without it the only way a city could accommodate an expanding population was to make the streets narrower and the buildings taller. By the end of the Republic three story apartment buildings were common, and in the Empire they grew even higher. Pity the woman whose new husband lived on a sixth floor walkup.

†††††† Other than a door at the front, the outer wall of a detached, single family dwelling was an unbroken perimeter completely enclosing a house whose inside rooms all opened onto an unroofed courtyard in the center. The size of the building determined the number of rooms that could be lined up along each side. If such a house were located on a busy, down-town street there might be one or more shops across the front, to provide some extra income. From the front and side walls the roof over the front half of the house sloped upward as you would expect, but before it could reach a peak at the top, the slope turned down until it reached a rectangular opening that allowed rainwater to drain into a pool whose size and location on the ground exactly matched. The open-air courtyard in the rear half of the house had a garden, perhaps a pond, and provided light and fresh air to all of the rooms that surrounded it. While it would not have worked in a location with cold, snowy winters, the design allowed residents to enjoy fresh air and sunlight and still keep inquisitive eyes out.

†††††† A private unit in a multi-story apartment building was the best that most urban dwellers could expect. These structures generally occupied a full city block and could on occasion be as much as six stories tall forcing the bride whose new home was on the top floor to make quite a climb every day without an elevator, although if her new home were on the ground floor, she could possibly have a residence only slightly down the scale from a detached mansion. Most of these apartment buildings, called insulae by the Romans, were rectangular structures built around a central courtyard. While the earliest ones, built of mud-brick, gravel fill, and timbers, were subject to sudden collapse, building codes in Rome were gradually strengthened and the workmanship improved. The invention and use of fired bricks added considerably to safety, but conflagration remained an ever-present danger. The ground floor often consisted of shops opening onto the street. Most of these had a loft which could be used as a residence by some of the employees. Occasionally the entire ground floor was occupied by a single family, providing a standard of magnificence not too far removed from the fully detached dwelling.

†††††† The level of luxury was, of course, directly related to the amount of rent a family could afford to pay. The more you spent, the more rooms you got, the better built and safer was the building you were in, and the closer to the ground was your apartment. Those close to the ground could have 4 or 5 rooms while the ones on the top floor had only a single, small room. Running water was a convenience usually restricted to the ground floor forcing everyone else to get their water in the courtyard or at a public fountain. Ground level apartments might have private lavatories, but most people had to use a chamber pot and then dump their waste down a chute at the end of the hall. Since the law code contained measures that could be taken by passersby hit on the head with waste, it must be assumed that such occurrences were not unknown. Detached houses and the ground-floor apartments had heated floors to keep residents warm in the winter, but no such luxury was available higher up, where heating and cooking were accomplished with a charcoal brazier.

†††††† As is the case even today, the need for windows and access to light had a strong influence on the design of the units in an apartment building. A popular layout for those with the money to pay for it featured two large rooms at either end, joined by a wide hall stretchingacross the front of the building and providing living space, light and access to several smaller bedrooms. If the terms of the lease permitted it, some families took in lodgers to help pay the rent, but such a step was too risky for some as the law clearly held the leaseholder liable should anyone in his unit cause injury by throwing waste out the window.

†††††† There was less furniture in the homes of all classes in Ancient Rome than we would expect to find today. Probably the most important item was the bed, usually consisting of legs, a wooden frame, leather straps and a set of cushions or blankets, that served as a couch in the daytime and a place to sleep at night. Chairs were few in number and used only by honored guests and the elderly, leaving most people to sit on folding stools. A table and boxes for storage completed the inventory of furniture. By our standards, there was not much: the rich distinguished themselves not by the quantity of pieces but by the quality of workmanship and materials in their furniture and by the value of the frescoes and mosaics. In the Empire they would have been proud to include a water-clock among their ornaments.

 

 

 

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