Parts of a domus (an ancient Roman house)

In front of the courtyard in a typical Greco-Roman dwelling was the atrium , the main room in the house. It was often a square room with a hole in the roof to let light in. Guests were entertained here and friends and family gathered here to socialize and relax. In this large room family treasures were displayed, and usually there was an altar with figures of gods or bearded snakes placed on it. Rooms sometimes contained niches. [Source: “Greek and Roman Life” by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum ||]

The roof of a typical house was covered by pottery tiles and designed so it directed water into a storage basin. During Roman times, when urban areas became crowded and concrete construction was developed, houses with several stories were built for the first time on a large scale. Rural houses were surrounded by sheep pens, small orchards and gardens that varied in size depending on how rich the owner was. Many families kept bees in pottery hives. ||

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Roman “houses were in some ways similar to those of today. They had two stories, although the second story rarely survives. They contained bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, but there were also spaces specific to Roman houses: the atrium was a typical early feature of houses in the western half of the empire, a shaded walkway surrounding a central impluvium or pool, which served as the location for the owner's meeting with his clients in the morning; the tablinum was a main reception room emerging from the atrium, where the owner often sat to receive his clients; and finally, the peristyle was an open-air courtyard of varying size, laid out as a garden normally in the West, but paved with marble in the East.” [Source: Ian Lockey, Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2009,]

The uncovered ruins of Pompeii show to us a great many houses, from the most simple to the elaborate “House of Pansa.” The ordinary house (domus) consisted of front and rear parts connected by a central area, or court. The front part contained the entrance hall (vestibulum); the large reception room (atrium); and the private room of the master (tablinum), which contained the archives of the family. The large central court was surrounded by columns (peristylum). The rear part contained the more private apartments—the dining room (triclinium), where the members of the family took their meals reclining on couches; the kitchen (culina); and the bathroom (balneum).” [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), ]

According to Listverse: “ Roofs were not allowed to be higher than 17 meters (during the reign of Hadrian) due to the danger of collapse, and most apartments had windows. Water would be brought in from outside and residents would have to go out to public latrines to use the toilet. Because of the danger of fire, the Romans living in these apartments were not allowed to cook – so they would eat out or buy food in from takeaway shops (called thermopolium).” [Source: Listverse, October 16, 2009]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Vestibulum and Ostium

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: The city house was built on the street line. In the poorer houses the door opening into the atrium was in the front wall, and was separated from the street only by the width of the threshold. In the better sort of houses those described in the last section, the separation of the atrium from the street by the row of shops gave opportunity for arranging a more imposing entrance. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Pompeii street

“Sometimes a part, at least, of this space was left as an open court, with a costly pavement running from the street to the door, the court was adorned with shrubs, flowers, statuary even, and trophies of war, if the owner was rich and a successful general. This courtyard was called the vestibulum. The important point to notice is that it does not correspond at all to the part of a modern house called, after it, the vestibule. In this vestibulum the clients gathered, before daybreak perhaps, to wait for admission to the atrium, and here the sportula was doled out to them. Here, too, was arranged the wedding procession, and here was marshaled the train that escorted the boy to the Forum the day that he put away childish things. Even in the poorer houses the same name was given to the little space between the door and the inner edge of the sidewalk. |+|

“The Ostium. The entrance to the house was called the ostium. This includes the doorway and the door itself, and the word is applied to either, though fores and ianua are the more precise words for the door. In the poorer houses the ostium was directly on the street, and there can be no doubt that it originally opened directly into the atrium; in other words, the ancient atrium was separated from the street only by its own wall. The refinement of later times led to the introduction of a hall or passageway between the vestibulum and the atrium, and the ostium opened into this hall and gradually gave its name to it. The door was placed well back, leaving a broad threshold (limen), which often had the word Salve worked on it in mosaic. Sometimes over the door were words of good omen, Nihil intret mali, for example, or a charm against fire. In the houses where an ostiarius or ianitor was kept on duty, his place was behind the door; sometimes he had here a small room. A dog was often kept chained inside the ostium, or in default of one a picture of a dog was painted on the wall or worked in mosaic on the floor with the warning beneath it: Cave canem! The hallway was closed on the side of the atrium with a curtain (velum). Through this hallway persons in the atrium could see passers-by in the street.” |+|

Atrium of a Roman House

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: The atrium was the kernel of the Roman house. The most conspicuous features of the atrium were the compluvium and the impluvium. The water collected in the latter was carried into cisterns; across the former a curtain could be drawn when the light was too intense, as across a photographer’s skylight nowadays. We find that the two words were carelessly used for each other by Roman writers. So important was the compluvium to the atrium that the atrium was named from the manner in which the compluvium was constructed. Vitruvius tells us that there were four styles. The first was called the atrium Tuscanicum. In this the roof was formed by two pairs of beams crossing each other at right angles; the inclosed space was left uncovered and thus formed the compluvium. It is evident that this mode of construction could not be used for rooms of large dimensions. The second was called atrium tetrastylon. The beams were supported at their intersections by pillars or columns. The third, atrium Corinthium, differed from the second only in having more than four supporting pillars. The fourth was called the atrium displuviatumIn this the roof sloped toward the outer walls, and the water was carried off by gutters on the outside; the impluvium collected only so much water as actually fell into it from the heavens. We are told that there was another style of atrium, the testudinatum, which was covered all over and had neither impluvium nor compluvium. We do not know how this was lighted. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

atrium interior

The Change in the Atrium. The simplicity and purity of the family life of that period lent a dignity to the one-room house that the vast palaces of the late Republic and Empire failed utterly to inherit. By Cicero’s time the atrium had ceased to be the center of domestic life; it had become a state apartment used only for display. We do not know the successive steps in the process of change. Probably the rooms along the sides of the atrium were first used as bedrooms, for the sake of greater privacy. The necessity of a detached room for the cooking, and then of a dining-room, must have been felt as soon as the peristylium was adopted (it may well be that this court was originally a kitchen garden). Then other rooms were added about the peristylium, and these were made sleeping apartments for the sake of still greater privacy. From the Marble Plan, now in the Antiquarium at RomeFinally these rooms were needed for other purposes and the sleeping rooms were moved again, this time to an upper story. When this second story was added we do not know, but it presupposes the small and costly lots of a city. Even unpretentious houses in Pompeii have in them the remains of staircases. |+| “The atrium was now fitted up with all the splendor and magnificence that the owner’s means would permit. The opening in the roof was enlarged to admit more light, and the supporting pillars were made of marble or costly woods. Between these pillars, and along the walls, statues and other works of art were placed. The impluvium became a marble basin, with a fountain in the center, and was often richly carved or adorned with figures in relief. The floors were mosaic, the walls painted in brilliant colors or paneled with marbles of many hues, and the ceilings were covered with ivory and gold. In such an atrium the host greeted his guests, the patron, in the days of the Empire, received his clients, the husband welcomed his wife, and here the master’s body lay in state when the pride of life was over. |+|

“Still, some memorials of the older day were left in even the most imposing atrium. The altar to the Lares and Penates sometimes remained near the place where the hearth had been, though the regular sacrifices were made in a special chapel in the peristylium. In even the grandest houses the implements for spinning were kept in the place where the matron had once sat among her slave women, as Livy tells us in the story of Lucretia. The cabinets retained the masks of simpler and, perhaps, stronger men, and the marriage couch stood opposite the ostium (hence its other name, lectus adversus), where it had been placed on the wedding night, though no one slept in the atrium. In the country much of the old-time use of the atrium survived even in the days of Augustus, and the poor, of course, had never changed their style of living. What use was made of the small rooms along the sides of the atrium, after they had ceased to be bedchambers, we do not know; they served, perhaps, as conversation rooms, private parlors, and drawing-rooms.” |+|

Alae, Tablinum and Peristylium

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Alae. The manner in which the alae, or wings, were formed has been explained; they were simply the rectangular recesses left on the right and left of the atrium when the smaller rooms on those sides were walled off. It must be remembered that they were entirely open to the atrium and formed a part of it. In them were kept the imagines (the wax busts of those ancestors who had held curule offices), arranged in cabinets in such a way that, by the help of cords running from one to another and of inscriptions under each of them, the relations of the men to one another could be made clear and their great deeds kept in mind. Even when Roman writers or those of modern times speak of the imagines as in the atrium, it is the alae that are intended. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]


“The Tablinum. The possible origin of the tablinum has already been explained. Its name has been derived from the material (tabulae, “planks”) of the “lean-to,” from which, perhaps, it developed. Others think that the room received its name from the fact that in it the master kept his account books (tabulae) as well as all his business and private papers. This is unlikely, for the name was probably fixed before the time when the room was used for this purpose. He kept here also the money chest or strong box (arca), which in the olden time had been chained to the floor of the atrium, and made the room in fact his office or study. By its position it commanded the whole house, as the rooms could be entered only from the atrium or peristylium, and the tablinum was right between them. The master could secure entire privacy by closing the folding doors which cut off the peristylium, the private court, or by pulling the curtains across the opening into the atrium, the great hall. On the other hand, if the tablinum was left open, the guest entering the ostium must have had a charming vista, commanding at a glance all the public and semi-public parts of the house. Even when the tablinum was closed, there was free passage from the front of the house to the rear through the short corridor by the side of the tablinum. |+|

“The Peristylium. The peristylium, or peristylum, was adopted, as we have seen, from the Greeks, but despite the way in which the Roman clung to the customs of his fathers it was not long in becoming the more important of the two main sections of the house. We must think of a spacious court open to the sky, but surrounded by rooms, all facing it and having doors and latticed windows opening upon it. All these rooms had covered porches on the side next the court. These porches, forming an unbroken colonnade on the four sides, were strictly the peristyle, though the name came to be used of this whole section of the house, including court, colonnade, and surrounding rooms. The court was much more open to the sun than the atrium was; all sorts of rare and beautiful plants and flowers flourished in this spacious court, protected by the walls from cold winds. The peristylium was often laid out as a small formal garden, having neat geometrical beds edged with bricks. Careful excavation at Pompeii has even given an idea of the planting of the shrubs and flowers. Fountains and statuary adorned these little gardens; the colonnade furnished cool or sunny promenades, no matter what the time of day or the season of the year. Since the Romans loved the open air and the charms of nature, it is no wonder that they soon made the peristyle the center of their domestic life in all the houses of the better class, and reserved the atrium for the more formal functions which their political and public position demanded. It must be remembered that there was often a garden behind the peristyle, and there was also very commonly a direct connection between the peristyle and the street.” |+|

Rooms in a Roman Home

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: The rooms surrounding the peristylium varied so much with the means and tastes of the owners of the houses that we can hardly do more than give a list of those most frequently mentioned in literature. It is important to remember that in the town house all these rooms received their light by day from the peristylium. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Cubiculum of a villa at Boscoreale

“The sleeping rooms (cubicula) were not considered so important by the Romans as by us, for the reason, probably, that they were used merely to sleep in and not for living-rooms as well. They were very small, and their furniture was scant, even in the best houses. Some of these seem to have had anterooms in connection with the cubicula, which were probably occupied by attendants. Even in the ordinary houses there was often a recess for the bed. Some of the bedrooms seem to have been used merely for the midday siesta; these were naturally situated in the coolest part of the peristylium; they were called cubicula diurna. The others were called by way of distinction cubicula nocturna or dormitoria, and were placed so far as possible on the west side of the court in order that they might receive the morning sun. It should be remembered that, finally, in the best houses bedrooms were preferably in the second story of the peristyle. |+|

“A library (bibliotheca) had its place in the house of every Roman of education. Collections of books were large as well as numerous, and were made then, as now, even by persons who cared nothing about their contents. The books, or rolls, which will be described later, were kept in cases or cabinets around the walls. In one library discovered in Herculaneum an additional rectangular case occupied the middle of the room. It was customary to decorate the room with statues of Minerva and the Muses, and also with the busts and portraits of distinguished men of letters. Vitruvius recommends an eastern aspect for the bibliotheca, probably to guard against dampness. |+|

“Besides these rooms, which must have been found in all good houses, there were others of less importance, some of which were so rare that we scarcely know their uses. The sacrarium was a private chapel in which the images of the gods were kept, acts of worship performed, and sacrifices offered. The oeci were halls or saloons, corresponding perhaps to our parlors and drawing-rooms, and probably used occasionally as banquet halls. The exedrae were rooms supplied with permanent seats; they seem to have been used for lectures and various entertainments. The solarium was a place in which to bask in the sun, sometimes a terrace, often the flat part of the roof, which was then covered with earth and laid out like a garden and made beautiful with flowers and shrubs. Besides these there were, of course, sculleries, pantries, and storerooms. The slaves had to have their quarters (cellae servorum), in which they were packed as closely as possible. Cellars under the houses seem to have been rare, though some have been found at Pompeii.” |+|

Kitchen and Dining Room

Kitchens generally were poorly ventilated and had packed dirt floors. They were meant for slaves only and not for public viewing. Even middle and upper class homes in Pompeii often had a tiny kitchen that was combined with the latrine. Beard wrote that the kitchen in the House of the Tragic Poet, the setting of a banquet in the popular novel The Last Days of Pompeii , would have been far too small to produce a large banquet. And worse: “Just over the back wall of the garden...was a cloth-processing workshop, or fullery. Fulling is messy business, its main ingredient being human urine...The work was noisy and smelly. In the background of Glaucus’ elegant dinner party there must have been distinctly nasty odors."

A stone cooking range and bronze cooking vessels were found in the kitchen of the House of the Vettii. Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: Cooking took place on top of the range - the bronze pots were placed on iron braziers over a small fire. In other houses, the pointed bases of amphorae storage jars were used instead of tripods to support vessels. Firewood was stored in the alcove beneath the range. Typical cooking vessels include cauldrons, skillets and pans, and reflect the fact that food generally was boiled rather than baked. Not all houses in Pompeii have masonry ranges or even separate kitchens - indeed, distinct kitchen areas generally are found only in the larger houses of the town. It is likely that in many houses cooking took place on portable braziers.” [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011]

In an upper class domus the kitchen (culina) was placed on the side of the peristylium opposite the tablinum. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “It was supplied with an open fireplace for roasting and boiling, and with a stove not unlike the charcoal stoves still used in Europe. This was regularly of masonry, built against the wall, with a place for fuel beneath it, but there were occasional portable stoves. Kitchen utensils have been found at Pompeii. The spoons, pots and pans, kettles and pails, are graceful in form and often of beautiful workmanship. There are interesting pastry molds. Trivets held the pots and pans above the glowing charcoal on the top of the stove. Some pots stood on legs. The shrine of the household gods sometimes followed the hearth into the kitchen from its old place in the atrium. Near the kitchen was the bakery, if the mansion required one, supplied with an oven. Near it, too, was the bathhouse with the necessary closet (latrina), in order that kitchen and bathhouse might use the same sewer connection. If the house had a stable, it was also put near the kitchen, as nowadays in Latin countries. |+|

“The dining-room (triclinium) may be mentioned next. It was not necessarily closely connected with the kitchen, because, as in the Old South, lthe numbers of slaves made its position of little importance so far as convenience was concerned. It was customary to have several triclinia for use at different seasons of the year, in order that one room might be warmed by the sun in winter, and another might in summer escape its rays. Vitruvius thought the length of the triclinium should be twice its breadth, but the ruins show no fixed proportions. The Romans were so fond of air and sky that the peristylium, or part of it, must often have served as a dining-room. An outdoor dining-room is found in the so-called House of Sallust at Pompeii. Horace has a charming picture of a master, attended by a single slave, dining under an arbor.” |+|

Gardens in Ancient Rome

Most Roman houses, large or small, had a garden. Large homes had one in the courtyard and this was often where the family gathered, socialized and ate their meals. The sunny Mediterranean climate in Italy was usually accommodating to this routine. On the walls of the houses around the garden were paintings of more plants and flowers as well as exotic birds, cows, birdfeeders, and columns, as if the homeowner was trying achieve the same affects as the backdrop on a Hollywood set. Poor families tended small plots in the back of the house, or at least had some potted plants.

Getty Villa garden
A peristyle garden was surrounded by a colonnade. A pool or fountain often sat at the center and space was filled with a variety of sculptures and plants. These gardens were designed be oases of green in an otherwise urban landscape. Those that could afford it decorated their gardens with busts of gods or philosophers and animal statuary. Relief ornaments called oscilas were suspended from space between columns so, as their name suggests, they could oscillate in the breeze. Some large gardens were built by wealthy Romans to display their wealth.

In Pompeii, archaeologists have reproduced Roman gardens with the same plants found in classical times. Opium was sometimes grown in Roman gardens.

The Romans were obsessed with roses. Rose water bathes were available in public baths and roses were tossed in the air during ceremonies and funerals. Theater-goers sat under awning scented with rose perfume; people ate rose pudding, concocted love potions with rose oil, and stuffed their pillows with rose petals. Rose petals were a common feature of orgies and a holiday, Rosalia, was name in honor of the flower.

Nero bathed in rose oil wine. He once spent 4 million sesterces (the equivalent of $200,000 in today's money) on rose oils, rose water, and rose petals for himself and his guests for a single evening. At parties he installed silver pipes under each plate to release the scent of roses in the direction of guests and installed a ceiling that opened up and showered guests with flower petals and perfume. According to some sources, more perfumes was splashed around than were produced in Arabia in a year at his funeral in A.D. 65. Even the processionary mules were scented.

Walls in a Roman House

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: The materials of which the walls (parietes) were composed varied with the time, the place, and the cost of transportation. Stone and unburned brick (lateres crudi) were the earliest materials used in Italy, as almost everywhere else, timber being employed for merely temporary structures, as in the addition from which the tablinum, perhaps, developed. For private houses in early times and for public buildings in all times, walls of dressed stone (opus quadratum) were laid in regular courses, precisely as in modern times. As the tufa, the volcanic stone first easily available in Latium, was dull and unattractive in color, over the wall was spread, for decorative purposes, a coating of fine marble stucco which gave it a finish of dazzling white. For less pretentious houses, not for public buildings, sun-dried bricks (the adobe of our southwestern states) were largely used until the beginning of the first century B.C. These, too, were covered with stucco, for protection against the weather as well as for decoration, but even the hard stucco has not preserved walls of this perishable material to our times. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

concrete wall casting

“In classical times a new material had come into use, better than either brick or stone, cheaper, more durable, more easily worked and transported, which was employed almost exclusively for private houses, and very generally for public buildings. Walls constructed in the new way (opus caementicium) are variously called “rubble-work” or “concrete” in our books of reference, but neither term is quite accurate; the opus caementicium was not laid in courses, as is our rubble-work, while on the other hand larger stones were used in it than in the concrete of which walls for buildings are now constructed. |+|

“Paries Caementicius. The materials of the paries caementicius varied with the place. At Rome lime and volcanic ashes (lapis Puteolanus) were used with pieces of stone as large as or larger than the fist. Brickbats sometimes took the place of stone, and sand that of the volcanic ashes; potsherds crushed fine were better than the sand. The harder the stones the better the concrete; the best concrete was made with pieces of lava, the material with which the roads were generally paved. The method of forming the concrete walls was the same as that of modern times. First, upright posts, about 5 by 6 inches thick, and from 10 to 15 feet in height, were fixed about 3 feet apart along the line of both faces of the projected wall. Outside these were nailed, horizontally, boards 10 or 12 inches wide. Into the intermediate space the semi-fluid concrete was poured, receiving the imprint of posts and boards. When the concrete had hardened, the framework was removed and raised; thus the work was continued until the wall had reached the required height. Walls made in this way varied in thickness from a seven-inch partition wall in an ordinary house to the eighteen-foot walls of the Pantheon of Agrippa. They were far more durable than stone walls, which might be removed stone by stone with little more labor than was required to put them together; the concrete wall was a single slab of stone throughout its whole extent, and large parts of it might be cut away without in the slightest degree diminishing the strength of the rest. |+|

“Wall Facings. Impervious to the weather though these walls were, they were usually faced with stone or kiln-burned bricks (lateres cocti). The stone employed was commonly the soft tufa, not nearly so well adapted to stand the weather as the concrete itself. The earliest fashion was to take bits of stone having one smooth face but of no regular size or shape and arrange them, with the smooth faces against the framework, as fast as the concrete was poured in; when the framework was removed, the wall presented the appearance shown at A. Such a wall was called opus incertum. In later times the tufa was used in small blocks having the smooth face square and of a uniform size. A wall so faced looked as if covered with a net and was therefore called opus reticulatum. A corner section is shown at C. In either case the exterior face of the wall was usually covered with a fine limestone or marble stucco, which gave a hard finish, smooth and white. The burned bricks were triangular in shape, but their arrangement and appearance can be more easily understood from the illustration. It must be noticed that there were no walls made of lateres cocti alone; even the thin partition walls had a core of concrete.” |+|

Floors, Ceilings and Roofs in Roman Houses

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “In the poorer houses the floor (solum) of the first story was made by smoothing the ground between the walls, covering it thickly with small pieces of stone, bricks, tile, and potsherds, and pounding all down solidly and smoothly with a heavy rammer (fistuca). Such a floor was called pavimentum, but the name came gradually to be used of floors of all kinds. In houses of a better sort the floor was made of stone slabs fitted smoothly together. The more pretentious houses had concrete floors made as has been described. Floors of upper stories were sometimes made of wood, but concrete was used here, too, poured over a temporary flooring of wood. Such a floor was very heavy, and required strong walls to support it; examples are preserved of floors with a thickness of eighteen inches and a span of twenty feet. A floor of this kind made a perfect ceiling for the room below, requiring only a finish of stucco. Other ceilings were made much as they are now: laths were nailed on the stringers or rafters and covered with mortar and stucco.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: ““Floors were also decorated, often with cut marble (opus sectile) or with tessellated mosaics. The mosaics could be quite simple, representing geometric shapes, or very elaborate with complex figural scenes. North Africa and Syria are perhaps the most famous for their mosaics, popularizing hunting scenes in late antiquity. Other themes typified in these mosaics are images of philosophers, rich scenes of animals or the countryside, or scenes of divinities and myth. Many mosaics were a blend of these simple geometric shapes and figural scenes, much like the example in the Museum depicting a garlanded woman surrounded by geometric shapes. [Source: Ian Lockey, Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2009, \^/]

inside the Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii

“Mosaic decoration was not restricted to the floors of Roman houses. Ceiling and wall mosaics, often of glass, were sometimes employed, used mostly in between columns or in vaulted niches. A well-preserved example can be seen in one of the townhouses at Ephesus in Asia Minor (Turkey). More usual decoration on the ceilings came in the form of molded stucco and painted panels. Stucco panels displayed architectural motifs or molded relief scenes and clad ceilings, especially vaulted ones. The stucco panels in the Museum reflect common thematic concerns of the elite—mythological scenes, exotic animals, and divinities. Such stucco panels could also be used as a decorative element along the tops of walls, similar to the terracotta group in the Museum's collection. The painted panels and stucco decoration were the final part of an interrelated decorative scheme, encompassing the floor, walls, and ceiling. Archaeological remains show that frequently similar colors were used at least on the wall and ceiling panels to create a common aesthetic.” \^/

“Roofs. The construction of the roofs (tecta) differed very little from the modern method. Roofs varied as much as ours do in shape; some were flat, others sloped in two directions, others in four. In the most ancient times the covering was a thatch of straw, as in the so-called hut of Romulus (casa Romuli) on the Palatine Hill, preserved even under the Empire as a relic of the past (see note, page 134). Shingles followed the straw, only to give place, in turn, to tiles. These were at first flat, like our shingles, but were later made with a flange on each side in such a way that the lower part of one would slip into the upper part of the one below it on the roof. The tiles (tegulae) were laid side by side and the flanges covered by other tiles, called imbrices, inverted over them. Gutters also of tile ran along the eaves to conduct the water into cisterns, if it was needed for domestic use.” |+|

Doors and Windows in a Roman House

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Roman doorway, like our own, had four parts: the threshold (limen), the two jambs (postes), and the lintel (limen superum). The lintel was always of a single piece of stone and peculiarly massive. The doors were exactly like those of modern times, except in the matter of hinges, for, though the Romans had hinges like ours, they did not use them on their doors. The door-support was really a cylinder of hard wood, a little longer than the door and of a diameter a little greater than the thickness of the door, terminating above and below in pivots. These pivots turned in sockets made to receive them in the threshold and the lintel. To this cylinder the door was mortised, so that the combined weight of cylinder and door came upon the lower pivot. The Roman comedies are full of references to the creaking of the front doors of houses. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The outer door of the house was properly called ianua, an inner door ostium, but the two words carne to be used indiscriminately, and the latter was even applied to the whole entrance. Double doors were called fores; the back door, opening into a garden or into a peristylium from the rear or from a side street, was called posticum. The doors opened inward; those in the outer wall were supplied with slide-bolts (pessuli) and bars (serae). Locks and keys by which the doors could be fastened from without were not unknown, but were very heavy and clumsy. In the interiors of private houses doors were less common than now, as the Romans preferred portières (vela, aulaea.)

recreation of the interior of a Roman villa in Borg, Germany

“The Windows. In the principal rooms of a private house the windows (fenestrae) opened on the peristylium, as has been seen, and it may be set down as a rule that in private houses rooms situated on the first floor and used for domestic purposes did not often have windows opening on the street. In the upper floors there were outside windows in such apartments as had no outlook on the peristylium, as in those above the rented rooms in the House of Pansa and in insulae in general. Country houses might have outside windows in the first story. Some windows were provided with shutters, which were made to slide from side to side in a framework on the outside of the wall. These shutters (foriculae, valvae) were sometimes in two parts moving in opposite directions; when closed they were said to be iunctae. Other windows were latticed; others again, were covered with a fine network to keep out mice and other objectionable animals. Glass was known to the Romans of the Empire, but was too expensive for general use in windows. Talc and other translucent materials were also employed in window frames as a protection against cold, but only in very rare instances.” |+|

Decoration in a Roman House

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: Houses were small and simple with little decoration until the last century of the Republic. The outside of the house was usually left severely plain; the walls were merely covered with stucco, as we have seen. The interior was decorated to suit the tastes and means of the owner; not even the poorer houses lacked charming effects. At first the stucco-finished walls were merely marked off into rectangular panels (abaci), which were painted in deep, rich colors; reds and yellows predominated. Then in the middle of these panels simple centerpieces were painted, and the whole was surrounded with the most brilliant arabesques. Then came elaborate pictures, figures, interiors, landscapes, etc., of large size and most skillfully executed, all painted directly upon the wall, as in some of our public buildings today. A little later the walls began to be covered with panels of thin slabs of marble with a baseboard and cornice. Beautiful effects were produced by combining marbles of different tints, since the Romans ransacked the world for striking colors. Later still came raised figures of stucco work, enriched with gold and colors, and mosaic work, chiefly of minute pieces of colored glass, which had a jewel-like effect. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The doors and doorways gave opportunities for treatment equally artistic. The doors were richly paneled and carved, or were plated with bronze, or made of solid bronze. The threshold was often of mosaic. The postes were sheathed with marble usually carved in elaborate designs.The floors were covered with marble tiles arranged in geometrical figures with contrasting colors, much as they are now in public buildings, or with mosaic pictures only less beautiful than those upon the walls. The most famous of these, “Darius at the Battle of Issus,” measures sixteen feet by eight, but despite its size has no less than one hundred fifty separate pieces to each square inch. The ceilings were often barrel-vaulted and painted in brilliant colors, or were divided into panels (lacus, lacunae), deeply sunk, by heavy intersecting beams of wood or marble, and then decorated in the most elaborate manner with raised stucco work, or gold or ivory, or with bronze plates heavily gilded.” |+|

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “One of the most well known features of the decoration of a Roman house is wall painting. However, the walls of Roman houses could also be decorated with marble revetment, thin panels of marble of various colors mortared to the wall. This revetment often imitated architecture, by for example being cut to resemble columns and capitals spaced along the wall. Often, even within the same house, plastered walls were painted to appear to be marble revetment, as in the exedral paintings in the collection. The examples at the Museum demonstrate the various possible types of Roman wall painting. An owner might choose to represent ideal landscapes framed by architecture, finer architectural elements and candelabra, or figural scenes relating to entertainment or to mythology, such as the Polyphemus and Galatea scene or the Perseus and Andromeda scene from the villa of Agrippa Posthumus at Boscotrecase. [Source: Ian Lockey, Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2009, \^/]

recreation of a villa interior in Zaragoza, Spain

“The display of statuary of various kinds was an important part of the "furniture" of a Roman house. Sculpture and bronze statues were displayed throughout the house in various contexts—on tables, in specially built niches, in relief panels on walls—but all in the most visible areas of the house. This sculpture could be of numerous types—portrait busts of famous individuals or relatives, lifesize statues of family members, generals, divinities, or mythological figures such as muses. In late antiquity, small-scale sculpture of figures from myth became very popular. In conjunction with the other decorative features of the house, this sculpture was intended to impart a message to visitors. Domestic display is a good example of the conspicuous consumption of the Roman elite, proving that they had wealth and therefore power and authority. Scenes in painting and sculptural collections also helped to associate the owners with key features of Roman life such as education (paideia) and military achievements, validating the owner's position in his world.”“ \^/

Heating in Ancient Rome

The Romans had no stoves like ours, and rarely did they have any chimneys. The house was warmed by portable furnaces (foculi), like fire pans, in which coal or charcoal was burned, the smoke escaping through the doors or an open place in the roof; sometimes hot air was introduced by pipes from below.” [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901),]

Central heating was invented in Roman engineers in the A.D. first century. Seneca wrote it consisted of "tubes embedded in the walls for directing and spreading, equally throughout the house, a soft and regular heat." The tubes were terra cotta and they carried exhaust from a coal or wood fire in the basement. The practice died out in Europe in the Dark Ages.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Even in the mild climate of Italy the houses must often have been too cold for comfort. On merely chilly days the occupants probably contented themselves with moving into rooms warmed by the direct rays of the sun, or with wearing wraps or heavier clothing. In the more severe weather of actual winter they used foculi, charcoal stoves or braziers of the sort still used in the countries of southern Europe. These were merely metal boxes in which hot coals could be put, with legs to keep the floors from injury and handles by which they could be carried from room to room. The wealthy sometimes had furnaces resembling ours under their houses; in such cases, the heat was carried to the rooms by tile pipes, The partitions and floors then were generally hollow, and the hot air circulated through them, warming the rooms without being admitted directly to them. These furnaces had chimneys, but furnaces were seldom used in private houses in Italy. Remains of such heating arrangements are found more commonly in the northern provinces, particularly in Britain, where the furnace-heated house seems to have been common in the Roman period.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) ]

Water Supplies and Sewers in Ancient Rome

Some houses had water piped in but most homeowners had to have their water fetched and carried, one of the main duties of household slaves. Residents generally had to go out to public latrines to use the toilet.


According to Listverse: The Romans “had two main supplies of water – high quality water for drinking and lower quality water for bathing. In 600 BC, the King of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus, decided to have a sewer system built under the city. It was created mainly by semi-forced laborers. The system, which outflowed into the Tiber river, was so effective that it remains in use today (though it is now connected to the modern sewerage system). It continues to be the main sewer for the famous amphitheater. It was so successful in fact, that it was imitated throughout the Roman Empire.” [Source: Listverse, October 16, 2009]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “All the important towns of Italy and many cities throughout the Roman world had abundant supplies of water brought by aqueducts from hills, sometimes at a considerable distance. The aqueducts of the Romans were among their most stupendous and most successful works of engineering. The first great aqueduct (aqua) at Rome was built in 312 B.C. by the famous censor Appius Claudius. Three more were built during the Republic and at least seven under the Empire, so that ancient Rome was at last supplied by eleven or more aqueducts. Modern Rome is well supplied by four, which are the sources and occasionally the channels of as many of the ancient ones. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Mains were laid down the middle of the streets, and from these the water was piped into the houses. There was often a tank in the upper part of the house from which the water was distributed as needed. It was not usually carried into many of the rooms, but there was always a fountain in the peristylium and its garden, and a jet in the bathhouse and in the closet. The bathhouse had a separate heating apparatus of its own, which kept the room or rooms at the desired temperature and furnished hot water as required. The poor must have carried the water for household use from the public fountains in the streets. |+|

“The necessity for drains and sewers was recognized in very early times, the oldest at Rome dating traditionally from the time of the kings. Some of the ancient drains, among them the famous Cloaca Maxima, were in use until recent years. |+|

Toilets in Ancient Rome

20120226-Toilet Ephesus Turkey.jpg
Toilet in Ephesus Turkey
The Romans had flushing toilets. It is well known Romans used underground flowing water to wash away waste but they also had indoor plumbing and fairly advanced toilets. The homes of some rich people had plumbing that brought in hot and cold water and toilets that flushed away waste. Most people however used chamber pots and bedpans or the local neighborhood latrine. [Source: Andrew Handley, Listverse, February 8, 2013]

The ancient Romans had pipe heat and employed sanitary technology. Stone receptacles were used for toilets. Romans had heated toilets in their public baths. The ancient Romans and Egyptians had indoor lavatories. There are still the remains of the flushing lavatories that the Roman soldiers used at Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall in Britain. Toilets in Pompeii were called Vespasians after the Roman emperor who charged a toilet tax. During Roman times sewers were developed but few people had access to them. The majority of the people urinated and defecated in clay pots.

Ancient Greek and Roman chamber pots were taken to disposal areas which, according to Greek scholar Ian Jenkins, "was often no further than an open window." Roman public baths had a pubic sanitation system with water piped in and piped out. [Source: “Greek and Roman Life” by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum]

Mark Oliver wrote for Listverse: “Rome has been praised for its advances in plumbing. Their cities had public toilets and full sewage systems, something that later societies wouldn’t share for centuries. That might sound like a tragic loss of an advanced technology, but as it turns out, there was a pretty good reason nobody else used Roman plumbing. “The public toilets were disgusting. Archaeologists believe they were rarely, if ever, cleaned because they have been found to be filled with parasites. In fact, Romans going to the bathroom would carry special combs designed to shave out lice. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, August 23, 2016]

The Emperor Vespasian (A.D. 9-79) was famous for his toilet tax. In “Life of Vespasian” Suetonius wrote: “When Titus found fault with him for contriving a tax upon public toilets, he held a piece of money from the first payment to his son's nose, asking whether its odor was offensive to him. When Titus said "No," he replied, "Yet it comes from urine." On the report of a deputation that a colossal statue of great cost had been voted him at public expense, he demanded to have it set up at once, and holding out his open hand, said that the base was ready. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum: Vespasian” (“Life of Vespasian”), written c. A.D. 110, translated by J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius, 2 Vols., The Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.281-321]

Exploding Toilets, Parasites and a Shared Wet Sponge

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Pompeii toilet
In Roman times, people generally didn't use soap, they cleaned themselves with olive oil and a scraping tool. A wet sponge placed on a stick was used instead of toilet paper. A typical public toilet, which was shared with dozens of other people, had a single sponge on a stick shared by all comers but usually not cleaned.

Mark Oliver wrote for Listverse: “When you entered a Roman toilet, there was a very real risk you would die. “The first problem was that creatures living in the sewage system would crawl up and bite people while they did their business. Worse than that, though, was the methane buildup—which sometimes got so bad that it would ignite and explode underneath you. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, August 23, 2016]

“Toilets were so dangerous that people resorted to magic to try to stay alive. Magical spells meant to keep demons at bay have been found on the walls of bathrooms. Some, though, came pre-equipped with statues of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, guarding them. People would pray to Fortuna before stepping inside.”

Duncan Kennedy BBC, Archaeologists excavating Herculaneum near Pompeii “have been discovering how Romans lived 2,000 years ago, by studying what they left behind in their sewers. A team of experts has been sifting through hundreds of sacks of human excrement. They found a variety of details about their diet and their illnesses. In a tunnel 86 meters long, they unearthed what is believed to be the largest deposit of human excrement ever found in the Roman world. Seven hundred and fifty sacks of it to be exact, containing a wealth of information. [Source: Duncan Kennedy, BBC, July 1, 2011]

“The scientists have been able to study what foods people ate and what jobs they did, by matching the material to the buildings above, like shops and homes. This unprecedented insight into the diet and health of ancient Romans showed that they ate a lot of vegetables. One sample also contained a high white blood cell count, indicating, say researchers, the presence of a bacterial infection. The sewer also offered up items of pottery, a lamp, 60 coins, necklace beads and even a gold ring with a decorative gemstone.”

Pecunia non Olet (Roman Urine Tax)

bathtub in Herculaneum

In the first century A.D., Emperor Vespasian enacted what came to be known as the urine tax. At the time, urine was considered a useful commodity. It was commonly was used for laundry because the ammonia in the urine served as a clothes. Urine was also used in medicines. Urine was collected from public bathhouses and taxed. [Source: Andrew Handley, Listverse, February 8, 2013 ]

According to Listverse: “Pecunia non olet means “money does not smell”. This phrase was coined as a result of the urine tax levied by the Roman emperors Nero and Vespasian in the 1st century upon the collection of urine. The lower classes of Roman society urinated into pots which were emptied into cesspools. The liquid was then collected from public latrines, where it served as the valuable raw material for a number of chemical processes: it was used in tanning, and also by launderers as a source of ammonia to clean and whiten woollen togas. [Source: Listverse, October 16, 2009]

“There are even isolated reports of it being used as a teeth whitener (supposedly originating in what is now Spain). When Vespasian’s son, Titus, complained about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father showed him a gold coin and uttered the famous quote. This phrase is still used today to show that the value of money is not tainted by its origins. Vespasian’s name still attaches to public urinals in France (vespasiennes), Italy (vespasiani), and Romania (vespasiene).”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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