20120226-casa Pompeji_um 1900_haus.jpg
In Rome, the urban poor tended to live in communal housing known as insula . Single-family houses known as domus were primarily for the wealthy. These large, comfortable dwellings were often big enough to accommodate the owner’s business, library, kitchen, pool, and garden. The oldest known domus dates to the end of the 4th century B.C. A major structural change was the introduction of the peristyle garden around the 2nd century B.C. Much of what is known about Roman houses comes from the study of dwelling at Pompeii.

Many Roman and Greek homes, whether they belonged to rich city dwellers or poor farmers, were built around a courtyard. The openings of the house faced inward towards the courtyard rather than outward towards the street and other buildings. Families often lived in fairly cramped space with their slaves and servants, They often processed crops at home. Excavations of homes often reveal evidence of the threshing of cereals to make grains edible.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: Vitruvius, an architect and engineer of the time of Caesar and Augustus, “says that the house should be suitable to the station of the owner, and that different styles of houses are appropriate in different parts of the world, according to the climate. At the same time it must be understood that the Roman house as we find it does not show as many distinct types as does the American house of the present time. The Roman was naturally conservative—he was particularly reluctant to introduce foreign ideas—and his house preserved in general certain main features essentially unchanged. The proportion of these might vary with the size and shape of the lot at the builder’s disposal, and the number of rooms added would depend upon the means and tastes of the owner, but the kernel, so to speak, was always the same. [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: “When one thinks of Roman housing, images of the houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum typically come to mind. Exquisitely preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., these architectural remains provide us with stunning insight into the domestic patterns of Romans in Italy in the first century A.D. However, the archaeological remains of the Roman empire are rich with domestic spaces, stretching from the western edge of Spain to the far eastern extremes of the empire....The Roman house was, as is true today, where the nuclear family lived. However, in addition to that, the household included servants for all members of the family. Many look for traces of servants within the remains of houses, but often the slaves slept in the doorways of their master's bedroom, or in rooms so simple that their functions cannot easily be reconstructed today. [Source: Ian Lockey, Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2009, \^/]

“The term "Roman housing" can encompass many kinds of living spaces. Poorly built and maintained tower blocks in cities known as insulae housed the lower echelons of society in hazardous and overcrowded conditions. In the countryside, the poor lived in small villages or farms, in stone-built structures. The exploitation by the elite of hired and slave labor in agricultural endeavors and animal husbandry provides a more unusual category of Roman housing—rooms within industrial complexes such as olive oil factories, where a workforce lived during the production season. At the other extreme of the social scale, the elite had their impressive townhouses, and usually in addition their large villas or rural retreats with expansive floor plans, numerous entertainment spaces, and rich marble decoration, reflecting the importance for the elite of the domestic space for the creation of their public persona.” \^/

“The magnificence of some of the great houses at Rome, even in Republican times, may be inferred from the prices paid for them. Cicero paid about $140,000, the consul Messala the same price, Clodius $600,000, the highest price known to us. All these were on the Palatine Hill, where ground, too, was expensive.

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

“The Fires of Vesuvius, Pompeii Lost and Found” by Mary Beard (Belknap Press/ Harvard University, 2009);

Roman Buildings

Roman structures looked more like modern buildings than their Greek counterparts. Roman structures were not just rows of columns with a roof; the columns intermingled with solid walls and arches. In the introduction of his ten-volume treatise on architecture, the Roman architect Vitruvius laid the basic rules for a good building — it had to be functional, firm and delightful.

Some scholars say that the Romans took Etruscan elements — the high podium and columns arranged in a semicircle — and incorporated them with Greek temple architecture. Roman temples were more spacious than their Greek counterparts because unlike the Greeks, who displayed only a statue of the god the temple was built for, the Roman needed room for their statues and weapons they took as trophies from the people they conquered.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Our sources of information are unusually abundant. Vitruviu has left a work on building, giving in detail his own principles of construction; the works of many of the Roman writers contain either set descriptions of parts of houses or at least numerous hints and allusions that are collectively very helpful; and, finally, the ground plans of many houses have been uncovered in Rome and elsewhere, and in Pompeii we have even the walls of many houses left standing. There are still, however, despite the fullness and authority of our sources, many things in regard to the arrangement and construction of the house that are uncertain and disputed.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) ]

Differences Between Roman and Greek Buildings

Pompeii street

One of the main differences between Greek and Roman architecture was that the Greek buildings were intended to be viewed from the outside and Romans created huge indoor spaces that were put to many uses. Greek temples were essentially a roof with forest of columns underneath it that were necessary to support it. They had never learned to develop the arch, dome or vaults to great level of sophistication. The Romans used these three elements of architecture to construct all sorts of different kinds of structures: baths, aqueducts, basilicas, etc. The curve was the essential feature: "walls became ceilings, ceilings reached up to the heavens." ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

The Greeks depended on post-and-lintel architecture while the Romans used the arch. The arch helped the Romans construct larger interior spaces. If the Pantheon was built using Greek methods the large open space inside would have been overcrowded with columns.

Unlike the Greeks who primarily built their edifices from cut and chiseled stone, the Romans used concrete (a mixture of limestone-derived mortar, gravel, sand and rubble) and fired red brick (often decorated with colored glazes) as well as marble and blocks of stone to construct their buildings.

Roman House Design: Public vs. Private, Open vs. Closed

Roman architecture was oriented towards practical purposes and creating interior spaces. Roman buildings looked heavy on the outside. One of the main goals was to create large interior spaces.

Roman house design has been described a balance of enclosed versus open spaces, or public versus private spaces. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill of the University of Reading has argued that Roman houses are not private spaces as defined in opposition to public spaces, but rather private spaces within public spaces serving their interests. He argues that it makes sense that members of the elite engaged in public life would more likely need more public areas in their home, while people of humbler origin need more privacy. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “While modern-day houses often function as more of an escape from the pressures of the public world, opened generally only to friends, in the Roman world, the house of an elite was both a private retreat and a center for business transactions. As a result of this public function, decoration and architectural elaboration were of especial importance and the collection of Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum reflects this elite domestic adornment.’” [Source: Ian Lockey, Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2009,]


20120226-Hadrian Villa Cento_Camerelle_Villa_Adriana.jpg
Hadrian's Villa
Jana Louise Smit wrote for Listverse: “One’s neighborhood pretty much depended on how high up the totem pole you were. Insulae were apartment buildings, but the kind that would make a modern safety inspector hit the roof. The majority of the Roman population lived in these seven-story-plus buildings. They were ripe for fire, collapse, and even flooding. The upper floors were reserved for the poor who had to pay rent daily or weekly. “Eviction was a constant fear for the families living in a one-room affair with no natural light or bathroom facilities. The first two floors of an insulae were reserved for those who had a better income. They paid rent annually and lived in multiple rooms with windows.” [Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, August 5, 2016]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Before the end of the Republic, in Rome and other cities only the wealthy could afford to live in private houses. By far the greater part of the city population lived in apartment buildings and tenement houses. These were called insulae, a name originally applied to city blocks. They were sometimes six or seven stories high. Augustus limited their height to seventy feet; Nero, after the great fire of his reign, set a limit of sixty feet. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“They were frequently built poorly and cheaply for speculative purposes; and Juvenal speaks of the great danger of fire and collapse. Except for the lack of glass in the windows they must have looked rather like modern buildings of the sort. Outside rooms were lighted by windows. There were sometimes balconies overhanging the street. These, like the windows, could be closed by wooden shutters. The inner rooms were lighted by courts if, indeed, they were lighted at all. |+|

“The insulae were sometimes divided into apartments of several rooms, but were frequently let by single rooms. At Ostia remains of insulae have been found in which each of the upper apartments has its own stairway. The ground floors were regularly occupied by shops. The superintendent of the building, who looked after it and collected the rents, was a slave of the owner and was called the insularius.”|+|

Development of the Roman House

Ancient houses, for the most part, were made of sun dried bricks placed on a stone foundation, like dwelling in the modern developing world. The walls and roofs were probably supported and reinforced by timbers and beams, but we can't say for sure because wood and mud bricks decompose rapidly, which is also why there are hardly ever any houses at archaeological sites. Generally only temples and monuments were built of marble and stone. [Source: “Greek and Roman Life” by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum ||]

Early Roman huts

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: The primitive Roman house goes back to the simple farm life of early times, when all members of the household, father, mother, children, and dependents, lived in one large room together. In this room (atrium) the meals were cooked, the table spread, all indoor work done, and the sacrifices offered to the Lares; at night a space was cleared in which to spread the hard beds or pallets. The primitive house had no chimney; the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof. There were no windows; all natural light came through the hole in the roof. There was but one door; the space opposite it seems to have been reserved as much as possible for the father and mother. Here was the hearth, where the mother prepared the meals, and near it stood the implements she used in spinning and weaving; here was the strong box (arca) in which the master kept his valuables, and here the bed was spread. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The earliest house was a round or oval hut with thatched roof such as was reproduced in the traditional hut of Romulus on the Palatine.1 The round shape was retained in the form assigned to the Temple of Vesta, whose worship began at the hearth in such huts. The later huts were oval. Later still came a rectangular form. The outward appearance of such a hut is shown in the Etruscan cinerary urns, found in various places in Italy. The ground plan was a simple rectangle without partitions. This may be regarded as historically and architecturally the kernel of the Roman house. Its very name (atrium), which originally denoted the whole house, was also preserved; it appears in the names of certain very ancient buildings in Rome used for religious purposes, the Atrium Vestae, the Atrium Libertatis, etc. In later times, however, atrium was applied to a single characteristic room of the house. The origin of the name atrium is still a mystery, The funerary urn from Chiusi, often illustrated, has a square opening in the top. This has been taken to show that the early house of the rectangular type had such an opening in the middle of the roof for the escape of smoke. It has been shown, however, that this particular urn has lost the top-piece that completed its roof. Urns of this type have regularly one door, and occasionally windows. |+|

“A feature of the later house, so commonly found in connection with the atrium that one is tempted to suppose it an early addition, is the tablinum, the wide recess opposite the entrance door. The origin of the tablinum, and the uses to which it was put, alike in earlier and in later times, are still matters of dispute. It may have been intended at first for merely temporary purposes, being built of boards (tabulae), and having an outside door and no connection with the atrium. It could not have been long, however, until the wall between was broken through. When this was once done and its convenience demonstrated, the partition wall was removed. Varro explained the tablinum as having been a sort of balcony or porch, used as a dining-room in hot weather. |+|

“Later, the atrium received its light from a central opening in the roof, the compluvium,2 which derived its name from the fact that rain, as well as air and light, could enter here. Just beneath this a basin, the impluvium, was hollowed out in the floor to catch the water for domestic purposes. As more space and privacy were demanded, the house was enlarged by small rooms opening out of the atrium at the sides. The atrium at the end next the tablinum had the full width between the outside walls, and the additional spaces, or alcoves, one on each side, were called alae. The appearance of such a house as seen from the entrance door must have been much like that of an Anglican or Roman Catholic church. The atrium corresponded to the nave, the two alae to the transepts, while the bay-like tablinum resembled the chancel. So far as we know, the outside rooms received light only from the atrium. From this ancient house we find preserved in its successors all that was opposite the entrance door, the atrium with its alae and tablinum, the impluvium and compluvium. These are the characteristic features of the Roman house, and must be so regarded in the description which follows of later developments under foreign influence. |+|

Coriolanus House by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

“The Greeks seem to have furnished the idea next adopted by the Romans, a court at the rear of the tablinum, open to the sky, surrounded by rooms, and set with flowers, trees, and shrubs. The original house is combined with the peristyliumThe open space had columns around it and often a fountain in the middle. This court was called the peristylium or peristylum. According to Vitruvius its breadth should exceed its depth by one-third, but we do not find these or any other proportions strictly observed in the houses that are known to us. Access to the peristylium from the atrium could be had through the tablinum, though this might be cut off from it by folding doors, and by a narrow passage (andron) at one side. The latter would naturally be used by slaves and by others when they were not privileged to pass through the tablinum. Both passage and tablinum might be closed on the side of the atrium by portières. The arrangement of the various rooms around the peristylium seems to have varied with the notions of builder or owner; no one plan for them can be laid down. According to the means of the owner there were bedrooms, dining-rooms, libraries, drawing-rooms, kitchen, scullery, closets, private baths, together with the simple accommodations necessary for a varying number of slaves. But, whether these rooms were many or few, they all faced the court, receiving from it light and air, as did the rooms along the sides of the atrium. There was often a garden behind the peristylium. |+|

“The next change took place in the city and town house only, because it was due to conditions of town life that did not obtain in the country. In ancient as well as in modern times business was likely to spread from the center of the town into residence districts, and it often became desirable for the owner of a dwelling house to adapt it to the new conditions. This was easily done in the case of the Roman house on account of the arrangement of the rooms. Attention has already been called to the fact that the rooms all opened to the interior of the house, that few windows were placed in the outer walls, and that there was frequently only one door, and that in front. If the house faced a business street, it is evident that the owner could, without interfering with the privacy of his house or decreasing its light, build rooms in front of the atrium for commercial purposes. He reserved, of course, a passageway to his own door, narrower or wider according to the circumstances. If the house occupied a corner, such rooms might be added on the side as well as in the front, and, as they had no necessary connection with the interior, they might be rented as living-rooms, as separate rooms often are in our own cities. It is probable that rooms were first added in this way for business purposes by an owner who expected to carry on some enterprise of his own in them, but even men of good position and considerable means did not hesitate to add to their incomes by renting to others these disconnected parts of their houses. All the larger houses uncovered in Pompeii are arranged in this manner. One occupying a whole block and having rented rooms on three sides. Such a detached house was called an insula.” |+|

Parts of a Roman House

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]

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 ||]

Casa Vettii in Pompeii

In small houses, the bedrooms, kitchen and dining room were placed around the atrium. In larger houses and villas the bedrooms, recreation rooms, libraries, guest rooms, baths, eating chambers and other facilities were often in separate wings. The spacious atriums are misleading. Respected Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard has pointed out they would probably have been decorated with gaudy curtains and filled with wooden furniture, storage cupboards, looms and a variety of stuff. ||

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), ]

Vestibulum and Ostium

Portico of the main courtyard at the Getty Villa

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) |+|]

“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) |+|]

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

tablinum of a Pompeii house

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.” |+|

Houses at Pompeii

Casa Di Octavio
Pompeii houses are usually named after prominent paintings or sculptures or other artefacts. The House of the Surgeon is so no named, for example, because a bunch of doctor instruments were found there. The House of Chaste Lovers features a fresco of, yes, chaste lovers. Many frescoes can be viewed at Pompeii. It is worth wandering around aimlessly for a while on your and checking out the frescoes in the villas off the main tourist circuit.

The House of Faun (nearby on V. della Fortuna) is named after a bronze of a dancing faun that was found here along with a large floor mosaic that reads Have (Welcome). The famous Alexander the Great mosaic was also found here. Near the House of Faun off of V. della Fortuna are the House of the Labyrinth, the House of the Ancient Hunt and an ancient bakery.

The House of the Vetti (on V. della Fortuna) is one of the most popular villas at Pompeii. The Ixon Room in the villa looks a small art gallery. There are delightful murals with cherubs performing tasks like forging, goldsmithing and making weapons. The biggest draw are the erotic frescoes and statues. A fresco beside the entrance to the villa shows the god of fertility Priapus, whose penis is so large it is held up by a string. Off in a side room to the right of the Priapus entrance is statue of Priapus with his penis erect and erotic frescoes of couples having sexual intercourse sitting down and in other positions.

In Roman times, rooms with erotic art were generally only for men and their concubines. This was also true in modern times until recently when the frescoes used to be shown only to men tourists. Women and children needed to bribe a guard to get let in. In the early 1800s, the outcry over the finding of erotic art at Pompeii led to the "excommunication" of Pompeii. House Marcus Lucretius Fronto (several blocks east of the House of Vetti) features a garden mural that depicts a hunt scene with bears, boars, and snakes in addition to a lion attacking a bull and a tiger pursuing a deer.

The House of Chaste Lovers was opened the late 2000s. It is named after a fresco of a couple in a gentle embrace. In antiquity the house was both a residence and a commercial enterprise for a wealthy entrepreneur. A bakery has been identified by the presence of ovens. Pollen analysis revalued that reed trellises separated geometrically-shaped beds of roses, juniper and ferns. The triclinium (dining room) was painted with banqueting scenes, including the lovers. A depiction of a drinking game in The House of Chaste Lovers in Pompeii shows one person still drinking while another is slumped over a couch, defeated.

The House of the Moralist at Pompeii is so named because the owner wrote rules of etiquette for his neighbors and visitors on the walls of his house, including “Let water wash your feet clean” and “Take care of our linens." The House of the Tragic Poet (on Via dell'Abbondanza near the Amphitheater) features a fine entrance mosaic with a snarling dog and a sign that says "Cave Canem" (“Beware of the dog”). The House of Venus (on Via dell'Abbondanza near the Amphitheater) features wonderful frescoes and modern gardens planted like Roman gardens.

The Villa of Mysteries (outside of Pompeii) is regarded as the best preserved villa from the ancient world. The best-preserved frescoes show a bride's initiation into the forbidden cult of Dionysus. The magnificent work of art features satyrs and Silenis honoring Dionysus and naked, flute-playing little girls entertaining a young man and a demon hiding in the closet. The magnificent painting is alive with color. There is also a checkered tile floor and layers of colored marble underneath the painting. The villa is often roped and a separate admission has to be paid to get in.

House of Pansa in Pompeii

House of Pansa plan

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: Finally, we may describe a house that actually existed, taking as an illustration one that must have belonged to a wealthy and influential man, the so-called House of Pansa at Pompeii. The house occupied an entire block; it faced a little east of south. Most of the rooms on the front and sides were rented out for shops or stores or apartments; in the rear was a garden. The rooms that did not belong to the house proper are shaded in the plan given. The vestibulum is the open space between two of the shops. Behind it are the ostium, with a figure of a dog in mosaic, opening into the atrium. The atrium had three rooms on each side, the alae in the regular place, the impluvium in the middle, the tablinum opposite the ostium, and the passage on the eastern side. The atrium is of the Tuscanicum style, and is paved with concrete; the tablinum and the passage have mosaic floors. From these, steps lead down into the peristylium, which is lower than the atrium, measures 65 by 50 feet, and is surrounded by a colonnade with sixteen pillars in all. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“There are two rooms on the side next the atrium. One of these has been called the bibliotheca, because a manuscript was found in it, but its purpose is uncertain; the other as possibly a dining-room. The peristylium has two projections, much like the alae, which have been called exedrae; it will be noticed that one of these has the convenience of an exit to the street. The rooms on the west and the small room on the east cannot be definitely named. The large room on the east (T) is the main dining room; the remains of the dining couches are marked on the plan. The kitchen is at the northwest corner with the stable next to it; off the kitchen is a paved yard with a gateway from the street by which a cart could enter. East of the kitchen and yard is a narrow passage connecting the peristylium with the garden. East of this are two rooms, the larger of which is one of the most imposing rooms of the house, 33 by 24 feet in size, with a large window guarded by a low balustrade, and opening into the garden. This was probably an oecus. In the center of the peristylium is a basin about two feet deep, the rim of which was once decorated with figures of water plants and fish. Along the whole north end of the house ran a long veranda, overlooking the garden in which was a sort of summer house. The house had an upper story, but the stairs leading to it are in the rented rooms, suggesting that the upper floor was not occupied by Pansa’s family. |+|

“Of the rooms facing the street it will be noticed that one, lightly shaded in the plan, is connected with the atrium; it was probably used for some business conducted by Pansa himself , possibly with a slave or a freedman in immediate charge of it. Of the others the suites on the east side (A, B) seem to have been rented out as living apartments. The others were shops and stores. The four connected rooms on the west, near the front, seem to have been a large bakery; the room marked C was the salesroom, with a large room opening off it containing three stone mills, troughs for kneading the dough, a water tap with sink, and an oven in a recess. The uses of the others are uncertain. The section plan represents the appearance of the house if all were cut away on one side of a line drawn from front to rear through the middle of the house. It is, of course, largely conjectural, but it gives a clear idea of the general way in which the dividing walls and roof must have been arranged.” |+|

Country Houses in the Roman Era

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Country estates might be of two classes, countryseats for pleasure and farms for profit. In the first case the location of the house (villa urbana, or pseudourbana), the arrangement of the rooms and the courts, their number and decoration, would depend entirely upon the taste and means of the master. Remains of such houses in most varied styles and plans have been found in various parts of the Roman world, and accounts of others in more or less detail have come down to us in literature, particularly the descriptions of two of his villas given by Pliny the Younger. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Some villas were set in the hills for coolness, and some near the water. In the latter case rooms might be built overhanging the water, and at Baiae, the fashionable seaside resort, villas were actually built on piles so as to extend from the shore out over the sea. Cicero, who did not consider himself a rich man, had at least six villas in different localities. The number is less surprising when one remembers that there were nowhere the seaside or mountain hotels so common now, so that it was necessary to stay in a private house, one’s own or another’s, when one sought to escape from the city for change or rest. |+|

“Vitruvius says that in the country house the peristyle usually came next the front door. Next was the atrium, surrounded by colonnades opening on the palaestra and walks. Such houses were equipped with rooms of all sorts for all occasions and seasons, with baths, libraries, covered walks, gardens, everything that could make for convenience or pleasure. Rooms and colonnades for use in hot weather faced the north; those for winter were planned to catch the sun. Attractive views were taken into account in arranging the rooms and their windows. |+|

Roman Villas

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The villa holds a central place in the history of Western architecture. On the Italian peninsula in antiquity, and again during the Renaissance, the idea of a house built away from the city in a natural setting captured the imagination of wealthy patrons and architects. While the form of these structures changed over time and their location moved to suburban or even urban houses in garden settings, the core design tenet remained an architectural expression of an idyllic setting for learned pursuits and spiritual withdrawal into a domestic retreat from the city. After the Renaissance, the villa appears beyond an Italian context as an architectural form revived and reimagined throughout western Europe and in other parts of the world influenced by European culture. [Source: Vanessa Bezemer Sellers, Independent Scholar, Geoffrey Taylor, Department of Drawings and Prints, Metropolitan of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“The term villa designates several types of structure that share a natural setting or agrarian purpose. Included in the architecture of a villa may be working structures devoted to farming, referred to as villa rustica, as well as living quarters, or villa urbana. The villa is therefore most aptly understood as a label or identity capturing several distinct parts, sometimes interrelated or dependent on one another and in other cases divorced from a larger architectural complex. Rather than embodying a concrete form, the term villa exhibits mobility as the application of an idea to architecture. In place of a fixed image is an architectural environment that embodies an ideal of living, or villeggiatura. \^/

20120226-Hadrian Villa map.jpg
Hadrian Villa map
“The form and organization of villa architecture depend upon literary descriptions provided by the authors of ancient Rome. Particularly, the writings of Columella (4–70 A.D.) in De re rustica and Cato (234–149 B.C.) in De agricultura elaborate on the features of their villas in the Campagna, the low-lying area surrounding Rome. Common among ancient writings, the villa enjoys from the natural setting restorative powers, or otium, in opposition to the excesses of city life, or negotium. Horace (65–8 B.C.) extolled the simple virtues and pleasures of ancient villa life in his poetry (for example, Odes I.17, Epistles I.7 and 10). \^/

“However, Pliny the Younger (ca. 61–112), in his Letters (Epistle to Gallus 2.17; Epistle to Apollinaris 5.6), persuaded later patrons and architects of the beauty afforded by his Laurentine and Tuscan villas. His descriptions constructed images of the general appearance of the villas and unfolded the experience with intertwined interior and exterior architectural features. Pliny's retreats slipped into the landscape with terraced gardens and opened outward to natural surroundings through colonnades, or loggias, which replaced solid enclosing walls. The author retired to the gardens, or horti, to appreciate the abundance of flora and fauna. The cultural life of poetry, art, and letters unfurled in a setting that was distinctly different from the urban experience of Rome. Relying on initial reconstructions by Vincenzo Scamozzi (1552–1616), later architects would turn to Pliny's descriptions to imagine the spaces and experience of the ancient villa. \^/

Villa Adriana, Tivoli and Hadrian’s Villa

Tivoli (25 kilometers northeast of Rome) is the home of Villa Adriana, a huge sprawling villa built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Completed after 10 years of work, Tivoli contains 25 buildings built on 300 acres of land, including an elaborate bath house fed by water piped in from the Apennines. The buildings are now ruins. Tivoli has been a popular retreat since Roman times. It embraces the ruins of several magnificent villas including Villa Adriana, a lavish complex built by Emperor Hadrian, and Villa d' Este, known for its lavish gardens and plentiful cascading fountains. A pool at the banquet hall is surrounded by columns and statues of gods and caryatids.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The architecture and landscape elements described by Pliny the Younger appear as part of the Roman tradition of the monumental Villa Adriana. Originally built by Emperor Hadrian in the first century A.D. (120s–130s), the villa extends across an area of more than 300 acres as a villa-estate combining the functions of imperial rule (negotium) and courtly leisure (otium).” [Source: Vanessa Bezemer Sellers, Independent Scholar, Geoffrey Taylor, Department of Drawings and Prints, Metropolitan of Art, October 2004, \^/]

part of Hadrian's villa

Hadrian's villa was completed in A.D. 135. The temples, gardens and theaters are full of tributes to classical Greece. Historian Daniel Boorstin it "still charm the tourist. The original country palace, stretching a full mile, displayed his experimental fantasy. There, on the shores of artificial lakes and on gently rolling hills groups of buildings celebrated Hadrian's travels in the styles of famous cities he had visited with replicas of the best he had seen. The versatile charms of the Roman baths complemented ample guest quarters, libraries, terraces, shops, museums, casinos, meeting room, and endless garden walks. There were three theaters, a stadium, an academy, and some large buildings whose function we cannot fathom. Here was a country version of Nero's Golden House."

Villa Adriana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO: “The Villa Adriana (at Tivoli, near Rome) is an exceptional complex of classical buildings created in the 2nd century A.D. by the Roman emperor Hadrian. It combines the best elements of the architectural heritage of Egypt, Greece and Rome in the form of an 'ideal city'. The Villa Adriana is a masterpiece that uniquely brings together the highest expressions of the material cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. 2) Study of the monuments that make up the Villa Adriana played a crucial role in the rediscovery of the elements of classical architecture by the architects of the Renaissance and the Baroque period. It also profoundly influenced many 19th and 20th century architects and designers. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

One of the most interesting features in the Vatican's Egyptians Museum is a the recreation of an Egyptian-style room found in the palace of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Among the many Egyptian-style Roman pieces here is a Pharaoh-like rendering of Hadrian's male lover Antinoüs.

Augustan Villa at Boscotrecase

Le nymphee of Hadrian's Villa

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In antiquity, numerous Roman villas dotted the coast along the Bay of Naples. One of the most sumptuous must have been the villa at Boscotrecase built by Agrippa, friend of Emperor Augustus and husband of his daughter Julia. In 11 B.C., the year after Agrippa's death, the villa passed into the hands of his posthumously born infant son, Agrippa Postumus. As the child was only a few months old, Julia would have overseen the completion of the villa. The frescoes, which are among the finest existing examples of Roman wall painting, must have been painted during renovations begun at that time. Most of the panels feature delicate ornamental vignettes and landscapes with genre and mythological scenes set against richly colored backgrounds. On the basis of their remarkable similarity to paintings in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, the Boscotrecase frescoes most likely were executed by artists from the capital city. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“The frescoes from Boscotrecase are masterpieces of the Third Style of Roman wall painting, which flourished during the reign of Augustus. While earlier artists focused on creating an illusion of architectural depth with solid architectural forms, the artists at Boscotrecase presented the idea with whimsical, attenuated, and highly refined elements. At Boscotrecase, spindly canopies rest on improbably thin columns that seem to be made of alternating vegetal and metal drums. These almost weightless columns embellished with jewel-like decorations support pavilions, candelabra, and tripods. Other frescoes from the villa depict mythological scenes and Egyptianizing panels, ensembles that are at once colorful and complex. The occupants and those who visited the villa at Boscotrecase were not greeted by grand vistas of architectural splendor, but by slender, elegant, and especially decorative architectural forms, playfully alluding to contemporary cultural and political concerns. \^/

Romans Villas Resurrected in Renaissance Italy

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Fallen into ruin, the vast archaeological site” that included Hadrian’s Villa “was recovered in the fifteenth century and many architects—including Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439–1501), Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), and Pirro Ligorio (ca. 1510–1583)—excavated and recorded firsthand the details of Hadrian's design while consulting descriptive passages of the emperor's life at the villa from the text Historia Augusta. Most notably, the architect-antiquarian Ligorio employed sculptural remains of the Villa Adriana in the Vatican gardens and as architectural spolia in his design of the nearby Villa d'Este (begun 1560). Built as one of the most splendid garden ensembles in Renaissance Italy, Ligorio's design for Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este (1509–1572) remains celebrated for its festive waterworks and terraced gardens. Like the descriptions of ancient villas consulted by Renaissance architects, the Villa d'Este commands spectacular vistas over the Roman campagna from its position high in the hills of Tivoli above the Villa Adriana. [Source: Vanessa Bezemer Sellers, Independent Scholar, Geoffrey Taylor, Department of Drawings and Prints, Metropolitan of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“The imagined grandeur of the ancient Roman villa-estate depended not only on written descriptions but developed from the rediscovery of painted frescoes on the walls of antique ruins. The painter-architect Raphael (1483–1520) and his workshop reinterpreted the highly ornamental stucco details from their archaeological studies for the monumental Villa Madama in Rome (begun 1517). The painted and sculpted relief grotesques portray narratives from ancient authors and follow antique examples from the Villa Adriana and the Domus Aurea. Similarly, for Pope Julius III del Monte, several architects—including Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507–1573), Bartolomeo Ammanati (1511–1592), and Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574)—created ornate surfaces within the courtyard, loggia, and grotto at the retreat in suburban Rome known as the Villa Giulia (1551–53). \^/

“Inspired by ancient precedent, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola adapted an enormous pentagonal-shaped fortified structure in his design for the Villa Farnese (begun 1556), which integrated the concepts of the Roman garden and villa within an invented form featuring a circular courtyard. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as the Roman elite looked to build country retreats, other architects began to specialize in villa architecture with increasing latitude from historical examples. Skillfully blending principles of classical form with the Baroque ideas of unity, grandeur, and the spectacular, their designs unified the architecture of the surface, interior, and landscape setting into a carefully arranged decorative whole. \^/

“Beautiful ornamental facades, elaborate entrance gates, and gardens, replete with fantastic water displays and antique statues, formed the stage for the grand theatrical entertainments of the day. Noteworthy examples include the immense villa gardens on the Pincio and Gianiculum hills associated with the powerful families of Rome such as the Villa Pincian (now Villa Borghese, 1612–13), the Villa Medici (1540/1574–77), and the Villa Doria Pamphilj (1644–52) on the Gianiculum. Equally vast estates were laid out in the Alban hills outside Rome at Frascati, including the Villa Aldobrandini (1598–1603) and the Villa Mondragone (1573–77). In and around Florence during the sixteenth century, the Medici family developed a series of villas integrated with the garden setting, such as the magnificently situated Villa Medici at Fiesole (1458–61), the inventive villa-park at Pratolino (now Villa Demidoff, 1569–81), and the delightful Villa La Petraia (1575–90), with its central belvedere overlooking the Arno River valley. \^/

20120227-Herculaneum GettyVilla001.jpg
Getty Villa museum based on the Villa de Papyri at Herculaneum

“A variation of the Roman villa ideal developed on the mainland, or terra firma, of the Venetian republic in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The result of noble families improving their estates, the villa designs in the Veneto responded to Renaissance ideas promoted by humanist scholars and illustrated in the pages of architectural treatises printed in Venice by Italy's most prolific presses. The 1511 edition of Vitruvius' De architectura, prepared by the Franciscan friar and architect Giovanni Giocondo da Verona (ca. 1433–1515), added woodblock images of ancient buildings to visually describe the notoriously difficult first-century B.C. text. With nearly equal importance given to words and images, Sebastiano Serlio (1475–1554) amended ancient models with contemporary Roman examples on the pages of Regole generali di architettura (1537) and Il terzo libro, de le Antiquita (1540), the first two published books of his multivolume treatise.” \^/

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 and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.