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The dwellings of the Romans were evolving over time. Starting from the humble homes of cattlemen and farmers, they gave way to block models similar to the current ones in most populous cities of the Empire and, for the most fortunate, to opulent residences. Let’s see all of them:
From pre-Roman times (from before the 8th century BC) until the end of the monarchical period (6th century BC) they were characterized by their simplicity and rustic practicality. From the testimony of funeral urns dated at this time we can infer that they were one-room cabins rounded perhaps in stone with conical roof probably of wood, reeds, straw and adobe, known as casae or tuguria.
At the end of the monarchical period and well entered the republican one, the Etruscan influence extended and they begin to be built in rectangular form and with several rooms. At this time they are called hortus (orchard), which shows us the still clear importance of the rural world. With these foundations as a starting point begins a gradual evolution towards the famous domus.
As the Republic increases its power and wealth, the houses gain in sumptuousness and ambition, and each time they are larger and acquire the basic and definitive structure, which will be the model throughout most of history for the well-off classes of the Roman world: the domus. Without abandoning the rectangular structure acquires new elements: in the central part there is an atrium, which is a covered courtyard that in the center of the roof has an opening called complivium, through which light, air and water enter. At the same time a small pond, the impluvium, collected the rainwater and moved it to an underground cistern for later reuse. The rooms were located around the atrium. If the domus was rich, the family had them on an upper floor, leaving the inferior one for the slaves or servants. There was a corner of the atrium destined to the lararium, a niche for the family cult of the ancestors, with figurines and images maiorum, which were portraits that were at first the funeral masks and were exhibited during the funerals. In another space was a family file, the tablinum, for private use of the pater familiae, the male leader of the house. On another side we could find the triclinium, a larger room used as a dining room.
At the end of the Republic the influences received were Greek and, following the Hellenistic model, they completed the domus with the peristylum (peristyle), a kind of backyard garden attached to the rest of the enclosure, which completed the lighting of the tablinum. It is easy to imagine the pater familiae studying in his personal file some scrolls of classical authors while controlling what happened in the atrium or the peristyle. As defined by Vitruvius, the peristyle should be placed transversally and be a third greater in length than depth.
Another usual room was the exedra, a meeting space with seats attached to the atrium, ideal for conversation. It was a generally uncovered enclosure with a circular ground plan and often located on the façade. Its use was established in times of Nero in imitation of those that conceived in his famous Domus Aurea and took hold in the Byzantine Empire and in Romanesque art used in the choirs that surrounded the presbyteries of the churches.
Some wealthy owners increased the importance of these recreational areas by adding decorated loggias (outdoor galleries with arches on columns, roofed and opened on one or more sides). Some provinces developed their own peculiarities such as the use of the peristyle as a reception area, adding porches in various areas or even expanding the place with underground rooms. The use of the hypocaust or hypocaustum, a floor heating system consisting of heated air pipes in an outdoor furnace that led into a chimney at another point of the house, thus facilitating the circulation of fumes, was also extended. It is estimated that the maximum temperature that could be reached was close to 30°C (86°F). This extraordinary advance is attributed to the engineer Caius Sergius Orata in the first century BC. It was used extensively in the thermal baths.
Communication with the outside was by means of sturdy wooden doors, which were locked in the dark. The interior communication between rooms used to be through curtains.
It was rather scarce compared to the profusion of objects that we see in our homes today. Despite this, we find many interesting elements that we continue using with few variations and we will comment next.
The Etruscan influence was the basis of Roman furniture, having in turn drunk from the Hellenic world. With time, Eastern influences were also received.
The furniture par excellence was the lectus (bed), and combined with it and with the different types of seats, the footrest (fulcra for the bed and scamnum or suppedarium for the seats) enjoyed a lot of popularity. A type of chair similar to an armchair with a solid backrest, which surrounded the sides in the form of an armrest, was used as a throne. Very common was the diphros, a type of stool that also existed a folding model: the diphros oklaidas. The chairs with Greek-inspired backrest, the klismos, were not as popular as they are today, let alone the cathedra, which was important for priests and teachers. An important seat but used by a minority for its association with the divinity was the Roman throne or solium, richly ornamented on the sides of the supports (with taps, for example). Finally the most common and vulgar seat was the bank, used mainly in the vestibulum or vestibule.
At the dinners, the comfortable triclinia was arranged around the room used for meals: the triclinium, according to a hierarchical arrangement.
In the domus we could also find rectangular chests with a smooth lid of clear Etruscan influence. The most used tables were three-foot rectangular and of Greek origin, and the four-legged and the three-foot round tables were also abundant. The armarium or closet was very similar to the current one. And finally, in terms of lighting, the usual was the use of small oil lamps (lucernae), tallow candles and, for special occasions that required more light, robust torches.
The Romans liked to show off their wealth and decorated bedrooms (cubicula) and rooms with frescoes, gilt coatings, ivories, exotic woods, precious metals, etc.
Over time, some rich men from large cities were installed away from the hustle and bustle in rural areas, where they could have an agricultural and livestock activity (villae rusticae) having annexes such as warehouses, barns and stables, or to devote themselves to leisure and enjoy life in temporary stays more or less prolonged or, in some cases, far away in a sweet retirement (villae urbanae).
Varro defined the most propitious place for the exploitations of the rustic villas in the skirt of a well sheltered mountain oriented eastward to have shade in summer and sun in winter. Vitrubio also emphasized how to distribute the dependencies in the most efficient way, but the reality is that in most cases urban domus models were copied to the satisfaction of the landlords.
From the 2nd century BC Progressively the elites were enriching themselves, monopolizing lands to the detriment of the small landowners and the state that had leased their property (ager publicus) to patricians.
The land consolidation in a few hands promoted the latifundismo and with this, many people were pushed to the cities, creating social crises due to the lack of prospects of many free citizens without occupation or benefit.
The villae proliferated until the end of the empire and throughout the territory, where in many cases the rich owners entrenched themselves in their farms with small troops, away from the attraction that the cities exercised in the barbarians who managed to overflow the limes.
These incursions happened with certain frequency from the 3rd century AD.
Due to the shortage of space and propitiated by real estate speculation, a type of construction very similar to the current housing blocks began to appear: the insulae.
As it has been mentioned in other sections, some patricians (e.g. the triumviri Crassus) became immensely rich with real estate speculation: leasing these blocks and investing the least for their maintenance, which explains the disasters that occurred with certain regularity, some of the magnitude of the great and famous fire in the time of Nero, where one insulae after another was infected by the flames, and other minor ones that also implied collapsing entire buildings.
The first ones that are known appeared in republican times and in many cases wood and adobe were used in its construction until after the great disasters in imperial times reforms were undertaken and its brick construction was organized, substantially improving the security of the structures. On many occasions they also became more pleasant to live and beautiful in appearance, including large balconies that were adorned with flowers. Evidences have been found in representations of them in archaeological remains.
In most cases, as nowadays, the ground floor was intended for workshops and various commercial establishments, known as tabernae, located behind porches or loggia. Generally the next plant used to be inhabited by its owners. As we went up the prices fell as well as the quality of life of its tenants, getting to document some buildings of up to eight or nine floors. Each of the rented homes in these upper floors was known as a cenacula. With time came the necessary legislation that regulated these insulae, establishing maximum heights, distances between buildings and regulation of repair and conservation. E.g. Rutilius Rufus, in the year 105 BC legislated about his form, Augustus limited the height to seventy feet (approximately 20.70 metres), Nero reduced it further and implemented urban measures such as those that affected the width of the streets, Trajan limited them to sixty feet (17.74 metres) and even more Hadrian.
The pipes of running water, for example, only supplied the ground floors, and going out to the street for it was a daily activity. In addition these houses had a deficient heating, lacking the air conditioning systems of the wealthy classes that could have a domus with a system of hot air pipes running through walls and floors. Generally braziers (foculi) of vegetable fuel were used, which were sufficient to withstand the cold but unsafe due to bad combustions or accidental fires. Such were the risks they caused for the safety of all citizens, that Augustus created a unit composed of hundreds of firemen and vigilants (vigiles) establishing night rounds to prevent fires and floods. Among the vigiles we could find water bearers (aquarii) carrying water, the siffonarii that threw it into the fire with siphos, and the uncinarii that carried lances to support roofs and walls.
Finally, according to the quality of these buildings we could find some with courtyards and even gardens, and the most wealthy could cover the windows with glass or mica, while the least had to cover them with leathers or fabrics losing the greatest virtue that had the insulae: light. Therefore, the lighting by oil lamps or torches maintained the risk of fires constantly.
Based on classical sources such as the Regionaries, lists of houses, monuments, fountains, etc, a few centuries ago, Jérôme Carcopino counted in Rome up to 46,602 insulae and 1,797 domus at the beginning of the 4th century.
Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina