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Ancient Roman Homes | Houses in Ancient Rome

Early Roman Houses

Early Roman houses revolved around the primitive farm life of early times, when all members of the family lived in one large room together. Inside this room, the atrium, meals were prepared, the table laid out, indoor work was done, and sacrifices were offered to the gods ; by nightfall a space was cleared to spread the hard beds or pallets.

Primitive Roman houses didn't have a chimney with the smoke escaping through a plain old hole in the roof. There were no windows and so all natural light came via the aforesaid hole in the ceiling. There was only one door and the space opposite the door was probably set aside as much as possible for the father and mother. Here was the heart of the room/house, the hearth, where the mother prepared the meals, and near it stood the implements employed for spinning and weaving; here also was the safe or strong box (the arca) in which the master of the house kept his valuables, and here the bed was spread.

Early Roman House
An urn done in the shape of an early Roman house.

The earliest of Roman homes were round or oval shaped huts with thatched rooves. Later Roman huts were oval in shape. In more advanced times came rectangular shaped house. In still later eras, however, the word atrium began to be used to refer to just a single room of the house with origin of the name atrium still being unknown.

Later Homes

A characteristic of later houses, usually found in connection with the atrium, is the tablinum, the wide recess opposite the entrance door. The origins of the tablinum are still disputed by scholars of Roman history. The tablinum could have been meant originally for only temporary purposes, being built of boards (tabulae), and with an outside door and no connection to the atrium. It could not have been long, however, until the wall between was broken through. When this was done and its usefulness shown, the partition wall was completely and permanently removed. Varro explained the tablinum as having been a sort of balcony or porch, used as a dining room in hot weather.

Roman House Plan
Plan of an early Roman house.

Later in history, the atrium received its light from a central opening in Roman roofs, the compluvium, which got its name from the fact that rain, as well as air and light, could enter through it. Just beneath this came a basin, called an impluvium, which was not only decorative but also useful since it caught the rainwater coming through the open roof and channeled it into underground water storage tanks.

As greater space and privacy were needed, ancient houses were added on to with small rooms opening out of the atrium at the sides. The atrium at the end next to the tablinum had the full width between the outside walls, and the extra spaces, or alcoves, one on each side, were called alae. As far as is known, the outside rooms received light only from the atrium. From these very early and ancient houses we see preserved in later times all that was opposite the entrance door or ostium, the atrium with its alae and tablinum, the impluvium and compluvium. These are the typical features of ancient Roman house design in addition to Roman doorways.

Greco Roman House Plan
Greco Roman House Plan.

Greek Influence

From the influence of ancient Greek houses came the idea of a court at the back of the tablinum, open to the sky, surrounded by various rooms, and planted with flowers, trees, and shrubs. The open space in this type of house had columns around it and often a fountain in the middle. This court was called the peristylum or peristylium. Access to the peristylium from the atrium was gained through the tablinum, though this could be cut off from it by folding doors and by a narrow passage at one side. The passage would probably have been used by slaves and by others when they were not privileged to pass through the tablinum. Both passage and tablinum could be closed on the side of the atrium by portieres.

Typical Houses

The arrangement and plans of the various rooms around the peristylium looks to have varied with the ideas and designs of builder or owner; no one plan for them was firmly established. According to the means of the owner there were Roman bedrooms, the triclinium ( dining room ), Roman libraries, drawing rooms, kitchen, scullery, closets, private baths, together with the simple rooms needed for housing slaves. But, whether there were a lot of rooms or few, they all faced the court, receiving from it light and air, and so did the rooms along the sides of the atrium. There was often a garden behind the peristylium. An example, on a grand scale, can be imagined from Diocletian's palace in Croatia.

Roman Town Houses


The next development to occur in ancient Roman houses was in the city and town houses. In ancient times, as today, business was likely to spread from the centre of town into the residential neighbourhoods, and it often became necessary for the owner of an ordinary house to adapt his house to the new conditions around him.

This was easily done in the case of the Roman house due to the arrangement of the rooms. We have already seen that the rooms of Roman houses all opened to the interior of the house, that few windows were placed in the outer walls, and that there was usually only one door, and this was at the front. If the house faced a business street the owner could build rooms in front of the atrium for commercial purposes without allowing the privacy of the interior rooms to be affected. A passageway to his door was of course maintained. If the house was situated on a corner, these additional rooms could be added on the side as well as in the front, and, as they had no necessary connection with the interior, they could be rented as living rooms, as separate rooms often are in modern times.

It is likely that rooms were first added like this for business purposes by an owner who expected to conduct his own commerical operations in them, but even men of great wealth didn't hesitate to increase such wealth by renting to others these disconnected parts of their houses. These rooms were known as taberna and were often divided in the middle by a vestibulum. All the larger houses discovered in Pompeii are arranged in this manner.

As Roman cities developed many people came to be housed in malodorous fire hazards called insulae, the precursors to our modern apartment blocks.

See also our look at some typical plans of a Roman house.

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