Different types of Roman houses


Describe the different types of Roman houses. How useful are the ancient sources for helping us to understand the use of space within these house types?

Roman house types cannot be described as uniform, in the same way that houses of the present day all vary. Depending on the location and period being studied there are vast differences between house types. Despite this there appear to be some architectural requirements noticeable both in the archaeology and shown by ancient authors such as Vitruvius, which would indicate that the Romans followed guidelines when building to construct an 'ideal' Roman house as much as possible. Both archaeology and literature can be used to complement each other in the study of the Roman house, as they can each give a suggestion of the use of different rooms. In some cases where one discipline may not have the answer, the other may provide a clue as to the function of certain spaces. It is important to use archaeology to critically analyse the ancient sources, as we have very few that discuss domestic architecture, and those that do tend to generalise and focus on certain house types such as the homes of the aristocracy. This study will look at the different types of houses found in the Roman Empire and how their development changed over time, focusing particularly on how houses are portrayed in the sources and what archaeology has brought to the subject, which cannot be interpreted from literature alone.

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The earliest type of aristocratic house to be described as 'Roman' is the atrium house, attributed to the third century BC onwards (Ellis 2000: 26). According to Ellis (2000:26) the atrium house had a main passage leading to the atrium courtyard, which was covered largely by a sloping roof, open in the centre. The impluvium, a small pool was below this. There were three different types of these atrium houses, each where the atrium had a different type of roof called compluviate, displuviate and testudinate (Ellis 2000: 26-7). Generally there was a main reception room called the tablinum with two alae (rooms open to the atrium), one on either side, the cubicula (bedrooms) were located on each side of the atrium (Ellis 2000: 27). Evidence of atrium houses is not found in the province of Italy alone, there is also the possibility of atrium houses in Spain and southern France such as House 1 at Ampurias and the House of the Dolphin at Vaison (Ellis 2000:29). Allison (2001: 192) has suggested that whether or not an atrium house is labelled as such depends on how similar it is to a Pompeian atrium house. This idea that Pompeii is the best model to use, would indicate that even modern scholars are influenced by the information most readily available to them in discerning between house types.

The peristyle house became prevalent in the first century AD, when it co-existed with the atrium house initially (Dwyer 1991: 25-48, cited by Ellis 2000: 31) and it eventually became the most common of all aristocratic houses in the Empire (Ellis 2000: 31). In the peristyle house the courtyard was more open than the atrium (Ellis 2000: 29) and it was usually a garden (Ellis 200: 34). With the peristyle came the oecus (a dining room) normally located next to the peristyle (Ellis 2000: 35). An example of a peristyle house is the House of the Vetii in Pompeii, which as well as having two atria has a peristyle, which in this instance is a statued garden (Ellis 2000: 1-4).

The House of the Vetii, is also a good example of an aristocratic townhouse. It was a richly decorated house, with three reception rooms and a separate quarter for servants, as well as these it had a shop, a shrine and a porter's lodge (Ellis 2000: 1-4).

Ellis (2000: 11) describes a villa as a lavish house on a country estate, with the use of terraces and porticoes (Ellis 2000: 52). The majority of villas were part of a working estate (Sear 1992: 35). The most extravagant villas were on the coast and above cliffs, for example in the Bay of Naples area (Ellis 2000: 11). Tiberius' Villa Jovis at Capri is one such villa (Ellis 2000:11). It has a large kitchen with enough space to prepare for a banquet, cisterns for water supply and a bath complex (Ellis 2000: 12). However Ellis (2000: 13) does say that this could be considered a palace instead of a villa.

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The word 'palace' comes from the palatine hill in Rome (Ellis 2000: 54), the location of the house of the first Emperor Augustus (Ellis 2000: 53). Ellis (2000: 54) believes that Augustus deliberately made his own home more domestic, while still including some palatial features. This would seem sensible considering Augustus' fragile position as the first Princeps, and making his home look too palatial may have been a concern to the senate, at a time when Augustus was eager to conceal his true power. Nero's Domus Aurea (Golden House) included rectangular reception rooms centred around peristyles, with polygonal courtyards (Ellis 2000: 55), taking regular domestic architecture and changing it to make it more extravagant. Though it was located in the city, the golden house was in extensive grounds, which included a vineyard, woodlands and a lake (Sear 1992: 35). It is clear that Nero was less conscious than Augustus of upsetting others with the vastness of his property. Palaces or palatial villas were also on a much larger scale than other housing. For example Hadrian's villa at Tivoli which covered more than half a square kilometre (Sear 1992: 35).

Sear (1992: 29) tells us that apartment blocks started to replace the older houses in the early Empire. In some places such as Pompeii , this was done by dividing mansions into smaller apartments (Sears 1992: 33). In Rome new apartment blocks (insulae), built in brick and concrete replaced those that had been ruined in the fire of AD64 (Sear 1992: 33). Insulae were not normally above five storeys (Sear 1992:34) and their features usually consisted of staircases from upper rooms leading to the street, shops in the ground floor rooms, a water cistern in the courtyard for the whole block and a lavatory per floor (Sear 1992: 34). An example is the Insula of Serapis at Ostia, consisting of two residential blocks with a bathing suite between them (Sear 1992: 34). Insulae were normally rental units (McKay 1975: 82), built by the wealthy who were able to pay workers and purchase supplies (McKay 1975: 93).

Roman houses as in other cultures changed and developed over time. Different rooms within houses were more important at different times, for example the triclinium became more important under the Empire (Ellis 2000: 27). Allison (2001: 193) also introduces a fair point when she says that the uses of different rooms probably changed over time and that it should not be imagined that they stayed the same throughout the Roman period. This can be shown in many provincial houses, which seem to have made rooms for public business relatively late in the third to fourth centuries, unlike in Rome (Ellis 1988: 569). The peristyle house continued for longer in the eastern part of the Empire (Ellis 1988: 565), one of these later houses being the House of the Falconer at Argos dating to 530-550 (Akerstrom-Hougen 1974, cited by Ellis 1988: 565). The palatial architecture largely depended on the character of the Emperor of the time, for example Diocletian reverted back to a more standard villa (Ellis 2000: 61).

Vitruvius is the ancient author who gives the best focus to Roman housing as a subject. He largely concentrates on the dimensions of a house, for example his description of courtyards and the basic angles and measurements that are generally used in each type (Vitruvius 6.3. 1). His account could be explained as a set of rules for the perfect Roman house, such as when he states that the portraits in the atrium had to be the same height as the breadth of side rooms (Vitruvius 6.3. 6). Ellis (2000: 14) believes that some of the features described by Vitruvius may not actually have existed. It is true that Vitruvius does not give examples of houses that conform to his descriptions, but it is unlikely that an individual house would have all the features he mentions as he is describing the ideal. It seems possible that there were houses that each had some of the characteristics he describes.

As to the uses of space there is some information described by Vitruvius, for example he tells us that winter dining rooms and bathrooms need to face south west to maximise the use of the evening light and sunset and the need for libraries to face east to protect the books from rot (Vitruvius 6.4. 1). He also states that certain spaces were reserved for family members, while places like vestibules and courtyards could be entered by any of the public even when not invited (Vitruvius 6.5.1).Ellis' (2000: 14) view is that although Vitruvius seems to go into great detail when describing the 'Roman House', it is very much focused on the Italian province as Vitruvius does not know as much about provincial architecture. Although at one point Vitruvius does describe Cyzicene halls, which are different from Italian ones (6.3. 10) it seems that unless Vitruvius had travelled widely, he may not have seen other examples of housing from different areas. Had he seen them he may not have thought they were as important to discuss, as they were not generally the result of Roman architectural styles alone but incorporated some native designs. Indeed as Allison (2001: 188) states, studies of houses outside Italy rely a lot more on archaeology than literature for evidence. This shows that the few writers that did explore the genre of housing in the Roman period only really focused on houses from a very small area, both geographically and economically.

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Ellis (2000: 14) mentions that Vitruvius only talks about the housing of the wealthy. As insulae were sometimes created when an older building became run down and leased out as smaller apartments, perhaps Vitruvius thought they were not worth describing as there was no real building process involved in their creation. As with many ancient writers he was only interested in writing about the lifestyle of the rich, as they would have been his audience. The weakness of Vitruvius is that he does not give much information about the use of the different rooms he describes, remaining very much with technical descriptions.

Pliny the Younger is another writer we can examine who gives an account of Roman housing. He does this through a different perspective to Vitruvius, putting two descriptions of his own coastal villa near Rome in his letters to Gallus (Letters, 2.17) and Domitius Apollinaris (Letters, 5.6). In both letters Pliny is very descriptive urging his reader to believe all the merits, which his villa displays. He describes some of the rooms for example the small courtyard, dining room and hall (Letters, 2.17) and he explains that he uses the villa in bad weather due to its good design (Letters 2.17). Pliny's aim is to amaze his friends with his description, therefore he is bound to exaggerate the merits of his home and not mention any faults or dislike of certain features that he may have had. Some scholars (Fortsch 1993 and Drummer 1994, cited by Allison 2001: 183) believe that Pliny wanted to show his expertise in architectural terminology. This may be what leads him to discuss the layout of his home rather than the behaviour within it. He describes his house as having an old-fashioned hall (Letters 5.6), which shows scholars he was aware of the changing styles over time. Pliny also tells of his villa's upper story (Letters 2.17), which is useful as this is not always obvious in the archaeological record. In both letters he describes the views of sea, woods and mountains seen from each room of his house in great detail, indicating that this was one of the most important features to Roman aristocracy. Detailed descriptions of features such as views also makes Pliny's house seem much more real and vivid than any that Vitruvius describes.

Pliny could be seen as more useful than Vitruvius in that he describes an actual place rather than models and it can help archaeologists to know the room uses in houses such as Pliny's, when excavating elsewhere. However Ellis (2000: 14) admits that archaeologists have found attempts at reconstructing Pliny's house from his letters alone a problem. Pliny also claims that many of the rooms used by slaves and freedmen in his house are able to be used by guests (Letters 2.17), which tells us much about Roman society in general and the relatively amiable treatment of slaves.

Ellis (2000: 15) points out that for most Roman writers who mention houses, their focus was not intended to be on the house but mention it in passing. Tacitus (Ann. 15.42) talks about Nero's Golden House as a way of showing his selfish character and Cicero (A.353 (XIII.52)) in his letter to Atticus in 45BC while talking about having Caesar as a guest, gives an idea of the use of space in his house in Puteoli. He also mentions having a second house at Tusculum in the letter, which shows the wealth of the some members of the aristocracy.

In many ways archaeology provides better evidence than literary sources. For example Allison (2001 184) believes that in general ancient writers do not provide any worthwhile information about the spatial side of behaviour within a house. However she also acknowledges that sometimes there are problems with archaeological data when it is not carefully documented, leading to meaningless data (Allison 2001: 185). In some respects it is important to rely of information from both disciplines depending on the evidence available to us. For example in Spain there is lots of evidence for villas and less for townhouses, and in Africa this is the opposite (Ellis 2000: 40). Although a combination of archaeology and ancient sources can be useful, Allison (2001: 185) notes that it is not always practical to try and apply the archaeological evidence to the alleged room spacing found in literature as room uses were probably more fluid than they imply.

On the whole, it is almost impossible to describe a typical Roman house, no matter what writers like Vitruvius would have us believe, as housing was dependant on personal inclination, as demonstrated by Pliny the Younger. There were various different types of housing in the Roman period, in different centuries, locations and for people of several statuses. Only a small minority of these houses are represented by descriptions in ancient sources, which are those of the wealthy. The rest are primarily examined through archaeology, which if done accurately can provide us with some idea of spacing within houses. It is important not to discount literary sources completely as accounts generally provide an element of detail unavailable to us through archaeology, but it is important not to assume these accounts are reliable especially without more named examples in the texts. Archaeology and ancient sources can be used to complement each other if scholars take into account that it is not practical to try and apply information we receive from one discipline to fit the other.