Background: Roman housing architecture provides valuable insight into Roman culture, society and history. Housing in Rome was primarily of two types. The vast majority of common Roman citizens or people from lower sections of society lived in apartment complexes called ‘Insulae’ and the rich and influential Romans resided in large and luxurious complexes called ‘Domus’. Many rich Romans also owned opulent residences in the countryside, called ‘Villa’.
Insulae: Insulae were apartments used by poor Roman citizens for housing. They were normally five to seven stories high. Some even had nine stories. A typical insula was built around a courtyard with building on the three side of the courtyard and a wall on the fourth side to prevent the residents from intruders. The residents used the courtyard for cooking, washing and socializing. A typical insulae had six or seven apartments and accommodated around forty people. Each apartment had only one or at the most two rooms.
A resident family occupied this room for sleeping purpose only and did not cook inside the apartment as it was not safe. The insulae were built from mud-bricks, timber or towards the later period of Roman Empire, with primitive concrete. In most such buildings the ground floor rooms were used as market shops and the upper floors were used as residential apartments. The value of an apartment depended on its location in the building. While apartments on top and higher floors were of least desirable, the apartments on the lower levels were in demand.
The top floor apartments were not provided with water, heating and lavatories. Residents were forced to rely on public restrooms (latrinae). These buildings were often destroyed by fire and Emperor Augustus put a restriction on the height of these insulae (70 Roman feet). After the Great Fire of Rome, Emperor Nero further reduced the height to 60 Roman feet. Historians believe that at the time of Great Roman Fire, there were 42000 or more insulae in the city of Rome alone.
Domus: Wealthy and influential Romans owned larger and more opulent housing complexes in the cities called ‘Domus’. A typical domus had a door towards the street the opened into an entrance hall that lead to a courtyard called ‘Atrium’. Atrium was a central hall with rooms all around it. The master of the house known as Dominus had his and his family’s rooms all around the atrium.
Atrium either had no roof or a hole in the roof to serve as a sky light and an opening to allow rain water to fall through it and get collected in a reservoir in the center of the atrium floor. There were multiple rooms in a domus which were used for different purposes. Beyond an atrium centered complex was the rear portion of the house which was centered on a garden or backyard called’Peristyle’. The rooms around peristyle were toilets, kitchens, stores and slave quarters. Romans decorated their rooms with colored plaster walls and mosaics. Mosaics were expensive and only the very rich could afford them.
The furniture used was rather basic in nature. Most of the Romans used stools for sitting and beds for sleeping. Unlike insulae, domus were supplied with water through lead pipes. The owners of the houses were taxed for it however. The tax depended on the size of pipes provided. Many Romans installed hypocaust for under floor heating of their rooms. This provided them with a comfortable environment inside their houses.
Villa: A Roman villa was a country home used by wealthy Romans. Villas were larger than domus as countryside offered more space for building residence compared to overly populated cities like Rome, where there was always a dearth of available space. A villa normally had three parts. The first part was Villa Urbana, where the dominus and his family lived.
This part was decorated with mosaics and frescoes and was very similar to the urban residences of rich Romans. The second was Villa Rustica, where slaves and other workers of the villa resided. This part also housed stores, prison and a barn for farm animals. The third part was Villa Fructuaria, where the farm produce was stored. This part also had a temple and a dining room in some cases.
Prominent Remains: The most well known remains of Roman houses were found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. There were some also found in Rome, but they are mostly bare foundations. Hadrian’s villa in Italy and Villa Armira in Bulgaria are well known examples of Roman villas.