Housing and Furniture in Ancient Rome

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Housing and Furniture in Ancient Rome

A Roman's wealth determined their type of housing. This is where a wealthy Roman would live.

Housing and Furniture in Ancient RomeBy: Elizabeth Carpenter

In ancient Rome, one's wealth determined their type of housing. If they were wealthy, they would live in a single-story house, called a domus, which was built around the atrium—a central hall that had several rooms opening from it. These atriums were also open to weather as they had no roofs, but they were also usually built with a trough to collect rainwater. Beyond the atrium was the peristylum, an open courtyard that included a garden, and it, too, had rooms opening from them. The gardens of the peristylum served as a meeting place, and they were designed so that people could meet, despite a hot sun. The main rooms of the house were decorated with colored plaster walls and mosaics (if they could be afforded). These decorations were a statement of your wealth and importance.

Statues were also very important “furniture” in the Roman domus. Bronze statues and sculptures were displayed throughout the house on tables, walls, and the like, and they were always in the most visible parts of the house. These statues and sculptures could be portrait busts of relatives or famous individuals, life-size statues of family members, generals, or divine or mythical figures. Scenes depicted by paintings or sculptures helped associate their owner with key features of Roman life, such as military achievements, which validated the owner’s position in his world. Later, small-scale mythical figures also became popular. The domestic displays of Roman elite were a sign of their wealth, power, and authority.

Water was also piped straight to wealthy houses; the bigger one's pipe was, the more it was taxed. Houses were also kept heated by a hypocaust, which was under-floor heating. Hypocaust heating was also used at Roman baths if no naturally-hot water could be used. The other rooms of the house included a triclinia, the dining room; oeci, reception rooms; cubicula, bedrooms; a cucina, the kitchen; and a lavatory.

Furniture in wealthy Roman homes could easily be moved and was often replaced. The atrium was often sparsely furnished, usually containing only arcae, chests, of family documents or treasures, and a few pieces of furniture, such as small tables, ornate stools, and candelabra. The Romans sat in reclining couches as they ate in the dining room, and fine tableware was often displayed in cabinets around the dining room.

The poor of Rome would live in a simple flat or apartment, known as insulae. These insulae contained, at most, two rooms, and Romans would tend to only sleep there. This was because poor Romans would have to work, and they bathed at the public baths, as their apartment would usually not have running water. They also ate at inns because it was not safe to cook in the apartments. These apartments were made with timber and mud brick, which made them prone to collapsing and fire. Upper floors were not heated, and only sometimes did they have lavatories, so they were cheaper to rent. Later designs of the Roman apartment seemed to have been built more safely with fired brick and concrete, but no improvements were made in sanitation or standard of living.

Here is a video of a Roman dormus. There are also clips including aspects of other cultures.