Private architecture in ancient Rome: apartment houses

By Meike Ballschmiter 6/19/98
His 80T


When we think of housing in ancient times we think primarily of wooden or brick huts in small villages. We donÍt associate an urban lifestyle with cultures that existed more than 1000 years ago. In her height in the 2nd century AD the town of Rome had 1mio. inhabitants, which made her by far the biggest settlement in the known world. The Romans themselves referred to Rome simply as urbs, which means The City. For them Rome was the center of the universe, the model town for all towns they founded in the provinces. The lifestyle in Rome was as urban as the life in a modern town. Features we regard as modern already existed: the Romans had sewer lines, running water, rush hour traffic jams, a welfare system, building regulations, corrupt contractors and lawyers, multi story houses and a society very unequal in the distribution of wealth.

II. Roman types of houses

Three standard types of houses existed in the Roman world. The ideal house was the villa rustica, the countryside villa. In Roman society land ownership was very important and the occupation with agriculture was regarded as very honorable for aristocrats. In the ideal case, an aristocrat was able to live of the profit of his land and occupy himself with politics. The standard villa rustica as found all over the Roman empire consisted of the house itself and a variety of stables and sheds grouped around a patio. Many of these often big farms were surrounded by a wall. The main features of the house were the atrium with the rooms grouped around it and the peristyle.

The domus (town house) had essentially the same features as the villa rustica. Because of space restrictions in a town the ground plan of the domus was often not ideal and commitments had to be made concerning the symmetrical layout of the house. In general the houses of the upper class in Rome were constructed for representative purposes. It was extremely important to have a house that reflected the actual or desired social status of its owner. Banquets were an important part of politics and business life, and many decisions were made while dining. Besides political friends, a rich Roman household was visited by the clients, who were paying their respect to their patron on a regular basis. This means that, unlike our households, a Roman household was not a private space for the family.

The vast majority of the Roman population didnÍt have to think about representative rooms in their homes, because they were too poor for political activities. The common Roman lived in a functional multi-party apartment block called insula. The average insula was 3-4 stories high and had differently sized apartments. Some of them consisted only of one tiny room while others took up a whole floor in the apartment house. Usually the insula had a courtyard to let in air and light. One or two common staircases led to the upper floors, where the less desirable rooms where located. Running water, if available, would only reach the lower floors, and in case of a fire the tenants on the highest floor were endangered most.

III. Location of the insulae

In a census count from 300 AD, between 44,000 and 46,000 insulae were counted in the town of Rome. Like every town, Rome consisted of poorer and richer quarters, but there were no quarters with insulae only. An often cited example for a lower class quarter is the subura. Located north east of the forum it was a lively quarter with the busy street argiletum running through it. In this part of Rome there were lots of stores, workshops and inns, but it was not solely a business quarter. Besides little businesses there were lots of insulae, but also town houses of wealthier Roman citizens. For example Julius CaesarÍs parents were living in the subura. Several authors complain about the constant noise and the ever-jammed streets in the subura . Houses often collapsed or burned down.

We know of several devastating fires, that destroyed whole quarters of the town. The best known example is the big fire in 64 AD (the one staged in Quo Vadis), after which parts of the town had to be rebuild completely. During the empire more and more space in the townÍs center was used for public buildings and the residential areas were forced to the margin of the town. The loss of space was compensated by building houses with more stories and by building new quarters further away from the heart of the town. People lived now around the town, in the suburbium.

Besides Rome, insulae were also found in Ostia, the harbor town of ancient Rome. In Pompeii tenement blocks didnÍt exist.

IV.Building materials

In the 3rd or 2nd century BC the Romans discovered concrete(caementum), a mix of sand and burnt lime in a 3:1 ration, as a building material. It was of remarkable strength, because they added volcanic ash known as pozzolana. This addition made the concrete dry quickly and consistently, and also made it hard and waterproof. They usually poured the concrete into a wooden frame, which was removed later. This technique allowed them to build e.g. the big dome of the pantheon.

To achieve more stable walls, rubble was incorporated into the cement and tufa stones faced the walls. The Romans distinguished different types of walls: opus quadratum, in which regularly shaped stones faced the concrete, opus incertum, where cone shaped tufa stones were inserted irregularly into the wall, opus reticulum, where regular shaped tufa blocks were inserted into the concrete in a network pattern, and opus testaceum, where bricks were incorporated into the walls. Opus incertum was used as early as 200 BC, which means it its development is contemporary with the development of concrete. It remained in use through the first quarter of the first century BC. The technique shifted to opus reticulum at the end of the 1st century BC. In his treatise De Architectura (27 BC)Vitruvius still regards opus incertum as the more dependable technique. For him the shift to opus reticulum is just a temporary fashion. When Sueton writes that Augustus found a city of brick and left a city of marble he is incorrect. At the end of Augustus reign the most houses in Rome were build with opus reticulum and few brick houses existed. The use of marble, even in the representative architecture was just beginning. Brick was not used to build houses, because the common sun-dried brick cracked easily. The Romans didnÍt use kiln-baked brick until the reign of Augustus. In later times brick and opus reticulum were often used together in a style called opus mixtum. Another pattern brick was used in was opus vittatum . Here rows of brick and rows of tufa stones were alternating in the facing. Walls entirely faced with brick became common after the great fire of 64 AD, when parts of the town were rebuild with this method called opus testaceum.. The stone patterns of the all wall types remained invisible, because all walls had a stucco finish.

VI.Contracts and architects

The insulae were owned privately. They were a convenient source of income for nobility as well as for the knights, the eques. We know of Cicero renting out some apartments in Rome and Ostia. He complains regularly about the problems of maintenance to his brother Quintus who is serving in Gaul, and who seems to own insulae Cicero is taking care of while he is absent. Rome had a well developed building industry and a contract system. Contractors were responsible for the supply with building materials. They owned the teams of trained slaves which were actually building the house. Often contractors were also paid for keeping the house maintained.

Two types of building contracts were common. A contract could be arranged by a stipultio, a formalized verbal exchange of promises to build the house. This form of a contract was very similar to a Roman religious act. Later written construction contracts were made. They were called locatio conductio and required the parties to come to a specific agreement on all terms of the activities covered by the contract and to agree on a fixed price.

We have an excellent source on Roman architecture through the works of Vitruvius, who wrote De Architectura, a ten volume treatise, in 27 BC. It reflects the theoretical knowledge of architecture in the 1st century BC and is one of the rare works of its kind. Although Vitruvius shows an excellent knowledge of his subject he was never a successful architect. He gathered his experience as a military engineer in CaesarÍs army. The only project by Vitruvius we know of is the forum in the provincial town of Farnum Fortunae.

Architects were primarily employed for public projects, but they also planned private houses, mostly the domi and villae rusticae of the aristocracy. In the Roman world an architectus was as well a designer as an engineer. He was often responsible for the whole building process of a house and sometimes he even served as the contractor and building inspector. Although many aristocrats were fascinated with the art of architecture the architect himself was of low social status. For Vitruvius the ideal architect ñshould be a man of letters, a skillful draughtsman, a mathematician, familiar with scientific inquiries, a diligent student of philosophy, acquainted with music; not ignorant of medicine, learned in the responses of jurisconsults, familiar with astronomy and astronomical calculations.î Vitruvius, De Architectura, book 1, introduction.

VI. Land speculation and regulations

Land speculation was not uncommon in ancient Rome. We know that Marcus Licinius Crassus (1st century AD) made his fortune this way. At that time there were no organized firefighters in Rome. When a house was afire Crassus, who owned a group of trained firefighter slaves, would rush to the place and try to buy the house from the desperate owner. In the most cases he was able to negotiate a good price for the house. As soon as the owner had sold him the house his slaves would start to fight the fire. Usually the house could be saved and after some renovations Crassus was able to either rent it out or sell it with profit. Fires must have been extremely common, because this method of blackmailing made him the richest man and most powerful landowner of his time.

Because of the frequent collapses of apartment blocks the idea of imposing regulations on private buildings appeared early in Rome. Collapses were usually caused by poor maintenance of the houses or by the contractors attempt to save money on building materials. Very often there was too much rubble included in the walls to conserve concrete, which led to cracks soon. Laws before 20 BC restricted the thickness of part walls between houses to 1.5 Roman feet. This effectively restricted the height of sun-dried brick walls to one story. Augustus restricted the height of newly built houses to 70 Roman feet, which is about 21 meters. After the catastrophic fire in 64 AD new building rules were enforced by Nero. Party walls were not allowed anymore, buildings had to be surrounded by walls of their own. The use of limestone, which is soft and can burn was restricted also. The streets were broadened to prevent fires to jump from roof to roof.

VII.Life in an insula

Unlike most domi, the insulae didnÍt have running water. The residents had to get their water from public fountains, which were very abundant in the streets of Rome. If the tenants were lucky the insula had group lavatories on the ground floor. For all other dwellers there were public lavatories, which seem to have been a place of socializing. Obviously the Romans didnÍt regard a restroom as a private space. For the daily needs of the Romans there were various shops. The tenants neither had a cellar nor an oven, which made them dependent on wine shops, bakeries and other stores. The common Roman was as little involved in the processing of his food as we are today. Like in the Mediterranean countries of today Roman social life took place outside of the little apartments, in the taverns, the baths, the circus and the forum. This outdoor lifestyle is probably the reason why politicians spent huge amounts for public buildings and held games of any kind to please the crowds. The urban massesÍ dependence on a steady supply of bread and other food items and their joy in outdoor entertainment made panem et circenses a keystone of Roman political stability.


Andrew Wallace-Hadrill; Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton University Press, 1994
James C. Anderson; Roman Architecture and Society. The John Hopkins University Press, 1997
Patrick Nuttgens; The story of architecture. Prentice Hall, 1983
Dora P. Crouch; History of Architecture. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1990

Useful primary sources:
Martial; Epigrammata
Vitruvius; De Architectura

Return to technology and society page