Daily Life in Ancient Rome

From the grandest villa to the vilest tenements, the living residences of Ancient Rome continue to strike a sense of wonder into the hearts of those who lay eyes upon them. Over the centuries, Roman houses developed into a unique and functional style all their own.

Town Houses

The Roman town house, or domus, was a single family house. The most popular design for this structure was based around the atrium, which had its roots in early Etruscan homes. These houses had a single main room with many small rooms opposite the entrance, or, in some cases, a set of small rooms around a courtyard, from which the atrium developed.

Early Pompeiian houses were built around an atrium, or a large, open main hall. Later, the compluvium was added, a sloped hole in the room through which to filter in light and air. By the 2nd century, an impluvium had been developed. This was a type of hole in the floor of the house which collected rainwater that fell through the compluvium.

By the late 2nd century BC, the design had been amended, adding many smaller rooms, a peristyle and/or courtyard, and sometimes baths. There was usually only one door and one or two windows which faced the street.

The size of a house was a reflection of the wealth of the owner. A nicer house might have the atrium, which served as a type of reception hall/living room, leading into the tablinum, where the family records (tabulae) and portraits of ancestors (imagines) would be kept. Other rooms could include cubiculi (bedrooms), a triclinia (dining room), oeci (reception rooms), a kitchen, and a lavatory. The wealthy might also have accommodations for baths or a library.

Another modified style is the strip house, especially common in the northwest provinces. In a strip house, a long side would be built facing the street, while one or more wings extended behind. Where frontage was expensive, these types of houses may have been built with one narrow end facing the street which usually acted as a shop.

Other variations on the design in general are an indicator of the wealth of the owner, once again, and the building materials available. Houses were generally built with wattle or daub infill set on foundations of low stone. Mud brick was also commonly used. Interior decorations, which were often imported, were an even more reliable indicator on the wealth of the owner. Houses were usually painted red towards the ground and white above. A few have been found with additional stories and cellars.


By the end of the 1st century BC, a growing pressure for land in many larger, overpopulated cities gave rise to the insula, or apartment. The term insula had originally been applied to rectangularly shaped town building plots. 6-8 apartment blocks could occupy one insula, and were usually designed around an open courtyard. However, with most apartment blocks being three stories high, at least, this simply became a light well. Shops usually fronted the streets at ground level.

Despite variations in quality and allegations of questionable safety and sanitation, the apartment block became the most common form of Roman housing, as families began moving into rented spaces owned by landlords.

Most apartment blocks were made with timber and mud brick, making them prone to fire and collapse. The upper floors were without heating or running water and only sometimes had lavatories. Later designs seemed to have been built more safely, with fired brick and concrete, but there were no other improvements as far as sanitation and standard of living.

Augustus limited the height of apartments to 60 Roman feet, a maximum of five stories. Later, Nero imposed fire regulations.
Apartments outnumbered domus style town houses more than 25 to 1 in the fourth century, remaining the main type of housing until the end of the empire.


Shops were a common feature fronting Roman streets, occupying the front portion of many houses and apartment blocks. In some cases, it seems as though the shops were deliberately designed into the buildings, but in many others they were obviously added later. Most were single room tabernae, but a large number also had rooms in the back for storage and/or production, in addition to a mezzanine floor for storage and living quarters.

Many shops had large masonry counters with ceramic jars built into them, mouths flush with the counter. These conveniences were used to serve wine and food to customers.

Some shops sold imported goods, while others, like bakeries, would make their wares onsite. During the empire, many shops were built in planned, concentrated markets known as macella, while the town forum also acted as a focal point for business. Other types of shops, such as inns and brothels, were common, but unrecognizable unless specifically built for the purpose


During the middle/late republic, a villa rustica was the term applied to a farmstead attached to an estate, complete with accommodations for the owner should he choose to visit. By the 2nd century BC the term was also used for large country homes and retreats, and soon, the meanings became indistinguishable. Many villas probably performed both duties, gradually passing from owner to owner over time.

A villa's wealthy and luxurious feel differentiated it from typical farmsteads. In the widest sense of the term, a villa was a farmhouse whose Romanized architecture separated it from normal farmsteads, ranging in size from modest to mansion. Romans themselves were not consistent with the use of the term, and there are a great number of borderline cases.

In the eastern provinces, we are unsure exactly what the status and role of the villa was, but during the empire the villa developed throughout Africa, Spain, Gaul, Britain, Germany, and the Danube province. A villa was generally the product of successful farming, and while original funds may have been supplied from elsewhere, maintenance funding came from farming. Villa farm operations were generally dependent on a relatively local market, such as a town or city.

A villa together with the land (ager) it was built on and worked was known as a fundus, or estate. Some villas may have been set aside for important officials and imperial farming operations. Different varieties of the villa developed over the years based on geographical location. The villa suburbana was a farming homestead built on the outskirts of a town in order to farm adjacent land, and was very similar to the domus style town houses. During the republic, the villa rustica developed into a new, peristyle villa, built on a courtyard/garden with colonnaded porticos on all sides. Some were very large and complex. Seaside luxury villas, villae maritimae, were also popular for the wealthy and emperors.

The basic peristyle villa spread from Italy during the 1st century BC, and logically remains have been found of villas in provinces conquered early in the empire, such as Spain. Contravertly, villas are scarce in Britain until the 2nd century AD. Regional differences in villas reflected wealth and tastes of the owner.

The most simple villas are native cottage types resembling farm homesteads. These were usually augmented by adding a corridor verandah, and then a wing at either end. In outlying provinces, the courtyard villa developed into as an addition to the wings and corridor. These had buildings on one-to-four sides of a courtyard resembling a farmyard more than a garden. In villas operated by the more wealthy, a second courtyard was often built to separate the agricultural and residential functions of the villa.

A late development of the northern villas, like those found in the Netherlands and Britain, is an aisled building. This addition was rectangularly shaped, with two rows of posts dividing the inside into a nave and two aisles. Advanced models of this type contain mosaics, fresco, hypocaust heating, and baths, although many still maintained and agricultural or industrial use.

Rooms within a villa are similar to those in town house, though many have several large rooms with unknown functions. These may have served as guest accommodations, servant and slave quarters, or simply storage.


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