By the 6th cent. bc the Roman élite was living along the via Sacra, beside the Forum, in a series of sizeable, roughly equal house‐plots, which shaped the topography of the area until the great fire of ad 64. The Roman aristocracy thus identified itself with a historic home in the city centre.
The 3rd–2nd‐cent. bc houses of Pompeii show a regular plan and a systematic division of urban space, but also a wide variety of size and levels of wealth, the House of the Faun being outstanding by the standards of anywhere in the Mediterranean world. In these houses it is quite easy to identify the features which Vitruvius, our principal literary source, regarded as canonical. The traditional houses of the centre of Rome seem also to have adhered to the basic pattern of atrium (see below) with rooms round it; where more space was available, this traditional arrangement could be combined with peristyles and gardens, offering scope for planned suites of rooms, and providing more flexible spaces for living, entertaining, politics, and the cultural activities which were integral to upper‐class life. Luxury in domestic appointments was thought to have taken off dramatically in the 1st cent. bc.
The salient feature of this traditional plan was the atrium—a rectangular space open to the sky at the centre, columned in the more elaborate forms, with wide covered spaces on each of the four sides, one of which gave onto the outside world through a vestibule. Originally the site of the family hearth, whose smoke caused the blackening (āter) which gave the place its name, this was also the abode of the household deities, and housed the copies of the funerary masks which were the sign of the family's continuity and identity (see imagines; lares). The adjacent rooms were flexible in their use. A trīclīnium for convivial dining was an early and frequent adjunct, but meals could be taken in various rooms, if available, according to season and weather (see convivium; dining‐rooms).
Augustus' house on the Palatine, reached by passing along the street of venerable aristocratic addresses (the houses had been rebuilt many times) from the Forum, consisted of an amalgamation of several houses of the traditional sort, so that he could enjoy the advantages of considerable space while claiming moderation in his domestic circumstances. The building of very large complexes nearby under Gaius (1) (e.g. the platform of the ‘Domus Tiberiana’, which supported a country villa in the heart of Rome) and Nero, whose Golden House (Domus Aurea) spread over a large section of the city centre, took a different line, but Domitian's enormous palace, overpowering and monarchic though it was, is recognizably an ancient house on a hugely inflated scale (see palaces).
For most inhabitants of the Roman city, however, this spacious life was impossible; it was normal to live in someone else's property, and in much less space. The rich had long accommodated slaves, dependants, and visitors around the principal spaces of their houses—on the street frontages, from which the principal rooms were averted, on upper floors, or even under the floors of the main premises, in warrens of small rooms. Parts of the house accessible from outside could be let profitably for accommodation or for trade. Purpose‐built rental accommodation, in the form of whole blocks in the city or its environs, goes back to the middle republic. The demand for such premises grew so fast that those who could afford to build them saw a valuable source of rental income, and a style of architecture developed which had this type of dwelling‐space in mind. By the imperial period, multi‐storey tenement blocks, insulae (‘islands’), housed almost all the population of Rome and other big cities. Not all this accommodation was poor; some was sited in attractive areas, some apartments were large enough, those on the lower floors were not inconvenient, and many people of some status could afford no better. The introduction of kiln‐fired brick almost certainly made these developments safer and healthier than had been the case in the republic (see building materials, roman). Estimates of the living conditions in the insulae we know best, those of Ostia—where we cannot tell if we are looking at privileged or marginal housing—illustrate a more general difficulty in the study of the Roman house, that of understanding the density of occupation.
Subjects: Classical Studies.