Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Roman house

This post owes a great deal to Mary Beard's briskly sceptical and extremely readable, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (Profile Books, 2010)

The so-called House of Pansa, Pompeii

House and shrine
Unlike the modern house, the Roman house was a shrine. It was the dwelling of the pater familias, the head of the family. It was also the place where the household gods were celebrated.

Three kinds of deity were venerated:
1. The lares: these were the gods of settlement, who resided where men had taken possession of the land and cultivated it. They were offered fire.
2. The genius was the god of the male line - each citizen received it from his father and passed it on to his son. They were offered pure wine.
3. The penates were the gods of the larder; they turned the house into food store (corn, beans, wine, bacon, salt meat). They were offered incense.

The household fire, at which offerings were made, created links between these deities. It was never allowed to go out. When the master left the house for the last time, it was ritually extinguished with wine.

The layout of the house
Roman houses were four-sided, often rectangular. The building material varied from cob (clay mixed with gravel and straw) to brick. In Augustan Rome the commonest building material was sun- dried brick.

Few private houses have survived in Rome, but Pompeii (buried by lava in 79 AD) provides a wealth of evidence, though this is not always easy to interpret. One of the best examples of a surviving house is what used to be called the house of Pansa, the home of a wealthy man, a one-storied dwelling already two hundred years old when it was destroyed.

Wealthy houses: The Roman house turned in on itself. The street front was totally anonymous, and the house was insulated from the street by self­ contained shops, which did not connect with the house, but were let out to tenants.

Plan of a domus

The entrance was though the fauces, a narrow passage. This led to the atrium, a general living area, which acted as a forecourt. The atrium was an elaborately decorated space, lofty and cool, lit through a central opening. In the house of Pansa’, there was a pool beneath the opening to catch the rain water. (This was very important in the days before Augustus provided Pompeii with an aqueduct.) It was the decoration of the atrium that revealed the social status of the pater familias. His wealth was shown by the luxury of the decor and his nobility of status by the wall cupboards containing the wax masks of his ancestors.

The core of the house was the tablinum, a room where the patron would receive his clients. It was separated from the atrium by a curtain or an open door and it contained the symbolic conjugal bed.

Reconstruction of a peristyle garden, Pompeii
At the rear of the house was a collection of windowless rooms leading to an enclosed garden. In most houses this garden was arranged as a peristyle or patio. The Romans had a passion for gardens, and the garden was regarded as part of the house, not separate from it. It was always closed in, either by a wall or by a dense, cane hedge. It shielded the family from view, and allowed the woman to work undisturbed. The garden was productive all the year round. It was used to grow the staple vegetables of the Roman diet as well as medicinal herbs and flowers. In a very wealthy house, the owner would have another garden adjoining the peristyle. This would also be enclosed and be more like a landscaped park than out idea of a garden.

The rear of the house was reserved for family use and included bedrooms, food stores, kitchens and baths. This was the area where the women, children and slaves lived. Free men only entered this part of the house to sleep, wash or eat a quick breakfast. Bedrooms were tiny, with just enough space for a bed and a few chairs. The bed was a wooden bedstead on trestles, a straw mattress, woollen blankets and some cushions. Night –time was the only time when a Roman was alone.  Kitchens were always tiny, even in large houses.

The dining room could have been situated anywhere in the house. Meals could either be private family meals or public receptions. The dining room was called the triclinium, the room with three couches. It has generally been assumed that Roman men ate lying down, leaning on their life elbows, their heads nearest the table, though this might only have been the case on special occasions. Women and children, when they dined with the men, would remain seated.

Lower class housing: The excavations at Pompeii can provide a misleading picture of Roman housing. The very modest dwellings of the poor were less equipped to survive the disaster. In both Rome and Pompeii most tradesmen of moderate means lived in the 'flat above the shop', a simple one-roomed dwelling reached by a ladder and lit by a small window over the doorway. In the larger towns, especially in Rome, blocks of flats were common. They often occupied a whole city block, or insula, and reached up to five storeys. They generally had shops on the ground floor. Flat sizes varied from about 5 to 12 rooms.

Insula from 2nd century AD in Ostia Antica

Insula dwelling was the norm in Rome, which was a city of flat-dwellers. A document from the 4th century AD indicates that the city contained 46,602 insulae and only 1,797 private houses.