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Roman Architecture - Roman Houses

( Originally Published 1921 )



Roman dwelling-houses are of three types : (a) The domus or private house ; (b) the villa or country house ; and (c) the insula or many-storeyed tenement.

(a) The domes or private house was probably evolved from the Greek house (p. 112). An atrium formed the more public portion of the building and a peristyle beyond was the centre of the family apartments.

The " Atrium Vest," Rome (pp. 139 B, 140 B) or House of the Vestal Virgins, together with the House of Livia, Rome, are the most interesting remains of dwelling-houses in the Imperial city.

Excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum show that Roman houses differ but slightly in plan and disposition from the Greek dwellings which preceded them. These Pompeian houses owe their preservation to having been buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, and the whole lay-out of this buried city has revealed the manner in which town-planning was standardised among the Romans. The streets were narrow, 8, 12, or 15 ft. wide, while the widest were 23 ft. 6 ins. with a roadway 13 ft. 6 ins. and paths 5 ft. wide. The houses had plain facades to the street and the frontage on either side of the entrance was let off as shops. The absence of window openings towards the street was probably due to the desire for privacy, and in this connection it must not be forgotten that glazed windows were then unknown. The rooms were lighted by openings on internal courts, as in Medieval times in England and France, and as in Eastern houses to this day ; but these openings were small, as the light was strong in the sunny climate of Italy. The remains of Pompeian houses are mostly one storey in height, but there are traces of stairs, and upper floors were probably of timber. No fireplaces or chimneys have been found, but braziers were probably used as in Italy to-day. The domestic water supply was carried by leaden pipes with rising mains " to upper floors, with taps and other accessories which may still be seen at Pompeii.

The House of Pansa, Pompeii (p. 184), is a good type of the domus or private house. It has streets on three sides, the garden occupied the fourth, and besides the house proper there were shops, bakeries, and three smaller dwellings. A " prothyrum," or entrance passage, led direct from the street to the atrium, which served as the waiting-room for retainers and clients, around which were rooms for guests and servants and semi-public rooms, such as libraries, all lighted by the door openings (p. 184 D). The atrium is open to the sky in the centre with a " lean-to " or sloping roof, supported by brackets, round all four sides, and the " impluvium," or water cistern for receiving the rain-water from these roofs, was sunk in the centre of the pavement. The atrium also contained the family altar and the ancestral statues (p. 184 A). An open saloon or " tablinum " was curtained off between the atrium and peristyle, and at the side were " fauces " or passages. The peristyle was often the garden of the house, and was the centre of the private part of the building, corresponding to the Hall of Elizabethan times (p. 708) ; the sketch (p. 184 B) indicates the Doric columns between which festive garlands form a pleasing background for the entertainment in progress. " Cubicula " or bedrooms, " triclinia " or dining-rooms with different aspects for summer and winter, the " oecus " or reception-room, and " alae " or recesses for conversation surrounded the peristyle. Dining-rooms were fitted with three couches for nine people, the recognised number for a Roman feast. Floors and walls were decorated with mosaics and fresco paintings. The kitchen and pantry were at the side of the peristyle, farthest from the entrance, but convenient for the side street.

The House of the Vettii, Pompeii (p. 184 E, F, G), differs from others in that the atrium, owing to the restricted site, adjoins the peristyle, which has recently been partly rebuilt and planted as an antique garden with marble tables and statuettes. The kitchen, with its cooking apparatus still in situ, and the triclinium, with its wall frescoes representing Classical myths, are typical of many other houses. This Pompeian house, as seen from above, has two openings lighting the atrium and a smaller court, which were protected from thieves by iron grilles, and there is a large opening to the peristyle beyond.

The Houses of the Faun, Diomede, Sallust, and the Tragic Poet are famous Pompeian residences, with floors, walls, and vaulted ceilings decorated in the characteristic Pompeian style, and furnished with candelabra, lamps, vases, statues, and fountains, and many of these are in the Naples and Pompeii Museums (pp. 194, 197). The floors were of patterned mosaic, in black and white (p. 194 H, ) or coloured marbles. The walls were painted either in fresco (p. 194 n, F, G) or to imitate marble, the darkest colours of the decorative scheme being nearer the ground. Pictures were sometimes enclosed with architectural features, such as columns, so slender as to suggest a metal origin, with entablatures all represented in perspective (p. 194 B). The ceilings probably had painted and gilded timbers, and the peristyle columns were often of the Ionic type (p. 193 H) and roofs were covered externally with tiles or terra-cotta. The remains of these houses, as excavated in such cities as Pompeii and Timgad, reveal in the details of their arrangement the every-day life of Roman citizens. Lytton's " Last Days of Pompeii" contains imaginative descriptions of the life and dwellings of the time.

(b) The villa or country house. Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli, resembled a city in extent, for, with its surroundings and gardens, it occupied about seven square miles. Besides the Imperial apartments there were terraces, colonnades, palstrae, theatres, and thermae, restorations of which have been made by Piranesi, Canina, and others. There are remains of Roman villas in different parts of England which show the usual type of plan and the central heating arrangements necessary for our cold climate.

(c) The insula or block of tenement dwellings of many storeys seems to have resembled modern flats, or workmen's dwellings, such as must have been necessary for the slave population ; and in this connection it should be noted that a decree was issued by Augustus limiting the heights of houses in Rome to 75 ft., and it therefore seems evident that buildings of this type must have been numerous.



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