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Housing and Health in Rome

Updated on April 24, 2012

By AD 200 the city of Rome contained about 1.2 million people. They needed a large number of buildings, shops, temples, theaters and public baths. But most of all they needed homes.

Most people in Rome lived in blocks of flats, five or six storeys high, in which they rented one or two rooms. They were furnished with a few bare stools and tables and no beds at all; people usuall yslept on mats and blankets. These flats, called insulae, had windows, but no glass - just wooden shutters . There was no water supply or plumbing above the ground floor. Sewage was disposed of through the windows.

Outside the blocks of flats the streets were narrow and crowded, often unpaved, unlit and filthy with rubbish and sewage. According to the writer Juvenal, it could be dangerous to be out at night.

Richer citizens lived in a one- or two-storey house, called a domus, built of brick or stone and whitewashed at the front.

These homes were pleasant, set back from the roads. They had entrance areas or shops at the front to cut down the noise from the street. Inside, rooms faced on to courtyards with gardens and sometimes fountains. Some rooms might be heated by an under-floor hot air system called a hypocaust.

Only about one in twenty of the inhabitants of Rome lived in such houses.

Grander still was the country house, or villa, outside the city. The remains of many villas, with their splendid mosaic floors, have survived because they were not built upon over the centuries. But these homes were not typical of the average Roman citizen's dwelling.

Apart from housing, the huge population of Rome caused many other problems. The amount of traffic on the narrow roads became so great that for many years carts were banned except at night. How to get fresh water and what to do with sewage were also problems. Rome came to have the best water supply and sewerage system of any city in the ancient world. Romans recognized the importance of fresh water for healthy living, and their public baths became regular meeting-places for the middle and upper classes.

We can read descriptions of the Roman fountains, baths, sewers and aqueducts written at the time. We can al so study their remains.


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