Insula, Domus, Villa. Three Types of Housing in Ancient Rome
When we hear about Rome the first thing we usually imagine is the huge, beautiful villas of the Roman patricians, decorated with frescoes and statues, with many rooms and a garden to enjoy walking in. Although, not everyone in Rome lived in these impressive mansions. Most of the Romans would not enjoy the beauty of the palaces of the emperors, or villas of the wealthy people.
If you would be a plebeian or foreigner, you would most likely spend your days in an insula, the apartment house for the poorest people. Insulae were something like the apartment buildings we have these days, although with many significant differences. These houses usually had 3-4 stories, although they could be as high as 7 stories and even more sometimes, and would be built from the cheapest materials like timber and poor concrete, which often led to them burning and collapsing. The ground floor of an insula was usually taken by shops, whose owner would most likely live right over it. Those first floors could have water and were considered the best and more expensive parts of the building to rent. The upper stories were extremely crowded and usually taken by the poorest citizens and slaves, who would live without any sanitation and would have to use public toilets for their needs, unless, if they are very lucky, their insula would have a public one on the ground floor.
Insulae apartments were always rented from the owner of the building, who usually was not of plebeian class but of the equites, and had the building named after them. Living in the upper stories of an insula you would probably be crowded into one little room along with the rest of your family, and your neighbors would most likely be someone like barbaric Gauls, or the poorest street performers. Emperor Augustus passed a law regulating the height of an insula up to about 20 meters, and Nero, after the Great Fire of Rome, diminished it to about 18meters, also forbidding the use of cheap and easy inflammable limestone for building. Except being a very fragile, noisy, and sometimes unpleasant place for living, the insulae had another danger: being lazy and wanting to save money, their inhabitants often threw the trash and natural body fluids right down from their window, which led to multiple complaints of Roman citizens. Despite all those bad sides, insulae were still the most common and popular type of house in Rome.
If you were luckier and came from the equites, you would live in a much more comfortable domus house. Domuses (plural domi in Latin) were beautifully decorated houses, and sometimes having a domus in the city, the owner would also have a villa or two outside the city. Domuses were decorated with beautiful frescoes, statues, and architecture elements. Their entrances did not face the street, in order to protect the inhabitants from noise and street interruptions. These houses were varying in size, from small cozy family houses to the huge rich mansions, and while the most of lives of the people who inhabited insulae were spent outside, the domuses were serving many purposes including religion, business, and eating.
The front side of the domus would usually serve for business purposes, sometimes having shops owned by the family who lived there. Aside from those rooms, the front side of the domus would most often not have windows to face the street. In the center of the domus there was the atrium, the square room with an open roof, usually beautifully decorated and serving for collecting water, socializing, and even holding funeral ceremonies. The back side of the domus was often taken by the garden. Aside from those beautifully decorated parts, which also served to impress the guests during long dining ceremonies, these houses naturally had a kitchen, which was usually a small, smoky room, a dining room with couches in it (although, during hot weather the owners would eat outside, enjoying the warmth and escaping the heat of the rooms), a little household shrine dedicated to the Lares—the deities of the house, the office room where the owner would have business-related meetings, and naturally the bedroom. Many rooms were decorated by beautiful mosaics, sometimes colorful, and many of their remains is what first comes to our mind when we think of Ancient Roman houses today.
The most well-known type of Roman houses is the villa, and it is very well-deserved, for these huge houses were a great work of architectural art, and their rich, refined decorations still amaze us today. The closest English translation to the word villa is “summer house,” which makes sense considering they were usually occupied in the summer.
There were two types of villa – villa Urbana, and villa Rustica. Villa Urbana was a house located close to the city, where the rich Romans would go for a couple of days to take a break from the heat and noise of the city. Usually these were about a day’s journey into the countryside. Villa Rustica was a villa for permanent living. The latter of these estates would usually have a farm belonging to the owner along with them, and, aside from the patrician’s family themselves, were occupied by the trusted servants and farm-workers. The very wealthy Romans could have many villas, sometimes even more than five, located in different parts of the empire and serving all of their owner’s needs.
The most of the villas were decorated with frescoes and beautiful mosaics, marble being the notable part of architecture, although some looking simpler than others. Glass windows were a rarity and only the richest people could have them, while the others used wood or fabrics instead. The wealthiest villas had everything you would ever want to have in your house, including a gymnasium, multiple baths, a library, multiple bedrooms and other things which a wealthy Roman would want, even the specific system of heating which would keep the beautiful mosaic floors warm. A villa rustica could even have its own production of wine and olive oil and the other needed goods, which would be stored in special storage rooms.
These buildings were the pearls of the empire and many of them still stand in ancient cities today, where even in ruins their beauty can still be seen.