Friday, September 3, 2004

Roman Atrium Style Housing

Lauren Delgado
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction
Pompeii and Herculaneum:

Thanks to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, the remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum are well preserved. In Pompeii, life stopped very suddenly when it poisonous gasses, hot stones and ashes falling from Vesuvius quickly struck the city. The eruption of Vesuvius affected Herculaneum differently. Closer to the volcano, Herculaneum was completely flooded by mud, which eventually solidified. The buried ancient city was perfectly preserved, guarded from the harsh outside environment and illegal excavators. Because of the mud, Herculaneum was preserved better than Pompeii.

The Layout of Pompeii

Both Herculaneum and Pompeii provide invaluable information about Ancient Rome, however, as one could imagine, it is very difficult to excavate these areas, and much is still buried today. Most of what we know about Roman Atrium style housing comes from these areas. And, based on evidence from other reaches of the Roman Empire, it is assumed that the remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum represent Roman-style housing very well. Therefore, we study the housing in those areas to gain an overall understanding of what houses were like in throughout the entire Roman Empire.

We learn different things from Pompeii than we do Herculaneum. Both towns were resorts for Roman aristocrats towards the end of the first century B.C. Herculaneum, however, was a fifth smaller than Pompeii, and was home to only four to five thousands inhabitants. Also unlike, Herculaneum was very devoted to navy and fishing and was considered more peaceful than Pompeii, which was full of brothels and the like. It was especially beautiful because it overlooked the gulf, and was full of greenery and vineyards. It is said, in fact, that Herculaneum was Epicure's favorite place for his philosophical studies.

City versus Country Living:

In Rome, approximately 2,000 wealthy families lived in elaborate atrium-style country villas or huge town homes (domus). These Roman Atrium-style homes had many rooms with specific functions, which fit the needs of the owner. The 46,000 poor lived in flats called insule. Insule were apartments. Wooden insule typically ranged from two of three stories high, but concrete buildings were as high as seven stories. Height restrictions were due to the frequent collapsing floors, and devastating fires. Ovens were consequently not allowed in the apartments, so apartments dwellers often ate in one of many nearby taverns.

Though much attention is paid to city dwellers, it is important to consider those who lived in the country. In fact, only about ten percent of the Roman Empire’s population in the lived in the city. The rest of the population lived in the countryside, in either humble houses or ornate villas, rivaling those in the city. These villas had three parts, called villa urbana, villa rustica, and storage accommodations. The villa urbana where the owners resided, and tended to strongly resemble the grand domus. The other parts of the house were less ornate. The villa rustica housed the staff and animals, and also often included a small hospital and prison.

II. Description

There are many houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum that are noteworthy. Our class focused on two: The House of the Wooden Partition in Herculaneum, and The House of the Faun in Pompeii.

First, we visited the House of the Wooden Partition; an excellent example of housing in Herculaneum. Unlike the one-story houses found in Pompeii, the House of the Wooden partition represented Herculaneum’s style of Roman Atrium housing, which had multiple stories.

The House of the Wooden Partition
Picture of Atrium.

This House of the Wooden Partition is also special because of how well it was preserved. It gets its name from a carbonized wooden wall within it, which is in amazingly great shape due to the eruption of Vesuvius. Excavations of the house uncovered furniture, and even more surprisingly, ancient food! This food is now displayed in glass cases near the House of the Wooden Partition’s atrium. The wonderful atrium and frescoes, are also in excellent condition today. Also found was a wooden clothing press found around the corner in the shop. Collectively, the artifacts found within the house of the Wooden Partition tell us much about the way Ancient Romans lived.

The focus of our Pompeian housing studies was much different than the House of the wooden partition. House of the Faun is a giant, one-story Roman Atrium style house that showcases Pompeian style grandeur.

Even in ancient times, Herculaneum and Pompeii were tourist attractions and were considered wealthy cities. When the House of Faun was built, Hellenistic (Greek) architecture was popular throughout the Roman Empire. Therefore, the House of the Faun is an excellent example of the marriage of Italian and Hellenistic art and architectural ideas.

The House of Faun is considered one of the most beautiful examples of Roman Atrium Housing. One reason is the art contained within it. The House of the Faun’s namesake is a noteworthy example of such art. The bronze statue of the Dancing Faun greets visitors upon entry into the home (incidentally, a faun is a man-like creature with a tail). However, the House of the Faun’s most famous piece of art is not the Dancing Faun, but the “The Battle of Isus.” This mosaic, depicting the battle of Alexander the Great and Darius, captures a moment when Darius, the Persian king, watches in dismay as the Macedonian his forces attack. Both the mosaic, and the dancing faun can no longer be seen at the House of the Faun. Instead, they are in the National Museum of Naples. What happened to the area in the house where the art once stood? Alexander’s mosaic is now a hole in the House’s wall, and a faun you see is a fake!

The House of the Faun
Picture of Dancing Faun in Atrium

The Battle of Isus Mosaic

Another important aspect of the House of the Faun was its size. The House of the Faun is 262 by 115 feet. At over thirty thousand square feet, the House of the Faun takes up nearly an entire city block. To add to the grandness, it also had two atriums instead of one. It is known as one of the most magnificent houses in Pompeii. It is assumed that the house belonged to an important Samnite official. For future reference, the Samnite civilization was at its height during the time that the House of the Faun was built. Samnium was an ancient country of central and southern Italy which was eventually defeated by Rome when the rulers attempted to expand thus causing the famous Samnite Wars of 343-290 B.C.

The Layout of the House of the Faun

Functions of Standard Rooms and Amenities in the Roman Atrium-style house:

Atrium: Formal Entrance Hall. This was the center of the owner’s social, political, and business activities. Since most Roman Atrium houses did not have windows facing outside the atrium was an important light source. Light entered the atrium through the compluuvium, or central opening in the roof, and diffused throughout the smaller rooms surrounding the atrium. During the night, when the house could not depend of illumination from the atrium, it relied on oil lamps. Surrounding the atrium were portraits of the owner’s ancestors. Ansestor worship was an important part of ancient Roman culture- much of a Roman’s status was based on his ansestor’s status.

Ala: Wings opening from Atrium.

Cubiculum: Small rooms, which usually served as bedrooms.

Doors: The importance of a family could be judged by the size of its house doors.
Culina: Kitchen.

Exedra: Garden Room.

Impluvium: Placed in the Atrium beneath a skylight, these are shallow, rectangular rainwater collection basins. Because aqueducts in Pompeii could not supply enough water to feed the needs of the household due an earthquake of 62 AD, which damaged aqueduct that carried water to the city, inpuviums were used to conserve water. Lead pipes were connected below many houses so that they could share each other’s rainwater.

Peristylium: Courtyard with a colonnade (series of columns). This was another great light source, but unlike an atrium, it did not serve to collect water.

Taberna: Shop

Triclinium: Dining Room. There were usually multiple triclinia in a Roman house. Three of their walls were lined with padded benches to allow guests to comfortably lounge, supporting themselves with their left elbow, and using their right hand to eat while conversing with other guests and perhaps watch entertainers.

Tablinum: Located between the atrium and peristyle, the tablinum sometimes functioned as an open living room of sorts. The pater familias, or man of the house, used this room as his office. It was here that daily salutations could occur between the pater familias, and clientale (plebeian client who was poor but free).

Vestibulum: entrance hall

Vomitorium: room set aside for banquet guests who ate too fast and needed to be ready for the next courses.

III. Function
“Wow this is big, and grand. I wonder how much this cost. This guy must be pretty important to afford such a palace…”

Such words would sound like music to the ears of an owner of a large Roman Atrium-style home. These homes would often have areas open to the public. The higher his rank, the more need a wealthy man would need for public spaces, and, not surprisingly, the more elegant his private spaces.

As mentioned, certain rooms were open to the public, meaning that anyone could enter these spaces of the household. The rooms within an Atrium house catered to the need of guests, and owners. Not everything was open to the public, however. Some rooms were intended for family and invited guests only. For example, the owner could invite guests to banquets in the triclinium as his equals, or clientale in the tablinium for business.

The atrium tended to be the most public part of houses, while the tablinium or cubiculum were far more private. Even many private rooms were ornately decorated, to honor invited guests, especially distinguished ones.

IV. Patron

Layout of a Typical Roman Atrium Style Home.
Try to locate each room to visualize the purpose it served for the partron

Many believe that the art in the Roman Atrium house was displayed not only to impress guests and satisfy its owner, but also to send a deep religious message.

Ancient wall decorations are thought to convey religious and moral beliefs. Decorations often showed the deities of love and fertility, Aphrodite and Dionysus. Less obvious were paintings of landscapes, which were considered sacred. Some scholars believe that still life paintings were offerings to the gods, though others point out the fact that many Romans preferred realistic portraits to serve a different purpose; these expressed the unique personality of the person who was painted.

Sculptures with alleged religious implication were abundant in the Roman Atrium house. Statues of goddesses and gods that symbolized divine perfection were carved throughout houses according to ideals of form and beauty defined by the Greeks. Many households also had household shrine. Here, lares, or statues of the family’s personal deities were thought to protect the house.

Sculpture was also used to promote the owner’s status. The wealthiest Roman families imported their sculptures from Greece. The best-studied collection of sculptures comes from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, where eighty-seven sculptures were recovered. The well-cultured aristocratic owner chose statues ranging from copies of Greek masterpieces, to decorative, but undistinguished pieces.

One of the most important institutions was clientela. In this very practical system, a wealthy man gave clients financial and legal help in exchange for patron political help. The patron was supposed to regard his clients higher than his own relatives by marriage, and the client was to pay the patron the respect of a parent, nation, or god. The greatest extreme of this relationship occurred when Augustus proclaimed that all Roman citizens were his clients.
Full-length sculptures of emperors were often shipped to all parts of the Roman empire to promote his leadership.

Status, status, status. The bigger and more ornate one’s house, the more visitors he had. The more social activity focused on his home, the higher his social standing (dignitas). However, there was a conflict. Erecting an elaborate home was considered unworthy by many Romans, yet since it could so significantly increase one’s social standing, many men ignored other’s criticism and built the homes, anyway.

In terms of art within the house, it is believed that the householder’s chief goal was to gain as much as he could and strategically place such art in crucial vantage points to exhibit his wealth. Many works of art had few or no moral implications, and were there only as ostentatious decorations. Such art served only to exhibit or raise the status of the owner.

V. Conclusion

Showing off high status is an age-old phenomenon that seems hard-wired into every human’s brain. Perhaps this need for conspicuous consumption began when the first cavemen boasted the largest cave, and the will to show-off never died with time. The Romans took extravagant lifestyle to the next level, and clearly used grand housing to up their status. Things are largely the same today.

A 57.77-million dollar, fully automated home belongs to the richest man in the world. If he was an Ancient Roman, do you think he would have owned a huge Atrium house to prove his wealth? Some upper-class Americans still flaunt wealth as the Ancient Romans did, while the same trend of upper-middle class citizens emulate it on a smaller scale.

Everything has importance in the Roman Atrium house. Each room has a designated purpose, and there seems to be a story behind every fresco, and beneath every mosaic. These homes were planned very carefully in order to insure that the owner was able to reaffirm or boost his status.

VI. Personal Observations

There are a few things that really struck me about Roman Atrium style housing. The first had to do with the lavish lifestyle of the Romans. It never occurred to me that there was such a wealth divide in ancient times. Unlike America, where it seems that most citizens belong to the middle class, people rarely fell into this class in ancient Rome. Instead, they would often either be of a lower class, or upper. However, I should give mention to those who were often not lower, or upper class in Ancient Rome, namely the freedmen, who seemed to be a class of their own. Though sometimes they owned elaborate homes, they were considered differently than other men who came from different backgrounds.

Even more than the wealth divide in Ancient Rome, I was surprised by the magnificence of the large atrium style homes. These homes were strikingly big and beautiful. Many rooms within these homes were ornately decorated; wall paintings covered each wall, mosaics tiled the floor. It must have been difficult for the Romans to find a place to rest their eyes within their overly-elaborate surroundings. Aside from the individual rooms, the sheer size of some Atrium style homes is striking. For the sake of curiosity, I compared these huge houses to my living situation at the freshman dorms last year. Multiply my dorm room by 193, give it high ceilings, and pour a whole lot of paint and tile into it, and you’ve got the House of the Faun.

VII. Bibliography

Boardman, John. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Roman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Hinds, Kathryn. The Ancient Romans. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1997.

Stroud, Jonathan. Ancient Rome. New York: Kingfisher Publications, 2000.

Williams, Brian. Ancient Roman Homes. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2003.

Additional Resources: