Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ostia Antica: A Glimpse at Ancient Roman Housing

Mandy Tollefson
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

The city feels like a ghost town, but without the cowboy themes of a stereotypical Midwestern settlement. Foundations and walls line where homes and public buildings once stood, but the derelict structures are crumbling at the edges. Anyone today can still see where merchants touted their wares and where the common person went to worship the gods. Such contractions – what obviously once happened there contrasted with how it appears today – are at the heart of Ostia’s charm.

History of Ostia
Most scholars today agree that the Roman port city of Ostia was founded around 630-620 BC by Ancus Marcius, the Roman king at the time. The location, now sixteen miles from Rome, had several benefits. Because the area was located on the mouth of the Tiber River, leading to Rome, it was the perfect place to provide protection to Rome. Attacking fleets would have to go through Ostia to get to Rome, which allowed it to be a buffer zone as well as give Ostia time to warn Rome about the attack. Its location also allowed for ease of transporting goods. Smaller ships were able to travel the river right to Rome, but larger ships could not fit. Instead, they would go to Ostia, unload their goods onto barges, and then bring the load to Rome. Also, Ostia was located on and near some very valuable salt mines, providing the empire with a steady supply of salt. When the city became larger, the Ostians used huge warehouses to store Sicilian and Egyptian grain, which would then be taken upriver and distributed through the empire. Ostia was invaluable to Rome.

Ostia experienced slow growth from its founding until the expansion of the Republic. However, by the Punic War era (264 BC to 146 BC), Ostia was gaining importance and was even protected by a wall. A pirate attack in 67 BC scared some of the Roman citizens away from living in such an exposed location. However, once the threat of pirates was gone, the city became a kind of resort town for wealthy Roman merchants. The merchants built many large villas, and it quickly became a desirable place to reside. While the most ancient remains of the city come from the second half of the 4th century BC, many of the important and well-preserved buildings come from the beginning of the AD era. This is because of the interest Imperial emperors took in Ostia, particularly Augustus and Hadrian. Augustinian renovations began right around the change from BC to AD. Hadrian took it upon himself to continue these improvements in his reign, and under his rule the town truly changed into a prosperous city.
Like so many great cities, however, Ostia eventually declined. “This shift began in the 4th century when the imperial seat was moved from Rome to Constantinople in 330 AD. For years, it rode a rollercoaster: the city experienced renewal, downfall, revival, neglect, rebuilding, and disregard. Sacks by the Visigoths in 410 and by the Vandals of Genseric in 455 made the city very undesirable. The final blow came with the shifting of sand dunes in the 5th century. Not only did these shifts make the city removed from its direct contact with the sea, but the shallow waters bred malarial mosquitoes. The city had to be abandoned to avoid the disease – one variation of what is now called Roman Fever.

What distinguishes this city from other ancient Roman cities is how well preserved it is today. It was not covered in ash, such as Pompeii, yet many of the buildings (particularly the first floors) remain today. The city, after its abandonment in the 5th and 6th centuries, remained largely untouched until the end of the 19th century. Visitors can still see homes, temples, theatres, and other important areas of public concern. Most of what remains dates from the Imperial period, but certain areas (including the necropolis outside of the landward gate) date from the Republican era. Such preservation provides significant insight into the forms and functions of Roman housing.

Form of Roman Atrium Housing

The upper classes lived in homes called domus (Appendix 1). These homes were used as a way to display the wealth and luxury of the upper class. Usually rectangular or square, in the most basic form they were similar to the houses of today. The residential areas fit into the symmetrical, regular, and planned aura of Ostia. Only the temples and other unusual buildings, such as theatres or baths, did not follow this format.

In the Roman atrium house itself, the home would be grouped around two different parts, the atrium and the peristylium. The atrium was the front section of the house. Visitors would walk through the vestibulum, the small corridor from the front door that led into the main section of the home. Here, they would find themselves standing in the atrium.

The atrium was a kind of receiving room, meant to show the riches of the family as the guests were moved into whatever room they were intended for. A pool in the center, called the impluvium, collected rainwater that came through the hole in the roof of the house. Nearly always ornately decorated, the impluvium would drain rainwater into an underground water tank. Some scholars believe that a bed would be placed opposite of the main entrance. This was meant as a symbol of the sanctity of marriage, because the atrium was originally the bedroom of the mother of the family. Also, busts of the patriarch of the family and ancestors would be displayed in the atrium.

There were five main types of atriums in Roman housing. The first, atrium tuscanium, had no columns; the weight of the ceiling would be carried by the rafters. This appears to be the most popular type of atrium, despite its greater cost. Atrium tetrastylums had one column at each corner of the impluvium. The atrium corinthium was similar to this, but the hole in the roof was larger and supported by more columns. The atrium displuviatum had a roof that sloped toward the side walls instead of the middle, and so a large amount of rainwater had to run off other outlets than the impluvium. Finally, the atrium testudinatum was the lowest quality type of atrium. There was no opening in the roof at all, so an impluvium or columns were not necessary. This type was only seen in very small and unimportant houses.

To the sides of the atrium were the alae, small rooms off to either side, which do not seem to serve a purpose. Early homes had covered atriums and light would enter through the windows of the alae. Even after the invention of open atriums, the alae were still included, most likely out of tradition instead of practicality.

A cubiculum was a Roman bedroom. There would be several around the atrium as well as around the peristylium, although they would be larger in the latter. The bedrooms seem to have a much lower importance in the Roman house than the common rooms. Because they were on the edge of the house, they had low ceilings and were often stuffy and cramped. Sometimes, a small antechamber called the procoeton would be located in the front of the bedroom, where a personal servant would sleep. Excavators continually find floor mosaics that clearly mark where the bed should be placed.

The culina, the kitchen, was where the family servants or slaves would cook for everyone. They were often hot in the summer, because of the cooking fires. There would be a small entranceway from the side of the house leading to the kitchen, so that the slaves would not have to use the front entrance. This entrance was also used by the master of the house, on occasion, in order to discreetly enter or leave the home.

Behind the atrium was the tablinium, which served as a reception room, office, and study. Business would be conducted in this room. On the other side of the tablinium was the peristylium. A curtain would separate the atrium from this room, and doors or a screen would cut it off from the peristylium. On hot days, ventilation would be increased by opening all passageways.

The tablinium led into the peristylium, one of the most important areas of the home. It was the garden; it was a place for the family to sit, entertain, and enjoy themselves. Columns supported the open roof, herbs and flowers (especially roses, violets, and lilies) were grown in the open air, and statues, artwork, and furniture littered the room. On sunny days, the room would be used as an outside dining area. This area was more private, because it was away from the immediate public eye.

The triclinium was the official dining room. Earlier, the Romans would eat in the atrium, tablinium, or other rooms. However, when the tradition of reclining while eating became popular, a certain room was constructed to eat in. Some homes even had more than one triclinia so that the family could choose where to eat each day. The dining room, as the center for a very important social activity to the Romans, was vital; often ornately decorated, it was one of the central rooms in the home as well. The exedra, a room located behind the peristylium, was another type of informal dining room or lounge. It was treated as a garden room and was another place for friends to gather.

Located in the front of the house but without any entrances to the interior, the taberna were used as shops. Usually owned by the inhabitants of the house, these rooms had brick counters near the entrance to display goods and one or more back rooms for storage. Often, the tall ceilings of these rooms would be split into two floors. While the bottom floor would be the selling area, the top would either be storage or could be used as housing for a very poor family that was loyal to the home’s owners.

Each room in a Roman atrium-style house had a very specific purpose, and was not only located in its position for a reason, but also was decorated according to its purpose. The types of rooms in the home and what the rooms were used for did not vary greatly from house to house; the personal home was used to display power, prestige, and personal wealth. Even the Romans tired of such extravagance, however, and decided to make their homes more of a personal space. Each room was utilized for one or two particular uses, and when the Roman idea of housing changed, the rationale behind certain rooms shifted as well.

Function of Roman Atrium Housing
Two homes located in Ostia, the House of Fortuna Annonaria and the House of Amor and Psyche, provide clear examples of the shifting Roman mentality toward the function of their homes. In the early houses, the atrium was the most important room. Front doors would be left open, and anybody walking by would be able to see the ornate richness of this room. However, as can be seen by these two homes, by the later period of building, Romans valued their privacy much more.

The house of Fortuna Annonaria has many innovations that set the home apart as a very wealthy residency. The raised floor in the sitting room is the earliest known example of radiant heat at Ostia. Significantly, the atrium is no longer used as the open courtyard that it once was. It is still located in the front of the house, but not as ostentatiously as it once was. This shift is most likely indicative of an increased value placed upon privacy. The wealthy owner of this home is still involved in public life, most likely as a merchant or politician, but he is able to enjoy his wealth without having to constantly feel like he needs to impress his neighbors.

Likewise, the house of Amor and Psyche shows this same feeling of a shift toward emphasizing family life as opposed to public life. This home is the completion of the atrium house cycle. Actually built into the walls of an older building, it is laid out in a manner that shows how important privacy had become. The attention is not on the atrium, but on the inner garden, the peristylium. The rooms are not as numerous but they are larger than before, and the artwork that survives is better and more intricate. Very tellingly, the front door does not lead into a common room but into a right angled corridor. One cannot walk by the home, even if the front door is open, and see directly into the house. This further decline in community life and even greater focus on self and the family ends the cycle of Roman atrium housing, showing how personal privacy had become a respected and desired quality for homes and as a lifestyle.

Unlike the wealthy patricians, the lower classes did not live in such splendor. They inhabited insulae, or apartments. The number of people living in these apartments greatly outnumbered those in private homes. While Ostian records are not available, a 4th century AD record from Rome lists 46,602 insulae, compared to 1,797 private homes. Ostia has some of the best remaining insulae in Italy, particularly because of Nero’s fire in 64 AD that destroyed much of Rome and the apartments within that part of the city. These cramped quarters were very important to how the city worked because so many of the laborers in the area lived in them.

Usually between three and five stories high, insulae were not usually structurally sound buildings. They were mostly framed with timber, which made fire a constant threat. However, Ostian insulae were made of brick-faced concrete, which is one of the reasons that we can still see them today. The bottom floor would be a store, and the store owners and other tenants would live in the floors above. The lower an apartment, the more desirable it became, and stone staircases led to upper rooms.

The presence of insulae led to a group living atmosphere. There were no cooking facilities in individual rooms, and only the ground floor had bathrooms. Sometimes there would be no bathrooms in the building altogether, and they would be located outside. A common area would usually be provided for cooking. A central courtyard was in nearly every insulae, which not only provided light and ventilation to the rooms, but also houses a common cistern for the upper stories. Some of the buildings housed between 100 and 300 tenants. These very different forms of living did not allow the privacy that the domus did, and sharply contrasted the upper class against the lower one.

One of the major differences in Ostian times and today is is that only poor people would live in apartments in that day. Now, an apartment can be a very desirable place to live, particularly in a big city. Also differing, the higher apartments are currently popular, and penthouses are on the top floor. Without having to walk up flights of stairs with water for the family, the view outweighs the height.

The way that housing has, paradoxically, changed so much and yet remained the same over thousands of years is stunning. Because the city is so well-preserved, visitors today can wander its streets and easily envision what the city was once like. The abandoned city, virtually forgotten for hundreds of years, still has similar housing shapes, road patterns, and public areas to the cities of today. I found myself continually astonished by how I felt as though at any turn, I could walk into a house and almost find myself living exactly as the Ostians did in their day. Having such a spectacular example of Roman housing from thousands of years ago truly brought the Roman people to life in my eyes.


Aldrete, Gregory S. Daily Life in the Roman City : Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia. Berkeley: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Gazda, Elaine K. Roman Art in the Private Sphere: New Perspectives on the Architecture and D├ęcor of the Domus, Villa, and Insula. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Harsh, Philip Whaley. The origins of the Insulae at Ostia. Rome: The American Academy in Rome, 1935.

Packer, James E. The Insulae of Imperial Ostia. Rome: American Academy in Rome, 1971.

Stambaugh, John. “Ostia.” Chapter 18 in The Ancient Roman City. John Hopkins University, 1988.

Stambaugh, John. “Households and Housing.” Chapter 10 in The Ancient Roman City. John Hopkins University, 1988.

Packer, James E Title The insulae of imperial Ostia by James E. Packer Pub info [Rome] American Academy in Rome, 1971