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Living in a Roman household



Living in a Roman household

“You ask why I so often go to my small domain at arid Momentum[1] and the humble household at my farm? There is no place in town[2], Sparsus[3], where a poor man can either think or rest. One cannot live for schoolmasters in the morning, corn grinders at night, and braziers' hammers all day and night.” Martial, Epigrams, XII, 57[4].

After these few months in confinement, there is nothing more appropriate than to talk about how it was to live in a roman house. Just like today, there were several living spaces. The domus, the insula or the villa are three Latin terms designating different types of dwellings, depending on whether one lives in the Capital (Rome), in a city or in the countryside and on one’s fortune.

A home turned to the inside

The traditional roman house is a domus. The roman architect Vitruvius wrote a treaty on architecture in the 1stcentury BC, in which the domus’ features are detailed. With a quadrangular blueprint, the house is articulated around a square open sky area, called atrium, which is surrounded by different rooms and is the main source of light in the household. There are very few windows on the ground floor, which makes it difficult to have a peek at the inside from the outside. 

The domus is managed by the householder (dominus): the pater familias of the family. The owner of such a household manages his own assets and is usually very wealthy. Manual labour is for the lower classes and the slaves.

Public area of the house

The dominus is prone to clientelism. Every day, he welcomes and entertains clients in his house in order to get them to vote in his favor. Arriving in front of the house, they are greeted on both sides of the door by various shops. Once they step inside, they can marvel at the beautiful mosaic paved ground, where they can often see Medusa or a dark coloured dog, a warning to anyone who has bad intentions. Then, they follow the corridor to the atrium, the public area’s prestigious courtyard. They go around the impluvium, the small basin in the centre of the atrium that collects rainwater fallen from the roof through the compluvium, walk past the house shrine (often in the shape of a temple), or lararium, used for domestic cults, and arrive in front of the tablinum. This room is where the business is held, sheltered from any eavesdroppers with thick curtains or wood partitions. It is also in this room that the pater familias stores his family archives.

Private area of the house

Once every matter of business has been covered, the master of the house leaves his guests, has a frugal diner and goes to the baths, or thermae. The rest of the familiy’s schedule is varied. Children are educated by their teacher, play with their animals (dogs, birds, etc.) and take care of them. The women start the day off by grooming, being helped by their ornatrices who style their hair and dress them. They also go to the baths, they spin and weave wool and take care of the home economics.

The evening meal, the cena, is prepared by the slaves in the kitchen often located at the far end of the house. It is the heartiest meal of the day, taken in the triclinium. This room can either overlook a hortus – a utility garden – or a peristyle, a leisure garden bigger than the hortus, decorated with ponds, fountains, sculptures, etc. The dining room is U shaped to accommodate beds on which the guests will eat lying on their sides, helping themselves to the food laying on low tables situated in front of them. They drink wine mixed with water. The room can be lighted by foothold candelabra. The guests can admire the polychrome decorations on the walls as well as the still-life paintings whilst listening to the birds singing. Once the meal is over, tradition dictates that no one can pick up the food that fell on the floor. It’s the dogs privilege to eat whatever’s left of the masters’ meal around the house after a diner party.

The study of the archaeological remains helps identify the objects and different areas of the house they belong to. Sometimes even in exceptionally good conditions, especially in buried cities such as Pompeii, buried under the ashes of the Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD.

Collective dwellings

In Rome or Ostia, overpopulation and lack of space increase the prices and a lot of people are compelled to live in insulae, small buildings with multiple lodgings per floor. Often poorly built by money hungry speculators, some of them can reach until 30 metres high, making them weak. Because of that and poor maintenance they risk collapsing.

These lodgings are accessible by inside or outside staircases opening into apartments of a few rooms, maybe even only one room, lighted by small windows open onto the street, without running water or latrines.

Falling asleep is quite difficult because of the hectic sounds made by the bakers and the various deliveries in the middle of the night. There is a chamber pot in the room, that needs to be often emptied! Every other task takes place outside: people drink and carry water from the nearest fountain, they use the public latrines and baths and they frequent shops and bakers to eat at their counter. A portable brazier warms up the cool nights and winter days and oil lamps are used to illuminate the apartment at dusk.

Suburban villae

Outside the city, suburban villae include several buildings, a farm and its dependencies as well as agricultural lands all around. Romans build these houses near Rome or other privileged places to be able to get away from the city on the scorching hot days of summer. These houses are equipped with even more rooms, most of them dedicated to leisure, and carefully placed according to the position of the sun depending on the season.

In our Romanised regions, habits are a little different. Nevertheless, in Nyon, an insula situated at the Place Bel-Air and a domus at the rue de la Gare gave us the opportunity to identify these areas as being roman residential areas of the Colony, in the 1st and 3rd century AD. Even suburban villae were found on the hills and neighbouring plateaus, giving them a breathtaking view of the lake and Alps.

 

[1] The small city of Momentum, today’s Casali di Mentana, is situated in the Lazio region, more or less 20 km North-East of Rome, and was connected to Rome through the ancient via Nomentana (Chevallier 1997, p. 180-181 ; Radke 1972, p. 146).

[2] Rome.

[3] Masculine name.

[4] Latin poet from the 1st century AD. 

Mila Musy
Guide and auxiliary at the Roman Museum of Nyon, archaeology graduate

Something to read:

Ancient authors

  • Martial, Epigrammes, XII, 57, texte établit et traduit par Pierre Richard, in : M. Rat, Anthologie des poètes latins. Des origines au VIe siècle après Jésus-Christ, II, Paris, Librairie Garnier Frères, p. 321, n°32.
  • Vitruve, De architectura, texte établi par Pierre Gros et traduit par Louis Callebat, Marie-Thérèse Cam, Philippe Fleury et all., Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2015. 

Secondary literature

  • R. Chevallier, Les voies romaines, Paris, 1997.
  • Collectif, Musée romain de Nyon Colonia Iulia Esquestris, un site, un musée, Gollion, Infolio, 2019.
  • G. Radke, « Nomentum », Kleine Pauly, Band 4, Stuttgart, 1972, p. 146. 
  • C. Salles, La vie des Romains au temps des Césars (Montréal 2004).
  • C. Schucany, M.-F. Meylan Krause, Vivre au quotidien, in : L. Flutsch et al. (dir.), Quand la Suisse n’existait pas : le temps des Romains, Bâle, Société suisse de préhistoire et d’archéologie, 2002, p. 217-264.


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