Understanding the architecture of the Roman house requires more than simply appreciating the names of the various parts of the structure, as the house itself was an important part of the dynamics of daily life and the socio-economy of the Roman world. The house type referred to as the domus (Latin for “house”) is taken to mean a structure designed for either a nuclear or extended family and located in a city or town. The domus as a general architectural type is long-lived in the Roman world, although some development of the architectural form does occur. While the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum provide the best surviving evidence for domus architecture, this typology was widespread in the Roman world.
While there is not a “standard” domus, it is possible to discuss the primary features of a generic example, keeping in mind that variation is present in every manifest example of this type of building. The ancient architectural writer Vitruvius provides a wealth of information on the potential configurations of domus architecture, in particular the main room of the domus that was known as the atrium (no. 3 in the diagram above).
In the classic layout of the Roman domus, the atrium served as the focus of the entire house plan. As the main room in the public part of the house (pars urbana), the atrium was the center of the house’s social and political life. The male head-of-household (paterfamilias) would receive his clients on business days in the atrium, in which case it functioned as a sort of waiting room for business appointments. Those clients would enter the atrium from the fauces (no. 1 in the diagram above), a narrow entry passageway that communicated with the street. That doorway would be watched, in wealthier houses, by a doorman (ianitor). Given that the atrium was a room where invited guests and clients would wait and spend time, it was also the room on which the house owner would lavish attention and funds in order to make sure the room was well appointed with decorations. The corner of the room might sport the household shrine (lararium) and the funeral masks of the family’s dead ancestors might be kept in small cabinets in the atrium. Communicating with the atrium might be bed chambers (cubicula—no. 8 in the diagram above), side rooms or wings (alae—no. 7 in the diagram above), and the office of the paterfamilias, known as the tablinum (no. 5 in the diagram above). The tablinum, often at the rear of the atrium, is usually a square chamber that would have been furnished with the paraphernalia of the paterfamilias and his business interests. This could include a writing table as well as examples of strong boxes as are evident in some contexts in Pompeii.
Types of atria
The arrangement of the atrium could take a number of possible configurations, as detailed by Vitruvius (De architectura 6.3). Among these typologies were the Tuscan atrium (atrium Tuscanicum), the tetrastyle atrium (atrium tetrastylum), and the Corinthian atrium (atrium Corinthium). The Tuscan form had no columns, which required that rafters carry the weight of the ceiling. Both the Tetrastyle and the Corinthian types had columns at the center; Corinthian atria generally had more columns that were also taller.
All three of these typologies sported a central aperture in the roof (compluvium) and a corresponding pool (impluvium—no. 4 in the diagram above) set in the floor. The compluvium allowed light, fresh air, and rain to enter the atrium; the impluvium was necessary to capture any rainwater and channel it to an underground cistern. The water could then be used for household purposes.
Beyond the atrium and tablinum lay the more private part (pars rustica) of the house that was often centered around an open-air courtyard known as the peristyle (no. 11 in the diagram above). The pars rustica would generally be off limits to business clients and served as the focus of the family life of the house. The central portion of the peristyle would be open to the sky and could be the site of a decorative garden, fountains, artwork, or a functional kitchen garden (or a combination of these elements). The size and arrangement of the peristyle varies quite a bit depending on the size of the house itself.
Communicating with the peristyle would be functional rooms like the kitchen (culina—no. 9 in the diagram above), bedrooms (cubicula—no. 8 in the diagram above), slave quarters, latrines and baths in some cases, and the all important dining room (triclinium—no. 6 in the diagram above). The triclinium would be the room used for elaborate dinner parties to which guests would be invited. The dinner party involved much more than drinking and eating, however, as entertainment, discussion, and philosophical dialogues were frequently on the menu for the evening. Those invited to the dinner party would be the close friends, family, and associates of the paterfamilias. The triclinium would often be elaborately decorated with wall paintings and portable artworks. The guests at the dinner party were arranged according to a specific formula that gave privileged places to those of higher rank.
Chronology and development
No architectural form is ever static, and the domus is no exception to this rule. Architectural forms develop and change over time, adapting and reacting to changing needs, customs, and functions. The chronology of domus architecture is contentious, especially the discussion about the origins and early influences of the form.
Many ancient Mediterranean houses show the same propensity as the Roman atrium house—a penchant for a plan that focuses on a central courtyard. The Romans may have drawn architectural inspiration from the Etruscans, as well as from the Greeks. In truth it is unlikely that there was a single stream of influence, rather Roman architecture responds to streams of influence that pervade the Mediterranean.
By the second and first centuries B.C.E., the domus had become fairly well established and it is to this period that most of the houses known from Pompeii and Herculaneum date. During the Republic the social networking system that we refer to as the “patron-client relationship” was not only active, but essential to Roman politics and business. This organizational scheme changed as Rome’s political system developed.
With the advent of imperial rule by the late first century B.C.E., the emperor became the universal patron, and clientage of the Republican variety relied less heavily on its old traditions. House plans may have changed in response to these social changes. One clear element is a de-emphasis of the atrium as the key room of the house. Examples such as the multi-phase House of Cupid and Psyche at Ostia (2nd-4th centuries C.E.) demonstrate that the atrium eventually gives way to larger and more prominent dining rooms and to courtyards equipped with elaborate fountains.
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