The Roman house was, as is true today, where the nuclear family lived.
When one thinks of Roman housing, images of the houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum typically come to mind. Exquisitely preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., these architectural remains provide us with stunning insight into the domestic patterns of Romans in Italy in the first century A.D. However, the archaeological remains of the Roman empire are rich with domestic spaces, stretching from the western edge of Spain to the far eastern extremes of the empire. The term “Roman housing” can encompass many kinds of living spaces. Poorly built and maintained tower blocks in cities known as insulae housed the lower echelons of society in hazardous and overcrowded conditions. In the countryside, the poor lived in small villages or farms, in stone-built structures. The exploitation by the elite of hired and slave labor in agricultural endeavors and animal husbandry provides a more unusual category of Roman housing—rooms within industrial complexes such as olive oil factories, where a workforce lived during the production season. At the other extreme of the social scale, the elite had their impressive townhouses, and usually in addition their large villas or rural retreats with expansive floor plans, numerous entertainment spaces, and rich marble decoration, reflecting the importance for the elite of the domestic space for the creation of their public persona.
The Roman house was, as is true today, where the nuclear family lived. However, in addition to that, the household included servants for all members of the family. Many look for traces of servants within the remains of houses, but often the slaves slept in the doorways of their master’s bedroom, or in rooms so simple that their functions cannot easily be reconstructed today. The houses were in some ways similar to those of today. They had two stories, although the second story rarely survives. They contained bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, but there were also spaces specific to Roman houses: the atrium was a typical early feature of houses in the western half of the empire, a shaded walkway surrounding a central impluvium, or pool, which served as the location for the owner’s meeting with his clients in the morning; the tablinum was a main reception room emerging from the atrium, where the owner often sat to receive his clients; and finally, the peristyle was an open-air courtyard of varying size, laid out as a garden normally in the West, but paved with marble in the East.
While modern-day houses often function as more of an escape from the pressures of the public world, opened generally only to friends, in the Roman world, the house of an elite was both a private retreat and a center for business transactions. As a result of this public function, decoration and architectural elaboration were of especial importance, and the collection of Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum reflects this elite domestic adornment.
The large painting fragment above comes from the west wall of the exedra (Room L), opening off the rear of the villa’s peristyle. A sacrificial bull’s head (boukranion) originally occupied the center of the wall, from which an opulent garland of fruits and leaves is suspended to left and right against a brilliant wall of simulated masonry. Preserved are parts of four of the original five red slabs of the central zone, separated by golden bands and crowned by a white molding. There follows a course of alternating green and golden blocks that bears an elaborate entablature consisting of a white architrave, a purple frieze decorated with brackets in the form of bearded horned snakes with interlacing tails, and a white cornice. Hanging from a red cord tied in the bull’s mouth is a wicker basket, the cista mystica, its lid removed to reveal a snake uncoiling from a bed of ivy. Suspended from the garland also in red cords are a cymbal and a satyr mask.
One of the most well known features of the decoration of a Roman house is wall painting. However, the walls of Roman houses could also be decorated with marble revetment, thin panels of marble of various colors mortared to the wall. This revetment often imitated architecture, by for example being cut to resemble columns and capitals spaced along the wall. Often, even within the same house, plastered walls were painted to appear to be marble revetment, as in the exedral paintings in the collection.
Room M of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, functioned as a bedroom.
The rear wall shows rocky terrain with balustrades and an arbor above, a small cave or grotto sheltering a fountain, and a small figure of Hekate below. In the center of the wall, between two columns, a parapet embellished with a yellow monochrome landscape supports a glass bowl filled with fruit.
The side walls of the room are symmetrical. Each wall is subdivided into four sections by a pilaster that defines the area of the couch and by two ornate columns. The paintings depict enclosed courtyards in which we glimpse the tops of statuary, rotundas, and pylons as well as vegetation. These precincts alternate with townscapes combining colonnaded buildings and projecting terraces.
On black ground, in center, a religious ceremony taking place before a tower. In foreground, a pair of slim columns supporting ornate pediment. Above each column, portrait enclosed in medallion. Left portrait is probably Julia, daughter of Augustus; right Livia, wife of Augustus.
This painting of a seated woman playing a kithara is from Room H, either a dining room (triclinium) or a room for social gatherings (oecus), in the villa at Boscoreale. Each of the paintings that originally adorned this room derives from the Greek tradition of megalographia, or large-scale painting, about which so much was written in antiquity; Apollinaris of Sidonius, Petronius in the Satyricon, and Vitruvius all shed light on the use of megalographia in Roman villas.
In this fresco, the kithara player is depicted as a plump young woman clothed in a purple chiton and white himation. She is adorned with a bracelet, earrings, and headband with a central medallion, all of gold. A small figure of Atlas supports the arm of her elaborately carved chair that originally was lacquered a deep lustrous red. The instrument she plays is not a simple lyre, but a gilded kithara, a large concert instrument played by Apollo and professional musicians. Behind the seated woman stands a small girl wearing a sleeveless purple chiton. She, too, is adorned with a gold headband, bracelet, and loop earrings. Like portrait figures, the woman and the girl gaze directly at the spectator.
Most recently it has been suggested that the pair may represent a Macedonian queen, or princess, and her daughter or younger sister. The gilded kithara and richly adorned, thronelike chair, as well as the carefully rendered gold jewelry and headbands, give the impression of royal personage. Whatever the exact subject, this painting and others in the villa were admired as excellent copies of Hellenistic art that emphasized the erudition and worldliness of the villa’s owner.
The above frescoes from the Imperial villa at Boscotrecase depicts two consecutive events from the myth of Perseus and Andromeda. Perseus is about to rescue Andromeda from the ketos, a snaky sea monster painted in a brilliant blue-green palette. The creature raises his head with gigantic open jaws and frightful teeth toward Andromeda, who stands with outstretched arms in the center of the panel. One hand appears to be chained to the crag; the other elegantly placed on the rocks. Perseus flies in from the left with his lyre in one hand, winged shoes on his feet, and a windblown cloak over his shoulder. In the upper right portion of the fresco, he is greeted by Andromeda’s grateful father, a scene that alludes to the myth’s happy endingâ€“the marriage of hero and princess.
The fortunes of love and the ever-present sea are the themes that link this fresco and that of Polyphemus and Galatea from the same cubiculum at Boscotrecase. The translucent blue-green background of both frescoes also unifies the disparate episodes combined in each painting, and must have brought a sense of coolness to the room.
The preceding examples at the Museum demonstrate the various possible types of Roman wall painting. An owner might choose to represent ideal landscapes framed by architecture, finer architectural elements and candelabra, or figural scenes relating to entertainment or to mythology, such as the Polyphemus and Galatea scene or the Perseus and Andromeda scene from the villa of Agrippa Postumus at Boscotrecase.
The square panel above represents the entire decorated area of a floor and was found together with another mosaic (now in the Baltimore Museum of Art) in an olive grove at Daphne-Harbiye in 1937. In Roman times, Daphne was a popular holiday resort, used by the wealthy citizens and residents of Antioch as a place of rest and refuge from the heat and noise of the city. American excavations at Daphne in the late 1930s uncovered the remains of several well-appointed houses and villas, including the one that contained this mosaic. At its center is a panel (emblema) with the bust of a woman, decked out with a wreath of flowers around her head and a floral garland over her left shoulder. Traditionally identified as Spring, the figure is probably the representation of a more generic personification of abundance and good living, well suited to the luxurious atmosphere created at Daphne by its rich patrons.
Floors were also decorated, often with cut marble (opus sectile) or with tessellated mosaics. The mosaics could be quite simple, representing geometric shapes, or very elaborate with complex figural scenes. Mosaics produced in North Africa and Syria popularized hunting scenes. Other themes typified in these mosaics are images of philosophers, rich scenes of animals or the countryside, or scenes of divinities and myth. Many mosaics were a blend of these simple geometric shapes and figural scenes, much like the example in the Museum depicting a garlanded woman surrounded by geometric shapes.
This fragment with its rich and ornate design, comprising a Gorgon mask, a gold-colored vase, and a bird with outspread wings, is similar to other frescoes found in houses and villas in and around Pompeii. It also reveals some of the technical features of Roman wall painting, for the details were added a secco (on dry plaster) on top of the white fresco background.
This charming fragment, depicting a bird surrounded by ivy leaves, is painted with loose, quick brushstrokes unlike the more careful and mannered work of most Pompeian wall paintings. It may have come from a house or, more probably, a tomb, but its origin is unknown.
The hero Pelops won the hand of Hippodamaia after defeating her father, King Oinomaos, in a chariot race, by bribing Myrtilos, the king’s charioteer. As shown on 26.60.1, King Oinomaos mounts the chariot driven by his charioteer, Myrtilos, who has fixed the race so that Pelops will win.
Mosaic decoration was not restricted to the floors of Roman houses. Ceiling and wall mosaics, often of glass, were sometimes employed, used mostly in between columns or in vaulted niches. A well-preserved example can be seen in one of the townhouses at Ephesus in Asia Minor (Turkey). More usual decoration on the ceilings came in the form of molded stucco and painted panels. Stucco panels displayed architectural motifs or molded relief scenes and clad ceilings, especially vaulted ones. The stucco panels in the Museum reflect common thematic concerns of the elite—mythological scenes, exotic animals, and divinities. Such stucco panels could also be used as a decorative element along the tops of walls, similar to the terracotta group in the Museum’s collection. The painted panels and stucco decoration were the final part of an interrelated decorative scheme, encompassing the floor, walls, and ceiling. Archaeological remains show that similar colors frequently were used at least on the wall and ceiling panels to create a common aesthetic.
These pieces of furniture have been reassembled from fragments, some of which may come from the imperial villa of Lucius Verus (co-emperor, A.D. 161–169), on the Via Cassia outside Rome. It is not certain that the square glass panels are original to the bed frame and stool, but the carved bone inlays are paralleled on other Roman couches. On the couch legs are friezes of huntsmen, horses, and hounds flanking Ganymede, the handsome Trojan youth who was abducted by Zeus in the guise of an eagle to serve as his wine steward; on the footstool are scenes of winged cupids and leopards; and on the sides of the bed frame, the striking lion protomes have eyes inlaid with glass.
This group of silver tableware forms part of a hoard, said to be from Tivoli, near Rome. Tivoli was a popular site for luxury villas in the Late Republic, and was to Rome what Boscoreale and Boscotrecase in the Campanian countryside were to Naples. The Tivoli hoard, comprising thirty pieces in all, includes two decorated skyphoi (wine cups), a ladle, a trulla (spouted pitcher), and several spoons, all of which would have been used at dining and drinking parties. Inscriptions on the pair of drinking cups and the ladle give the weight of each piece and the owner’s name: “Sattia, daughter of Lucius.” The hoard was probably buried as a result of the civil wars and political unrest in Rome during the last decades of the Republic. The elegant soup spoons in this group give a clue to the diverse courses favored in Roman cuisine; the ample bowl of the ladle, like that of the cups, shows an appreciation of wine. We learn details of Roman cuisine through the cookbook of Apicius and the writings of Petronius, Juvenal, and Martial. The dietary preferences of the Romans were remarkably close to the tastes of modern-day Italians. The gustatio, or first course, consisted of shellfish, eggs, or salad. The cena, or main course, featured a succession of roasted meats. The meal ended with sweetmeats and fruits.
Furniture is, of course, the most temporary of domestic decoration, easily moved and often replaced. Certain rooms required specific pieces. For example, the atrium of a Roman house was often sparsely furnished, holding chests, or arcae, of family treasures and documents, as well as a few pieces of furniture such as small tables and candelabra. In the dining room, Romans were accustomed to recline as they dined and so rested on couches while they ate and were served and entertained by slaves. Often fine tableware, such as the silver tableware from the Tivoli Hoard in the Museum’s collection, was displayed in cabinets around the dining room.
The display of statuary of various kinds was an important part of the “furniture” of a Roman house. Sculpture and bronze statues were displayed throughout the house in various contexts—on tables, in specially built niches, in relief panels on walls—but all in the most visible areas of the house. This sculpture could be of numerous types—portrait busts of famous individuals or relatives, lifesize statues of family members, generals, divinities, or mythological figures such as muses. In late antiquity, small-scale sculpture of figures from myth became very popular. In conjunction with the other decorative features of the house, this sculpture was intended to impart a message to visitors. Domestic display is a good example of the conspicuous consumption of the Roman elite, proving that they had wealth and therefore power and authority. Scenes in painting and sculptural collections also helped to associate the owners with key features of Roman life such as education (paideia) and military achievements, validating the owner’s position in his world.
- Ellis, Simon P. Roman Housing. London: Duckworth, 2000.
- Gazda, Elaine K., ed. Roman Art in the Private Sphere: New Perspectives on the Architecture and Decor of the Domus, Villa, and Insula. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.
- Laurence, Ray, and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, eds. Domestic Space in the Roman World: Pompeii and Beyond. Portsmouth, R.I.: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1997.
- McKay, Alexander G. Houses, Villas, and Palaces in the Roman World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
- Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Originally published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, February 2009, under the terms of a Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license.