Roman Domestic Architecture

Peristyle, Casa della Venere in Conchiglia, Pompeii (Photo: F. Tronchin/Warren, Peristyle, Casa della Venere in Conchiglia, Pompeii, BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker / 02.27.2016
Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies
Binghamton University



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.


Plan of a typical Roman domus (house) (source)

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).

Illustration of an atrium (source)

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.

Plans, Tuscan atrium, left (both CC BY-SA 3.0) and Corinthian atrium, right

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.

Impluvium in atrium, looking through the tablinum toward the peristyle, House of Menander, Pompeii before 79 C.E. (photo: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

The outer Peristyle Garden of the Getty Villa Roman gardens (photo: Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.


Insula of Diana, Ostia Antica, (CC BY 2.0) (source)

In the Latin language, insula (plural insulae) means “island” and the term has been connected to the high-rise apartment dwellings of the Roman world, presumably since they rose like islands from the built landscape of the city. The insulae of ancient Roman cities provided housing for the bulk of the urban populace. The plebs—defined as ordinary people of lower- or middle-class status—tended to inhabit insulae. During the heyday of the mercantile city of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber river (less than 20 miles from Rome), a building boom produced many such insulae, making Ostia a city of high-rise apartments, a phenomenon of urban building that would not manifest itself again until the Industrial Revolution.

Reconstruction, Insula of Diane (CC BY-SA 3.0) (source)


In relating the history of the year 191 B.C.E., the historian Livy remarks that two tame oxen had climbed the stairs of a multi-story building, ending up on the tiled roof (Livy 36.37). While this may seem a passing comment, it reminds us that even in the second century B.C.E Rome was a vertical city in the sense that buildings with multiple levels were already being built. Strabo (5.3.7), commenting on Rome in the time of Augustus, mentions the building boom there and the need to regulate construction, including the height of buildings. The architectural writer Vitruvius (De architectura 2.8.17) expresses a fairly optimistic view of the insulae, observing that advances in construction technology that facilitated the construction of these outstanding dwellings. Other ancient authors, including Seneca and Diodorus, were less positive about insulae, seeing them as noisy and squalid.

There is some debate among scholars about how, precisely, we should understand and define the term insula. A fourth century C.E. source, known as the Regionary Catalog, states that in the city of Rome there were 44,850 insulae and 1781 domus in 315 C.E. Glenn Storey observes that if these figures represent individual buildings, fourth century C.E. Rome had over 45,000 independent structures.  Understanding the meaning of the term insula, then, has obvious implications for understanding the population and organization of the ancient city of Rome. Scholars have debated how we should interpret the term. James Packer posits that insula connotes a high-rise building that could occupy an entire block or be a portion of a larger structure.

Insula dei Dipinti (Ostia) reconstruction (I. Gismondi)

In this reconstruction, the larger building must have been subdivided into smaller units. These are the medianum and cenaculum, terms for subdivisions of the apartment building. Their specific meaning remains somewhat troublesome, but surviving records do indicate that apartment buildings were subdivided for legal reasons, as well as for assessing rent. James Packer estimates the median area of a Roman apartment at 239 square meters.


The apartment block differs significantly from the townhouse (domus). The domus is essentially a dwelling for a single, extended family unit, while the apartment block contains multiple units. The top-to-bottom arrangement of the Roman apartment block was the inverse of what is true in the twenty-first century: in the Roman world the best apartments were located at ground level, while the lower quality (and more squalid) units were to be found on the upper floors of the structure. There is a good deal of variation in terms of the organization of the structures themselves. Frequently the entire structure centers on an open courtyard which also serves as a light well for the lower floors. The spaces fronting on the street itself were often used for mercantile functions.

Reconstruction drawing by Italo Gismondi. From left to right: Caseggiato del Serapide (House of Serapides), Terme dei Sette Sapienti (Baths of the Seven Sages), Cas. degli Aurighi (House of the Charioteers) (source)

The port city of Ostia provides the best evidence for the Roman apartment block. Ostia had been founded as a Roman colony during the third century B.C.E. Its location at the mouth of the Tiber river was important for both mercantile and strategic reasons. During the second century C.E. its economy and population was booming, as was the population of the city of Rome. As a result the city witnesses an intense spate of building activity, including the construction of numerous insulae.

The  Caseggiato del Serapide shows an example of a block with shops at the ground level, while staircases lead to apartments on upper floors. The courtyard contained a cult room with a stuccoed relief of the god Serapis.

Ostia: Plan of Regio III – Insula IX – Case a Giardino (Garden Houses) (source)

The so-called Garden Houses (Case a Giardino) provide an example of second and third century C.E. luxury apartments that were later converted to commercial use. This structure originally stood to four floors (height of c. 17.70 metres or 60 Roman feet according to Stevens) and had 16 units on the ground floor. The central architectural feature is the garden courtyard at the center of the structure to which the apartments communicated.

The Original Walk-Ups

The apartment block demonstrates the pragmatism and innovation of Roman architects who capitalized on their technical proficiency with concrete (opus caementicium). Cities like Rome and Ostia are unusual in the ancient world—their large and concentrated populations required solutions like the apartment block. These structures, despite Vitruvian enthusiasm, were not without their dangers and drawbacks. Since fire was a frequent danger in the ancient city, the high-rise apartment was particularly risky—especially for those dwelling on upper floors. The living conditions in some cases may have been less than ideal as well. The insula as an architectural type demonstrates the variety of Roman architecture and provides another set of important data about Roman domestic building.


Giovanni Riveruzzi, View of the Casino and the park of Villa Paolina from the side of Porta Pia, 1828, watercolor on paper (Museo Napoleonico). This villa belonged to Paolina Bonaparte, sister of Napoleon, though it dates back to the 17th century.

Familiar but Enigmatic

The villa, on its face, seems to be the simplest of Roman domestic buildings to understand—after all, we continue to use the Latin term “villa” to conjure up a luxurious retreat in the country or at the seashore.

We find evidence of the ancient Roman villa in both archaeological remains and in ancient texts. Taken together this would seem to suggest a fairly uniform and monolithic body of architecture, while the reality is, in fact, something quite different. In some ways the Roman villa is a conundrum. This is especially true in the earlier phases of the type’s development, where questions of origins and influence remain hotly debated. As a building type, the villa manages to simultaneously seem instantly understandable and completely enigmatic.


The earliest examples of buildings grouped into this category, sometimes referred to by the term villa rustica (country villa), are mostly humble farmhouses in Italy. These rural structures tend to be associated with agriculture or viticulture (grapes) on a small scale. The villa form—and the term itself—then comes to be appropriated and applied to a whole range of structures that persist across both the Republican and Imperial periods, continuing into Late Antiquity. One thing that all villas tend to have in common is their extra-urban setting—the villa is not an urban structure, but rather a rural one. Thus we most often find them in rural, suburban or coastal settings most often. In ideological terms, the country (rus) provided relief from the hectic pressures of the city (urbs), and thus the villa became associated (and remains associated) with rural getaways.

According to Pliny the Elder, the villa urbana was located within easy distance of the city, while the villa rustica was a permanent country estate staffed with slaves and a supervisor (vilicus). The villa rustica is connected with agricultural production and the villa complex can contain facilities and equipment for processing agricultural produce, notably processing grapes to make wine and processing olives to produce olive oil. Even opulent villas often had a pars rustica, the working or productive part of the building. Latin authors like Cato the Elder and Varro even made and observed strict recommendations, based in agrarian ideology, as to how these rustic villas should be built, appointed, and managed.

Building Typology

It is difficult to identify a single, uniform typology for Roman villas, just as it is difficult to do so for the Roman house (domus). In general terms the ideal villa is internally divided into two zones: the urbane zone for enjoying life (pars urbana) and the productive area (pars rustica). As with domus architecture, villas often focus internally around courtyards and atrium spaces. Elite villas tend to be sprawling affairs, with many rooms for entertainment and dining, in addition to specialized facilities including heated baths (balnea).

Republican Villas

Villas built in Italy during the period stretching from the fifth to the second centuries B.C.E. can be divided into several groupings, based on their building typology. One typology with the smallest number of known examples is an opulent villa that draws its influence from the tradition of palatial aristocratic compounds of the Archaic period in central Italy, such as the complex at Poggio Civitate (Murlo) and the “palace” at Acquarossa (near Viterbo). These aristocratic compounds might have inspired Roman Republican aristocrats to build similar aristocratic mansions for their extended families as a demonstration of their social and economic clout. Other Republican period “villas” tend to be small and connected with agricultural production on a small scale. Traditionally they are associated with an open-air, yet enclosed, courtyard that serves as a focal point.

Plan of the Villa of the Volusii Saturnini, middle of the first century (source)

The mid-first century B.C.E. villa of the Volusii Saturnini at Lucus Feroniae (left) provides a good example of an opulent villa built by Late Republican new money. It also demonstrates the pattern that many elite villas would follow during the Imperial period in becoming ever more opulent. In the plan, we see a large peristyle (a garden surrounded by columns) and smaller atrium (an open courtyard) and dozens of rooms off each.

Ancient writers the likes of Cato the Elder (a Roman senator who was born in the late 3rd century B.C.E.), Varro (a scholar and writer from the first century C.E.), and Columella (who wrote about agriculture in the first century C.E.) theorized that villa architecture evolved over time, with the so-called “Columellan” villa being the most elaborate and sophisticated. While scholars do not accept this evolutionary schema any longer, it is interesting that these ancient authors were focused on villas and their culture and that they appreciated change over time. While the archaeological remains do not bear out or prove this theory of architectural development, the awareness of the villa and its role in Roman ideology is an important concept on its own.

Imperial Villas

Model of the Palace, Fishbourne Roman Palace Museum

From the Imperial period, we are fortunate to have evidence for a wide range of villa architecture distributed across the Roman empire. In the provinces of the Roman Empire, the adoption of classic villa architecture seems to serve as a mark of adopting a Roman lifestyle—with elites keen to demonstrate their urbanity by living in villas. An example of such an adoption is the so-called Fishbourne Roman palace at Chichester in the south of England which was likely the seat of the Roman client-king Cogidubnus.

Frescos in the Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, c. 50-40 B.C.E. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A number of villas destroyed by the 79 C.E. eruption of Mount Vesuvius demonstrate key features of the opulent villa. At Boscoreale the Late Republican villa of Publius Fannius Synistor (c. 50-40 B.C.E.) is well known for its elaborate Second Style wall paintings (above).

Villa Oplantis, first century C.E. with later remodeling (source, CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Oplontis (modern Torre Annunziata, Italy), the so-called Villa A (sometimes referred to as Villa Poppaea) demonstrates the seaside villa (villa maritima). This is a grand pleasure villa, with many well-appointed rooms for leisure and reception.

Painted Garden, Villa of Livia, detail with oak in center, Prima Porta, fresco, 30-20 B.C.E. (Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo, Rome)

In the periphery of Rome itself we find a number of villas connected with the Imperial house. These are mostly villas of the villa urbana category—including examples such as the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta that belonged to Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus. The Prima Porta villa—a private Imperial retreat—is famous for its garden-themed dining room and the portrait statue of Augustus of Prima Porta.

Reconstruction, Maritime Theater, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, 2nd century C.E., photo: The Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project, Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts, Ball State University, Dr. Bernard Frischer and John Fillwalk

Other emperors would build their own suburban villas as well. Worthy of note in this category is the Villa of Hadrian at Tivoli located to the east of Rome. A series of later elite villas (mostly south of Rome) such as the Villa of Maxentius on the Via Appia and the Villa of the Quintilii show us that the villa continued to be not only a statement of status into the later Roman period, but also maintained its role as a retreat from the crowded confusion of the city.

Late Roman

In Late Antiquity the Roman villa continued to develop. The so-called Villa Romana del Casale just outside of Piazza Armerina, Sicily, was built in the early fourth century C.E. and boasts one of the most complex programs of Roman mosaics preserved from the ancient world.

Mosaic from the “Chamber of the Ten Maidens,” Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, 3rd-4th century C.E.

The Villa Casale was likely the center of a large agricultural estate (latifundium) and its opulent decorations strongly suggest the elite status of its owners. The villa has three sectors that focus on a central peristyle. It seems that the complex was built as a simultaneous project. Its mosaic decorations are rich and complex, with themes that range from natural and geometric scenes, to genre scenes, to hunting scenes, as well as scenes extracted from Graeco-Roman mythology. Villas like the Villa Casale dominated the rural landscape and its economy, engaging in various productive activities from farming to mining.

Roman rural villas remained prominent features in post-Roman landscapes, in some cases becoming centers of monastic life and in others becoming the centers of emergent villages during the Medieval period.

Originally published by Smarthistory under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.