Ancient Roman houses were very similar to our own buildings, even if they have several differences depending on where they were built. Generally there were two types of Roman house: the domus and the insula. The first was the house where rich Roman families lived, while the second was inhabited by poorer or common people. There was also a third type of Roman dwelling, the villa, which was outside the city walls and was used by wealthier families as a holiday home.
The Roman domus had several special features, such as very small windows to reduce noise from outside but also prevent thieves from gaining access. Natural sunlight was used to light up the domus through a circular opening in the ceiling called a compluvium. Rainwater also entered through the ceiling and was collected in a cistern in the center of the atrium, also called the impluvium. This type of Roman house was built in a horizontal, Hellenistic style of architecture, and consisted of several rooms: the entrance (vestibulum), a long narrow corridor that leads directly to the atrium (atrium), which was the central room of the house. From the atrium you could access all the other rooms of the house. There were bedrooms (cubicula), the banquet hall (triclinium), where the ancient Romans used to eat and drink lying down on beds, the private study of the head of household (tablinium) and a room devoted to religious services (lararium). The lararium was one of the most important parts of the house because Romans considered the home as the real place of worship where you could pray to the gods. Among the various Gods the the Romans venerated were the Lares, who were the gods in space appropriated by a man to cultivate and civilize. "The Genius" is the god of the family, relatives and decedents of males from the father's side. The Penati are the gods of food and harvest, and protected the graineries or pantries, where you kept the corn, beans and wine.
The ancient Roman houses of the richest families also had additional rooms including a peristylium which was a large garden with fruit trees and small pools. There were also bathrooms, built in the wake of the famous baths whiere there were the tepidarium and frigidarium, a swimming pool and a locker room. The domus was also furnished with the finest furnitures and adorned with paintings of extraordinary beauty and ancient mosaics. The main rooms were decorated with colored plaster walls and the floors were made of beautiful mosaics from the masters of the time.
If you want to see a good example of a Roman domus we suggest you visit the Domus Aurea in Rome.
THE ROMAN INSULAE
Unlike the domus that was built horizontally, the insula was the ancient Roman house which was the typical building of the Roman Republic and then of Imperial Rome. The insula was developed in Rome vertically, like an apartment building. These buildings had large square courtyards accessible by corridors leading to the apartments. The ground floor was usually a small space reserved for shops (tabernae). Those living on or near the ground floor were the poorest and the station improved somewhat the higher up the building you went. The insulae, unfortunately, lacked toilets.
The insulae of Imperial Rome were characterized by a remarkable uniformity. The construction of the insulae and their rent was, especially in Rome, an important source of income and business. As a result of many collapses and fires due to bad construction, emperor Nero imposed rules and regulations for the proper construction of the roman insulae.
These ancient houses have now almost all disappeared, but you can still see the remains of some insulae at Celio, under the Church of Sts John and Paul.
Generally, wealthy Romans who lived in the domus in the city, had two other buildings: the villa urbana and villa rustica. The Villa rustica was a farm built according to specific and practical needs: there were two courtyards: one inside and another outside, there were water tanks called piscinae, for watering the animals, to wash wool, soak leather and various other uses. Around each courtyard there would have been a number of slaves called cellae familiares, a large kitchen, stables for oxen bubilia, and another for horses, and the chicken coop called a gallinarium.
The villa urbana was the most magnificent urban domus, since it was built beauty and relaxation. It had several long rows of large arcades supported by columns that guaranteed long protected walks indoors on foot, in a litter, or on horseback when the weather was bad. It had open rooms with couches for the summer and rooms indoors called cubicula for rest during the winter months. There was also a study room, a swimming pool, and a bathroom with steam bath, a tepidarium and a frigidarium, like in the big public baths. The villas were usually surrounded by beautiful gardens and open feilds as well as rare plants and flowers, fountains with impressive water features and statues.
If you want to take a close look at what an ancient Roman villa was like, we suggest you visit Villa Adriana in Tivoli.