Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


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We have taken a general survey of the city of Rome, its open places, streets, and public buildings. We may now look at the houses in which the Romans lived, and at the furniture to be expected inside them.

Mention has already been made of the large and lofty tenement houses or blocks, often mere human rookeries, which were let out in lodgings to those who did not possess sufficient means to occupy a separate domicile of their own. These buildings, which were naturally to be found in the busier streets and more thickly inhabited quarters, were not, however, the habitations most typical of the romanized world. They were created by the special circumstances of the city, and might recur in other towns wherever the conditions were similar. The cramped island part of Tyre, for example, possessed houses even loftier than those of Rome. Where there was sufficient room--that is to say, where there was no large population crowded into a space limited by nature or by walls of defence--the ordinary house was of a very different character. It was built on a different plan and seldom ran to more than two stories, if so high. We shall shortly proceed to describe such a house; but it is first desirable to say something more of the tenement "block" in the metropolis. It is to be regretted that no such building has actually come down to us; we are therefore compelled to form our notions of one from the scattered references and hints of literature. Nevertheless if these are read in the light of customs still observable in Rome itself and in other parts of Italy, the picture becomes fairly definite.

A block--or "island," as it was called--might be a building of four or five stories, surrounded by four of the narrow streets, lanes, or alleys which formed a network in the city. Whether managed by the landlord, by his agent, or by a tenant who sub-let at a profit, it was divided into lodgings, which might consist either of a single room or of a suite. Some such rooms and flats were "ordinary," others were described (as they are still in the advertisements of modern Rome) as "suitable for a gentleman," or, to use the exact language of the day, "suitable for a knight." Access to the respective quarters of the house was to be gained, not solely through a main door, but by separate stairs leading up directly from the streets and lanes. It would appear that each tenant had his own key, corresponding, though hardly in convenience of size, to our latch-key. Whereas it will be found that the ordinary private house of one storey was for the most part lighted by openings in the roof and by wide courts, this arrangement could manifestly be applied only partially to the tall tenement buildings. There might, it is true, exist in the middle interior of such a block an open space or "well," with galleries running round it at each floor, so that the inner rooms could obtain light from that quarter. It is also to be assumed that stairs ran up to these galleries, so that the inward rooms or flats were made accessible in this way. Mainly, however, the light came from windows opening on the street. If we glanced up at these from below we should find them narrower than ours at the present day--since we have discovered how to produce large and entirely diaphanous sheets of glass--but probably not narrower than those of a century ago. They were either mere openings with shutters, or, in the better houses, were glazed with transparent material. In the brighter part of the year they contained their boxes of flowering or other plants, and were often provided with a shade-awning not unlike those so familiar in Paris.

The roof of such a building was either gabled and covered with tiles or, though perhaps less often, it was flat. The flat roof sometimes formed a terrace, on which the plants of a "roof-garden" might be found growing either in earthenware tubs or in earth spread over a layer of impermeable cement. The lowest floor, level with the street, commonly consisted of shops, which were open at full length in the day, but were shuttered and barred at night. As with the shops which are now built into the sides of large hotels and the like, they had no communication with the interior of the building. Regularly, however, they possessed a short staircase at the back or side leading to an upper room or entresol, where, in the poorer instances, the shopkeeper might actually reside. To the aristocratic Roman, with his contempt of petty trade, "born in the shop-loft" was a contemptuous phrase for a "son of nobody."

Meanwhile the more representative houses of the strictly Roman part of the Roman world--that is to say, the dwellings of Romans or of imitators of Romans, wherever they might be settled, as distinct from the Greek and Oriental houses or from the various kinds of primitive huts to be found among the Western provincials--were of three chief kinds. These were the town house, the country seat, and the country homestead. There was, of course, nothing to prevent a wealthy Roman from building his town house exactly like a country seat, or vice versa, if he had so chosen, but from considerations of purpose, apart from those of local space and view, it would have been altogether irrational to take either course. The conditions of his life in town and country differed even more widely than they do with us. The average Roman, moreover, was a lover of variety in respect of his habitation. We find in a somewhat later epigrammatist that one grandee keeps up four town houses in Rome itself, and moves capriciously from one to the other, so that you never know where you will find him. At different seasons or in different moods he might prefer this or that situation or aspect. As for country seats of various degrees of magnificence, a man might--like many modern nobles or royalties--possess three, four, a dozen, or twenty. He might, for example, own one or more on the Italian Lakes, one in Tuscany, one on the Sabine or Alban Hills, one on the coast within a half-day's run of Rome, one on the Bay of Naples, one down in the heel of Italy, and so on. Pliny the Younger, who was born in the reign of Nero, was not a particularly rich man, yet he owned several country seats on Lake Como alone, besides others nearer to Rome on north and south, at the seaside, or on the hills.

We may begin with a town house, and our simplest procedure is to take a plan exhibiting those parts which were most usual for an establishment of even moderate pretensions. Let it be understood that it is but the symmetrical outline of a general scheme which was in practice submitted to indefinite enlargement or modification. In the house of Livia, the mother of Augustus, on the Palatine Hill at Rome, and in various houses at Pompeii--such as those of the Vettii, of "Sallust," of the "Faun," or of "The Tragic Poet"--there will be found much diversity in the number and arrangement of the rooms, halls, and courts. Nevertheless the main principle of division, the general conception of the portions requisite for their several purposes, was practically the same. Some of the differences and enlargements may be illustrated after we have considered our first simple outline. Before we undertake this, however, it may be well to warn any one who may have visited or be about to visit Pompeii, that he must exclude from his thoughts all those small premises of a room or two which face so many of the streets. These were mostly shops, with which we are not now dealing. He must also exclude all the public edifices. This done, he must remember that we now possess only portions of the walls without the roofs, and that in such circumstances apartments always appear to be much smaller than they are by actual measurement, or than they appear when they contain their furniture and appointments properly disposed. Finally, he must not take a Pompeian house, even the most spacious, as a fair example of either the size or splendour of the great houses in the metropolis. Pompeii was but a small place, with a population of no great wealth or standing, and its houses would have cut but a provincial figure among those of the same date on the Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, or Quirinal Hills. Nevertheless they are extremely useful to us in reconstructing the type. It is that type and not the exception which we now consider.

A town house might either be detached or it might stand in a street, like one of the tenement-blocks, with shops let into the less important parts of the outer wall of the ground floor. Much would naturally depend upon the means and dignity of the owner. In any case the interior portions would belong to the private residence. As a rule the exterior of the ordinary house was little regarded. No architecture was wasted upon it; decoration and other magnificence belonged to the interior. Provided a house possessed a more or less imposing doorway its exterior walls might be left either to shops or to a dull monochrome of stucco, pierced here and there, if necessary, at 9 or 10 feet from the ground by barred slits, which cannot be called windows, for the admittance of light. The general principle of a Roman house, as of a Greek, was that of rooms surrounding spaces lighted from within. Privacy from the outer world was not indeed so scrupulously sought by the Romans as by the Athenians--principally because of the more free position occupied by the Roman women--nevertheless it was secured by the absence of ground-floor windows opening on any thoroughfare.


Before the actual door there was commonly an open recess or space a little backward from the street, in which callers could wait until the door was opened. This was the "vestibule," and in the case of the larger houses of the nobles it was often adorned with honorary statues, on horseback or otherwise, while above the door might be seen the insignia of triumphs won by the family, a decoration in some measure corresponding to the modern hatchment, except that it was permanently fixed. This regularly remained as a mark of the house even when it changed owners. It was in such a vestibule of his Golden House that Nero erected his own colossal statue, destined afterwards to give its name to the Colosseum. Over the larger vestibules there might be a partial roof, but generally, and perhaps always at this date, they were without cover.

Facing you in the middle of the vestibule are double or folding doors, more or less ornate with bronze, ivory, and other work, and generally bearing a large ring or handle to serve either as a knocker or to pull the door to. Above them is a bronze grating or fretwork for further adornment and to admit light and air. Some householders, more superstitious or conventional than the rest, affected an inscription, such as "Let no evil enter here," and over some humbler entrance you might find a cage containing a parrot or magpie, which had been trained to say "Good luck to you" in Greek. At either side of the door, or of the actual entrance to the vestibule, is a column or pilaster, either made of timber and cased with other woods of a more beautiful and costly kind, or consisting of coloured marble with an ornate capital. These "doorposts" were wreathed with laurel or other foliage on festal occasions, such as when the occupant had won some distinguished honour in the field, in the courts, or at the elections, or when a marriage took place from within. At funerals small cypress trees or branches would be placed in and about the vestibule. At one side of it you might sometimes find a smaller door, to be used for the ordinary going in and out when it was unnecessary or inconvenient for the larger doors to be opened.

[Illustration: FIG. 30.--ENTRANCE TO HOUSE OF PANSA. (Pompeii.)]

The doors themselves turn, not upon hinges of the modern kind, but upon pivots, which move, often too noisily, in sockets let into the threshold and lintel. The fastenings consisted of locks--often highly ingenious--of a bar laid across from wall to wall, of bolts shot across or upward and downward, and sometimes of a prop leaning against the inside of the door and entering a cavity in the floor of the passage. The floor of the entrance passage itself might be paved with marble tiles, or made simply of a polished cement with or without patterns worked in it; or it might consist of small cubes of stone, white and black or more variously coloured, frequently worked into figures, and now and then accompanied by an inscription just within the threshold, such as "Greeting" or "Beware the Dog." In one Pompeian house the floor bears the well-known mosaic likeness of a dog held upon its chain. At the side of the passage there is often a smaller room for the janitor. When there is none, he must be supposed to have used a movable seat.

Passing through the passage, you find yourself in a rectangular hall, upon which was lavished the chief display in the way of loftiness and decoration. In the middle of the ceiling is an open space, square or oblong, to which the tiles of the gabled roof converge from above, and in the middle of the floor beneath is a corresponding basin, edged and paved with coloured or plain marble. The basin is of no great depth, and contains the water which has been poured into it from the ornamental pipe-mouths of bronze or terra-cotta projecting, like gargoyles, from the edge of the opening above. Sometimes the basin contained a fountain. There is of course an outlet pipe for the surplus water, but some of that overflow often ran into a covered cistern, over which you would find a small circular well-mouth, ornamented with sculptured reliefs. The opening in the ceiling may be formed simply by the space between the four cross-beams, or it may be supported by a pillar--of marble or of brick cased with marble--at each corner, or it may rest upon a greater number of such pillars. It is this opening which lets in the light and air to the hall, and it should always be remembered that the Italian house had more occasion to seek coolness and freshness than warmth. On a day of glaring sunshine and heat it was always possible to spread under the opening an awning or curtain of purple or other colour, of which the reflected hues meanwhile lent a richness to the space below. If we take one of the finer houses, we shall see, in glancing at the ceiling which covers the rest of the hall, that it is divided into sunken panels or coffers, which are adorned with reliefs in stucco and are painted, or else are decorated with copper, gold or ivory. The height may be whatever the owner wishes, but perhaps 25 feet would be a modest average estimate. The floor in such a house will generally consist of slabs of marble or of marble tiles arranged in patterns. In houses of less show it may be made of the same materials as those described for the entrance passage. To right and left are various chambers, shut off by lofty doors or by portières or both. To these light is admitted their doors and the gratings over them, from the high window-slits already mentioned in the outer wall, or sometimes, when there is no upper storey, from sky-lights. And here let it be observed that the notion that the Romans of this date used very little glass is altogether erroneous, as the discoveries at Pompeii and elsewhere sufficiently prove.

[Illustration: FIG. 31.--Interior of Roman House. (Looking from Reception-hall to Peristyle.)]

The walls of the hall are in the better instances either coated with panels of tinted marble, or parcelled out in bright bands or oblongs of paint, or decorated with pictures of mythological, architectural, and other subjects worked in bright colours upon darkened stucco. To our own taste these colours--red, yellow, bluish-green, and others--as seen at Pompeii, are often excessively crude and badly harmonised. But while it is true that the ancients appear to have been actually somewhat deficient in colour-sense, it must be borne in mind that many of the Pompeian houses were decorated by journeymen rather than by artists, and, above all, full allowance must be made for the comparatively subdued light in which most of the paintings would be seen. The hall might also contain statuary placed against the walls or against the supporting pillars, where these existed. At the farther end from the entrance you will perceive to right and left two large recesses or bays, generally with pilasters on either side. These "wings" were utilised for a variety of purposes. One of them might occasionally serve for a smaller dining-room, or it might hold presses and cupboards. In noble houses one of them would contain certain family possessions of which the occupants were especially proud. These were the effigies of distinguished ancestors, which served as a family-tree represented in a highly objective form. At our chosen date there would be a series of portrait busts or else of portrait medallions, in relief or painted, while in special receptacles, labelled underneath with name and rank, were kept life-like wax masks of the line of distinguished persons, which could be brought out and carried in procession at the funeral of a member of the family. Though there was no "College of Heralds" in antiquity, it was commonly quite possible for a wealthy parvenu to get a pedigree invented for him. It is true that by use and wont the "right of effigies" was confined to those families which had held the higher offices of state, but there was no specific law on the subject, and the Roman nouveau riche could act exactly like his modern representative in securing his "portraits of ancestors."

[Illustration: FIG. 32.--HOUSE OF CORNELIUS RUFUS. (Pompeii.)]

Having thus glanced to right and left, to the ceiling and the floor, we now look at the end of the hall facing us. The middle section of this is open, and is framed by a couple of high pillars or pilasters and a cornice, which together formed perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this part of the house. Between the pillars is an apartment which may or may not be raised a step or two above the level of the hall. This, unlike the hall itself, is of the nature of a sitting-room, reception-room, or "parlour" (in the old sense of that word), and contains appropriate furniture. In it the master receives a guest, interviews his clients, makes up his accounts, and transacts such other private business as may fall to his lot. At the back it may be entirely closed, or it may contain a large window, through which we can catch a vista of the colonnaded and planted court beyond. The floor may here consist of a large carpet-like mosaic, such as that famous piece, taken from the House of the Faun at Pompeii and now in the Naples Museum, which represents a battle between Alexander and the Persians. To one side of the entrance to this "parlour" there will often stand on a pedestal the bust of the owner, as "Genius of the home." On the other side there is a passage serving as the means of access to the second or inner division of the house.


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