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The Social Hierarchy of Ancient Roman Housing

The magnificence of ancient Roman architecture is a testament to their engineering prowess, with many structures still standing today after centuries of human hostility and environmental torment. Primarily constructed to conform to religious, political, and civic needs, the architectural tectonics of the Roman Empire were meticulously designed to emulate the cultural ideologies and values of the time. In turn, it functioned as a means to shape the social structures of the daily life. Domestic architecture was no exception —it adhered to the civilization's essential, social, and intellectual desires. Presenting in various sizes and styles, ancient Roman housing was largely dependent on social prestige, economic status, and occupational needs. The lower class lived in small dwellings with few comforts, while well-off people could reside in spacious, well-decorated homes.

A large sector of the ancient Roman population were lower-class residents who lived in destitute farmhouses. Such dwellings were typically cottages or shacks with one or two rooms, little furniture, and dependent on a central hearth for heating and cooking (Nardo, 2002). The income of each farm varied, though regardless of size, the farmhouse was expected to be self-sufficient; they produced all of their food, raised cattle, and harvested sheep wool to make their clothes (Living Arrangements: Roman Houses and Apartments, 2001). The residents of rural areas had limited access to the city, which strained opportunities to import any goods or participate in the social rituals of urban life available to all classes, such as the public bathhouses. In early Roman times, most residents lived in shacks or small domiciles similar to lower-class farmhouses. However, by the late Republic, tenement buildings known as insulae became commonplace in urban areas and could accommodate many underclass citizens (Houses, 1998).

Figure 1: Illustrated reconstruction of ancient Roman insulae (n.d.).

The front side of the insulae was typically 250-350 feet long and three to five stories high. The upper-level floors contained five to ten apartments with one or two rooms called vernacular, often constructed of wood and mud brick (Nardo, 20020). The ground floor of the insulae housed a row of small shops, taverns, and food bars for the convenience of the tenants (Living Arrangements: Roman Houses and Apartments, 2001). Occasionally, vacancies on the ground floor could have been rented to residents who had a higher income. These rooms were more costly but were built of stone, providing a sturdier and safer option. Despite the ancient Romans' proficiency in hydraulic engineering, insulae had no running water, leaving residents to draw some from the fountains in the city and carry it to their respective apartments as needed. There were also no kitchens, resulting in the need for the brazier —an aceramic pot with a chamber for charcoal that is used for cooking (Houses, 1998). As cities started to grow and flourish, many insulae began to provide communal cooking facilities in the building, though many preferred to dine in the snack bars as a form of social ritual.

Wealthier patrons of ancient Rome typically resided in the domus: a comfortable one-family home that provided the residents with a sense of solitude from the boisterous lifestyle of the city. Most private homes followed similar layouts and stylistic features but varied greatly in size (Bardis, 1963). Like the insulae, the domus found prominence during the late Republic, featuring an atrium that became the traditional architectural layout for private homes. The atrium was the foremost room of the house and could only be entered through a small enclosed courtyard —the vestibulum— which sets the entrance of the domus back from the street (Living Arrangements: Roman Houses and Apartments, 2001). As a means to display of wealth status of the homeowner to any visitors, the atrium was ornamented elegantly with statues, tiles, mosaics, frescoes, and columns. Romans frequently featured a lalarium, or a small shrine to the family gods and spirits, where the family regularly prayed (Nardo, 2002). In the center of the roof was the compluvium, an opening that allowed light to enter the atrium. Below the opening laid the impluvium, a wide basin to catch the rainwater stored in ceramic pots underground, as only the wealthiest homes were built with a plumbing system (Living Arrangements: Roman Houses and Apartments, 2001). The atrium in the domus became a pillar of domestic architecture and the center of domestic life, the principal room from which all others opened.

Figure 2: Illustration of a Roman atrium (n.d.).

The kitchen and washrooms were located in the rooms around the atrium, as well as the bedrooms —called cubicula (Bardis, 1963). Beyond the atrium was the tablinum, which could be accessed through corridors from the reception hall and served an essential role in the household of wealthy families. The tablinum served as a space for the head of the household, the paterfamilias, to receive his clients or visitors in a daily patronage ritual known as salutation (Trimble, 2002). These rooms were the constituent elements of the domus and remain largely unchanged. In the 100s B.C., the larger Roman houses introduced a new architectural element known as the peristylium, a roofless garden in the domus that included fountains, trees, and a variety of flowers that surrounded a colonnade (Bardis, 1963). It was typically the elite households that featured this new stylistic development, as it was expensive to construct and maintain. The peristylium was positioned in the center of the home, with rooms built around it, just as they surround the atrium. Often, the dining and reception rooms faced into the garden to provide adequate light and beautiful scenery during daily social or professional activities.

Roman aristocrats who wanted to escape the hectic everyday life in the city could retreat to their country estates called villa. There was a variety of styles and purposes of the Roman villa, though economically it came in two forms: that of the self-sufficient farmhouse or as a retreat for the owner’s personal and social enjoyment (Ackerman, 1986). The villa rustica in the countryside could establish an agricultural enterprise and function as a working farmstead in addition to its accommodations for residency. As it would have been self-sustaining, the villa rustica would have provided barns, chicken coops, beehives, grain mills, oil and wine presses, and any other agricultural features of a wealthy farming villa (Nardo, 2002). The villa rustica of the elite was often luxurious and typically featured baths for the convenience of the paterfamilias, his family, and any visitors they may have.

Figure 3: Reconstructed drawing of the Villa of Diomedes in Pompeii (n.d).

A privilege only of the elite: it was common for aristocrats to purchase a second home simply for pleasure. As a result, not all countryside villas were working farmhouses; instead, for the factors of retreat and pleasure, and the grand display of wealth, the villa was established as a symbol of status. Such villas included the same architectural features as their urban counterparts, though often much larger in scale. They contained myriad sculptures, fountains, well-tended gardens, and elegant interiors decorated with elaborate paintings and mosaics. Many Romans built their villas in the seaside landscapes to admire ocean views and feel the sea breeze during the hot Mediterranean summers. The Roman villa was a “defining feature of the material and social culture of the Roman ruling class in the late Republic and Imperial periods” (Frazer, 1992, p. 49). The architecture and grand decoration of a secondary home were a direct reflection of its owner's finances and, by virtue, were a material sign of their social and economic influence.

A reciprocal relationship exists between the architectural entities of the domus, the villa, and the social activities within their walls. The social standing of a Roman aristocrat was determined by his display of wealth and the volume of social activity conducted at home. Thus, he must encourage hospitality and the admission of visitors to fulfill the demands of such luxurious buildings (Wallace-Hadrill, 1988). Ancient Roman domestic architecture is deeply enmeshed in the distinction of social rank, although it was not entirely about one house or another. Instead, there was a significant focus on the social relationship between design, its effects, and its influence on social interactions. The intersection of public and private life was largely shaped and shaped by social rituals.

Figure 4: Photograph of atrium at the House of Vetti (n.d.).

Frescoes and paintings depicting mythological narratives were displayed vastly throughout the Roman Empire and contributed significantly to define the spatial understanding of the aristocratic home. Only guests of sufficient status and education were permitted onto the estate and were meant to be impressed by such grand displays of wealth. Frescoes depicting the divine twins Castor and Pollux were added to the atriums of many homes. As moral and divine beings, one is plastered on each side of the entryway to frame the events within the space. The gaze of each brother met that of the visitors upon entry, creating the illusion of a reciprocated stare. This calls into action the themes of seeing and being seen, as well as reflecting the intentions of insightful and intellectual social interaction (Trimble, 2002). Mythological paintings represent the top of the social hierarchy and appear in the center of walls in the most noble form that is only illuminated by impressive frames —simply seeing these images and refined homes was a significant social achievement. The artwork depicted throughout the rooms has been meticulously selected to reflect one’s participation in the current elite culture that signals his knowledge and prestige.

Paintings in the tablinum often represented figures such as Achilles to highlight the significance of the interaction between the patron and his client or visitor, particularly for the salutation. The primary role of the tablinum was ideological and directed toward visitors (Trimble, 2002). If a patron and client had the benefit of meeting, the images represented in the setting of their interaction heighten the expectation of a successful social ritual and therefore aid in the process of defining and performing their respective roles. The duality of such images evoked a confrontation between the client and the patron, which contributed to the advancements in the interests of both parties. In their composition, placement, and visual interaction, paintings in the homes may have helped articulate and define the social rituals in the house (Trimble, 2002). The depicted imagery also helped to determine a functional hierarchy of space, calling attention to itself in the rooms of significant social rituals, such as the reception of clients (Frederick, 1995).

Figure 5: Fresco of Achilles and Briseis at House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii (70-79 A.D.).

For many wealthy patrons, the focus of domestic architecture was heavily centered around theoretical and psychological needs as well as social and physical. The villa’s gardens were a pillar of the Roman home and often the visual focus. Upon the home’s entrance, the eye was drawn to the garden, which would have been found just beyond the atrium and tablinum. The spatial directiveness of the gardens was a dominating force of the villa and was popular among the Romans to utilize the abundance of colonnades for contemplative walks (Giesecke, 2001). The architectural form of the Roman villa influenced activities, patterns of movement, and interactions —designed to emulate the intellectual and storytelling culture of the Hellenistic world. A privilege of the elite, “walking in the upper-class home put both body and mind in motion, transporting the aristocrat beyond the physical confines of his villa” (O’Sullivan, 2006, p. 134).

Social status and economic wealth divided Roman society into a seemingly binary cultural hierarchy that founded either a life in collective living spaces, or one of great luxury and relaxation. Housing available to the lower class provided few comforts, were crowded, and lacked basic amenities, but, like aristocratic edifices, the architectural design of tenement halls encouraged social practices, such as communal dining. The extravagance of the villa was a privilege only of the upper class as a proud display of elite social status that served ceremonial, recreational, and occupational functions. The spatial organization and decor structured the movement and perception of the house, establishing an expectation of interpersonal rituals determined by the architectural design. From their sophisticated architecture to intricate display of wealth and decor, the culture and social organization of ancient Roman life is embodied in the architectural remains of homes and villas that still stand today. Built with practicality and beauty, these structures have painted a vivid picture of daily life and illuminate the traditions of domestic practices during the late Republic and Imperial Empire.

Bibliographical References

Ackerman, J. (1986). The Villa as Paradigm. Perspecta, 22, 10–31.

Architecture and the Late Republic. (2001). In J. T. Kirby (Ed.), World Eras (Vol. 3, pp. 79-81). Gale.

Bardis, P. D. (1963). Main Features of the Ancient Roman Family. Social Science, 38(4), 225–240.

Frazer, A. (1992). The Roman Villa and the Pastoral Ideal. Studies in the History of Art, 36, 48–61.

Fredrick, D. (1995). Beyond the Atrium to Ariadne: Erotic Painting and Visual Pleasure in the Roman House. Classical Antiquity, 14(2), 266–288.

Giesecke, A. L. (2001). Beyond the Garden of Epicurus: The Utopics of the Ideal Roman Villa. Utopian Studies, 12(2), 13–32.

Houses. (1998). In C. Moulton (Ed.), Ancient Greece and Rome: An Encyclopedia for Students (Vol. 2, pp. 155-157). Charles Scribner's Sons.

Living Arrangements: Roman Houses and Apartments. (2001). In J. T. Kirby (Ed.), World Eras (Vol. 3, pp. 279-285). Gale.

Nardo, D. (2002). Houses. In The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome (pp. 166-169). Greenhaven Press.

O’Sullivan, T. M. (2006). The Mind in Motion: Walking and Metaphorical Travel in the Roman Villa. Classical Philology, 101(2), 133–152.

Trimble, J. F.. (2002). Greek Myth, Gender, and Social Structure in a Roman House: Two Paintings of Achilles at Pompeii. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes, 1, 225–248.

Wallace-Hadrill, A. (1988). The Social Structure of the Roman House. Papers of the British School at Rome, 56, 43–97.

Visual Sources

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Kyra Nelson

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