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The Roman House

The Ideal House

Pompeii and Herculaneum offer us an exceptional insight into Roman life in the first century AD, no more so than what it tells us about the houses the inhabitants lived in. Both towns have many examples of the 'domus', the one family home, as it was between the fourth century BC and the first century AD.

The basic layout was established by the Samnites and was plainly the outcome of previous experience. This was the 'domus italica', a house with a series of service areas off a central axis. Thus the areas for sleeping, cooking and eating were alongside areas used for family and social life.

The latter areas were almost completely covered, like the atrium, or completely open, as in the peristyled garden, while between the atrium and the peristyle was the family's most sacred room, the tablinum. Light and air for the rest of the house usually came from these central spaces alone, very rarely from the exterior.

The 3D view on the left shows the layout of a typical atrium house. The main points of note are:

..
..................1. Fauces
..................2. Tabernae
..................3. Atrium
..................4. Impluvium
..................5. Tablinum
..................6. Triclinium
..................7. Alae
..................8. Cubiculum
..................9. Culina
..........l.....10. Posticum
..........l.....11. Peristyle
..........l.....12. Piscina
..........l.....13. Exedra
..
This model stood the test of time and varied little in its basic layout. Variations included a covered atrium, the addition of a second floor and more recreational areas - perhaps a second peristyle or private baths. The atrium roof often had supporting columns.

The architectural orders used in the buildings were the classical ones, identified by their capitals; Doric, Ionic, Corinthian or Composite, a combination of Ionic and Corinthian. In Pompeii and Herculaneum the orders have some characteristics of their own, rooted, in particular, in the Samnite tradition.


The Range of House Types

This 'ideal house' described above is just that; an ideal where the use of atrium and peristyle are central to providing light and access to the main reception rooms. But this layout is anything but universal. The constraints of the plot available have a direct bearing on the practicality of having an impluviate atrium let alone a peristyle. Likewise the social standing of the owner defined the need or otherwise to provide public rooms for receiving guests. These factors, and others, have led to the range of house styles we see in Pompeii and Herculaneum today. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill in his book 'Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum' grouped properties in a sample area into four quartiles based on size as a basis for analysing the social standing of the towns residents. In summary the attributes of each quartile was as follows:




Quartile
Area
(Sq.m.)
Average
Area (sq.m.)
Average open area (sq.m.)
 Rooms per House
Density
(rooms/area)
1
10 - 45.......
25.......
0........
1.4......
1:18
2
50 - 170.....
108.......
1........
4.7......
1:23
3
175 - 345.....
246.......
16........
8.4......
1:29
4
350 - 3000...
714.......
104........
16.4......
1:45


Against this table Wallace-Hadrill made various comparisons with regard to non-residential usage, decoration, architectural features and decorative style. The conclusions of this analysis are best left to the author himself, but to better understand the range of properties in Pompeii and Herculaneum it might be appropriate to examine the houses covered by each quartile. To allow a visual comparison of each quartile, a plan of part of Reg I, Ins 7 has been included with the properties from different quartiles differentiated by colour.

Quartile 1
Almost all the properties in
Wallace-Hadrill's first quartile are shops or workshops. Of these, over a third have at least one back room or a flight of stairs to an upper area which the shopkeeper and his family could have used as living quarters. The remainder of the properties in the quartile are considered to be too small to provide any meaningful accommodation. Two properties which belong to this quartile (shown green in the graphic to the right) are the Taberna of Primilla (Reg I, Ins 7, 4) and the corner thermopolium (Reg I, Ins 7, 8-9).

Quartile 2
Properties in the second quartile generally have between two and seven ground floor rooms and are usually of an irregular plan due to restrictions in space. Almost 61% of this quartile are shops and workshops, their plan ranging with their size from a shop with a single back room to a house with enough space to provide a central circulatory space. In the top 26% of this quartile the floor plan becomes more regular with a pattern of two rooms flanking the door, an atrium with an impluvium, two rooms facing the entrance, and, occasionally, a small garden with rooms beyond. In this quartile (shaded pink in the graphic opposite) are the small, but elegant, House of Fabius Amandus (Reg I, Ins 7, 2-3) and, further to the east, a medium sized officina (Reg I, Ins 7, 5).

Quartile 3
The third quartile includes houses which would be regarded as 'typical' Pompeian houses in style. With between five and thirteen ground floor rooms, the properties generally have a more regular plan with the top 28% having the familiar atrium/tablinum/garden layout. A substantial proportion (60%) of the houses include shops or workshops. Almost half the properties in this quartile have more than one entrance. The House of the Priest Amandus belongs to this quartile and is shown coloured blue in the accompanying graphic.
 
Quartile 4
The majority of houses in this quartile (76%) have a traditional atrium; 64% of the properties have both atrium and colonnaded peristyle; the very largest houses (over 1,000 sq.m) may have a second atrium or a second peristyle. The largest houses have a considerable numbers of ground floor rooms (20 to 26) and are plainly designed to accommodate a large slave household. A feature of houses in this category is the large number of entrances they have: 78% have more than one entrance, while 38% have three of more doors. A secondary entrance may simply be a back door, but often it reflects the fact that the house has been formed from an amalgamation of separate units. The House of Paquius Proculus (Reg I, Ins 7, 1,20) belongs to this quartile (shaded light yellow) and occupies about one quarter of the whole insula.


Decorative Styles

The decoration of the walls of all Roman houses has been classified as belonging to one of four distinct styles based on the decorative features originally delineated and described by August Mau during his excavations at Pompeii. The four styles are defined as first (incrustation or structural), second (Architectural), third (Ornamental) and fourth (Illusionist).


The main distinguishing feature of these four styles is their use of architectural illusion. The first style (pictured left) creates a simple illusion of marble cladding by the use of painted plaster.
..
The second style (pictured below) extends this basic two dimensional illusion into the third dimension by creating architectural views framed by columns.


,,
,,
The third style (pictured above) steps back somewhat from this by supplanting columns with architectural motifs that form a decorative framework to large panels with mythological centre pieces.

The fourth style (left), in many respects indistinguishable from the third, reverts back to illusion, replacing the architectural motifs by elaborate architectural views.




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