see it clearly

Domestic Architecture

Naturally, domestic architecture first claims the attention of any people. The earliest houses of the Romans were essentially Etruscan; and for a long time, a portion of every house being consecrated to the god or spirit worshipped by the family, there was no thought of a temple or special home for the deity. That the Etruscans first erected temples and sepulchral chambers is proved by the term "Tuscanic," applied to the oldest house and temple architecture in Latium, as well as to the statues in baked clay, to which we have referred, which were known as "Tuscanic works."

Domestic Architecture

The earliest Roman dwellings were the most simple habitations that could be imagined after the tent. Built of wood, with a pointed roof, covered with straw, or a sort of primitive shingle, they consisted of one square apartment with an aperture in the top, which admitted a little light and afforded an exit for the smoke, while directly beneath it, in the ground, was a hole for carrying off the rain.

An uncovered space between the door and the street was called the vestibulum, dressing-place, because here the Roman put on his toga before leaving his house, where he wore the tunic only. There were no upper stories, and, of course, no stairs. Possibly there were sleeping-closets and closets for stores around the one apartment, but this served all the general uses of the family and the personal uses of the head of the house and his wife. Here she found the marriage-bed when she came as a bride, and here her bier would stand when life ended. Here the cooking and eating was done; here the master received his friends, while the mistress and her maids here did their spinning. Atrium, "black roof," was clearly a suitable and significant term for this primitive Roman house.

As early as the time of Numa, 716-673 B. C., there were eight guilds of craftsmen; carpenters, coppersmiths, potters, goldsmiths, fullers, dyers, shoemakers, and flute-blowers. This was the time when agriculture was the chief pursuit of the Romans, whose garments were spun in their own houses. The absence of iron-workers and the fact that, by the ritual, copper alone was used for the knives of the priests and for the sacred plough, seems to establish the fact that iron was not known.

Domestic architecture long remained very simple, although numerous practical improvements were adopted gradually, until, about 184 B. C., to the atrium were added a kitchen and bedrooms, a record-chamber and chapel, a court, garden, and garden colonnade. In the court and the colonnades columns were used, and although comforts and conveniences were thus largely increased, the materials remained simple and the construction plain and unornamented. Slight foundations of stone made the plain brick structures dry.

Marble columns were first used in private houses in 91 B. C., when Lucius Crassus inaugurated this custom by placing six columns of Hymettian marble in his splendid dwelling on the Palatine.

The Italian marble quarries were not yet in operation, but columns from ancient Greek edifices were already employed, and all original work done in Rome was executed by Greek artists who had migrated to the new capital.

About half a century before the Christian era a lavish use of marbles was in vogue. Carrara or Luna marble was then employed for the first time; the Numidian giallo antico and other colored marbles were profusely used, and floors inlaid with marbles in mosaic, as well as dados of paneled marbles, were now extensively introduced.

The house of a noble or a wealthy man was called a domus, or mansion. It stood alone, surrounded by a court or garden, and was frequently very large on the ground. It was usually of a single story, never exceeding two. The custom of erecting long colonnades or porticoes demanded an increasing use of marble; and soon after Crassus had made his house the finest in Rome, Lepidus introduced the elegant improvement of paving his arcades with polished slabs of Numidian marble. By general consent, this noble-man's palace was called the finest in Rome; but Pliny relates that within three and a half decades at least a hundred Roman houses excelled it. And yet, at a still later period it would seem that the Romans must have been ignorant of the immense marble quarries of their territory, since they continued to use it in comparatively thin slabs and in facings only. Even in the reign of Nero, Lucan expresses wonder at the way in which Orientals piled marbles in blocks, while the Masters of the World were forced to use it sparingly.

Curiously enough, the houses of the poor at this period were called insulce, or islands, while they were built in large blocks and covered with a continuous roof. These houses were really little more than a collection of chambers, each one of which might make the home of a family. The life of the Roman common people was passed so largely out of doors that their homes were essentially used for little else than sleeping apartments. It was not unusual for these tenements to be built above rows of shops, having no connection with them, but entered by outside stairs. As it was permitted to make houses seventy feet high, several stories could be erected above the shops which lined the street.

These buildings were sometimes constructed around public edifices, and the servants required for them were thus lodged close at hand; this custom was also followed in the case of the dwellings of nobles, so that the slaves and freedmen of the family were frequently housed against the walls of the domus. There has long been a vexed question, and one not likely to be solved, as to the number of the Roman population at any given period. Many computations have been made, with widely differing results. So much exact knowledge of the premises necessary to this computation is wanting that it is altogether unsatisfactory to attempt to make it. But we do know that even the wealthy Romans, who had large apartments for the purposes of social life, had but small sleeping-rooms; slaves were huddled together with an utter disregard of health or comfort, and doubtless the better classes of artisans, freedmen, etc., were much more closely packed in their houses than in modern days. Thus the space devoted to individuals of any class was much less than in the present time.

The recent excavations for laying out new quarters on the Esquiline, Viminal, and Quirinal hills, have disclosed a goodly number of mansions and of the insuloe, or blocks; but the haste with which the "modern improvements" are carried on, destroys these most interesting objects almost as soon as they are discovered. When, in these days, an ancient house is examined, it is, as a rule, the ground-floor alone that remains; but from the house on the Marble Plan, from the mosaic plan of a country villa found at Algeria, and from occasional passages gathered here and there in ancient writings, we know that Roman houses were, after the earliest periods, built in several stories. The lower floor, with but few windows, and those grated, was doubtless devoted to offices and store-rooms, and the important apartments built higher up, with large windows, and plenty of light.

Even the Roman dwellings which have been excavated in modern times--to most of which I have already referred--are so fragmentary in their remains that they afford little satisfaction. We can study Roman domestic architecture at Pompeii to better advantage than in Rome itself. For, although this latter was largely a Greek city, Roman architecture was everywhere Grecian; and there is reason to believe that the houses and villas throughout the Roman Empire had many important features in common.

By taking into account the one room of the villa of Maecenas remaining, believed to have been the greenhouse, and considering portions of marble, mosaic, and fresco decorations which still remain in museums in great numbers,--adding to these the remains of the house of Sallust with its handsome staircase,--and not forgetting the many beautiful objects scattered in various collections which made the decoration of different private houses, we may form some idea of the general impression that these mansions must have made.

But doubtless the most satisfactory example of domestic architecture remaining in Rome is the so-called house of Livia, on the Palatine, which really made a part of the Palace of the Caesars, and has been already mentioned. Here we are told that Livia dwelt after the death of Augustus. It will be noticed by all visitors to this house who have seen Pompeii, that the resemblance in style, plan, and decoration to which I have referred, is perfectly apparent here. The mural paintings are, however, superior to any found in Pompeii; in fact, they are the finest ancient frescoes that are known. They belong to the Augustan Age without doubt, and are wonderfully preserved.


The finest Roman dwellings were doubtless as splendid and magnificently imposing according to their purpose, as the Roman palaces; and we have reason to think that the Palace of the Caesars, now a vast collection of ruins, was the most magnificent and splendidly decorated royal palace ever erected during the centuries of which we have any knowledge. In wealth and power the Caesars exceeded all other rulers, and they were a most self-indulgent and lavish race. They could also command the services of the best Grecian artists to plan and to execute their enormous undertakings, while they plundered from the known world the most valuable and gorgeous objects in existence for the adornment of the wonderful architectural monuments with which they crowded Rome.

Their palace, ruined as it is, has even now a wonderful effect on one who becomes at all familiar with it,--the effect of power and grandeur, which pertains to enormous masses, and the quality of permanence. The aesthetic element no longer exists here; no remnant of that world of marble, of sculpture, mosaic, and painting, that once made its splendor, remains; but from that portion which overhangs the Circus Maximus, looking on one hand to the Baths of Caracalla, and on the other to the Amphitheatre, the Palace of the Caesars is still a most impressive scene,--impressive as are the miles of aqueduct arches, and the Cyclopean walls, which so emphatically bear witness to the comprehensive power of the rulers of Rome under whom these vast achievements were possible.

The only Roman palace of the first order, which still enables one to judge of the plan and extent of these splendid structures, is that built by Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia. This Emperor was neither as powerful nor as wealthy as were some of his predecessors, and that he should have erected such a habitation as this--intended for a villa in which to pass his old age--is a marvellous manifestation of Roman grandeur and magnificence.

It is a fortified palace, and consequently plain in its exterior architecture; and it is difficult to judge of its resemblance to the Palace of the Caesars. It surpassed most modern European palaces in size as in splendor, covering about nine and a half English acres. The especially distinctive feature of this palace, and that most frequently mentioned, is the great gallery, twenty-four feet wide and five hundred and fifteen long, which extended across the entire southern end of the palace, towards the sea; it is architecturally beautiful, and commands a view not to be exceeded in its kind. It is impossible to reconcile the character of Diocletian with such a love of the beauties of nature as the building of this gallery indicates. Possibly his architect did him a favor far beyond his appreciation.