From the historical perspective, the Roman domus (house) was oddly enough not exactly ‘Roman’ in its character; rather it was possibly inspired by a few older Mediterranean cultures including the Etruscans and the Greeks – as is evident with the architectural focus on the central courtyard. Now beyond origins and influences, a typical Roman domus served as a dwelling for the Roman familia, while being (sometimes) used as a ‘personalized’ center for business and religious worship. As can be deduced from these functions, the extensive domus were constructed for the higher middle class Roman citizens – and even then there were no standardized forms of the ancient dwelling-type (though ‘on an average’, there were probably 8 domus per city block). In any case, the resourceful folks over at Ancient Vine and Museum Victoria have given a go at virtually reconstructing the typical Roman domus of a ‘well-to-do’ family – and we daresay they have succeeded in portraying the dynamic internal layout of the Roman ‘domestic’ side of affairs.
The Atrium –
The video starts off with what is known as the atrium section of the Roman domus. This central hall was the focal point of the entire house, and was accessed from the fauces (a narrow passageway connecting to the streets) or the vestibulum. Now like its modern-day counterpart of a living room, the atrium was the semi ‘public’ area (pars urbana) that was primarily used for entertaining the guests – and thus it was typically the most decorated section of the entire domestic scope. Now intriguingly enough, the animation showcases a rather curious opening along the ceiling, which was actually called the compluvium. Used primarily for ventilation purposes, this conspicuous aperture also allowed the entry of rainwater, which was then collected on the floor-based cavity known as the impluvium and then passed on to the underground cisterns for household usage.
The video continues by showcasing the rooms that were attached to this central hall of the atrium. Most of these enclosed spaces comprised the cubicula, which were basically bedchambers of the house (few being also located on an upper floor); and they were accompanied by the lararium (household shrine at one corner), slave/servant quarters and latrines of the house. These rooms were often flanked by the alae (side rooms), which further led to the triclinium (dining room) at the corner of the atrium. Now the dining room was considered as a privileged place by the ancient Romans. Triclinium in itself roughly translates to ‘three couch place’ because the guests treated here (with lavish dinner parties) often ate and drank their sumptuous fares by lying on their sides on the couches that were arranged in a U-shaped fashion.
The last room of the atrium that ultimately connected with the peristylium (the rear open-air courtyard) usually consisted of the tablinum or ‘office’ of the paterfamilias – the male head of the household. The video aptly depicts this section as the official spatial zone with the low-table that stored all the important documents and business dealings. Now oddly enough, if we look closely, the atrium of the Roman domus didn’t seem to have any window openings that faced the streets. This was probably because safety was still a primary concern of the well-to-do citizens of ancient Rome, even when the city (and the empire) was at the apical stage.
The Peristylium –
As we mentioned before, the peristylium was the open-air courtyard behind the atrium, and it was usually colonnaded along its square (or rectangular) perimeter. Mainly used as a recreational zone for the children to play and for the family and guests to walk around, the peristylium combined the attributes of a garden and a courtyard, while sometimes also flaunting its central fountains. In some cases, this open-air colonnaded courtyard was flanked by cubicula (bedrooms) and a triclinium – the aforementioned dining room from where the guests could pleasurably view the inner garden while feasting.
The peristylium was also connected to the culina (kitchen) and other storerooms. And finally, this courtyard was flanked on its rear-side by a curious arrangement known as exedra. The exedra was basically a large and often decorated room with elaborate mosaic floors. This space also carried forth the thematic element of a garden with its unique wall paintings and frescoes. Some Rome domus additionally boasted the hortus (garden) – the actual garden that was situated at the rear-most part of the entire house compound.
This particular video with its amazing animation (sourced from Gilles Saubestre’s YouTube channel) showcases the Roman domus of Domitia Longina, wife to the Roman Emperor Domitian, who lived from 55-126 AD. Suffice it to say, the house was bigger than the typical Roman domus, and as such also consisted of a thermae – a bathing facility specifically constructed within the compound of the residence.
First Video Credit: AncientVine (YouTube)