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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Roman Housing

When one thinks of Roman housing, images of the houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum typically come to mind. Exquisitely preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., these architectural remains provide us with stunning insight into the domestic patterns of Romans in Italy in the first century A.D. However, the archaeological remains of the Roman empire are rich with domestic spaces, stretching from the western edge of Spain to the far eastern extremes of the empire. The term “Roman housing” can encompass many kinds of living spaces. Poorly built and maintained tower blocks in cities known as insulae housed the lower echelons of society in hazardous and overcrowded conditions. In the countryside, the poor lived in small villages or farms, in stone-built structures. The exploitation by the elite of hired and slave labor in agricultural endeavors and animal husbandry provides a more unusual category of Roman housing—rooms within industrial complexes such as olive oil factories, where a workforce lived during the production season. At the other extreme of the social scale, the elite had their impressive townhouses, and usually in addition their large villas or rural retreats with expansive floor plans, numerous entertainment spaces, and rich marble decoration, reflecting the importance for the elite of the domestic space for the creation of their public persona.

The Roman house was, as is true today, where the nuclear family lived. However, in addition to that, the household included servants for all members of the family. Many look for traces of servants within the remains of houses, but often the slaves slept in the doorways of their master’s bedroom, or in rooms so simple that their functions cannot easily be reconstructed today. The houses were in some ways similar to those of today. They had two stories, although the second story rarely survives. They contained bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, but there were also spaces specific to Roman houses: the atrium was a typical early feature of houses in the western half of the empire, a shaded walkway surrounding a central impluvium, or pool, which served as the location for the owner’s meeting with his clients in the morning; the tablinum was a main reception room emerging from the atrium, where the owner often sat to receive his clients; and finally, the peristyle was an open-air courtyard of varying size, laid out as a garden normally in the West, but paved with marble in the East.

While modern-day houses often function as more of an escape from the pressures of the public world, opened generally only to friends, in the Roman world, the house of an elite was both a private retreat and a center for business transactions. As a result of this public function, decoration and architectural elaboration were of especial importance, and the collection of Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum reflects this elite domestic adornment.

One of the most well known features of the decoration of a Roman house is wall painting. However, the walls of Roman houses could also be decorated with marble revetment, thin panels of marble of various colors mortared to the wall. This revetment often imitated architecture, by for example being cut to resemble columns and capitals spaced along the wall. Often, even within the same house, plastered walls were painted to appear to be marble revetment, as in the exedral paintings in the collection (03.14.4). The examples at the Museum demonstrate the various possible types of Roman wall painting. An owner might choose to represent ideal landscapes framed by architecture (03.14.13a–g), finer architectural elements and candelabra (20.192.1), or figural scenes relating to entertainment (03.14.5) or to mythology, such as the Polyphemus and Galatea scene (20.192.17) or the Perseus and Andromeda scene (20.192.16) from the villa of Agrippa Postumus at Boscotrecase.

Floors were also decorated, often with cut marble (opus sectile) or with tessellated mosaics. The mosaics could be quite simple, representing geometric shapes, or very elaborate with complex figural scenes. Mosaics produced in North Africa and Syria popularized hunting scenes. Other themes typified in these mosaics are images of philosophers, rich scenes of animals or the countryside, or scenes of divinities and myth. Many mosaics were a blend of these simple geometric shapes and figural scenes, much like the example in the Museum depicting a garlanded woman surrounded by geometric shapes (38.11.12).

Mosaic decoration was not restricted to the floors of Roman houses. Ceiling and wall mosaics, often of glass, were sometimes employed, used mostly in between columns or in vaulted niches. A well-preserved example can be seen in one of the townhouses at Ephesus in Asia Minor (Turkey). More usual decoration on the ceilings came in the form of molded stucco and painted panels. Stucco panels displayed architectural motifs or molded relief scenes and clad ceilings, especially vaulted ones. The stucco panels in the Museum reflect common thematic concerns of the elite—mythological scenes, exotic animals, and divinities (92.11.8; 92.11.10). Such stucco panels could also be used as a decorative element along the tops of walls, similar to the terracotta group in the Museum’s collection (26.60.31; 26.60.32; 26.60.33). The painted panels and stucco decoration were the final part of an interrelated decorative scheme, encompassing the floor, walls, and ceiling. Archaeological remains show that similar colors frequently were used at least on the wall and ceiling panels to create a common aesthetic.

Furniture is, of course, the most temporary of domestic decoration, easily moved and often replaced. Certain rooms required specific pieces. For example, the atrium of a Roman house was often sparsely furnished, holding chests, or arcae, of family treasures and documents, as well as a few pieces of furniture such as small tables and candelabra. In the dining room, Romans were accustomed to recline as they dined and so rested on couches (17.190.2076) while they ate and were served and entertained by slaves. Often fine tableware, such as the silver tableware from the Tivoli Hoard in the Museum’s collection (20.49.2–12), was displayed in cabinets around the dining room.

The display of statuary of various kinds was an important part of the “furniture” of a Roman house. Sculpture and bronze statues were displayed throughout the house in various contexts—on tables, in specially built niches, in relief panels on walls—but all in the most visible areas of the house. This sculpture could be of numerous types—portrait busts of famous individuals or relatives, lifesize statues of family members, generals, divinities, or mythological figures such as muses. In late antiquity, small-scale sculpture of figures from myth became very popular. In conjunction with the other decorative features of the house, this sculpture was intended to impart a message to visitors. Domestic display is a good example of the conspicuous consumption of the Roman elite, proving that they had wealth and therefore power and authority. Scenes in painting and sculptural collections also helped to associate the owners with key features of Roman life such as education (paideia) and military achievements, validating the owner’s position in his world.