he houses, or private residences of families, in ancient Greece and Rome were usually made of sun-dried mud bricks or mixed stone and rubble. Houses were simple, airy, and sparsely furnished. The dwellings of aristocrats* were often built in the same style as those of less wealthy people but of more costly materials and more lavishly furnished. Styles of houses varied more in Rome than in Greece, from the elegant and extravagant country estates of the wealthy to the shabbily constructed tenement houses* of the poor.

Houses in Ancient Greece. During the classical* period, the houses of Athens were generally one story high, while houses in other parts of Greece were usually two-story dwellings. At the center of the house was a small, open, rectangular courtyard, which connected to the street by a short passageway. Most rooms of the house opened onto the courtyard. A porch provided a pleasant place to sit in the good weather. The few windows in the houses of the ancient Greeks were small and open to the elements, and they were covered with curtains for privacy. Floors in working-class and middle-class households were usually made of earth. In regions with snowy winters, the roofs tended to be sloped, allowing the snow to fall off. In drier, warmer areas, roofs were flat. Brush or terra-cotta* tiles were used for roofing materials.

The upper floor, which contained the sleeping rooms for household members, could be reached by a ladder or built-in stairway. The main living space for the family was a large room on the ground floor that faced south to take advantage of winter sunshine. This room usually contained the hearth*. Other rooms on the ground floor had areas for bathing, heating water, and cooking. Low chests, cabinets, tables, and benches furnished the house. Drainage and waste removal were primitive. Where toilets did exist, they emptied into a drain under the adjoining street.

A special room was set aside for entertaining male guests. (Female guests were excluded.) This room, called the andron, or men’s dining room, had a cement floor that was slightly raised on all four sides. Couches used for dining were placed on the raised floor. Small tables were brought into the room for banquets. The floor of the room was often decorated with pebble mosaics. Both modest and large houses throughout Greece had androns. In many areas of present-day southeastern Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East, men still have separate quarters in their homes to meet and talk with friends. Except for the andron and rooms where young men slept, all other rooms of the house were available to women, who were in charge of running the household.

* aristocrat person of the highest social class

* tenement house multifamily dwelling, with poor safety and sanitation, usually in a poor city neighborhood

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.

* terra-cotta hard-baked clay, either glazed or unglazed

* hearth fireplace in the center of a house

Houses were designed to serve several functions. In rural areas, courtyards were built large enough to accommodate farm animals, wagons, and carts. Workrooms were set aside for processing farm produce and often included a press for making olive oil. Larders, or storage rooms, held food for the winter. Some farmhouses had towers from which to observe approaching friends or strangers. In the city, houses were built with communal walls; the front and rear walls adjoined the dwellings on either side. Some city houses had a room opening onto the street, where the householder could set up a shop and carry on a business.

Houses in Ancient Rome. The traditional Roman domus, or town house, was a one-story dwelling. An entrance hall and corridor led visitors from the street into the atrium, or central reception hall. Several rooms faced onto the atrium. The atrium was often open to the sky, and rain fell through a skylight into an impluvium, a basin in the center of this space. The water was stored for future use in an underground tank. The main room of the house usually faced the front door and was situated at the far end of the atrium. It was used by the household as a dayroom or dining area. The kitchen and bathing room were located to the right of the entrance. Bedrooms were often arranged in a row on the ground floor of the town house, while rooms for servants, smaller and darker than other rooms, were located near the kitchen and work areas. Roman houses also had an area for the family’s religious rites. Tiny, bronze statuettes representing the spirits of the household (known as the Lares and Penates) were kept in a niche in the wall or sometimes in a miniature shrine.

In the 100s B.C., a new architectural element, adapted from the Greeks, was introduced into Roman houses. This was the peristyle, which was a garden surrounded by a colonnade*. Dining rooms and reception rooms faced onto the peristyle, and light from the peristyle filtered into the nearby rooms. Not all Roman houses followed the atrium or peristyle layout. Simpler houses might contain several shops with back rooms for living spaces, while larger houses might contain several gardens, summer and winter dining rooms, and private, heated baths.

Roman aristocrats often sought relief from the hectic life of Rome by escaping to their villas, or country estates. These estates were working farms with a house of either one or two stories. A country villa was built along the same lines as the town house except on a larger scale. Gardens were larger and often contained statues and fountains. The villas of the emperors, often built in peaceful surroundings, were among the most beautiful of the Roman country houses. The Villa Jovis, built as the summer home for the emperor Tiberius, was located on the island of Capri,


Ancient city-dwellers endured noise pollution. The writer Seneca gave this account of his rooming house in Rome:

(Imagine] all the vendors of food hawking their wares... passing carriages, a machinist in the same block, a saw-sharpener nearby, or some fellow who is demonstrating with little pipes and flutes at the Trickling Fountain, shouting rather than singing.

And that was just noise from the outside. Below his room was a bathing establishment, from which Seneca could hear the grunts of men exercising or splashing in the swimming tank, the cracks and slaps of rubdowns, and the penetrating voice of the hair-plucker, who never held his tongue "except when... plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead."

* colonnade series of regularly spaced columns, usually supporting a roof overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Its gardens, walkways, and views of the sea made it an ideal place for rest and relaxation.

The apartment house, or insula, began to be built for middle-and upper-class Romans during the 200s B.C. Many examples survive in Ostia, Rome’s port on the Tiber River. Built of brick and concrete, these multiple housing units had wooden rafters and sometimes concrete vaults, and could be constructed four or five stories high. In each apartment, a long central room with windows received light from the street, garden, or inner court. This area was sometimes used as a reception and entertainment area. Rooms opened out from the central room from three sides, with bedrooms being located on the inner side, away from direct light and street noise. Balconies served as places for socializing for the young and old, and from them, deliveries could be made to the upper floors by using ropes and baskets.

Apartment houses for wealthy Romans, or garden houses, first appeared during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. Garden houses consisted of a continuous line of exterior buildings constructed around a central park, with shops and apartments alternating at the ground level.

Lower-class Romans often lived in the back of their shops or in tenement houses of cramped, subdivided rooms. Tenement houses were often hastily built of the cheapest materials, with walls of timber, reeds, and stucco. These dwellings provided little privacy, especially on the upper floors, which consisted of a single large room that served as both a living and sleeping area. There were no kitchens. Cooking was done over a brazier*. Water had to be drawn from public fountains and carried upstairs for domestic use. Human waste was collected in chamber pots and emptied into drainpipes. Public latrines were available, as well as public baths located throughout the city. For poor Romans, an alternative to a tenement house was a ground-floor apartment without a second story, or an apartment above a commercial establishment.

Because of the closeness of so many apartments and the widespread use of oil lamps and braziers for lighting, heating, and cooking, Roman cities were always at risk for fire. A fire in Rome in A.D. 64 destroyed many districts of the city and resulted in strict new building regulations. Communal walls were outlawed, and residents were required to ensure that water was available for emergencies. Dangerous as it might be, the tenement style of housing used by the Romans survived into the modern age. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Cities, Greek; Cities, Roman; Construction Materials and Techniques; Household Furnishing.)

* brazier metal tray or pan for holding burning coals

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