Domus

Elements of an Ancient Roman House (Domus)

While is is true that Roman houses varied according to type and status, there were important cultural considerations in a typical upper-class Roman house. There were areas that were technically “public”, and areas that were very much “private.” The essence of a Roman house was designed based on social order. While some rooms were common to most houses, there were less important rooms that were included / excluded according to the master’s taste.

Entrance Hall (Vestibulum) – a combination between a porch and a waiting room which blocks the rest of the house from view, it reduces heat loss and is a good spot to leave one’s outer wear. It also represents an element of security for the rest of the house. It is a part of the Ostium and it leads to the atrium.

Tabernae (Shop Fronts) – These were shop fronts that lined the street, they were let out to tenants.

Ostium (Janua / Fores) – refers to the entrance of the house, it sometimes held a small room (cella) for the porter / janitor / ostiarius as well as the dog that guarded the house.

Atrium – the most important part of the house; it is the open, central court from which the other enclosed rooms lead off. There was usually a drain pool in the middle of the room that would will up a cistern below it (an impluvium that caught rainwater that fell through the compluvium – a hole in the roof). Guests and dependents (clients) were usually met here; for this reason it was usually the most lavishly furnished room in the house. It provided both light and ventiliation. It also contained the little chapel to the ancestral spirits (lararium), the household safe (arca) and sometimes a bust of the master of the house.The atrium was the public part of the house.

Fauces – hallways.

Tablinum – between the Atrium and the Peristyle/Peristylium was the office where the dominus (master of the house) would receive his clients for the morning salutatio. Roughly in the center of the house, it served as a command station as the head of the social authority as the paterfamilias (father of the family.) It contained the family records and archives.

Peristylium – an open courtyard within the house, it was similar to the Atrium but was larger and contained a piscina (pool). It might contain flowers, shrubs, flowers, benches, sculptures, and even fish ponds. There were usually columns supporting the porches. The Peristyle was the private portion of the house and was off-limits to business guests.

Triclinium – the Roman dining room. It featured a low square table with three couches on the sides (klinai). A slave known as a tricliniarcha was responsible for overseeing slaves of inferior ranks to keep the room clean, keep it in order, and attend to the guests dining needs. This room was off of the Peristyle.

Alae – Open rooms on each side of the atrium, ancestral death masks (imagines) were among the things displayed here.

Cubiculum – Bedrooms. A mosaic on the floor often indicated where the bed should be placed. There were separate rooms used for daytime and others for nighttime. These were off of the Atrium.

Balineum – a bathing chamber which contains the bath.

Bibliotheca – a personal library, it eventually became fashionable for even unlearned men to have large libraries just so they seemed to be more intelligent.

Coenacula – the rooms in the upper story of a multi-level house.

Solaria – A terrace on the top of the house where Romans would bask in the sunlight. Some of them featured artificial gardens with fruit trees and fish ponds.

Pinacotheca – An art gallery that was also used to display statues.

Culina – Kitchen. Slaves prepared food for their masters and guests in this dark and smoke-filled room (it didn’t have a chimney.) It was off of the Peristyle.

Posticum – The back door used for discrete exits, as well as the servants entrance.

Exedra – Normally a public feature, a place to gather for debates, it’s a semi-circular area in a room for the purpose of holding a conversation, it was usually outdoors in the Peristyle.

Cultural Expectations in a Roman House

1.) It was considered improper to enter a house without giving notice to anyone already inside. Spartans would shout, Athenians and other nations would use the knocker, others would rap the door with the knuckles or with a stick.

2.) Every morning the Salutatio was expected: clients would wait even before daybreak in the vestibule until the doors of the atrium were opened. He remained there until the patron appeared and the nomenclator announced the name of the dependent who brought his morning greeting. The callers were divided into various groups, according to their rank and intimacy; even men of good position were not exempt on account of status, but could be found among the callers. Some clients would be invited to accompany the patron wherever he might be going that day. Others would receive their dole (a wicker basket with a portion of food in lieu of being invited to attend the meal with their patron.) Then they would hurry off to another house to be similarly rewarded.

3.) Guests dining in the triclinium leaned on their left elbows, leaving their right arms free. Usually three, sometimes four guests shared the same couch. The head of man would be near the best of the man who lay behind him, so he would be said to lie on the bosom of the other. Because of this, each person was considered as below (status-wise) him to whose breast his own head approached. So when facing the triclinium and standing on the empty side, the head of the table and the seat of honor would be the one nearest you on your right hand side (as there’s no one to lean on); whereas the places of least honor would be the one nearest you on your left hand side (as there is someone to lean on). While Greek and Jewish cultures also adapted to the use of tricliniums, their configurations of honorable seats also differed.

4.) Houses were built on the social order, rules about being the head the household (dominus / paterfamilias / oikodespotes) were by design and Roman Tradition as well as part of Roman Law. With it came certain expectations and roles for various members of the family. The head of the household was the priest of the family cult and therefore lead the spiritual lives of the family, he was the C.E.O. of the family business and therefore controlled all business aspects, he was the lawyer of the family and represented them in all legal matters, he was the political representative of the family and therefore spoke on their behalf concerning politics, he was the master of the family and controlled all the slaves, he was the patriarch of the family and made decisions over his extended relatives, and he was the patron who had clients who depended upon him as their benefactor.

(There’s more to be said on cultural elements, and I’ll add them over time as I learn them.)

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