The Sassy Countess is a blog about historic houses, properties, castles, estates, mansions, homes, land, and lifestyles! Focusing mostly on 18th century, other time periods are also included, such as Regency, Golden Age, Gilded Age, Victorian, American Post and Antebellum, Romantic, Jacksonian, Medieval, Renaissance, Edwardian, New Republic, etc.
Wealthy Romans did not have only one
type of housing. They lived in apartments, town houses, farms, villas, and of
course, palaces. There was an ideal of what Rome was, and how these people
thought that they ought to live. And while the preference was to own land and
their abode, there were many Romans that rented. Whatever the form of
residence, the rich tried to outdo the nobility by the magnificence of their
living area. Could it have been true that the Roman elite used their housing
as a self-propaganda tool?
Pulling from both Etruscan and
Greek styles, the Romans, the buildings and styles of the Roman republic were
highly eclectic. Etruscan and
Greek roots morphed into a style that was completely Roman. The Romans believed
that their ancestors did not have ostentation, or even plastered walls.
Interest in home decoration and building really began to surge during the 2nd
century BC. This just happened to coincide with the rising personal wealth of
Roman individuals. As the rich got richer, they spent their disposable incomes
on larger and grander houses.
Housing of the Romans included small
apartments. This was not the ideal, but many elite found themselves living in
units above stores.Different races including Jews, Arabians,
and Phoenicians inhabited many of these places.
Egyptian dignitaries lived in Roman apartments, but they were usually not the
higher-end of establishments and typically for those that had lost their
luster. Pliny, the poet lived in a tiny apartment, or insulae, in the suburba.
Each floor of the four or five floor isulae held five to ten one room
apartments and had many residences within each.
There were even apartments over the living quarters of the elite inside the
home or around the garden of the villa, of which one would rather live if they
had to stay in an apartment.
Elite Romans that lived in town
houses preferred their homes near bakeries. One possibility for the closeness
of such a structural relationship was perhaps a connection within the business
itself. The Northwest area of Pompeii had the most spectacular of townhouses,
and they also had the higher-end bakeries as well. One possible connection to
the bakeries could have been for the warmth generated by the ovens. This would
have been lovely during cool months. Julius Polybius had his luxury townhouse
adjacent to a bakery in this area of Pompeii. This could have been the case
with this particular man. Or, perhaps one of his patrons had been an owner of
the bakery business. The freedman, Popidius owned a bakery and was situated
somewhat near his establishment.
Showing a connection to a prosperous business would certainly have been a
reason to have their townhouse near such an establishment.
Having a connection with a business
was certainly the case for the elite within the fishing cities and villages.
The coastal regions flourished due to trade of incoming goods, as well as well
as shipping out their own water living produce. Coastal elite fashioned
themselves houses, called domus, which began to rival one another.
(This was where the English word domicile came from.) Roman domus were grand
and had “marble pillars, statues, plaster walls and mosaic floors.”
Maritime ostentation had become so exuberant that it was rumored that Varro may
have written his criticism of architectural ambitious competition about seaside
manors in the first century BC.
was certain was the wealth that was generated due to the fish and trade
industry. Where it was earned directly, there was the pretense of fish farming
for display purposes alone. Domitia Lepidia, Nero’s aunt, had luxury fishponds
at her villa as a “charming edifice.” 
Others had their dining rooms situated so that the view was as panoramic as
possible. The House
of the Moralist, in Pompeii, even had an outdoor dining room with red
painted masonry couches, a marble topped dining table, and a bronze heating
brazier. The walls of this outdoor eating area were fully painted and slightly
decorated. An awning would have covered all this and
These luxuries were for important guests to appreciate, so they were obviously
built to impress the visitor.
farms were another type of housing of the Roman elite. Of course there was the
poor and middling farmer too. While the lower class farmers rented small farms
and homesteads, the quality lived in villas. Villas began around the 1st
century BC in the Roman provinces and were similar to the country houses and
plantations of the 18th century. Most of the owners were actually
people that were native to the areas where they lived, and not transplanted
people from the Holy City. Most of the most extensive villas were in the
northern provinces, and especially in Gaul.
These extensive structures had painted walls, lush mosaic and/or heated floors,
courtyards, and ponds. In fact, the villa owners displayed any signs that
showed Roman affluence.
were categorized into three types: villa urbana, villa rustica and villa
fructuaria. The last villa style was a working, self-supporting entity. The
villa rustica did have some workings, but was negligible and was more like a
hobby farm. The villa urbana was really a type of weekend getaway for the rich.
Like Domitia Lepidia and her charming fish folly, Fannius Synistor had a
romanticized version of a wine plantation in Boscoreale. This villa was
somewhere between the villa urbana and villa rustica. The rooms of the house
proper were extraordinarily large and highly ornamental. Synistor did dabble in
agriculture but his winery used treading vats instead of wine presses.
Synisor’s villa was obviously used for its visual display rather than its
villaticas were a distinct form of villa of the Roman wealthy. These farms
raised peacocks, cranes and other visually beautiful game. The buildings
resembled the domus of the maritime cities, but were on great country estates.
Each having an enormous amount of acreage would have been worth a fortune.
These properties were completely ostentatious and had no other function save
for their decoration.
pastio villaticas tried to rival the palaces of the emperors, but did not
necessarily succeed. The Emperor Hadrian built a complex that had vast living
suites, a bath house, gymnasium, sports stadium, libraries, guest houses,
temples, theaters, gardens, an artificial lake surrounded by colonnades and
statues. Hadrian’s Pleasure Palace at Tivoly had been built between 118
and 138 AD. Nero’s
Domus Transitoria built in 60 AD was an immense, grandiose residence that
enclosed the areas from the Palatine to the Maecenas gardens on the Esquiline.
This palace burned in the great fire of 64 AD and was then replaced by the most
opulent Domus Aurea.
The latter palace was begun in 37 AD by Nero and continued by Trajan had 150
rooms with pearl encrusted ceilings covered with ivory.
What other reason was there for this pompous display of wealth other than
exhibitionism? The only reasons were pomp and self-promotion.
would have been absolutely necessary for any politician. Political slogans were
painted on walls of villas. It would have been necessary for a politician to
show his support to the area. One way that these men showed the local people
that they were indeed part of their community was to purchase large tracts of
land. They did this to show their permanence in the chosen territory. It was
also a means of buying their way into the gentry and into political prominence.
did not necessarily coincide with social hierarchy, but it certainly helped to
get the Roman where they wanted to be. 
Vitruvius mentions c. 15 BC in his books The Ten Books On Architecture that
the planning of a house should in fact take into account the stature of a
client. He mentions that the persons:
of high rank who
hold office and magistracies, and whose duty it is to serve the state… must
provide princely vestibules, lofty halls and very spacious peristyles,
plantations and broad avenues finished in a majestic manner; further libraries
and basilicas arranged in similar fashion with the magnificence of public
structures, because, in such palaces, public deliberations and private trials
and judgments are often transpired.
This of course fully
shows the power of the abode in regards to the political hierarchy. He goes on
to say that if this house is built correctly, then there will be no reason for
Marking the social status would have
been as necessary as indicating the political aspirations. Vitruvius also noted
that the people of different trades should have different types of houses.
Magnificent rooms would not have been necessary to the plebs, but would have
visibly indicated the respectability of the individuals that lived there.
The size and quality of the building depended on the social status of the
The social status was definitely
symbolized within the structure as well. Atriums permitted all visitors. More
private visitor rooms were specifically made for important visitors. These
rooms visualized the importance of the host by the use mosaics.
Other symbolic indicators were marble columns, water features, ornamental
fixtures, and furniture. Formal gardens that held paths, trellises and trees
would also have announced status.
the 1stcentury BC, the most important form of symbolic decoration had become
large wall paintings.
Frescoes indicated wealth, status and social aspirations. Pompeii’s houses were
filled with frescoes of different eras. The House of the Faun and the House of
Menander had the most elaborate and up to date paintings. They were also the
most grand of the mansions within the city.
There was obviously not a coincidence. Wealth, status and decoration went
hand-in-hand for the Romans.
also loved ostentation because their neighbors and betters did as well. The
emperors were building grandiose palaces. The lower statuses wanted to emulate
their betters. Fashions changed as new technologies were invented.
Construction and artwork were improved upon. The wealthier people had the best
first. Social norms of the Roman elite had been outwardly displayed through the
use of the current fashions.
These fashions included housing trends. Fashion was a “mediating position
And, since fashion was the function of society within a period, it was also
influenced by dominant values.
Psychological motivations were also prevalent. Fashions were used to stand out,
and to also conform. These motivations included egotism, vanity, and the
seeking of social prestige.
was indicative in the size, but it was also in the beauty. Poor people could
not afford amazing artworks. Julius Caesar molded public opinion by the use of
art became abundant with the removal of Greek statues. If an individual could
afford them, then this person must have been someone. Self-promotion continued
in death with sarcophagi.
To argue a point, these were housing the dead body. The Melfi Sarcophagus
had many architectural elements carved all over, including the deceased lying
on her bed from her own home.
In any case, a house was important to the stature of a person. Curtius Micias
lost his house when he lost favor with Pompeius Magnus. Lenaeus announced that
his school was in the same quarter as the home of Pompeius Magnus. And, Marcus
Verrius Flaccus was proud of the fact that his school was in the house of
Catulus, which happened to be a part of the palace complex.
of the provincialwealthy emulated the
Roman ideal. It was true that the outer limits became Romanized later than those
areas close by. They also changed by degrees throughout time. The second
century saw many houses in the North move toward a Roman ideal. One reason
could have been economic expansion, another could have been because of the
emperor’s visits. Whatever the initial motivation, “construction connected with
the imperial ideology.”
This is when Roman culture, as well as housing, became desirable. It was the
comforts of the Roman home that moved people into imperial domestic dwellings.
The luxuries of soft beds and hot baths, central and floor heating, and of
course wine that was so very much imperative to the society. These changes were
felt more to the west and the north of the empire. And, another reason for
changes in housing style and structure had to do with the fact that men in
service were “eager to be promoted”.
were so important to the Romans that people would find many means to acquire
houses above their means that they thought was worthy of them. Borrowing from a
benefactor allowed the person to get what they wanted. There were no mortgages,
but there were personal and secured loans. Houses and estates had to be
purchased through cash. So, marrying for dowries to get into a higher social
status lent the idea of using that money to purchase land and domiciles.
Freedman converted any, and all wealth into farms to join the country gentry.
It was obvious to all that men of worth had great estates.
estates of the elite of ancient Rome were an important aspect of life. While
people lived in apartments, town houses, farms, villas and palaces, the point
was that they had lived in the highest style that they could acquire, not
necessarily afford. The symbolism of the abodes beauty meant more than simply
fashion. These buildings romanced the ideal of Rome. The most important
features were ones that indicated the social status of the owner. The Romans
used their housing as a means of self-promotion and propaganda.
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