Last updated
Domus (Roman house)
Diagram of a typical Roman domus
Ancient Roman structure
A Roman domus was limited in size because of the confines of the city walls. In the older parts of the city the rich could not build out, so they built up.
Social structure
Social classes Patrician, senatorial class, equestrian class, plebeian, freedmen

In ancient Rome, the domus (plural domūs, genitive domūs or domī) was the type of town house occupied by the upper classes and some wealthy freedmen during the Republican and Imperial eras. [1] It was found in almost all the major cities throughout the Roman territories. The modern English word domestic comes from Latin domesticus, which is derived from the word domus. [2] The word dom in modern Slavic languages means "home" and is a cognate of the Latin word, going back to Proto-Indo-European. Along with a domus in the city, many of the richest families of ancient Rome also owned a separate country house known as a villa. Many chose to live primarily, or even exclusively, in their villas; these homes were generally much grander in scale and on larger acres of land due to more space outside the walled and fortified city.


The elite classes of Roman society constructed their residences with elaborate marble decorations, inlaid marble paneling, door jambs and columns as well as expensive paintings and frescoes. [3] Many poor and lower-middle-class Romans lived in crowded, dirty and mostly rundown rental apartments, known as insulae . These multi-level apartment blocks were built as high and tightly together as possible and held far less status and convenience than the private homes of the prosperous.


The homes of the early Etruscans (predecessors of the Romans) were simple, even for the wealthy or ruling classes. They were small familiar huts constructed on the axial plan of a central hall with an open skylight. It is believed that the Temple of Vesta was, in form, copied from these early dwellings because the worship of Vesta began in individual homes. [4] The huts were probably made of mud and wood with thatched roofs and a centre opening for the hearth's smoke to escape. This could have been the beginnings of the atrium, which was common in later homes. As Rome became more and more prosperous from trade and conquest, the homes of the wealthy increased in both size and luxury, emulating both the Etruscan atrium house and Hellenistic peristyle house. [5]


A late 19th-century artist's reimagining of an atrium in a Pompeian domus Atrium interior.jpg
A late 19th-century artist's reimagining of an atrium in a Pompeian domus

The domus included multiple rooms, indoor courtyards, gardens and beautifully painted walls that were elaborately laid out. The vestibulum (entrance hall) led into a large central hall: the atrium , which was the focal point of the domus and contained a statue of or an altar to the household gods. Leading off the atrium were cubicula (bedrooms), a dining room triclinium where guests could eat dinner whilst reclining on couches, a tablinum (living room or study), and the culina (Roman kitchen). On the outside, and without any internal connection to the atrium, were tabernae (shops facing the street). [6]

In cities throughout the Roman Empire, wealthy homeowners lived in buildings with few exterior windows. Glass windows were not readily available: glass production was in its infancy. Thus a wealthy Roman citizen lived in a large house separated into two parts, and linked together through the tablinum or study or by a small passageway.

To protect the family from intruders, it would not face the streets, only its entrance providing more room for living spaces and gardens behind[ clarify ].

Surrounding the atrium were arranged the master's family’s main rooms: the small cubicula or bedrooms, the tablinum, which served as a living room or study, and the triclinium, or dining-room. Roman homes were like Greek homes. Only two objects were present in the atrium of Caecilius in Pompeii: the lararium (a small shrine to the Lares, the household gods) and a small bronze box that stored precious family items. In the master bedroom was a small wooden bed and couch which usually consisted of some slight padding. As the domus developed, the tablinum took on a role similar to that of the study. In each of the other bedrooms there was usually just a bed. The triclinium had three couches surrounding a table. The triclinium often was similar in size to the master bedroom. The study was used as a passageway. If the master of the house was a banker or merchant, the study often was larger because of the greater need for materials. Roman houses lay on an axis, so that a visitor was provided with a view through the fauces, atrium, and tablinum to the peristyle.

Interior architectural elements

A schematic of a domus. Domus romana Vector002.svg
A schematic of a domus.

Vestibulum (Fauces) The vestibulum was the main entrance hall of the Roman domus. It is usually seen only in grander structures; however, many urban homes had shops or rental space directly off the streets with the front door between. The vestibulum would run the length of these front Tabernae shops. This created security by keeping the main portion of the domus off the street. In homes that did not have spaces for let in front, either rooms or a closed area would still be separated by a separate vestibulum.

Atrium (plural atria) The atrium was the most important part of the house, where guests and dependents (clientes) were greeted. The atrium was open in the centre, surrounded at least in part by high-ceilinged porticoes that often contained only sparse furnishings to give the effect of a large space. In the centre was a square roof opening called the compluvium in which rainwater could come, draining inwards from the slanted tiled roof. Directly below the compluvium was the impluvium.

Impluvium An impluvium was basically a drain pool, a shallow rectangular sunken portion of the Atrium to gather rainwater, which drained into an underground cistern. The impluvium was often lined with marble, and around which usually was a floor of small mosaic.

Fauces These were similar in design and function of the vestibulum but were found deeper into the domus. Separated by the length of another room, entry to a different portion of the residence was accessed by these passageways which would now be called halls or hallways.

Tablinum Between the atrium and the peristyle was the tablinum, an office of sorts for the dominus, who would receive his clients for the morning salutatio . The dominus was able to command the house visually from this vantage point as the head of the social authority of the paterfamilias.

Triclinium The Roman dining room. The area had three couches, klinai, on three sides of a low square table. The Oecus was the principal hall or salon in a Roman house, which was used occasionally as a triclinium for banquets.

Alae The open rooms (or alcoves) on each side of the atrium. Ancestral death masks, or imagines , were displayed here.

Cubiculum Bedroom. The floor mosaics of the cubiculum often marked out a rectangle where the bed should be placed.

Culina The kitchen in a Roman house. The culina was dark, and the smoke from the cooking fires filled the room as the best ventilation available in Roman times was a hole in the ceiling (the domestic chimney would not be invented until the 12th century CE). This is where slaves prepared food for their masters and guests in Roman times.

Posticum A servants' entrance also used by family members wanting to leave the house unobserved.


The exterior of the domus depicting the entrance with ostium Bakalovich Pompeii. At the walls.jpg
The exterior of the domus depicting the entrance with ostium

The back part of the house was centred on the peristyle much as the front centred on the atrium. The peristylium was a small garden often surrounded by a columned passage, the model of the medieval cloister. Surrounding the peristyle were the bathrooms, kitchen and summer triclinium. The kitchen was usually a very small room with a small masonry counter wood-burning stove. The wealthy had a slave who worked as a cook and spent nearly all his or her time in the kitchen. During a hot summer day the family ate their meals in the summer triclinium to stave off the heat. Most of the light came from the compluvium and the open peristylium.

There were no clearly defined separate spaces for slaves or for women. Slaves were ubiquitous in a Roman household and slept outside their masters' doors at night; women used the atrium and other spaces to work once the men had left for the forum. There was also no clear distinction between rooms meant solely for private use and public rooms, as any private room could be opened to guests at a moment's notice.

Exterior architectural elements


House of Augustus, Palatine Hill, Rome House of Augustus, Palatine Hill, Rome (20673952932).jpg
House of Augustus, Palatine Hill, Rome

Much of what is known about the Roman domus comes from excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. While there are excavations of homes in the city of Rome, none of them retained the original integrity of the structures. The homes of Rome are mostly bare foundations, converted churches or other community buildings. The most famous Roman domus is the House of Augustus. Little of the original architecture survives, only a single multi level section of the vast complex remains. Even in its original state, the House of Augustus is not a good representation of a typical domus, as the home belonged to one of Rome's most powerful, wealthy and influential citizens. In contrast, homes in Pompeii were preserved intact, exactly as they were when they were occupied by Roman people 2000 years ago.[ citation needed ]

The rooms of the Pompeian domus were often painted in one of four Pompeian Styles: the first style imitated ashlar masonry, the second style represented public architecture, the third style focused on mystical creatures, and the fourth style combined the architecture and mythical creatures of the second and third styles.

The home in Roman culture

Roman domestic law

The home's importance as a universally recognized safe haven was written about by Cicero after an early morning assassination attempt. He speaks of a commune perfugium, a universal haven or the agreed normal refuge of an individual:

I am the consul for neither the forum... nor the campus... nor the Senate House... nor house, the common refuge of all, or bed, the place granted us for repose, nor the seat of honor have ever been free from ambush and peril of death

Cicero [7]

The concept of legal abode such as "Domicilium" or today's usage "Domicile" is a documented and legal standard, common in Western society for thousands of years. [8] An early reference to domicilium is found in the Lex Plautia Papiria, a Roman plebiscite enacted in 89 BC. Under this law, Italian communities that had previously been denied could now gain citizenship.

See also

Related Research Articles

Roman villa Historical residential structure

A Roman villa was typically a country house for wealthy people built in the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.

Courtyard Enclosed area, often by a building, that is open to the sky

A courtyard or court is a circumscribed area, often surrounded by a building or complex, that is open to the sky.

Peristyle Continuous porch formed by a row of columns surrounding the perimeter of building or a courtyard

In Hellenistic Greek and Roman architecture, a peristyle is a continuous porch formed by a row of columns surrounding the perimeter of building or a courtyard. Tetrastoön is a rarely used archaic term for this feature. The peristyle in a Greek temple is a peristasis (περίστασις). In the Christian ecclesiastical architecture that developed from the Roman basilica, a courtyard peristyle and its garden came to be known as a cloister.

Atrium (architecture) Open air or skylight; architectural feature, courtyard in a Roman domus

In architecture, an atrium is a large open-air or skylight covered space surrounded by a building. Atria were a common feature in Ancient Roman dwellings, providing light and ventilation to the interior. Modern atria, as developed in the late 19th and 20th centuries, are often several stories high, with a glazed roof or large windows, and often located immediately beyond a building's main entrance doors.

Impluvium Sunken part of the atrium in a Greek or Roman house

The impluvium is the sunken part of the atrium in a Greek or Roman house (domus). Designed to carry away the rainwater coming through the compluvium of the roof, it is usually made of marble and placed about 30 cm below the floor of the atrium and emptied into a subfloor cistern.

Triclinium Roman dining room

A triclinium is a formal dining room in a Roman building. The word is adopted from the Greek triklinion (τρικλίνιον)—from tri- (τρι-), "three", and klinē (κλίνη), a sort of couch or rather chaise longue. Each couch was sized to accommodate a diner who reclined on their left side on cushions while some household slaves served multiple courses brought from the culina, or kitchen, and others entertained guests with music, song, or dance.

Cavaedium, in architecture, is the Latin name for a partially roofed main room or atrium within a Roman house, of which five types are described by Vitruvius:

  1. The atrium tuscanicum corresponds to the greater number apparently of those at Pompeii, in which the timbers of the roof are framed together, so as to leave an open space in the center, known as the compluvium. It was through this opening that all the light was received, not only in the hall itself, but in the rooms around. The rain from the roof was collected in gutters around the compluvium, and discharged from thence into a tank or open basin in the floor called the impluvium.
  2. In the atrium tetrastylum additional support was required in consequence of the dimensions of the hall; this was given by columns placed at the four angles of the impluvium.
  3. Atrium corinthium is the name given to the type where additional columns were required.
  4. In the atrium displuviatum the roofs, instead of sloping down towards the compluvium, sloped outwards, the gutters being on the outer walls; there was still an opening in the roof, and an impluvium to catch the rain falling through. This species of roof, Vitruvius states, is constantly in want of repair, as the water does not easily run away, owing to the stoppage in the rainwater pipes.
  5. The atrium testudinatum was employed when the hall was small and another floor was built over it; no example of this type has been found at Pompeii, and only one of the atrium displuviatum.
Villa Romana del Casale

The Villa Romana del Casale is a large and elaborate Roman villa or palace located about 3 km from the town of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Excavations have revealed one of the richest, largest, and varied collections of Roman mosaics in the world, for which the site has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The villa and artwork contained within date to the early 4th century AD.

House of the Vettii

The House of the Vettii is a domus located in the Roman town, Pompeii, which was preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The house is named for its owners, two successful freedmen: Aulus Vettius Conviva, an Augustalis, and Aulus Vettius Restitutus. Its careful excavation has preserved almost all of the wall frescos, which were completed following the earthquake of 62 AD, in the manner art historians term the Pompeiian Fourth Style. The House of Vetti is located in region VI, near the Vesuvian Gate, bordered by the Vicolo di Mercurio and the Vicolo dei Vettii. The house is one of the largest domus in Pompeii, spanning the entire southern section of block 15. The plan is fashioned in a typical Roman domus with the exception of a tablinum, which is not included. There are twelve mythological scenes across four cubiculum and one triclinium.

Villa Poppaea Ancient Roman villa

The Villa Poppaea is an ancient luxurious Roman seaside villa located in Torre Annunziata between Naples and Sorrento, in Southern Italy. It is also called the Villa Oplontis or Oplontis Villa A. as it was situated in the ancient Roman town of Oplontis.

House of the Faun

The House of the Faun, built during the 2nd century BC, was one of the largest and most impressive private residences in Pompeii, Italy, and housed many great pieces of art. It is one of the most luxurious aristocratic houses from the Roman republic, and reflects this period better than most archaeological evidence found even in Rome itself.

Vestibule (architecture) Anteroom (antechamber) or small foyer leading into a larger space

A vestibule, also known as an arctic entry, is an anteroom (antechamber) or small foyer leading into a larger space such as a lobby, entrance hall or passage, for the purpose of waiting, withholding the larger space view, reducing heat loss, providing space for outdoor clothing, etc. The term applies to structures in both Modern and Classical architecture since ancient times. In Modern architecture, vestibule typically refers to a small room next to the outer door and connecting it with the interior of the building. In ancient Roman architecture, vestibule referred to a partially enclosed area between the interior of the house and the street.

House of the Tragic Poet Ancient house in Pompeii, Italy

The House of the Tragic Poet is a Roman house in Pompeii, Italy dating to the 2nd century BCE. The house is famous for its elaborate mosaic floors and frescoes depicting scenes from Greek mythology.

House of Loreius Tiburtinus

The House of Loreius Tiburtinus is renowned for its meticulous and well-preserved artwork as well as its large gardens.

House of Sallust

The House of Sallust is a domus or elite residence in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. The oldest parts of the house have been dated to the 4th century BCE, but the main expansions were built in the 2nd century BCE during the Roman period. The long history of this structure provides important evidence about the development of elite residences in Pompeii. The house is located on the east side of the Via Consolare. It received its modern name from an election notice placed on the facade, recommending Gaius Sallustius for office. An alternative name is the House of A. Cossus Libanus, from a seal found in the ruins. The site was later damaged by a bomb in World War II, and was restored in 1970.

House of the Silver Wedding Archaeological remains of a Roman house in Pompeii

The House of the Silver Wedding is the name given to the archaeological remains of a Roman house in Pompeii, buried in the ash from the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The house was excavated in 1893 and was named after the silver wedding anniversary of Umberto and Margherita of Savoy which took place in that year.

The Villa Lusitano-Romana de Torre de Palma, sometimes Villa Cardillio or Vila Cardílio is a Roman villa near Monforte in Portugal, which was in Roman times part of the province of Lusitania. It is considered one of the largest in the Iberian Peninsula. The prosperity of these latifundia in the region is often evidenced by shrines in the courtyard. In addition to the extensive living areas, a basilica and a seven-roomed baptistery have been uncovered in Torre de Palma.

Luigi Bazzani

Luigi Bazzani, also called Il Bazzanetto, was an Italian painter, illustrator, and watercolorist. He was born November 8, 1836 in Bologna, Italy. Bazzani studied at Bologna's Accademia di Belle Arti then traveled to France, Germany and, eventually, Rome where he settled down in 1861 and began to specialize in genre and landscape subjects as well as set designs for theaters. Many of his paintings featured the remains of the city's monuments from classical antiquity.

House of the Prince of Naples Roman townhouse in Pompeii

The House of the Prince of Naples is a Roman townhouse located in Region VI, Insula XV, entrances 7 and 8 in the archaeological site of Pompeii near Naples, Italy. The structure is so named because the Prince and Princess of Naples Joseph Bonapartes grandson Louis Joseph and his wife Laura, attended a ceremonial excavation of selected rooms there on March 22, 1898. The house is painted throughout in the Pompeian Fourth Style and is valued by scholars because its decoration is all of a single style and single period, unlike many surviving Roman structures that are found to be a hodgepodge of styles from different periods.


  1. Frazer, Alfred (1998). The Roman villa. University of Pennsylvania Museum Publication. p. 64. ISBN   978-0-924171-59-8.
  2. Aldrete, Gregory S. (2004). Daily life in the Roman city . Greenwood Press. p.  75. ISBN   978-0-313-33174-9.
  3. "Domus". LacusCurtius Educational Resource: a Selection of Articles from A 19th-Century Classical Encyclopaedia. Retrieved 2009-04-28.
  4. Rawson, Australian National University, Beryl (1987). The Family in Ancient Rome. Cornell University Press. p. 128. ISBN   978-0-8014-9460-4.
  5. Schoenauer, Norbert (1981). 6,000 years of housing. W. W. Norton & Company; 3 Rev Exp edition. p. 136. ISBN   978-0-393-73052-4.
  6. Treggiari, Susan (2001). Roman social history. Routledge. p. 79. ISBN   978-0-415-19522-5.
  7. "Domicilium". LacusCurtius Educational Resource: a Selection of Articles from a 19th-Century Classical Encyclopaedia. Retrieved 2009-04-29.