The Roman Domus

The Roman Domus

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The Roman domus was much more than a place of dwelling for a Roman familia. The size of a domus could range from a very small house to a luxurious mansion. In some cases, one domus took up an entire city-block, while more commonly, there were up to 8 domus per insula (city-block). All domus were free-standing structures. Some were constructed like modern-day townhouses with common walls between them, while others were detached.

Because safety was a primary concern in ancient Rome, domus did not face the streets. Similarly, there were rarely outside-facing windows for this reason, but most domus did have two front rooms open to the street. Some families ran their own stores from these rooms, while others leased them out to others.

The domus included multiple rooms, indoor courtyards, gardens, and beautifully painted walls.

Atrium: The atrium was the central hall, almost like a modern-day foyer, and it was the most conspicuous room in a Roman domus. It was open at the roof, which let in light and air for circulation, and also allowed rainwater for drinking and washing to collect in the impluvium, a small draining pool in the middle of the atrium. Cisterns were also located throughout the domus to collect rainwater, which acted as the primary water supply in the absence of running water.

The atrium was one of the most richly decorated rooms in the domus. For one, symbols of the family's wealth and hereditary power were present, in addition to imagines, wax representations of the family's ancestors. Paintings and mosaics were also commonplace, and many examples of these have been preserved in houses from Pompeii.

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Finally, before a funeral, the body of the deceased was displayed in the atrium with his/her feet always pointed toward the door. The body was then viewed by family and friends.

Lararium (household shrine): Honoring the household gods was an important part of daily life for Romans. Each domus contained a lararium, or shrine, in the atrium, which was where offerings were left for the household gods (the Lares), spirits of the ancestors, and spirits of the underworld.

Tablinum (office): Roman men often conducted business out of their domus from a home office known as the tablinum. It was also the room where clients would go to meet their patron for the salutatio, a formal renewal of their patron-client relationship.

Triclinium (dining room): Dinner parties were very popular in ancient Rome. These were held in the triclinium, which translates to “three couch room” because it had three couches arranged in a U-shape. While eating, Romans reclined on these couches and they always dined barefoot. There were no fixed tables in the Roman triclinium; food was served on portable tables, sometimes by a high-ranking slave.

Communal dinner parties and public banquets were very common in the Roman world, and helped to strengthen social ties within the city.

Hortus (garden): Unlike most modern gardens, the Roman hortus was located at the back of the domus. Peristyle gardens with walkways to access other rooms in the house were also very common. When the weather was nice, the garden may have been used for dining and socializing or as a place for Roman children to play.

The Romans – Housing

Ancient Roman housing was bereft of modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing, but they were surprisingly sophisticated as well. There were big differences between the housing of the rich and the poor in Roman times.

Poor Romans lived in insulae.

An insulae consisted of six to eight three-storey apartment blocks, grouped around a central courtyard. The ground floors were used by shops and businesses while the upper floors were rented as living space.

Insulae were made of wood and mud brick and often collapsed or caught fire. There was no heating or running water and often no toilet. The upper floors were the most unsafe and therefore the cheapest to rent. An entire family would often occupy just one or two rooms.

Insulae were dirty, noisy and unhealthy places to live.

Rich Romans lived in a single-storey dwelling called a domus.

A domus was very grand – with marble pillars, statues, plaster or mosaic walls and mosaic floors.

A domus was divided into two sections the antica, which was at the front and the postica, which was at the back.

Both sections were designed in the same way with small rooms leading off a large central area.

The front door of the domus was at the end of a small passageway called the vestibulum.

A corridor called the fauces led from the front door to the central area of the antica which was called the atrium.

There was an opening in the centre of the atrium ceiling, beneath which there was a shallow pool called an impluvium to catch rainwater.

The bedroom (cubiculum), dining room (triclinium) and other general living rooms surrounded the atrium.

The ala was an open room which had windows in the outside wall. There were two alae, found on each side of the atrium, and it is thought that their main function was to let light into the house.

The main reception room of the house was located between the antica and postica and was called the tablinum. It was separated from the atrium by a curtain which was often drawn back when the weather was warm. A door or screen separated the tablinum from the postica.

The main feature of the postica was the peristylium which could be reached by going through the tablinum or through an arched passageway called an andron. The peristylium did not have a roof and was the garden of the house. The Romans grew both herbs and flowers and when the weather was warm would often eat their meals here. The kitchen (cucina), bathroom and other bedrooms surrounded the peristylium. The exhedra was a large room used as a communal dining room or lounge during the summer months.

This article is part of our larger resource on the Romans culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on the Romans.

Multimedia museum

The multimedia museum: where antiquity meets innovation

A visit to the fascinating remains of the patrician "Domus" of imperial Rome, belonging to powerful families, with mosaics, wall decorations, polychrome floors, paving blocks, and other remains, has been further enhanced by a project curated by Piero Angela and a team of experts, including Paco Lanciano and Gaetano Capasso, who have recreated the past with virtual reconstructions, graphics and videos. Visitor can see walls, rooms, peristyles, kitchens, baths, furnishings and decorations all come back to life, taking a virtual tour of a great Domus of ancient Rome. A new important sector has been added to the archaeological zone and museum. In the underground area opposite Trajan's Column, visitors can admire the remains of a monumental public or sacred building: a great concrete platform, walls made of large blocks of travertine and tuff, remains of colossal columns made of single grey Egyptian granite blocks, the biggest to be found in ancient Rome, bricked rooms with vaulted ceilings, dating from the early years of the emperor Hadrian, according to stamps on the bricks. This new area also boasts an exhibition, curated by the same team, which shows you how the area of Trajan's Column looked at the time of its construction. A working model recreates the buildings as they appeared then, especially the huge Ulpian basilica, which stood right next to the column. A video brings to life the two adjacent buildings, perhaps libraries.

Finally, a virtual reconstruction of the column gives you a close up look at the bas-reliefs and the story they tell of Trajan’s military campaign: the conquest of Dacia, present day Romania. An extraordinary event that ended with the death of King Decebalus and the emperor’s triumph. A unique and magnificent example of how the artistic heritage of antiquity, regenerated by careful and painstaking restoration, can be enhanced with the use of new technologies.

Chronology and Development

No architectural form is ever static, and the domus is no exception to this rule. Architectural forms develop and change over time, adapting and reacting to changing needs, customs, and functions. The chronology of domus architecture is contentious, especially the discussion about the origins and early influences of the form.

The outer Peristyle Garden of the Getty Villa Roman gardens (photo: Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Many ancient Mediterranean houses show the same propensity as the Roman atrium house—a penchant for a plan that focuses on a central courtyard. The Romans may have drawn architectural inspiration from the Etruscans, as well as from the Greeks. In truth it is unlikely that there was a single stream of influence, rather Roman architecture responds to streams of influence that pervade the Mediterranean.

By the second and first centuries B.C.E., the domus had become fairly well established and it is to this period that most of the houses known from Pompeii and Herculaneum date. During the Republic the social networking system that we refer to as the “patron-client relationship” was not only active, but essential to Roman politics and business. This organizational scheme changed as Rome’s political system developed.

With the advent of imperial rule by the late first century B.C.E., the emperor became the universal patron, and clientage of the Republican variety relied less heavily on its old traditions. House plans may have changed in response to these social changes. One clear element is a de-emphasis of the atrium as the key room of the house. Examples such as the multi-phase House of Cupid and Psyche at Ostia (2nd-4th centuries C.E.) demonstrate that the atrium eventually gives way to larger and more prominent dining rooms and to courtyards equipped with elaborate fountains.

The Roman Domus - History

Chapter 14
The Antiquity and Beauty of the Roman Missal

The antiquity of the Roman Mass is a point which needs to be stressed. There is what Father Fortescue describes as a "prejudice that imagines that everything Eastern must be old." This is a mistake, and there is no existing Eastern liturgy with a history of continual use stretching back as far as that of the Roman Mass? 27 This is particularly true with regard to the traditional Roman Canon. Dom Cabrol, O.S.B., "Father" of the Modern Liturgical Movement, stresses that: "The Canon of our Roman Rite, which in its main lines was drawn up in the fourth century, is the oldest and most venerable example of all the Eucharistic prayers in use today." 28

Fr. Louis Bouyer, one of the leaders of the pre-Vatican II Liturgical Movement, also emphasized the fact that the Roman Canon is older than any other ancient Eucharistic prayer:

Those who reflect upon the nature of the mystery of the Mass will wonder how men dare to celebrate it, how a priest dares to utter the words of Consecration which renew the sacrifice of Calvary, how even the most saintly layman dares to set foot in the building where it is being offered. Terribilis est locus iste: hic domus Dei est, et porta coeli et vocabitur aula Dei. ["Awesome is this place: it is the house of God, and the gate of Heaven and it shall be called the court of God."] 31

It is natural that the Church, the steward of these holy mysteries, should clothe them with the most solemn and beautiful rites and ceremonies possible. It is equally natural that the book containing these rites should appropriate to itself some of the wonder and veneration evoked by the sacred mysteries themselves. This veneration for the traditional Missal is well expressed by Dom Cabrol:

The Missal, being concerned directly with the Mass and the Holy Eucharist, which is the chief of the Sacraments, has the most right to our veneration, and with it the Pontifical and the Ritual, because those three in the early Church formed one volume, as we have seen when speaking of the Sacramentary. The Church herself seems to teach us by her actions the reverence in which the Missal should be held. At High Mass it is carried by the deacon in solemn procession to read from it the Gospel of the day. He incenses it as a sign of respect, and it is kissed by a priest as containing the very word of God Himself.

In the Middle Ages every kind of art was lavished upon it. It was adorned with delicate miniatures, with the most beautifully executed writing and lettering and bound between sheets of ivory, or even silver and gold, and was studded with jewels like a precious reliquary.

The Missal has come into being gradually through the course of centuries always carefully guarded by the Church lest any error should slip into it. It is a summary of the authentic teaching of the Church, it reveals the true significance of the mystery which is accomplished in the Mass and of the prayers which the Church uses.

The traditional Roman house, or 'domus'

The earliest type of Roman house consisted of a single-roomed hut, with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke from the fire. Because it became black (ater) with smoke, it was called the atrium. The Romans' intense conservatism made this the basis of even the most magnificent domus it was to the atrium that the other rooms were added. Of course the rain came in through the hole in the roof (compluvium), so a small basin (impluvium), perhaps about 3 feet square and 6 inches deep, was set in the floor beneath it.

Beyond the atrium, and separated from it only by curtains, was the tablinum (reception room). The triclinium (dining-room) was often level with this room, and was separated from it by the andron, a short passage leading to the peristylium. This was a formal garden, partly or entirely surrounded by rows of columns, and embellished with statues or a fountain. It often also had a 'back entrance' (posticum) directly from the street.

In Figures 2 and 3 is a reconstruction of a Roman domus (shown here in two parts, left side and right). As can be seen, it faced inwards the outer walls were blank with few if any windows. This is not surprising as Rome had no police force until the time of Augustus. The inner walls were covered with painted patterns and lifelike murals. Floors were uncarpeted, but decorated with murals.

Roman Apartment Terminology

Generally, insula is treated as a synonym for a Roman apartment building, although sometimes it can refer to the Rome apartments themselves or tabernae (shops), etc. The individual apartments in the insula were called cenacula (sg. cenaculum) at least in Imperial records known as the Regionaries.

The Latin that seems closest to Rome apartments, cenacula, is formed from the Latin word for a meal, cena, making cenaculum signify a dining area, but the cenacula were for more than dining. Hermansen says the balcony and/or windows of the Rome apartments were major centers of social life in Rome. Upper-story windows (on the buildings' outsides) were illegally used for dumping. The Rome apartments may have contained 3 types of rooms:

  1. cubicula (bedrooms)
  2. exedra (sitting room)
  3. medianum corridors facing the street and like the atrium of a domus.


Houses of the rich and upper classes were lavish. The atrium was the most important part of the house. It was where guests were greeted. The atrium was open in the centre, surrounded at least in part by porticoes with high ceilings, that often contained only a little furniture to give the effect of a large space. In the centre was a square roof opening in which rainwater could come, draining inwards from the slanted tiled roof. There were kitchens, bedrooms, a dining room, and a number of open rooms.

The master's office was placed so that the master could see what others were doing. The domus was not just a house it was a place of business as well. ΐ]

Servants would use a servants' entrance, not the main entrance. Slaves could not leave the house without permission of the master.

Ancient Roman Homes

Most Roman citizens lived in small apartments called insulae. These were often cramped and smelly as many people would live in them. If you imagine Rome 2,000 years ago, you have to imagine a city with impressive marble buildings like the Coliseum or the large temples in the Forum. But Rome then was not a clean, marble city. Near these impressive buildings, you would find these smelly, overcrowded insulae. Rome then looked more like the city of Kolkata than the city of Paris.

The insula

The city of Rome was buzzing. The insulae had shops that would face the street, bakeries, taverns, workshops, etc. There was a lot of traffic on the street, horse or donkey carriages, people rich and poor walking, etc. The workers or the owners would live above and behind these shops.

The insulae could be very high, even 6 or 7 stories high, which was high for that time. They were built with wood and brick, sometimes they would even collapse or catch fire as they were often badly built. The most expensive apartments were situated in the lower floors while the apartments in the upper floors were usually smaller, more crowded and cheaper to rent. The lower floor apartments often had running water, lavatories and heating while people living in the upper floors had to use public restrooms. It was forbidden to throw excrements on the streets and people had to use the latrinae (public restroom), even though the law was often not respected leading to the streets becoming horribly smelly. The insulae were often owned by the upper class (the equites) who would charge rent to the lower and middle classes living in them (the plebs).

The domus

The Roman upper class had a different lifestyle, the lifestyle that you see in ancient Rome movies. Rich Romans in the city or the countryside would live in a domus. The domus was a large house with an atrium or a courtyard in the middle. The atrium was the reception area. It had an impluvium in the middle which was a little pool that would carry the water from the compluvium placed on the roof (the compluvium collected rainwater). The impluvium had a cooling effect in the atrium and the entire house.

The atrium would serve as a reception area or a living area (like a living room today). Aristocrats would receive their guests, do business in the atrium. The domus also had a kitchen, a bathroom, cubuculi (bedrooms) and a triclinium which was a dining room where people would eat lying down on couches.

Impluvium in the House of the Silver Wedding in Pompei

It is worth noting that the insulae and the domus were in the same neighborhoods. There were no neighborhoods containing only rich houses similar to rich suburban neighborhoods today. Very wealthy Romans would also have their domus in the countryside to get away from the dirtiness of the city. At around the end of the 3rd century, there were about 1,800 domus and roughly 45,000 insulae in Rome for a city with a population of about 800,000.

Tickets & Tours

Priority Access into the Colosseum


The forum started life as a swampy valley between the most important hills of Rome. As the different tribes who lived on the hills started to cooperate and mix, the valley became a meeting place and market place. In the 7th century the area was drained by the building of a huge sewer (cloaca Maxima) and the first temples and civic buildings started to develop, these would have been of wood and terracotta, later of masonry. By the 2nd century B.C. Brick buildings appeared covered in marble and sporting columns of granite and marble. As the centre of Rome’s affairs, the forum became overcrowded with every general, politician and emperor wanting a building, arch or column and statue in his name. Caesar was the first to attempt to organise the forum and extend it, building new marble squares and monuments – everyone who came after him tried to do the same.

Eventually this led to the ‘Imperial Forums’ which left the original town centre being referred to as ‘the Great Forum’. For over a thousand years the forum was the civic and political centre of the Roman Empire. By the 6th Century AD, the forum was mostly abandoned, the last monument to be placed on the forum was the column of Phocas in 609 A.D. dedicated to the Eastern Roman emperor who had gifted the Pantheon to the Christian church.

Abandoned and forgotten, frequent floods, earthquakes and neglect meant that by the Middle ages the area was known as the cow field (campo vaccino). The land level had risen and churches had taken the place of the temples, cattle grazed between lone columns. Aristocrats and popes pillaged the site again and again for stone, marble, bronze doors and statues in the 15th and 16th centuries. By the 17th and 18th centuries the forum was a destination for famous artists and draftsmen who romanticised the decay in etchings and paintings.

What to expect

Little remains of the buildings of the Forum, an earthquake in the 9th century destroyed much of the ancient city centre. The forum and the Palatine hill are vast archaeological areas and involve a good deal of walking. The archaeological area is uneven and comfortable shoes are recommended.

Visitors with mobility difficulty will find the site challenging as it is not flat – it resembles a building site with numerous obstacles. Wheelchair access is limited and navigating the site is difficult to impossible in certain areas.

There are fountains and toilets in the site, but taking water is recommended. In the summer months there is very little shade in the Forum and it can get incredibly hot. Plenty of water, sunscreen and hats are recommended.

As you walk around the Roman Forum today it can be difficult to imagine the buildings and what they were for – here is a list of the most prominent monuments you will see.

Temple of Venus and Roma – This huge temple precinct sits opposite the Colosseum. Built and designed by Hadrian in 135AD it was a double temple to the goddess Venus and Roma – the largest temple of its day and the first to the Goddess of Rome.

Curia or senate house – This huge building was the main political building of the forum this is where senators gathered to vote. In front of the Curia was the Comitium, a stone circular seating area where they could discuss policy before voting (where the white canopy is today). What we see today was restored in the 19th century.

Tabularium – Dating to around the 1st century BC the public records or archives office of Rome was built into the Capitoline hill (today you can access the arches for an opposing view of the forum from the basement of the Capitoline museums). To imagine as it was you have to imagine away the 12th Century tower on the side and 14th century palace on top. It is named Tabularium after a number of tablets i.e. records were found here.

Temple of Saturn – One of the earliest temples still surviving, dating to the 490s BC (what we see today is from 400s AD). This is an example of the multi-use of temples in Roman times. The treasury of Rome was kept under this temple and the base held a number of official offices. According to the bible the city’s Jewish population offered money changing and money lending services here too. Not far from here was the golden milestone of Rome a huge gilded column which marked the distances in miles to major cities of the Empire

Remains of temple of Divine Julius Caesar – Built in 29BC by Augustus this temple is said to have been built on the site where Caesar was cremated spontaneously by a grieving crowd during his state funeral. It is significant because it is the first temple built to a man who becomes a god. This marks the beginning of the Roman state religion and the cult of the Emperor as a god.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina - Built in 140AD by Antoninus Pius for his wife Faustina, his name was added later. You can still see the original temple porch, steps and altar (once covered in marble). It was converted to a church in the 8th century - notice the entrance to the church appears to be suspended in mid-air, this shows the difference in ground level from the 2nd to the 8th century. The church of S. Lorenzo in Miranda can be entered from the other side on the Via Fori Imperiali today.

House of the Vestal Virgins – This grand complex was the home and sanctuary of the Vestal Virgins. It had six apartments (3 on each side) on two levels (one for each priestess) and was originally lined by a portico that surrounded the apartments. At the far end (with two columns) is perhaps a ceremonial dining room and on the other end a small bathing complex. The statues are all of head Vestals from the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD. The small circular reconstruction is the Temple to Vesta which originally held a sacred flame.

So-called temple of Romulus – Named after Romulus the son of the emperor Maxentius who died in 309 A.D. This round brick building is the only monument complete with the original bronze door and precious porphyry columns.

Basilica of Maxentius – This is all that remains of an enormous Basilica started by Maxentius in 306 A.D. and finished by his rival and successor Constantine. What we see today is the north aisle. It was the largest secular basilica in Rome and would become the blue-print for the first Christian churches in Rome.

Arch of Titus – This triumphal arch celebrates the Triumph (victory parade in 71 A.D.) held for the emperor Titus after his victory in Jerusalem in what is known as the Jewish war. The two panels show the parade passing through a triumphal arch with the loot taken from the most holy of temples on Temple Mount including the menorah, sacred symbol of the Jewish people. The other side shows the emperor Titus in his victory chariot at the head of the parade. The arch was finished after Titus’ death in 81-2 AD – in the centre of the arch you can see Titus being flown up to the sky on an eagle.

Interesting facts

Rebuilding the city Centre Until the 1st century BC, the forum was disorganised with wooden and terracotta buildings. When Julius Caesar came to vote at the Curia on day, he found a fish stall with rotting fish heads next to senate house. It was this that made him start his building plan to enlarge and rebuild the forum.

Go to the toilet in an ancient drain. The Cloaca Maxima was one the first construction project on the Forum. Today, the ancient drain runs underneath the Basilica Julia. So, if you use the toilets under the trees behind the basilica you will be flushing into a 2,600-year-old drain!

Party in the Forum In 2007 Valentino the famous designer celebrated his 75th birthday with an exclusive gala dinner for 500 people in the grounds of the temple of Venus and Roma. Guests ranging from Uma Thurman and Silvio Berlusconi to the Rothschilds and Borghese’s watched flying ballerinas and fireworks against the backdrop of the colosseum.

Cows and Temples By the Middle ages the Forum had been become an open grassy area with churches and a few buildings here and there. By the 17th Century cattle grazed between the columns and the area was known as Campo Vaccino – The Cow Field

Recent Excavations In February of this year a shrine and sarcophagus dating back to the 6t century B.C. (which may be a shrine to Romulus). The forum never ceases to yield amazing fresh treasures!

Frequently Asked Questions

What does Forum mean? Literally the Forum was a large rectangular square that was used as a meeting place and a market place. It was the political, religious and commercial heart of Rome just like our city centres or town squares today.

What happened to all the buildings? The Forum was abandoned by the 7th century when people moved towards the river and in the 9th century an earthquake toppled many of the structures. Time passed and more earthquakes, vegetation and sediment from frequent floods filled the Forum. Eventually it was covered and by the middle ages had been built on top of.

How long did it take to excavate the Forum? Private excavations began in the early 1800s but formal excavation by the state began in earnest in 1898. But the area had been built on top of so it took around 100 years to empty the site to what we see today. Intermittent excavations are still going on, concentrating on small sections at a time.

What happened to all the marble? Much of the stone was removed over time and used for later building projects. By the 15th and 16th centuries aristocrats and popes were building palaces and churches and needed building materials. They dug down into the forum and took all of the marble they could find to decorate their new buildings.

What time period is the Forum? The archaeologists uncovered levels of different dates. In some places the level of the forum is around end of the 1st century B.C. But the buildings that remain span between the 6th century B.C to the 4th century A.D.

Where was Julius Caesar killed? Not in the Roman Forum. At the time of Caesar’s assassination, the Curia was being rebuilt and so the senators met at the Curia of Pompey (Largo Argentina today).

Where was Caesar buried? Julius Caesar would have been cremated as was customary at the time. Sources tell us his funeral pyre was set on fire as the funeral snaked through the forum. The temple of the Deified Julius Caesar apparently marks the spot!

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