THE temples in Rome were not, as in Greece and Egypt, the structures upon which the architect lavished all the resources of his art and his science. The general form of them was copied from that made use of by the Greeks, but the spirit in which the original idea was carried out was entirely different. In a word, the temples of Rome were by no means worthy of her size and position as the metropolis of the world, and very few remains of them exist.

Fig. 125.—Ionic Order from the Temple of Fortuna Virilis, Rome.

Ten columns are still standing of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (now the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda): it occupied the site of a previous temple and was dedicated by Antoninus Pius to his wife Faustina. The Temple (supposed) of Fortuna Virilis, in the Ionic style (Fig. 125), still exists as the church of Santa Maria Egiziaca: this was tetrastyle, with half-columns all round it, and this was of the kind called by Vitruvius “pseudo-peripteral.” A few fragmentary remains of [149] other temples exist in Rome, but in some of the Roman provinces far finer specimens of temples remain, of which perhaps the best is the Maison Carrée at Nîmes (Fig. 126). Here we find the Roman plan of a single cell and a deep portico in front, while the sides and rear have the columns attached. The intercolumniations and the details of the capitals and entablature are, however, almost pure Greek. The date of this temple is uncertain, but it is most probable that it was erected during the reign of Hadrian. The same emperor is said to have completed the magnificent Temple of Jupiter Olympius at Athens, which was 354 ft. long by 171 ft. wide. It consisted of a cell flanked on each side by a double row of detached columns; in front was one row of columns in antis, and three other rows in front of these, while there were also three rows in the rear: as the columns were of the Corinthian order, and nearly 60 ft. in height, it may be imagined that it was a splendid edifice.

Fig. 126.—Roman-Corinthian Temple at Nîmes (Maison-Carrée). Probably of the Time of Hadrian.

The ruins of another magnificent provincial Roman temple exist at Baalbek—the ancient Heliopolis—in Syria, not far from Damascus. This building was erected during the time of the Antonines, probably by Antoninus Pius himself, and originally it must have been of very extensive dimensions, the portico alone being 180 ft. long and about 37 ft. deep. This gives access to a small hexagonal court, on the western side of which a triple gateway opens into the Great Court, which is a vast quadrangle about 450 ft. long by 400 ft. broad, with ranges of small chambers or niches on three sides, some of which evidently had at one time beautifully groined roofs. At the western end of this court, on an artificial elevation, stand the remains of what is called the Great Temple. This was originally 290 ft. long by 160 ft. [151] wide, and had 54 columns supporting its roof, six only of which now remain erect. The height of these columns, including base and capital, is 75 ft., and their diameter is 7 ft. at base and about 6 ft. 6 in. at top; they are of the Corinthian order, and above them rises an elaborately moulded entablature, 14 ft. in height. Each of the columns is composed of three stones only, secured by strong iron cramps; and indeed one of the most striking features of this group of buildings is the colossal size of the stones used in their construction. The quarries from which these stones were hewn are close at hand, and in them is one stone surpassing all the others in magnitude, its dimensions being 68 ft. by 14 ft. 2 in. by 13 ft. 11 in. It is difficult to imagine what means can have existed for transporting so huge a mass, the weight of which has been calculated at 1100 tons.

Showing position of steps, doorways and columns

Fig. 127.—Ground-plan of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli.

Showing decoration on capitals

Fig. 128.—Corinthian Order from the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli.

Other smaller temples exist in the vicinity, all of which are lavishly decorated, but on the whole the [153] ornamentation shows an exuberance of detail which somewhat offends a critical artistic taste.

Fig. 129.—The Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. Plan (looking up) and Section of part of the Peristyle.

Circular temples were an elegant variety, which seems to have been originated by the Romans, and of which two well-known examples remain—the Temples of Vesta at Rome and at Tivoli. The columns of the temple [154] at Tivoli (Fig. 128) form a well-known and pleasing variety of the Corinthian order, and the circular form of the building as shown on the plan (Fig. 127) gives excellent opportunities for good decorative treatment, as may be judged of by the enlarged diagram of part of the peristyle (Fig. 129).


Among the most remarkable of the public buildings of Roman times, both in the mother-city and in the provinces, were the Basilicas or Halls of Justice, which were also used as commercial exchanges. It is also believed that Basilicas existed in some Greek cities, but no clue to their structural arrangements exists, and whence originated the idea of the plan of these buildings we are unable to state; their striking similarity to some of the rock-cut halls or temples of India has been already pointed out. They were generally (though not always) covered halls, oblong in shape, divided into three or five aisles by two or more rows of columns, the centre aisle being much wider than those at the sides: over the latter, galleries were frequently erected. At one end was a semicircular recess or apse, the floor of which was raised considerably above the level of the rest of the building, and here the presiding magistrate sat to hear causes tried. Four[20] of these buildings are mentioned by ancient writers as having existed in republican times, viz. the Basilica Portia, erected in B.C. 184, by Cato the Censor; the Basilica Emilia et Fulvia, erected in B.C. 179 by the censors M. Fulvius Nobilior and M. Æmilius Lepidus, and afterwards enlarged and called the Basilica [155] Paulli; the Basilica Sempronia, erected in B.C. 169 by Tib. Sempronius Gracchus; and the Basilica Julia, erected by Julius Cæsar, B.C. 46. All these buildings had wooden roofs, and were of no great architectural merit, and they perished at a remote date. Under the Empire, basilicas of much greater size and magnificence were erected; and remains of that of Trajan, otherwise called the Basilica Ulpia, have been excavated in the Forum of Trajan. This was about 360 ft. long by 180 ft. wide, had four rows of columns inside, and it supposed to have been covered by a semicircular wooden roof. Apollodorus of Damascus was the architect of this building. Another basilica of which remains exist is that of Maxentius, which after his overthrow by Constantine in A.D. 312, was known as the Basilica Constantiniana. This structure was of stone, and had a vaulted roof; it was 195 ft. between the walls, and was divided into three aisles by piers with enormous columns standing in front of them.

Showing main oblong building and semicircular apse

Fig. 130.—Ground-plan of the Basilica Ulpia, Rome.

One provincial basilica, that at Trèves, still stands; and although it must have been considerably altered, it [156] is by far the best existing example of this kind of building. The internal columns do not exist here, and it is simply a rectangular hall about 175 ft. by 85 ft., with the usual semicircular apse.

The chief interest attaching to these basilicas lies in the fact that they formed the first places of Christian assembly, and that they served as the model upon which the first Christian churches were built.

Theatres and Amphitheatres.

Although dramas and other plays were performed in Rome as early as 240 B.C., there seems to have been a strong prejudice against permanent buildings for their representation, as it is recorded that a decree was passed in B.C. 154 forbidding the construction of such buildings. Mummius, the conqueror of Corinth, obtained permission to erect a wooden theatre for the performance of dramas as one of the shows of his triumph, and after this many buildings of the kind were erected, but all of a temporary nature; and it was not till B.C. 61 that the first permanent theatre was built by Pompey. This, and the theatres of Balbus and Marcellus, appear to have been the only permanent theatres that were erected in Imperial Rome; and there are no remains of any but the last of these, and this is much altered. So that, were it not for the remains of theatres found at Pompeii, it would be almost impossible to tell how they were arranged; but from these we can see that the stage was raised and separated from the part appropriated to the spectators by a semicircular area, much like that which in Greek theatres was allotted to the chorus: in the Roman ones this was assigned for the use of the senators. [157] The portion devoted to the spectators—called the Cavea—was also semicircular on plan, and consisted of tiers of steps rising one above the other, and divided at intervals by wide passages and converging staircases communicating with the porticoes, which ran round the whole theatre at every story.

Showing the seating and a quarter section of the underlying chambers

Fig. 131.—Plan of the Colosseum, Rome.

At Orange, in the South of France, are the remains of a very fine theatre, similar in plan to that described. The great wall which formed the back of the scene in this building is still standing, and is one of the most magnificent pieces of masonry existing.

Showing seating and steps; showing arches

Fig. 132.—The Colosseum. Section and Elevation.

Although the Romans were not particularly addicted [158] to dramatic representations, yet they were passionately fond of shows and games of all kinds: hence, not only in Rome itself, but in almost every Roman settlement, from Silchester to Verona, are found traces of their amphitheatres, and the mother-city can claim the possession of the most stupendous fabric of the kind that was ever erected—the Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheatre, which was commenced by Vespasian and finished by his son Titus. An amphitheatre is really a double theatre without [159] a stage, and with the space in the centre unoccupied by seats. This space, which was sunk several feet below the first row of seats, was called the arena, and was appropriated to the various exhibitions which took place in the building. The plan was elliptical or oval, and this shape seems to have been universal.

The Colosseum, whose ruins still remain to attest its pristine magnificence—

“Arches on arches, as it were that Rome,
Collecting the chief trophies of her line,
Would build up all her triumphs in one dome”[21]

was 620 ft. long and 513 wide, and the height was about 162 ft. It was situated in the hollow between the Esquiline and Cælian hills. The ranges of seats were admirably planned so as to enable all the audience to have a view of what was going on in the arena, and great skill was shown both in the arrangement of the approaches to the different tiers and in the structural means for supporting the seats, and double corridors ran completely round the building on each floor, affording ready means of exit. Various estimates have been made of the number of spectators that could be accommodated, and these range from 50,000 to 100,000, but probably 80,000 was the maximum. Recent excavations have brought to light the communications which existed between the arena and the dens where the wild animals and human slaves and prisoners were confined, and some of the water channels used when mimic sea-fights were exhibited. The external façade is composed of four stories, separated by entablatures that run completely round the building without a break. The three lower stories consist of a series of semicircular arched openings, eighty [160] in number, separated by piers with attached columns in front of them, the Doric order being used in the lowest story, the Ionic in the second, and the Corinthian in the third; the piers and columns are elevated on stylobates; the entablatures have a comparatively slight projection, and there are no projecting keystones in the arches. In the lowest range these openings are 13 ft. 4 in. wide, except the four which are at the ends of the two axes of the ellipse, and these are 14 ft. 6 in. wide. The diameter of the columns is 2 ft. 8Ÿ in. The topmost story, which is considerably more lofty than either of the lower ones, was a nearly solid wall enriched by Corinthian pilasters. In this story occur two tiers of small square openings in the alternate spaces between the pilasters. These openings are placed accurately over the centres of the arches of the lower stories. Immediately above the higher range of square openings are a series of corbels—three between each pair of pilasters—which probably received the ends of the poles carrying the huge awning which protected the spectators from the sun’s rays. The whole is surmounted by a heavy cornice, in which, at intervals immediately over each corbel, are worked square mortise holes, forming sockets through which the poles of the awning passed. The stone of which the façade of the Colosseum is built is a local stone, called travertine, the blocks of which are secured by iron cramps without cement. Nearly all the internal portion of the building is of brick, and the floors of the corridors, &c., are paved with flat bricks covered with hard stucco. These amphitheatres were occasionally the scene of imitations of marine conflicts, when the arena was flooded with water and mimic vessels of war engaged each other. Very complete arrangements were made, by means of [161] small aqueducts, for leading the water into the arena and for carrying it off.

Apart from theatrical representations and gladiatorial combats, the Romans had an inordinate passion for chariot races. For those the circi were constructed, of which class of buildings the Circus Maximus was the largest. This, originally laid out by Tarquinius Priscus, was reconstructed on a larger scale by Julius Cæsar. It was circular at one end and rectangular at the other, at which was the entrance. On both sides of the entrance were a number of small arched chambers, called carceres, from which the chariots started. The course was divided down the centre by a low wall, called the spina, which was adorned with various sculptures. The seats rose in a series of covered porticoes all round the course, except at the entrance. As the length of the Circus Maximus was nearly 700 yards, and the breadth about 135 yards, it is possible that Dionysius may not have formed an exaggerated notion of its capacity when he says it would accommodate 150,000 spectators.

In the Roman provinces amphitheatres were often erected; and at Pola in Istria, Verona in Italy, and Nîmes and Arles in France, fine examples remain. A rude Roman amphitheatre, with seats cut in the turf of a hill-side, exists to this day at the old town of Dorchester in Dorset, which was anciently a Roman settlement.

Baths (Thermæ).

Nothing can give us a more impressive idea of the grandeur and lavish display of Imperial Rome than the remains of the huge Thermæ, or bathing establishments, which still exist. Between the years 10 A.D., when [162] Agrippa built the first public baths, and 324 A.D., when those of Constantine were erected, no less than twelve of these vast establishments were erected by various emperors, and bequeathed to the people. Of the whole number, the baths of Caracalla and of Diocletian are the only ones which remain in any state of preservation, and these were probably the most extensive and magnificent of all. All these splendid buildings were really nothing more than bribes to secure the favour of the populace; for it seems quite clear that the public had practically free entrance to them, the only charge mentioned by writers of the time being a quadrans, about a farthing of our money. Gibbon says, “The meanest Roman could purchase with a small copper coin the daily enjoyment of a scene of pomp and luxury which might excite the envy of the kings of Asia.” And this language is not exaggerated. Not only were there private bath-rooms, swimming-baths, hot baths, vapour-baths, and, in fact, all the appurtenances of the most approved Turkish baths of modern times, but there were also gymnasia, halls for various games, lecture-halls, libraries, and theatres in connection with the baths, all lavishly ornamented with the finest paintings and sculpture that could be obtained. Stone seems to have been but sparingly used in the construction of these buildings, which were almost entirely of brick faced with stucco: this served as the ground for an elaborate series of fresco paintings.

Showing the extent of the huge symmetrical complex

Fig. 133.—Plan of the Principal Building, Baths of Caracalla, Rome.]

The baths of Caracalla, at the foot of the Aventine hill, erected A.D. 217, comprised a quadrangular block of buildings of about 1150 ft. (about the fifth of a mile) each way. The side facing the street consisted of a portico the whole length of the façade, behind which were numerous ranges of private bath-rooms. The side and rear blocks contained [163] numerous halls and porticoes, the precise object of which it is now very difficult to ascertain. As Byron says:

“Temples, baths, or halls?
Pronounce who can.”

This belt of buildings surrounded an open courtyard or garden, in which was placed the principal bathing establishment (Fig. 133), a building 730 ft. by 380 ft., which contained the large piscina, or swimming-bath, various hot baths, dressing-rooms, gymnasia, and other halls for athletic exercises. In the centre of one of the longer sides was a large semicircular projection, roofed with a dome, which was lined with brass: this rotunda was called the solar [164] cell. From the ruins of these baths were taken some of the most splendid specimens of antique sculpture, such as the Farnese Hercules and the Flora in the Museum of Naples.

The baths of Diocletian, erected just at the commencement of the fourth century A.D., were hardly inferior to those of Caracalla, but modern and ancient buildings are now intermingled to such an extent that the general plan of the buildings cannot now be traced with accuracy. There are said to have been over 3000 marble seats in these baths; the walls were covered with mosaics, and the columns were of Egyptian granite and green Numidian marble. The Ephebeum, or grand hall, still exists as the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, having been restored by Michelangelo. It is nearly 300 ft. long by 90 ft. wide, and is roofed by three magnificent cross vaults, supported on eight granite columns 45 ft. in height. (Fig. 134.)

There is one ancient building in Rome more impressive than any other, not only because it is in a better state of preservation, but because of the dignity with which it has been designed, the perfection with which it has been constructed, and the effectiveness of the mode in which its interior is lighted. We allude to the Pantheon. Opinions differ as to whether this was a Hall attached to the thermæ of Agrippa, or whether it was a temple. Without attempting to determine this point, we may at any rate claim that the interior of this building admirably illustrates the boldness and telling power with which the large halls forming part of the thermæ were designed; and, whether it belonged to such a building or not, it is wonderfully well fitted to illustrate this subject.

Showing a partial view of the cross vaults

Fig. 134.—Interior of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Rome.

Showing rotunda and portico

Fig. 135.—The Pantheon, Rome. Ground-plan.

Showing entrance to portico and dome of rotunda

Fig. 136.—The Pantheon, Rome. Exterior.

The Pantheon is the finest example of a domed hall [166] which we have left. The building, which forms the church of Santa Maria ad Martyres, has been considerably altered at various times since its erection, and now consists of a rotunda with a rectangular portico in front of it. The rotunda was most probably erected by Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus, in B.C. 27, and is a most remarkable instance of clever construction at so early a date. The [167] diameter of the interior is 145 ft. 6 in., and the height to the top of the dome is 147 ft. In addition to the entrance, the walls are broken up by seven large niches, three of which are semicircular on plan, and the others, alternating with them, rectangular. The walls are divided into two stories by an entablature supported by columns and pilasters; but although this is now cut through by the arches of the niches, it is at least probable that originally this was not the case, and that the entablature [168] ran continuously round the walls, as shown in Fig. 137, which is a restoration of the Pantheon by Adler. Above the attic story rises the huge hemispherical dome, which is pierced at its summit by a circular opening 27 ft. in diameter, through which a flood of light pours down and illuminates the whole of the interior. The dome is enriched by boldly recessed panels, and these were formerly covered with bronze ornaments, which have been removed for the sake of the metal. The marble enrichments of the attic have also disappeared, and their place has been taken by common and tawdry decorations more adapted to the stage of a theatre. But notwithstanding everything that has been done to detract from the imposing effect of the building by the alteration of its details, there is still, taking it as a whole, a simple grandeur in the [170] design, a magnificence in the material employed, and a quiet harmony in the illumination, that impart to the interior a character of sublimity which nothing can impair. The rectangular portico was added at some subsequent period, and consists of sixteen splendid Corinthian columns (Fig. 138), eight in front supporting the pediment, and the other eight dividing the portico into three bays, in precisely the same way as if it formed the pronaos to the three cells of an Etruscan temple.

Showing portico on the left and rotunda on the right

Fig. 137.—The Pantheon, Rome. Interior.

Showing decorative capitals

Fig. 138.—The Corinthian Order from the Pantheon, Rome.

Bridges and Aqueducts.

The earliest Roman bridges were of wood, and the Pons Sublicius, though often rebuilt, continued to be of this material until the time of Pliny, but it was impossible for a people who made such use of the arch to avoid seeing the great advantage this form gave them in the construction of bridges, and several of these formed of stone spanned the Tiber even before the time of the Empire. The finest Roman bridges, however, were built in the provinces. Trajan constructed one over the Danube which was 150 ft. high and 60 ft. wide, and the arches of which were of no less than 170 ft. span. This splendid structure was destroyed by his successor, Hadrian, who was probably jealous of it. The bridge over the Tagus at Alcantara, which was constructed by Hadrian, is another very fine example. There were six arches here, of which the two centre ones had a span of 100 ft.

The Roman aqueducts afford striking evidence of the building enterprise and architectural skill of the people. Pliny says of these works: “If any one will carefully consider the quantity of water used in the open air, in private baths, swimming-baths, houses, gardens, &c., and thinks [171] of the arches that have been built, the hills that have been tunnelled, and the valleys that have been levelled for the purpose of conducting the water to its destination, he must confess that nothing has existed in the world more calculated to excite admiration.” The same sentiment strikes an observer of to-day when looking at the ruins of these aqueducts. At the end of the first century A.D. we read of nine aqueducts in Rome, and in the time of Procopius (A.D. 550) there were fourteen in use. Of these, the Aqua Claudia and the Anio Novus were the grandest and most costly. Those were constructed about the year 48 A.D., and entered the city upon the same arches, though at different levels, the Aqua Claudia being the lower. The arches carrying the streams were over nine miles long, and in some cases 109 ft. high. They were purely works of utility, and had no architectural decorations; but they were most admirably adapted for their purpose, and were so solidly constructed, that portions of them are still in use. Some of the provincial aqueducts, such as those of Tarragona and Segovia in Spain, were more ornamental, and had a double tier of arches. The Pont du Gard, not far from Nîmes, in France, is a well-known and very picturesque structure of this character.

Commemorative Monuments.

These comprise triumphal arches, columns, and tombs. The former consisted of a rectangular mass of masonry having sculptured representations of the historical event to be commemorated, enriched with attached columns on pedestals, supporting an entablature crowned with a high attic, on which there was generally an inscription. In the centre was the wide and lofty arched opening. The [172] Arch of Titus, recording the capture of Jerusalem, is one of the finest examples. Later on triumphal arches were on a more extended scale, and comprised a small arch on each side of the large one; examples of which may be seen in the arches of Septimius Severus and of Constantine (Fig. 139). The large arched gateways which are met with in various parts of Europe—such as the Porte d’Arroux at Autun, and the Porta Nigra at Trèves—are [173] monuments very similar to triumphal arches. There remain also smaller monuments of the same character, such as the so-called Arch of the Goldsmiths in Rome (Fig. 1).

Showing figures and inscription

Fig. 139.—The Arch of Constantine, Rome.

Columns were erected in great numbers during the time of the Emperors as memorials of victory. Of these the Column of Trajan and that of Marcus Aurelius are the finest. The former was erected in the centre of Trajan’s Forum, in commemoration of the Emperor’s victory over the Dacians. It is of the Doric order, 132 ft. 10 in. high, including the statue. The shaft is constructed of thirty-four pieces of marble joined with bronze cramps. The figures on the pedestal are very finely carved, and the entire shaft is encircled by a series of elaborate bas-reliefs winding round it in a spiral from its base to its capital. The beauty of the work on this shaft may be best appreciated by a visit to the cast of it set up—in two heights, unfortunately—at the South Kensington Museum. The Column of Marcus Aurelius, generally known as the Antonine Column, is similarly enriched, but is not equal to the Trajan Column.

The survival of Etruscan habits is clearly seen in the construction of Roman tombs, which existed in enormous numbers outside the gates of the city. Merivale says: “The sepulchres of twenty generations lined the sides of the high-roads for several miles beyond the gates, and many had considerable architectural pretensions.” That of Cecilia Metella is a typical example. Here we find a square basement surmounted by a circular tower-like structure, with a frieze and cornice. This was erected about B.C. 60, by Crassus. The mausoleum of Augustus was on a much more extensive scale, and consisted of four cylindrical stories, one above the other, decreasing in diameter as they ascended, and the topmost of all was [174] crowned with a colossal statue of the Emperor. The tomb of Hadrian, on the banks of the Tiber—now known as the Castle of Sant’ Angelo—was even more magnificent. This comprised a square base, 75 ft. high, the side of which measured about 340 ft.; above this was a cylindrical building surmounted by a circular peristyle of thirty-four Corinthian columns. On the top was a quadriga with a statue of the Emperor. These mausolea were occasionally octagonal or polygonal in plan, surmounted by a dome, and cannot fail to remind us of the Etruscan tumuli.

Another kind of tomb, of less magnificence, was the columbarium, which was nothing more than a subterranean chamber, the walls of which had a number of small apertures in them for receiving the cinerary urns containing the ashes of the bodies which had been cremated. In the eastern portion of the Empire, in rocky districts, the tombs were cut in the rock, and the façade was elaborately decorated with columns and other architectural features.

Domestic Architecture.

Of all the palaces which the Roman emperors built for themselves, and which we know from historical records to have been of the most magnificent description, nothing now remains in Rome itself that is not too completely ruined to enable any one to restore its plan with accuracy, though considerable remains exist of the Palace of the Cæsars on the Palatine Hill. In fact, the palace of Diocletian at Spalatro, in Dalmatia, is the only remaining example in the whole of the Roman empire of the dwelling-house of an emperor, and even this was not built till after Diocletian had resigned the imperial [175] dignity, so that its date is the early part of the fourth century A.D. This palace is a rectangle, measuring about 700 ft. one way and 590 ft. the other, and covers an area of nearly 10 acres. It is surrounded by high walls, broken at intervals by square and octagonal towers, and contains temples, baths, and extensive galleries, besides the private apartments of the Emperor and dwellings for the principal officers of the household. The architect of this building broke away from classical traditions to a great extent; for example, the columns stand on corbels instead of pedestals, the entablatures being much broken, and the arches spring directly from the capitals of the columns (Fig. 149).

The private houses in Borne were of two kinds: the insula and the domus. The insula was a block of buildings several stories high, frequently let out to different families in flats. The ground-floor was generally given up to shops, which had no connection with the upper parts of the building; and one roof covered the whole. This kind of house was generally tenanted by the poorer class of tradesmen and artificers. The other kind of house, the domus, was a detached mansion. The excavations at Pompeii have done much to elucidate a number of points in connection with Roman dwellings which had been the subject of much discussion by scholars, but we must not too hastily assume that the Pompeian houses are the exact counterpart of those of ancient Rome, as Pompeii was what may be called a Romano-Greek city.

Showing layout of an extensive building, including alae and peristylium

Fig. 140.—Ground-plan of the House of Pansa, Pompeii.

A smaller, more simple building than the House of Pansa

Fig. 141.—Ground-plan of the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii.

The general arrangements of a Roman house were as follows: next the street an open space was frequently left, with porticoes on each side of it provided with seats: this constituted the vestibule, and was entirely outside the house;[22] the entrance-door opened into a [176] narrow passage, called the prothyrum, which led to the atrium,[23] which in the houses of Republican Rome was the principal apartment, though afterwards it served as a sort of waiting-room for the clients and retainers [177] of the house; it was an open court, roofed in on all the four sides, but open to the sky in the centre. The simplest form was called the Tuscan atrium, where the roof was simply a lean-to sloping towards the centre, the rafters being supported on beams, two of which rested on the walls of the atrium, and had two other cross-beams trimmed into them. The centre opening was called the impluvium, and immediately under it a tank, called the compluvium, was formed in the pavement to collect the rain-water (Fig. 142). When the atrium became larger, and the roof had to be [178] supported by columns, it was called a cavædium.[24] At the end of this apartment were three others, open in front, the largest, in the centre, called tablinum, and the two side ones [179] alæ;[25] these were muniment-rooms, where all the family archives were kept, and their position is midway between the semi-public part of the house, which lay towards the front, and the strictly domestic and private part, which lay in the rear. At the sides of the atrium in the larger houses were placed small rooms, which served as sleeping chambers.

A large living area, with extensive decoration on walls and ceiling

Fig. 142.—The Atrium of a Pompeian House.

From the end of the atrium a passage, or sometimes two passages, called the fauces, running by the side of the tablinum, led to the peristylium,[26] which was the grand private reception-room; this also was a court open to the sky in the centre, and among the wealthy Romans its roof was supported by columns of the rarest marbles. Round the peristyle were grouped the various private rooms, which varied according to the size of the house and the taste of the owner. There was always one dining-room (triclinium), and frequently two or more, which were arranged with different aspects, for use in different seasons of the year. If several dining-rooms existed, they were of various sizes and decorated with various degrees of magnificence; and a story is told of one of the most luxurious Romans of Cicero’s time, that he had simply to tell his slaves which room he would dine in for them to know what kind of banquet he wished to be prepared. In the largest houses there were saloons (æci), parlours (exedræ), picture galleries (pinacothecæ), chapels (lararia), and various other apartments. The kitchen, with scullery and bakehouse attached, was generally placed in one angle of the peristyle, round which various sleeping-chambers, according to the size of the house, were arranged. Most of the rooms appear to have been on the ground-floor, and probably depended for their light upon the [180] doorway only; though in some instances at Pompeii small windows exist high up in the walls.

Showing architectural elements, animal and human forms and other decoration

Fig. 143.—Wall Decoration from Pompeii.

In the extreme rear of the larger houses there was generally a garden; and in those which were without this, [181] the dead walls in the rear were frequently painted so as to imitate a garden. The houses of the wealthy Romans were decorated with the utmost magnificence: marble columns, mosaic pavements, and charming pieces of sculpture adorned their apartments, and the walls were in all cases richly painted (Fig. 143), being divided into panels, in the centre of which were represented sometimes human figures, sometimes landscapes, and sometimes pictures of historical events. All the decoration of Roman houses was internal only: the largest and most sumptuous mansion had little to distinguish it, next the street, from a comparatively humble abode; and, with the exception of the space required for the vestibule and entrance doorway, nearly the whole of the side of the house next the street was most frequently appropriated to shops. All that we are able to learn of the architecture of Roman private houses, whether from contemporary descriptions or from the uncovered remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum,[27] points to the fact that it, even in a greater measure than the public architecture, was in no sense of indigenous growth, but was simply a copy of Greek arrangement and Greek decoration.


[20] The passage in Varro, which is the sole authority for the Basilica Opimia, is generally considered to be corrupt.

[21] Byron.

[22] This does not occur in the Pompeian houses.

[23] Marked a, a, on the plans.

[24] Vitruvius, however, seems to use the terms atrium and cavædium as quite synonymous.

[25] Marked respectively c, and f, f, on the plan of the House of Pansa.

[26] Marked b, b, on the plans.

[27] At the Crystal Palace can be seen an interesting reproduction of a Pompeian house, which was designed by the late Sir Digby Wyatt. It gives a very faithful reproduction of the arrangement and the size of an average Pompeian house; and though every part is rather more fully covered with decoration than was usual in the originals, the decorations of each room faithfully reproduce the treatment of some original in Pompeii or Herculaneum.


Showing detailed foliage patterns

Fig. 144.—Carving from the Forum of Nerva, Rome.

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