Roman Housing Weblog

Just another weblog

It’s true y’know…size is everything.

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I posted a few weeks ago about Mary Beard’s series Meet The Romans and made the point that one house that she visited in Pompeii wasn’t as typical as she made it out to be but was actually reasonably large – but exceptionally photogenic.

One of the tasks I set myself was to construct a database of urban housing. Ostia was completed a few years ago when I was writing my MA dissertation. Herculaneum is now complete. Pompeii is a bit of a monster but I’ve been plodding my way through it over the past few years. 

But what about their size? No doubt fellow researchers have their own data but there doesn’t seem to be a full database available – either printed or online – of all property sizes. There are some in Wallace-Hadrill, and others in Allison’s. And sometimes they disagree about the same house.

So…how about constructing one for myself?

Easier said than done – have you seen the layout of the average Pompeian house? They’re a nightmare.

Anyway, today I had a go at measuring the houses in VIII.v using the digital maps in the World of Pompeii. Should you include shops that are an integral part of the house? Well, that is probably why I came up with a different answer to Allison on VIII.v.9 (I make it 737 sq.m against her 650 sq.m). As long as I am consistent and use my own measurements throughout then it shouldn’t matter.

So what did I find?

There are six properties that are identifiable as houses – four with entrances along the Via dell’Abbondanza and two on the far quieter backstreet Via della Parete rossa. 

The property on the NW corner (VIII.v.2) would have already have been considered large even before it at some point took over the house next door (VIII.v.5). The overall measurement comes out at 1,274 sq.m. Approximately.

On the other hand…in the southern part of the insula there is a house with an unusual layout (VIII.v.39). No  entrance corridor (fauces) and no “traditional” atrium. Size? 227 sq. m.

What is also noticeable about the properties on the southern section is that there are no shops. Not surprising really since this is a backstreet which would be only used by the people living on the area – no passing trade here.

So from largest to smallest we have 1,274 – 776 – 650 – 452 – 228 – 227.

Is it possible to see here amongst the smaller ones, the houses of the non-elite? If it can be argued that the real difference between people’s status as far as where they lived was money, then it is clear from these figures that there were significant differences in financial resources of Pompeians. And that’s not even taking into account those who would have been even further down the economic scale – the shopkeepers and bar owners who lived in, above or at the back of their business.

One day I’ll post a full analysis of the houses of Pompeii. But first, back to measuring up…





Written by romanhousing

August 3, 2012 at 8:30 pm

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Every student’s worst nightmare…

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…is, of course, losing their thesis.

At the back of every PhD students mind is the fear at at some point might accidentally – or otherwise – find themselves with the product of 1-2-3-4+ year’s work disappearing into the ether.

Now if you’ve printed chapters out or sent them to one or more supervisor, then the situation is probably retrievable as far as the final output is concerned…but what about notes, downloaded journal articles and worst of all, a database holding your bibliography?

My methodology which I follow religiously is to save everything onto a pen drive. The very first thing I do when going into the library to work is to then copy the pen drive onto the laptop. It means I have multiple copies of all data but at least its safe. A further backup is to copy onto the PC at home every now and again.

But the bibliography…that’s actually held on the laptop itself. So the data files get copied onto the pen drive every few months. And the pen drive has a copy of the database program itself which can be re-installed. As long as I can find the original invoice with the product key…and yes, it took a while to find it.

With me so far?

So what happens when, as happened the other day, my laptop was stolen in a dawn raid?

No problem. Apart from not having a laptop for a couple of weeks awaiting replacement, I still have everything safe.

So the moral of the story is – save as you go and back up on a regular basis. To at least two different places. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

Written by romanhousing

May 31, 2012 at 12:18 am

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Meet The Romans…and their houses

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I have to say that my ears pricked up when I saw the trailer for Mary Beard’s (hereafter MB) new series focusing on “ordinary Romans” as it is this section of the population – and more particularly their urban dwellings – that is the subject of my research.

So how was it for me?

Episode 2 was where housing really started to feature and overall, all of the boxes that I would have expected to be ticked, were – the apartment block at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, the Forma Urbis Romae (or Severan Marble Plan), the houses and streets underneath SS. Giovanni e Paulo; and visiting a modern apartment to make the point about the lack, in ancient Roman apartments, of basic facilities that we enjoy today.

On a personal note I was aggrieved to see MB being able to gain access to the Insula d’Aracoeli when I couldn’t two years ago, but that’s one of the benefits of being a Professor. MB brought out the point that the floor above the ground floor shops contained a single apartment – much like the piano nobile in Renaissance buildings – and that the floors above were on an ever reducing scale of comfort and apartment size.

What I did find a bit disturbing was the point being made about the fragility of most apartment blocks that were built “poorly, cheaply and fast”…when showing not only this insula but also the Markets of Trajan which have survived precisely because they were solidly built in the early 2nd century. Our problem with only having a few surviving example of domestic properties is that we are unable to take a view as to whether this was a general standard in the mid to late principate although the evidence from Ostia which has far more evidence would seem to indicate that building standards improved. The other problem with Trajan’s Market is that the upper floors shown were actually added in the medieval era – it is not certain how much of this complex was for domestic use in Roman times.

Episode 3 saw us off to Pompeii to look round an unnamed building which was described as a ”perfect example of a conventional Roman house”. This turned out to be the house of M.Lucretius Fronto (V.4.a and 11) which, from the information in Penelope Allison’s website, is not quite so typical after all but reasonably large (570 m2) and in Wallace-Hadrill’s 4th quartile. For a TV documentary though, it is exceptionally photogenic with well-preserved wall paintings which is probably why it was chosen rather than say, the Casa del Principe di Napoli (VI.15.8) where the ground floor is either 270m2 or 240m2 depending on which source you believe but still an average sized house.

Next we went to Herculaneum where MB took us to the door of the only multi-occupancy house identified in the town…but we didn’t get to go inside to see how much room each of the tenants would have enjoyed. Bearing in mind the area of the whole property is only 180m2, the answer is almost certainly “not much”.

Of the sites that MB went to on her travels, Ostia, for me, was the disappointment in the dwellings we were shown. It was inevitable that one of them would be the House of Diana as this tends to be a favourite. I have to disagree with MB when she said that it was “partly apartment block, partly lodging house and partly B&B” since those would tend to overlap without us being able to properly define which was which, and partly because the jury still seems to be out on exactly what were the functions of the building.

On next to what MB described as one of her “favourite Roman homes – the ground floor flat of what was a quite comfortable apartment block”. She pointed out the series of rooms off a central corridor but didn’t differentiate between the two halves – one has single rooms which are not adjoined and could be individually locked, and the other had adjoining rooms which were likely to have been used by a single individual or family. It is now thought to be a hotel – a theory which is backed up by the presence of a building immediately to its north-east identified as stables – complete with manure pit outside- and slave quarters upstairs. The surviving upper floor of the Insula of the Painted Vaults comprises single rooms with shared bathroom and kitchen. The presence of stairs on the 1st floor indicates at least another upper storey.

If MB wanted to display the full range of houses available then she could have looked at insula V.ii which contains two large houses, an apartment house, a baths and some interesting smaller properties on the eastern side of the insula. The Caseggiato del Pozzo, for example, is a building from the mid 3rd century AD which comprises two small shops to the front and separate living quarters behind a central open courtyard. Two staircases led to small apartments above front and back.

So – the verdict. It probably comes across from the above that I am being over-critical but if you want to depict the lives of “ordinary Romans” then looking slightly further afield than the houses we were shown might have had more relevance.

Written by romanhousing

May 12, 2012 at 10:40 am

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An end and a beginning

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Blimey, how long is it since I wrote on this? Too long…OK, where are we now?

An end – I’ve finally finished chapter 2 and handed it in to be ripped to shreds – do your worst, I can handle it. I had the structure written out long ago but just…couldn’t…finish…reading…new…stuff.  And the less said about how long the conclusion took the better. Anyhow, I think I’ve nailed the relationship of class to urban dwellings.

A beginning – new chapter now started. This one is attempting to develop a typology of urban dwellings in Italy. There have been a number for specific sites but no one seems to have tried to do one for the whole country. There might actually be an obvious reason for this but we’ll have to give it a go and see how far we get.

Once the typology is written then the aim is to take some insulae from various places or whatever is available and see what the typology tells us about the dwellings that it contains. All being well, we should then be able to do some sort of cross-site comparisons.

One of the interesting paths that I went – or was rather sent – down was into the New Testament.  Reviewing Murphy O’Connor’s attempt to link a house in Corinth to an individual mentioned in the Pauline letters led me to a long-running discussion about class and the early Christians and, most importantly, to a Poverty/Economic Scale of Roman citizens. The paradigm of 1% rich/ 99% dirt poor is, when looking at the variety of houses, clearly incorrect.

The other interesting point is that the work of NT historians seems to be almost completely ignored by ancient historians – the NT is after all merely another source yet it seems to be off limits for historians to regard it as such (theologians would possibly regard this as a good thing ).


Onwards and upwards.




Written by romanhousing

April 7, 2012 at 7:28 pm

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A slight technical hitch

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About a month ago I should have been getting back into the library.

A slight technical hitch i.e. the rolling stacks refusing to stand still and rolling towards each other thus raising the possibility of a crushed reader, has thwarted my plan somewhat. And guess where all of the archaeology books are? Right. In the same area as the stacks. So it’s out of bounds for another 2 weeks.

Ah well…never mind.

Written by romanhousing

October 18, 2009 at 10:31 am

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…or maybe not

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Well, I thought I was going to get on with research into chapter 2. Apparently not now.

What I have got to do is to do a pilot study of an insula in Ostia to see where I can get to on how and where the non-elite lived. Insula V.ii is a particularly good one to do as it had alterations to it as late as the 5th century so will be good for the range of dates that it gives me.

It looks a bit like this…and I hope this works.

Regio V Insula II

Regio V Insula II

Written by romanhousing

October 9, 2009 at 4:29 pm

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Update II

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I’m nearly at the end of my first year so it’s probably a good plan to review where I am now and where I’m going to.

I’ve actually managed to write a chapter -the introduction- and send it in as my ‘major piece of written work’ required by my supervisor. At 10k words it’s…not bad. Not great, but not bad.  No doubt it will be torn to bits and completely rewritten before final acceptance but hey, it’s a start.

I’ve now given two talks. The Bristol one went down well thankfully and I’ve put myself forward for giving another at the ICS next year.

As to my upgrade -I’m not sure when that will happen. Hopefully not too much further down the line so I can concentrate on my research.

So far so good then. Next up is to look at the wider context -the city, class and legal considerations; before I get really stuck into the archaeological remains.

Written by romanhousing

September 22, 2009 at 10:19 pm

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