Daily Life: Private residences

House of the golden cupid

What does a 2,000-year-old house look like, anyway?

In some ways, Pompeian houses were very different to those we live in today. For one thing, in Pompeii, all the living rooms of the house faced inward. Instead of having a front garden or even a gate, the front door opened directly onto the pavement, and the rooms to either side of the door were usually either utility rooms or a shopfront. From the front door, a passage led back to the largest room in the house, the atrium, which was lit by a rectangular aperture (compluvium) in the middle of its high, wooden roof. Rainwater fell through this open skylight into a rectangular basin (impluvium) in the floor beneath, and ran into a storage cistern under the floor — an arrangement similar to our modern water tanks, though almost certainly more attractive! Private rooms, which often contained couches, were situated to either side of the atrium, and at the far end lay the three most important rooms: the outer triclinia, or dining rooms, and the central tablinum, a formal reception room used by the master of the house for business and greeting guests. The doors to the house were thrown open at an early hour to admit the family dependents (clientes) who had been waiting patiently on the benches beside the front door.

Pompeian architecture was clearly more homogeneous than our modern houses today; most, if not all, of the private dwellings found in the city conform to this basic Roman layout. However, the wealthier citizens of Pompeii were in many ways as attuned to style and fashion as we are today, and newer houses were built to conform to the latest trends.

The so-called First Pompeian Style used the formal, austere atrium as a showplace to impress visitors with grand decorations of moulded plaster painted to imitate polychrome marble blocks. All manner of business was conducted in the atrium, so it was designed to display the family’s wealth, piety and lineage. Beyond the formal atrium lay the peristyle — a garden surrounded by colonnades which was a less formal, more richly decorated part of the house, a place to relax or dine. Many houses were built in this style between the third and second centuries BC, a time when the aristocracy still held sway.

After the establishment of the Roman military colony in 80 BC, the illusionistic Second Style, which opened up the walls with columns and architectural vistas, became popular. Towards the end of the first century BC, illusion was abandoned and the delicate and exquisite Third Style was in vogue.

In the first century AD, Pompeians began to build upper storeys onto buildings and carve small apartments out of larger houses. This may have been an attempt to cope with a growing population, to house the families of emancipated slaves, or simply to create rooms for rent. Decoration in the atrium and the surrounding rooms also became more showy, perhaps when older houses came into the hands of self-made men who had no ancestry to boast of. After the aqueduct was built, fashionable homeowners also constructed elaborate garden areas, as found in the House of D. Octavius Quartio, which boasts fountains, watercourses, pavilions and formal plantings extending the length of its vast garden. In smaller houses where space was limited, fantasy landscapes were painted on blank walls to open up imaginary vistas and give an impression of space.

In the last years of the city, the rich and complex Fourth Style returned to the earlier fashion of ‘opening’ walls using illusionistic decoration, but with an even greater emphasis on creating a fantasy world.

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