Ancient Roman Villas

One of the first things learnt in any Latin class is the layout of the ancient Roman house. A domus is a house that was occupied by upper-class Romans during the Republican and Imperial eras. Along with a regular domus, the richest families also owned a separate country house known as a villa. These villas were much grander and larder. They had more space outside and required a more complex setup. Poor Romans lived in crowded, dirty apartments that were known as insulae. They were built up as high as possible, and this made them susceptible to danger. The domus was much more uniform. A domus was limited in size, so they required a strict layout. Because of this strict layout, many of these houses looked the same. The domus is built vertically, so it does not take up too much space.


The interior of a domus includes multiple rooms, indoor courtyards, gardens, and painted walls. The rooms in a domus are the tabernae, atrium, tablinum, hortus, triclinium, and the cubiculum. There was also a vestibulum, or entrance hall, that led into the atrium. The atrium was the main part of the house. It had a statue or an altar to the household gods. In modern days, this would be a type of living room. Bedrooms called cubicula branched off the atrium. There was also a dining room called the triclinium, where guests could only eat their dinner on couches. The tablinum was another smaller living room, what we would consider a parlor today. The culina was the kitchen. On the outside of the atrium were tabernae, small shops facing the street. The hortus was an enclosed garden, usually found towards the back of the house

There was also a specialized roof system that was featured in the atrium. The compluvium was a square opening in the roof of the atrium. Rain would fall from the roofs and through the compluvium. The rain would then pass through an impluvium, or sunken “roof.” The impluvium is designed to carry rainwater away. It is placed below the floor of the atrium, and emptied the water into a below-ground cistern.

Another advanced aspect of the Roman domus is that it usually had a hypocaustum, a means of heating. A hypocaustum produces and circulates hot air below the floor of the room. The floors would warm the air in the room, and the warm air could heat up the upper floors as well. 

What about decorations? The atrium was one of the most decorated rooms in the domus. Symbols that flaunted the family’s wealth and hereditary powers were displayed, as well as figures of the family’s ancestors. Paintings and mosaics adorned the walls. The atrium was a very public room, so the Romans put any decor worthy of attention into that room.

Safety was a major issue for the Romans. The domus did not have any windows. All the light was natural and came through a hole in the roof. Additionally, the domus did not face the streets. The tabernae faced the streets, and the domus was behind the tabernae. If the Romans did have windows, they weren’t the glass kind that we have today. They were typically just holes in the wall with shutters covering them. Little to no windows faced the street. Living in Rome was dangerous and dirty. Unfortunately, textbooks often only show readers the lives of ultra-rich Romans who didn’t really have to worry about threats.

            I made my own model of an ancient Roman villa using Minecraft below! I hope in your spare time you can create your own and have a lot of fun doing it!

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