5 facts about Roman insulae

Cramped, dirty, falling down and poorly equipped – but home for many Romans.

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of History Revealed

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5 facts about Roman insulae
Ruins of Insula del Soffitto Dipinto at Ostia near Rome. (Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)

As its influence in the known world spread, Rome transformed from a small settlement – legendarily founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus – into a thriving metropolis.

With this success, however, came a population on the rise and a housing problem. The solution was a novel one: the insulae, the forerunner of modern apartment buildings. Each insula consisted of around half a dozen living spaces for Rome’s middle class and poorer citizens, the plebs, as well as shops and businesses on the ground floor.

Here are 5 facts about the insulae…

1) ISLAND PARADISE?

An insula (the Latin word for ‘island’) typically occupied a city block with roads on every side, hence the name. It would have at least five floors, but there are records of some reaching nine – despite height restrictions imposed by a number of Emperors. Augustus put the cap at 68 Roman feet (about 21 metres), which was further reduced to 60 feet by Nero in the wake of the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64.

2) ON THE CHEAP

Depending on its construction, insulae could be cramped and uncomfortable. What's worse, they tended to be built on the cheap, using timber and mud bricks, so collapses and fires were common. Still, they went up in huge numbers – a fourth-century census claimed there were over 40,000 in Rome.

3) LANDLORD WOES

The fabulously wealthy Marcus Licinius Crassus owned many insulae. Allegedly, he was happy on hearing that an old, dilapidated insula had fallen down, as it meant he could charge higher rents for a new building.

4) HEAD ABOVE WATER

Today, top-floor apartments are the most coveted, but it was the opposite in an insula. The higher a living space, the cheaper it was, as it was smaller, only accessible by narrow staircases and more risky in the event of a fire. Although water was pumped to the lower apartments, it couldn’t reach the upper floors. It was rare for them to have toilets, so people had to make use of Rome’s public latrines.

5) HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVE

Wealthy Romans lived in a much more luxurious style of private housing, the domus. With a large atrium at the centre – where guest would be entertained – each domus had several rooms, running water, toilets and a porch or garden, called a peristyle.
 

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