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Domus, Dulcis Domus

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Underneath the 20-foot layer of volcanic ash the drowning cries of what was once known as the greatest empire of all time can still be heard. On August 24, 79 A.D, Mt. Vesuvius erupted completely covering the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Oddly though, rather than completely destroying both towns, the ashes produced by the lava eventually hardened, and both towns were preserved in the same condition they existed at the time of the eruption. With these artifacts still present, they will aid in our search into Roman life, with particular emphasis on the Roman house and its daily functions.

As most people would agree, the house in which one lives has a significant role in building one’s identity. Through the homeowner’s choice of house and the types of decorations and ornaments on display in their house, one can see the taste and personalities of the homeowner. While in the modern times today, the house encompasses only the private lives of individuals, the structure of the Roman house also tells us of the public life of the owner. Therefore, taking a look inside a roman house not only do we get a better understanding of how they lived privately at home, but we also get an insight of the social class they were from, how they worked, and wealthy they were.

The Roman house was essentially based and influenced by the architectural designs of the Etruscans (the first great Italian civilization). It was basically divided in two parts: the first part revolving around the atrium and the second part around the peristylium. From the street one would generally see a gate that was usually left opened during day time, where an ianitor (doorkeeper), would be overlooking the activities that went on. Immediately behind the door you would find a long narrow passage called the vestibulum (also known as fauces), that was often adorned with mosaics with a message for the visitors, such as “Greetings” or “Welcome Money”. To scare away potential thieves, you might also find mosaics, similar to those of homeowners today that read, “Beware of Dog.” This vestibulum also separated the two front houses, one house on each side, where each house was used as a shop by merchants. These shops were completely separate from the house itself, each having their own separate doors that opened on to the street. Often even wealthy Romans rented out these rooms to merchants and bankers to be used as shops.

From the vestibulum, one would find the atrium, which is where rituals such as the salutatio would take place. The salutatio was simply the morning greeting where a Patron’s clientela (slaves), would come in and say salve (hello) to their patron, and in turn their patron would give them a sportula (basket of goods) and assign them there duties for that day. Also, when a Roman child was born, an altar to the goddess Lucina (Goddess of Childbirth) would be set up in the atrium as well. Other rituals, such as those for marriage and death would also take place in the atrium so that any passer-by who to took a glimpse into the house would exactly know what type of event was going on, without having to talk to the homeowner. This room had an opening on the roof to allow the sunlight to come in, and would generally have high walls, to give the room the illusion of being rather large. The atrium would also have and impluvium in the middle of the room, which was a “sunken part” of the atrium, like a pool in a sense, but only about 30cm deep, designed to carry away the rainwater that fell from compluvium (rain gutters) on the roof. The atrium would then be accompanied by a couple of small rooms on either side known as cubicula. The cubicula would serve a variety of purposes inside the roman house. Some rooms would serve as bedrooms while others would be used for private meetings, or libraries.

Behind the atrium and the cubicula, you would then find the ala, or the “wings” of the atrium. These alae would serve as reception rooms that opened directly onto the atrium. Behind the atrium you would also find the tablinum, a room where the family records were stored, and also the chest containing the family’s finances. According to Shelly Hales, author of The Roman House and Social Identity, this room might have originally been used as a master bedroom, but overtime evolved into the 'official' owner's office. Again this room would often feature elegant mosaic floors and wall paintings. On the right and left sides of the tablinum you would then find the triclinium (Dining room) and the culina (kitchen). The triculium would consist of a lectus, an all purpose couch, that would be used for sleeping, conversing, and dining. Again, these rooms were also adorned with beautifully painted



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