Why Did Romans Built Flats and Villas in the First Century A.D?
Today, you see builders advertising flats and villas for sale almost every day. But did you know that the Romans had flats and villas even in the first century A.D? When the Romans first invaded Britain, and found that homes usually consisted of a single windowless room in which an entire family lived along the cattle.
The Roman rulers started to build luxurious villas for themselves in walled cities. These Villas were often double storied, and may have had three main rooms, and a corridor or verandah at the front. In fact, there are more than 260 sites in the UK where Roman Villas are thought to have once stood. As Roman cities grew more crowded, the land inside them became scarce and valuable.
But the shopkeepers, laborers, maids and housekeepers had to live close to their jobs. By the end of the first century B.C., the growing pressure for land in many of the overpopulated cities gave rise to the ‘Insula’, or apartment.
In Roman architecture, an insula (Latin for “island,” plural insulae) was a kind of apartment building that housed most of the urban citizen population of ancient Rome, including ordinary people of lower- or middle-class status (the plebs) and all but the wealthiest from the upper-middle class (the equites).
Six to eight apartment blocks could occupy one insula, and these were generally designed around an open courtyard. The blocks were around three storey’s high. Shops usually fronted the streets at ground level. Doesn’t this sound very much like the apartment blocks of today?
The traditional elite and the very wealthy lived in domus, large single-family residences, but the two kinds of housing were intermingled in the city and not segregated into separate neighborhoods. The ground-level floor of the insula was used for tabernae, shops and businesses, with the living space upstairs. Like modern apartment buildings, an insula might have a name, usually referring to the owner of the building.
Insulae, like domus, had running water and sanitation. But this kind of housing was sometimes constructed at minimal expense for speculative purposes, resulting in insulae of poor construction. They were built in timber, mud brick, and later primitive concrete, and were prone to fire and collapse, as described by Juvenal, whose satiric purpose in writing should be taken into account. Among his many business interests, Marcus Licinius Crassus speculated in real estate and owned numerous insulae in the city. When one collapsed from poor construction, Cicero purportedly stated that Crassus was happy that he could charge higher rents for a new building than the collapsed one.
Living quarters were typically smallest in the building’s uppermost floors, with the largest and most expensive apartments being located on the bottom floors. The insulae could be up to six or seven stories high, and despite height restrictions in the Imperial era, a few reached eight or nine stories. The notably large Insula Felicles or Felicula was located near the Flaminian Circus in Regio IX; the early Christian writer Tertullian condemns the hubris of multiple-story buildings by comparing the Felicles to the towering homes of the gods. A single insula could accommodate over 40 people in only 3,600 sq ft; however, the entire structure usually had about 6 to 7 apartments, each had about 1000 sq ft.
Because of safety issues and extra flights of stairs, the uppermost floors were the least desirable, and thus the cheapest to rent. Often those floors were without heating, running water or lavatories, which meant their occupants had to use Rome’s extensive system of public restrooms (latrinae). Despite prohibitions, residents would sometimes dump trash and human excrement out the windows and into the surrounding streets and alleys.
The lower class Romans – plebeians – lived in apartment houses, called flats, above or behind their shops. Even fairly well-to-do tradesmen might chose to live in an apartment-building compound over their store, with maybe renters on the upper stories. Their own apartments might be quite roomy, sanitary and pleasant, occasionally with running water. But others were not that nice.
In the apartment houses an entire family (grandparents, parents, and children) might all be crowded into one room, without running water. They had to haul their water in from public facilities. Fire was a very real threat because people were cooking meals in crowded quarters, and many of the flats were made of wood. They did not have toilets. They had to use public latrines (toilets).