Back to menu

Topographical dictionary - Houses and apartments


The houses that were inhabited by families of more than average wealth, testifying to the wealth of the owner, are called domus. These houses must as a rule have been owned by the inhabitants. Sometimes they are found in blocks of rented apartments, opening up the possibility that they were let out.

If the group is taken as a whole, the following set of features found often or always in the domus can be compiled. The facade is characterized by shops, one or more staircases, long walls with no or few windows, and an accentuated main entrance (especially by a porch). The entrance has two or three doors: a main gate, and one or two minor doors.

An important change which took place in the domus in the course of time concerns the central rooms. The earliest domus are of the well-known Pompeian kind, with atrium and peristylium. In Ostia most of the houses of this kind were demolished later and built over. In the course of the first century AD the atrium and peristylium as organizing rooms were abandoned. Instead a courtyard with ambulatory is found, around which the rooms are arranged. Most of the Ostian domus have been dated to the third, fourth and early fifth century AD.

The interior of these later houses has an axial lay-out. The axis runs through the main entrance, or is at a right angle to it. First one encounters a vestibule, often large, and often with benches. Nearby are the door-keeper's rooms. The rest of the building is organized around one or more areas without a roof. These are often the central rooms, with an ambulatory. Surrounding these areas are rooms of special importance, in view of their size, decoration, wide entrance (often tripartite), level (often at a somewhat higher level), and height (often two stories high). Furthermore we may find small bedrooms, a kitchen, a latrine, and one or more stairs. The servants' quarters were on the upper floors. The furnishing of the ground floor is characterized by expensive decoration of the floors, walls and ceilings. Statues and fountains are not unusual.

Many domus have external staircases, i.e. staircases accessible directly from the street. They obviously led to separate habitations. These dwellings may have been rented apartments, but they may also have been put at the disposal of freedmen or clientes.

Sometimes it is very difficult or even impossible to distinguish between a domus and the seat of a guild. During the meetings of the members of a guild, meals or distributions of food and money took place, and religious activities focusing on the protective deity of the guild or the Imperial cult. As a result spacious areas, a water-supply, dining-couches, inscriptions recording donations, and shrines were present. A number of guild-seats has an axial lay-out, consisting of a vestibule flanked by shops, and a courtyard behind which is an accentuated room. Accentuated rooms could also be next to the courtyard. Other seats are arranged around a temple.

So sometimes there is a great similarity between guild-seats and domus. The seats are identified primarily through inscriptions found in the buildings. Apart from the inscriptions two features exclude a residential function: a large number of dining-couches, and the arrangement of the rooms around a relatively large temple. Significant is the absence of small, private rooms.


Apartments are sometimes small single houses, but usually they form part of larger complexes. We may assume that many of these habitations were let out. Some may have been put at the disposal of dependents of the owners. In Ostia a well-defined type of simpler habitation can be identified, the so-called medianum-apartment. A well-known example are the Garden Houses or Case a Giardino in block III,IX, not far from the attractive sea-shore.

Seen from outside the medianum-apartments appear as rectangular buildings, with many windows in at least one of the long outer walls. The main entrance is fairly unobtrusive.

The lay-out of the interior is asymmetrical, and characterized by rooms arranged around three sides of a central hall, the medianum.

The entrance sometimes opens directly onto the central hall, but often leads to a corridor or small vestibule (1). The central connecting hall (4) has a ceiling and receives light through windows in one of the long walls. On either end of this organizing area is a main room, the one (7) larger than the other (3). Sometimes these rooms are two stories high. They too have windows in one of the walls. Behind the central hall and sometimes behind the main rooms as well are small rooms, usually receiving indirect light (5-6), a latrine and a staircase (2). The furnishing of the interior is characterized by good-quality paintings and mosaics.

Plan of a medianum-apartment
Plan of a medianum-apartment. From Hermansen 1982, fig. 8.

Hermansen has retrieved the antique names of the various rooms of these apartments (cenacula). The central hall was called medianum, "room in the middle" (4). It could be used as a dining-room. The two main rooms were called exedrae (3, 7), the small rooms behind the medianum cubicula (bedrooms; 5-6). Small rooms or rather alcoves behind the exedrae were probably bedrooms called zothecae.

The size of many of these apartments is considerable. The average ground floor area is c. 200 square meters. Often at least one upper floor should be added.

Often it is difficult to establish whether a building was a workshop, used for light industrial activity, or an apartment.

[JThB - 4-Oct-1999]