My recent trip to Pompeii has set my imagination dreaming about what life was like in a typical Roman atrium house. So many examples are on display at Pompeii with just enough of their mosaic floors, carved moldings and mural-covered walls remaining to tantalize and invite my fancy into there charms. The atrium house was the standard design for a middle to upper class dwelling in a Roman town. It served many functions both public and private and was designed to impress upon its visitors the importance of the master of the house, his family and his ancestry. The architectural design of the house was perfectly adapted to the warm Mediterranean climate and offered a comfortable and elegant lifestyle.
The entrance to a typical atrium house was on a fashionable street in the town. On either side of the front door would be small shops which were owned by the master of the house who either supplied slaves and merchandise or rented the space to another merchant. These shops offered an important source of income for the family, though not the primary source. Their wealth and subsequent power would have come from their ancestry. Another source of income would come from interest gained through loans to members of lower class citizens. This will be explained further below.
As we walk through the front door, we find ourselves in a short hallway which shares walls with the shops on either side. This area, called the fauces, would be painted to look like marble. The Romans wanted luxury, but marble was seriously expensive. There were no local sources (it would be several centuries before the quarry at Carrera – which supplied Michalengelo, among others – would be discovered) so marble would have to be imported from the ancient sources at Paros and Naxos in Greece. So instead of paying the high price for marble, Romans became quite adept at painting plaster to look like marble and other luxurious stone surfaces. This painting style, known as the first Roman painting style, would entail carving rectangles into the plaster then painting the rectangle to resemble marble. These “blocks” would then look like carved panels set into the wall.
From the fauces, we would be looking into the atrium – the room that gives the house its name. This large open space contained one of the most innovative and interesting parts of the house. At first glance our eyes would be immediately drawn up to the large opening in the roof. This open rectangle (about 4’ x 5’) was placed directly over an equally-sized opening in the floor below it. These unique features were meant to capture rain water. On a rainy day, rain from the roof would accumulate in a channel around the roof opening (impluvium) and pour through sculpted figures placed around the opening into the basin (compluvium) below. Can you just imagine the effect of this feature? On a rainy day, streams of water would be pouring down from the ceiling to the floor and into the basin. The remaining room was covered by the ceiling so the impluvium also provided an important source of light during the day. In earlier times, this system provided an important source of water for the household. Later, though, the Romans developed indoor plumbing and thus the impluvium / compluvium system became more of a decorative feature.
Now we have to look down at our feet which would be standing on an elaborate mosaic floor which started from the entrance of the house. The Romans loved mosaic. It was their primary means of dealing with the floor. Again, a stone floor would be too expensive. The bedrock of Italy, volcanic rock known locally as tufa, is soft and porous which would be very impractical for a floor. There was access, though, to small fragments of hard stone which could be much easier and cheaper to import. These fragments, then, could be cut into small pieces known as tesserae which were arranged into beautiful multi-colored patterns. The Romans were masters at mosaic and left remnants of them all over their vast empire from Europe to northern Africa, even as far as England (see the baths at Bath). So as we enter the beautifully decorated atrium, we are even standing on a work of art!
Small rooms on either side of the atrium would contain small beds and were where the family slept. People are always surprised at how small the bedrooms are. Romans didn’t really have assigned bedrooms, like we do now. They were just rooms for sleeping and nothing more. These rooms would also display elaborate frescoes on the walls and a mosaic floor.
We are most likely visiting the house in the morning. This is when this portion of the house takes on a public function. As we look around, we would find many other Romans coming in and congregating in the atrium. These “clients” would be coming to pay homage (and possibly cash) to the master of the house who was their patron. As mentioned above, another source of income for the family was this elaborate system of patronage. However, it was not just a system of earning money, but a system that also had important political and social implications as well. Here is how this worked.
Let’s say you are an impoverished Roman who would like to start your own small business, perhaps a small taberna – a small café of which there are many examples at Pompeii. You need some capital to get you started. So you visit the home of a wealthy Roman and ask him to sponsor your business by loaning you the money to get started. The Roman patrician would then become your patron and you would not only owe money to him but political allegiance as well. As a patrician, your patron would hold a position in the Roman senate and have a political voice in local policy. Once this business relationship is established, you would now be required to visit your patron regularly, pay him a portion of your debt and accompany him to the senate as part of his entourage. You get to have your business and your patron gains another member of his ever-growing entourage which enhances his political voice and social status. Of course, you will never be able to pay him back – it’s designed that way. Your agreement will insure that the payments you make will be just enough to cover your interest but not enough to allow you to ever pay the balance. (Yes, the Romans perfected predatory lending practices!)
From our observational perch in the atrium, we can see you entering your patron’s very elaborate house – a stark contrast to your small, single room at the local insular apartment block on the other side of town. You place yourself in line with the many other “clients” who are in your same situation. Perhaps you discuss a little business or complain about the exorbitant interest that you are paying as you wait your turn to visit with your patron.
When your turn comes, you are led into a large room at the end of the atrium where the patron awaits his clients. This room, known as the tablinum, is a room designed to intimidate. Along with its elaborate wall frescoes and mosaic floor, the room displays the patron’s household gods – his lares and penates – in the lararium and his ancestral imagines (pronounced im-ahg-een-ays) which were busts and portraits of his revered ancestors. Your patron was not a self-made man. This social idea was not available in Rome. His wealth and status was passed to him by his ancestors, also of the patrician class and also remembered and revered by society. These portraits were not just ancient reminders of those who had come before, but stood as intercessants to the ancestors who were believed to be still around in spirit form influencing the lives of their descendants. This ancestral cult of ancient Rome is one of the many fascinating examples of how ancient Rome straddled both the modern, orderly, “civilized” society and its rustic, gritty pagan roots – picture the blood of sacrificed chickens dripping down the polished marble steps of the temple. It is this aspect of Rome that I find most intriguing. This dichotomy between chaos and order is best displayed in this room of business in the atrium house.
After a long morning of meeting with clients and collecting payments and honors, the patron then departs with his clients to the baths or to the senate in order to parade his entourage around town. In this way, he displayed his social rank and importance to the rest of the town. As his entourage grew, his social standing grew and thus his voice in the senate grew as well.
We won’t be following him, though. We’re going to stay and view the rest of his house. As the day goes on, though, the temperature is rising. This is the tropical Mediterranean, so the heat of the day can get very intense. We are beckoned beyond the tablinum into the garden beyond. This is the heart of the private space of the house. We follow the beautiful mosaic floor into a columned-lined, covered walkway, the peristyle, which surrounds an open garden. The refreshing Mediterranean breezes are now circulating around the peristyle and we relax onto a bench and observe the sunlit garden beyond the columns. The refreshing sound of splashing water is emanating from a mosaic-covered fountain along the back wall. Colorful blooms and greenery aglow from the bright sun, dazzle the eye. We are cool and content from our shaded perch.
The lady of the house glides through and invites us to lunch in the triclinium, the open dining room off the garden. Another mosaic covers the floor and more painted frescoes delight us along the walls. We recline on sofas and indulge in the parade of fresh food offered by the household servants. Cool and refreshed, we drift off for a luxurious nap.
This was the life of the Roman Pompeiians which was so abruptly cut short on August 24, A.D. 79 when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. The intense heat and ash descended so quickly that most suffocated before the pyroclastic flow hit the towns (Herculaneam and Stabiae were also buried). When Giuseppe Fiorelli began to excavate in 1848, he felt soft patches of ground beneath his feat. After the collapse of a few of these revealed the bones and impression of a human caught in the last moments of life, he came up with an ingenious idea to reveal these impressions to the world. He filled them with plaster, then excavated around them. The plaster revealed intimate portraits of the most personal moment we experience as humans, the moment of death. Each individual figure reveals the unique way each Pompeiian faced this moment. They are immediate, disturbing and incredibly moving and, along with the atrium houses, give us a unique snapshot of life and death at Pompeii.