Cities of Vesuvius

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Private buildings: villas - houses - shops

See: "Town Houses" pp.108-119.


Go to “Roman Houses” at Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei
  • What were the main features of houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum?
  • What were the uses and features of individual rooms in houses?
  • What does housing reveal about society in Pompeii and Herculaneum?
  • What limitations are there in the evidence for housing?

Main features
  • What are the following features of houses?
    • Fauces
    • Atrium
    • Tablinum
    • Ala
    • Cubiculum
    • Triclinium
    • Peristyle
  • What would you see from outside a house?
  • What would you be able to see from inside a house?
  • In what ways do the houses differ from modern houses?
  • Where did people eat?
  • Where did people sleep?
Tragic Poet - Entrance "Cave Canem"

Tragic Poet - Atrium

A small house - the House of the Surgeon

House of the Surgeon


A large house - the House of the Faun

House of the Faun
Faun - Entrance

Faun - Atrium

Faun - Tablinum through to Peristyles

Faun - Alexander Mosaic

Faun - 1st peristyle towards Atria

Faun - 2ns Peristyle

A large house - the House of Menander
House of Menander
Menander - Fauces

Menander - Atrium

Menander - Compluvium

Menander - Impluvium

Menander - through Tablinum to Peristyle

Menander - Peristyle

Menander - Lararium

Menander - bones

Pompeian Houses have been categorised into four groups on the basis of size, domestic and commercial function, architectural elements and decoration.
  • Shops and workshops with one or two roomed residences behind or above.
  • Large workshop residences of two - seven rooms on the ground floor, some having an atrium.
  • The average Pompeian house with eight - thirteen rooms, a similar symmetrical plan and common architectural features such as decorated atria and colonnaded gardens.
  • The largest houses designed for hospitality and large scale admission of visitors, they contained separate space for the slaves.

The doors contained bronze locks with an L-shaped keyhole, but archaeologists have found that some houses contained a bolt on the inner side of the door that fitted into holes in the door jambs with a horizontal bar that fitted into the floor for extra protection. Some houses contained a fixed iron grate on their roof to prevent thieves from gaining access via the roof.

The Exterior:
Houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum opened directly onto the raised pavements of busy streets and they were built to face inward. The houses contained few if any windows facing the street and the doors were often located between shops and workshops with no rich decoration or elegance. Most of the doors were made of wood and the red tiled roofs were usually flat or on a gentle slope. All public spaces in the house were designed and decorated to impress the visitors, these decorations were used to show the owner’s wealth and status.

The Interior:
  • very few houses throughout Pompeii and Herculaneum had kitchens. The kitchens were located away from the entrance but still had easy access to the street.
  • Some houses contained toilets or chamber pots, the toilets were often found in the kitchen as they were also used as a way to dispose of other items like food.
  • Bedrooms were usually located near the atrium, these rooms were also used as a formal meeting room or a study and for privacy a curtain was put up.
  • The size and design of a front door indicated the status and wealth of the house’s owner.

The Atrium, Tablinum and Peristyle:
In the earliest houses, the atrium had no opening in the roof and was the centre of domestic activity focused on a fireplace. The Atrium was a covered forecourt which public and private events took place in the household. Overtime the atrium developed into a space that was more ceremonial and sacred. The family shrine that was dedicated to the household deities was usually located in the atrium.
The Atrium’s were often decorated in black and white mosaics in geometrical patterns and the ceilings (which few have survived) were decorated with wooden beams and sometimes painted. Sometimes when the household became overcrowded, a second atrium might be added to provide for the activities of the family. In the centre of the Atrium was a impluvium which is a shallow pool that was used for collecting water.
The Tablinum was a room used by the owner to conduct daily business and where the family and commercial documents were kept. In some homes this room was used as a dining area, study and bedroom. It could be closed off for privacy using curtains or wooden panes.
The Peristyle was a colonnaded portico overlooking a garden, a hallway next to the dinning room usually lead to the peristyle. This are frequently consisted of a garden and floor mosaics, wall paintings, crafted furniture, statues and fountains. Some of the more elaborate peritstyles consisted of trellises, flowers, ponds and fruit trees etc.


The large fountain which gives the house its name
The House of the Large Fountain (or Casa della prima Fontana a mosaico) is located in Pompeii. It is located in VI.8.22 and was excavated during 1826. The House of the Large Fountain contains one of the many fountains that are found throughout Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The House of the Large Fountain contained an Atrium and Impulvium as the other houses that are located. This area of the house is close to the fountain. To the north side of the Atrium were rooms, it is unknown the uses of these rooms due to the lack of physical evidence. In line with the fountain is the tablinum which is a reception and storage area for the images of ancestors and family records.
The house contains a garden in which a large fountain is located. The Fountain is typically eastern in design. This design is thought to have come from Egypt at the time of the Roman Conquest (which began in AD 43). The Fountain is decorated with coloured mosaics and arrangements made of glass tiles. The Fountain is decorated with shells, which have been place in rows running around the nymphaeum (a shine dedicated to nymphs). Two large theatrical masks have been place in the bases of two columns.
The water from the fountain flowed through a hole that is located in the statue’s mouth and was a representation of a marine goddess. This water then fell over six marble steps, and came to rest in a small pool that was decorated with a small bronze statue of cupid who was carrying a dolphin on his back. The original statue has been replaced by a copy to prevent damage or theft of the item. This statue is similar to another in the Pompeian House of the Small Fountain which has also been copied. The decorations that have been found on the Fountain are evidence of the Romans’ aesthetic talent.
Go to the House of the Large Fountain at Pompeii in Pictures

Town Houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum (Leona)
There seems to be a large body of evidence for housing in Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 1st Century AD. It is difficult to know for certain the use of particular houses and how many residents lived in it. The size of a house does not necessarily indicate the status or wealth of the owner. Although the houses were architecturally simular, they were all unique and different in certain features.
Wallace-Hadrill describes the variety of houses as an “interlocking jigsaw of large, medium or small houses.”
Causes of Variation in Housing
  • Topography - Houses built higher for better view of ocean
  • Fashion - Fashion of Greek tastes and styles. This is shown in gardens, porticoes, Hellenistic art and colonnades.
  • Natural Disaster- Many houses were destroyed due to earthquakes.
  • Economic Changes - shops and workshops with living space behind them show an increase in business for freedmen.
  • Population Growth - Lack of space as population grew.

Features of Town Houses
Houses were built directly onto raised platforms to face inwards towards the street. The widows of the houses rarely faced the street and the entrances were often found between shops or workshops. Most house doors were made of wood but some were monumental doorways flanked by brick and stucco half-columns. The roofs of the houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum were either flat or sloping. They were tiled in red.
When a visitor entered a house through the narrow corridor (fauces) off the street, they walked straight into the atrium. The atrium was a room with a central shallow pool (impluvium) and roof aperture (compluvium) through to the master’s reception room (tablinum). They then walked on to the colonnaded peristyle and peaceful garden beyond. Decoration was used throughout the houses to give an illusion of space, particularly to smaller rooms. In fact all public places in a house were decorated to impress and show the status and wealth of the owner.
The Fauces and vestibulum
Some houses had entrances that led straight to the vestibule (a small room for the doorkeeper and his dog). The mosaic floors in the vestibule varied but some featured a snarling dog and the words “cave canem” or “Beware of the dog”. The entrance corridors and vestibules were usually beautifully painted to impress clients.
Thr Atrium, Tablinum and Peristyle
The name ‘atrium’ is believed to have come from ‘ater’ meaning ‘bark black’ because of the smoke-blackened walls. In the earliest houses, the atrium (centre of domestic activity) had no opening in the roof. In the later houses, sunlight shone trough the square aperture that pierced the roof. The shallow pool below collected water from the roof gutters.
Vitruvius identified a number of impluviate atria including the:
  • Tuscan - (most common in Pompeii) - with no columns and four roof pitched which conveyed towards the compluvium
  • Tetra - with 4 supporting columns at the corners
  • Corinthian - (Greek style column)

The House of The Faun
Go to the House of the Faun at Pompeii in Pictures:
Another site with photographs is
The House of the Faun was the biggest and most expensive house in ancient times in Pompeii, Italy. It was built around the 2nd century BC and unlike most houses in Pompeii, it actually took up a whole block with its almost 3000 metre square interior.
House of the Faun floorplan
House of the Faun floorplan

At the entrance of the house is a mosaic welcome mat. On it is written the Latin message HAVE (meaning HAIL to you). This mat was either added after the Roman colony settled in Pompeii in about 89 BC or shows that the original owners of the house know Latin. This is known because the two languages mainly spoken in Pompeii at the time was either Oscan or Samnian.
The House of the Faun
The House of the Faun

The House of the Faun had two atria and two peristyles. A Roman atrium is a rectangular open air court with a shallow basin in the centre of the room to collect rain water. This basin is called the impluvium. The statue of the ‘Dancing Faun’ (by which the house was named after) was found in one of the two atria, in the centre of the impluvium. The statue is made of bronze. Around this artria are rooms that once held mosaic floor paintings and first style decorations on the walls.
Dancing faun in House of the Faun
Dancing faun in House of the Faun

A peristyle is a large open courtyard surrounded with columns. The one at the rear of the House of the Faun is the larger of the two peristlyes. The smaller one includes a garden which may or may have not been there in ancient times.
The Alexander Mosaic was a great find in the house. It depicted the victory of Alexander the Great over King Darius III (king of Persia). This battle took place in about 333 BC, which was 150 years before the House of the Faun was built.
Some other mosaics that were found in the House of the Faun include the Cat and Hen Mosaic, the Dove Mosaic and the Tiger Rider Mosaic. All these Mosaics can now be found in the Naples Museum.
Triclinia and cubicula
  • Separate dining room or Triclinium (‘three couches’)
  • Located off the atrium or looking onto the Peristyle
  • Larger residences had two Triclinia one for summer adjacent the garden and one for winter next to the Tablinum
  • Most were fairly small with enough room for three couches, small, low, wooden, bronze or marble table was placed in front of the couches, larger rectangular serving table
  • Best preserved summer dining room is the house of the mosaic of Neptune and Amphitite in Herculaneum
  • Smaller rooms called cubicula possibly used for sleeping areas, usually adjacent to main reception area or secondary atrium if the house had one, windowless and richly decorated often with erotic scenes
Service areas
  • Service areas included areas for cooking, washing, private living and sleeping quarters for the slaves, often accessed down long, dark narrow corridors e.g. The House of the Vetti where the service area entered from the side of the atrium and had its own courtyard leading to the kitchen lavatories and assortment of store rooms and small sleeping rooms.
  • Kitchen culina was small only fitting two slaves, contained stone hearth with podium and recess for firewood and charcoal, some had small brick oven, running water and sink, smoke escaping through a hole in the roof, badly ventilated
  • Latrine located directly adjacent to or opened off the kitchen, both kitchen used the same pipes for water supply
Cooling, heating and lighting of the house
  • Wealthier families designed their homes with terraces to catch summer seas breeze and covered porticoes for shade, airy rooms adjacent to the gardens
  • Wooden partitions and shutters which folded or slid into the walls, curtains or nets were used to protect and warm the house
  • Winter dining rooms painted with black background to absorb any heat in house
  • Natural light entered via the compluvium, windows and Peristyle or courtyard, service areas were stuffy and dark, references to eye troubles-people suffered eye strain due to poor lighting

The House of the Vetti

Go to the House of the Vettii at Pompeii in Pictures
  • The house is named for its owners, two successful freedmen: Aulus Vettius Conviva, and Aulus Vettius Restitutus
  • The house is built around two centers open to the sky, a dim atrium, to the entrance a daylit peristyle, surrounded on all sides by a richly frescoed portico.
  • Servants’ quarters are to one side off the atrium. The major fresco decorations enliven the peristyle and its living spaces and the triclinium or dining hall.
  • black backgrounds to help heat the house in winter
  • Also throughout the house were images of hermaphrodites with the intention to ward off the Evil Eye of envy from those who entered the home
  • peristyle was laid out symmetrically to accommodate for the 14 interconnected fountains connected by lead piping
  • was one of the few houses to have two atria
  • the service area, entered from the side of the atrium, had its own courtyard leading to the kitchen, lavatories and an assortment of store rooms ad small sleeping rooms
  • A painting in the house illustrates a myth, showing Dionysus approaching the sleeping Ariadne.
(the cult of Dionysus/Bacchus Greek god of wine and fertility ‘an escape from worldly reality into mystic communion with the god and the promise of a blessed life after death’ account of the rescue of Ariadne who was abandoned on the island of Naxos by Theseus and her sacred marriage to Dionysus, allowing her eternal life)
  • The garden is enclosed on four sides by an elaborately decorated portico, onto which open a series of rooms that were probably used for entertaining guests.

Notes from a lecture by Dr Penelope Allison

“Houses and Households in Pompeii”

(Visit Penelope Allison’s Website with artefacts from 30 houses.)

Earthquake in 1980 destabilised some houses.

House I.10.8 53 loom weights found in atrium area - it had been assumed that this house was a workshop and not used as a dwelling. This is a misreading. About 50 weights was what was required for a household loom and is therefore not evidence that there was commercial activity in the house.

Distribution of cloth production items by room type in the 30 houses studied. Most evidence is found in the front hall area - atrium and cubicula surrounding. Also around garden area. Not found in service areas. this activity was going on in front areas of the houses, the main part of the house, therefore performed normally in the family area of the houses.

Food. Painting of Dinner, House of the Chaste Lovers.
Little written record of normal family meal. Don’t know much about the cooking side. Only abnormal, extreme, extravagant - such as Alpicius’ recipe book and Petronius’ feast of Trimalchio.
Almost every house has a room with a bench/hearth for food preparation. (Photo of Vettii with pot on stove - the pot was actually found on the floor.)

Braziers found in north and south porticos of garden of House of Menandro. Distribution of braziers - many found in garden areas. Some have argued that braziers were only used in poorer houses that couldn’t afford a kitchen but this is not the case. Many of the big wealthy houses had them. Probably, they were used to heat dinner rather than diners. Possibly used for cooking.

Red ware dishes from Casa dei Manandro found in Room 2 - far from the kitchen. Therefore probably not cooking vessels. Soot on the bottom of the medium sized plates but not on the the bigger or smaller ones. Therefore, probably used for cooking on brazier or hearth, then food distributed to smaller plates or larger plates.
Other tableware. Terra sigillata vessels from Insula of the Menander (I 10). Small ones found with olives, plums, figs, or barley. Suggests that these were passed around rather than a single diner eating a whole bowl of plums. It is a transference of our own way of dining to the Romans that suggests they ate with a single bowl and own cutlery. Only one or two of these vessels were found in houses, which suggests most meals were taken individually rather than eating together as a family.

Toilet or medical items in house of Menander. Tweezers and probes, scalpel, patula, vessels for cosmetics or medicines, strigil, ear cleaner.

Example of tweezers. Over half the houses she studied had a pair of tweezers. Most forceps from Insula Menandro came from House of Fabbro, in a chest in the atrium. Found with all sorts of things that have nothing to do with toiletry or medical activities. It appears they are medical forceps and that medical procedures were performed by a member of the household.