Imperial Rome’s high density living

Dan Hill was intrigued by a sentence in Hammersley’s Florentine adventures: “There are eight storey apartment blocks built in 1250!!!!!” That reminded me of a chapter in Peter Hall’s mammoth Cities in Civilization (Amazon US, UK) about Rome between 50BC and AD 150.

So in the interests of continuing conversations via Trackback, I’ve tapped in the relevant passages (from pages 627-9), in which Hall describes the five to six story apartments, more than a millennium before those Florentine blocks.

The Aventine Wall enclosed 426 hectares, a mere one-sixteenth of the area of the modern city of Paris. Assuming a maximum population of one million, Lanciani estimated that perhaps only 179,000 people lived in individual houses and the other 821,000 in tenements.

… Within Rome the old-style town house, domus, survived well into the early third century AD. But, at least as early as the third century BC, overcrowding in the city was producing a new urban form, the apartment block, or insula; Vitruvius commented that ‘the majesty of the city and the considerable increase in its population have compelled an extraordinary extension of the dwelling houses, and circumstances have constrained men to take refuge in increasing the height of the edifices’. Building heights rose to at least three storeys in the third century BC, to five or more by the first century BC; Julius Caesar set a limit of seventy Roman feet, Augustus reaffirmed it, Trajan reduced it to sixty feet for greater safety; later still, after the great fire, Nero prohibited the rebuilding of tenement houses and of narrow, winding lanes, laying out broad streets flanked with colonnades. In fact, from the Republic onwards the Romans found it necessary to make regulations to control the thickness of walls, the quality of building materials, and the roofs and height of buildings. Enforcement must have been a problem, for there seems to have been no requirement to notify the authorities, as opposed to possibly interested third parties, of any proposed new structure. Since there was no mechanism to require planning consent, any initiative had to be taken by some interested party.

So, despite these edicts, new apartment houses continued to be built five or six storeys high. Small wonder that, excavated and reconstructed, this commonest type of Roman building appears startlingly modern.

…the insula or apartment block came to dominate the entire city: catalogues from the fourth century AD record 46,602 insulae as opposed to only 1797 single-family residences, domi.

… In fact, the insula became the standard form of Roman middle-class as well as working-class housing; and not merely in Rome, for there are numerous examples in Ostia and Pompeii. It combined shops and workshops on the ground floor, flats on the floors above, thus achieving mixed uses in every block: a form that can be found in Italian and larger French cities to this day. Commonly, the streets carried continuous rows of open shops (tabernae) under several floors of tenements. The loft above the taberna containing one habitable room was used for the lodging of the storekeeper, the caretakers or the workshop employees. In an alternative type the ground floor was used as a domus or private residence. Within each block main staircases generally led to the upper floors independently of the shops. On these higher floors the windows facing the street often had extending balconies with bases of brick-faced concrete. Each floor had a lavatory and chutes for rubbish disposal. Behind was a court, which provided light, and a place for a water cistern supplying a communal tap. A few large blocks had arcaded courtyards like Italian Renaissance palaces; for these blocks housed both rich and poor.

The typical apartment in an insula had different rooms, segregated (as in a domus) by function: the cubiculum or bedroom, the exedra or living room, and the medianum or central hall, giving access to all rooms in the house; poorer people, living in kitchenless apartments, had to cook in the medianum (where the smoke could escape through the many windows) and eat there. In Ostia, between forty and fifty apartments built around mediana are to be found. Placed on one side of the house, the medianum looked out on to the street or the inner courtyard of the insula. It was a large, pleasant space with plenty of air and light compared with the dark rooms behind; only in the later years of the Roman Republic, and then slowly and cautiously, was glass used to let light into houses; modern windows came in the first century AD, and by the century’s end glass factories had become common in Italy and were spreading into Gaul. But most apartment blocks could not accommodate generous interior windows; so doubtless, the centre of family life remained in the medianum.

Because the insulae housed perhaps nineteen out of twenty Roman families, like their Parisian equivalents nineteen centuries later, they provided accommodation of every kind, from dark little single rooms several flights up, to luxurious duplex apartments on the more desirable lower floors. One scholar argues that the excavated ruins give a false impression: they represent only the best buildings and are not typical at all of the cheaper, flimsier blocks which, from contemporary reports, were far more common. Their wretched inhabitants had distractions in the form of theatres and circuses; but the splendid public buildings can hardly have compensated for the squalid realities of everyday life.

First, apartments were mostly built with wood frames; and they were so high and poorly built that they were in constant danger of collapse or destruction by fire. The foundation usually covered 3200-4300 square feet, inadequate to carry a structure 59 to 65 feet high; thus it was always liable to collapse. Even after brick construction had been perfected and had become usual in the second century AD, the city was constantly racked by the noise of buildings collapsing or being torn down to prevent collapse; the tenants of an insula lived in constant fear of its coming down on their heads. Juvenal gloomily reflected: ‘Who at cool Praeneste, or at Volsinii amid its leafy hills, was ever afraid of his house tumbling down? … But here we inhabit a city propped up for the most part by slats: for that is how the landlord patches up the crack in the old wall, bidding the inmates sleep at ease under the ruin that hangs above their heads’.

The rest of the chapter describes Rome’s incredible system of water distribution (which almost calls for a classical remake of Chinatown). By the way, the rest of the book itself is impressive, but not quite what I hoped; awesome as a collection of portraits of cities at crucial and exciting moments in history, but not as good as I’d hoped on why some places/times are so special.