World History 1 104 - 7.1.2 A Day in the Life of a Roman Family

Romans lived and worked in a variety of contexts across the empire. Most of our evidence of the practical elements of their daily lives comes from archaeological evidence uncovered at Pompeii. The remains of this once-bustling city (which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 CE) show us the occupations, architecture, and lifestyles of different social classes. In addition, though most of what we know is about wealthy estates, life in the countryside outside the city constituted another important part of imperial Roman society.

Daily life was dominated by aristocratic men who enjoyed careers in politics, law, and the military. Wealthy Romans were part of two property-based classes: the senatorial and the equestrian ranks. Only those above a certain property threshold were allowed to be members of these upper classes, and they occupied privileged social positions with access to prestigious careers denied to the lower classes. An elite Roman man’s day began at home in the domus, a traditional single-family house that served both practical and symbolic roles (the term domus refers not only to the physical residence but also to the family). It was a place of display in which a family could take pride and where the father would conduct official business. Every morning, in the role of patron, he would receive a number of clients in his home who sought his aid in exchange for loyalty. The late morning was usually consumed by responsibilities outside the home, including business and political meetings. During the afternoon, wealthy Roman men spent their time socializing and pursuing leisure activities, such as attending public entertainment performances or visiting the bathhouse.

Beyond the Book

The Plan of a Typical Roman Household

The most common type of Roman house was the atrium house, which could include two or more stories. Based mostly on evidence from Pompeii, we know that each house contained several key features. The fauces or vestibulum was the entryway. The atrium was the open-air reception hall where the patron of the house met with his clients; this area was often decorated with a colorful mosaic on the floor. The tablinum was a small room separated from the atrium by a wooden screen or curtain and contained family records and portraits.

The partial roof over the atrium, or the compluvium, was slanted to drain rainwater into the shallow impluvium pool. This water was collected in an underground cistern for use by the family, or, if left in the pool, it helped to ventilate other rooms in the house. The triclinium (“three couches”) was the dining room, where members of the household ate in the Roman fashion, reclining around a small table. Alae were the smaller recesses in a house that stored masks or busts of a family’s ancestors.

Fountains, peristyle (columned) courtyards, gardens, and other lavish features were located across the atrium from the doorway, to make sure guests could see them upon arrival. This floor plan emphasized the power relationship between a patron and his clients, as well as the authority and prestige of the paterfamilias (Figure 7.4).

Two images are shown. (a) A drawing of the rectangular floor plan of a house is shown. The drawing shows an open area in the middle highlighted blue. The open area is labeled 2) atrium and the blue rectangle is labeled 3) impluvium. Surrounding the blue is a large square room with other small square rooms surrounding it on the perimeter of the drawing that include tablinum, triclinium, and alae. The skinny room leading into the atrium is labeled 1) fauces. (b) A drawing of a view from inside to the outside is shown. Two gold column stand in the middle supporting a gold triangle arch with red walls atop and on the lower sides. A half wall stands in the middle of the two columns with red posts and a dark middle as well as on the other side of each column. A spotted orb rests on a footed stand in front of the half wall. A raised gray stone supports the two columns and the half walls which sits on a yellow colored floor. Branches with green leaves are seen on the wall. The middle is open and shows a columned round structure with a pointed top in brown. The columns are topped with gold designs. Around and behind the round structure the walls of a white columned building can be seen and a blue sky.
Figure 7.4 A typical Roman home was oriented around an atrium, or open-air reception hall (a). There were four styles of wall paintings or frescoes in Roman homes. The “architectural” style (b) was meant to serve as a window onto an imaginary public scene, framed by columns. This fresco is from the villa in Naples that is believed to have belonged to Publio Fannio Sinistore and was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. (credit a: attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license; credit b: modification of work “Fresco from the villa of Publio Fannio Sinistore in Boscoreale” by Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1903/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • What are the key features of an atrium house and what do they tell us about daily life in Rome?
  • How does the architecture of a typical Roman home reflect important aspects of Roman culture and society?

Link to Learning

Explore the ruins of the city of Pompeii to learn more. Remarkably preserved after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, the city is our finest source of information about daily life in a Roman city.

The wealthiest Romans had both houses in the city and villas in the countryside. Suburban villas were located just outside a city’s walls, and villas located in the countryside typically originated as agricultural estates. Large estates, known as latifundia, were agricultural operations in which enslaved people worked the land for the owner’s profit. In the imperial period, these estates came to contain villa residences that functioned more as places of recreation and a means to display wealth. Many elements of luxury displayed in townhouses also appear in villas, such as gardens, fountains, and mosaics. Hadrian’s villa outside Rome is an opulent example of luxury at the very top of the Roman social order, incorporating elements of this emperor’s travels in the second century CE (Figure 7.5).

An image of stone ruins is shown. In the background a line of tall, green trees is seen on a pale blue and white sky. In front of the trees on the left, half of a domed stone structure stands – exposing the inside. Windows can be seen and four tall columns stand in front. A brick wall is shown in the left forefront corner with green branches sticking out the top. In front of the four columns a square area filled with green colored water and bordered by green moss is shown with a large rock overhanging on the top corner. Behind the water two tall rounded arches can be seen and fenced walkways behind the arches. Another area with water can be seen cut off on the right and a stone walkway is seen in the forefront.
Figure 7.5 The architecture of Hadrian’s second-century villa outside Rome recalls elements of the emperor’s travels, including a Greek Temple of Venus, a small lake resembling an Egyptian canal, and numerous statues. (credit: “Hadrian villa ruins” by “Entoaggie09”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5)

Life for the lower classes was not as luxurious or as stable. Clients formed a largely educated class in Rome who supported themselves through gifts from their patrons and meager employment. Though Romans typically had a six-hour workday, the urban poor relied more on occasional work or odd jobs. In large cities, many lived in insulae, apartment complexes of three to four levels that occupied a rectangular city block. Insulae had a reputation for being overcrowded and having limited facilities, however.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax