Discover Ancient Roman's Life

LIFE IN AN INSULA

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By c. AD150, as Rome's population peaked at more than one million and many of its inhabitants were living in insulae. The most typical roman civil's construction that translates literally as island, although not all actually occupied a whole block for their own.

According to a mid-4th century document, there were in that time 46.600 insulae in Rome and only 1790 domus.

These blocks of flats rose to five, six, even seven storeys, giving to the ancient city almost a modern character.

Juvenal, the satirical poet, provided a vivid and unflattering portrayal of life in an insula. “We live in a city supported mostly by slender props, which is how the bailiff patches cracks in old walls, telling the resident to sleep peacefully under roofs ready to fall down around them”.

The Juvenal's description was obviously an exaggeration, in fact some insula block still survive in Rome today.

Others descriptions tell us about apartments that where very habitable, and even comfortable: spacious flats with separate rooms for dining and sleeping, often with running water and glazed windows.

After the great fire of AD64, new building regulations stipulated that insulae be built by brick-faced concrete, with balconies or arcades for fire-fighters.

One of the few substantially surviving insulae in Rome is on Via del Teatro Marcello, at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. It is a typical insula with shops on the ground floor and residential mezzanines (half floors) above. The first floor proper was occupied by two decent sized apartments, and its second and third floors by flats with smaller rooms, most with concrete vaults. There are traces of at least two more floors above.

Apartments on the lower floors of the Insulae, more spacious and comfortables, where inhabited by wealthy citizens, including some equestrians and evens senators, perhaps as friends of the usually aristocratic owner. Often those tenants paid rent annually and had some security of tenure.

In contrast, garrets under the tiles up many flights of stairs must have been cramped, insalubrious, without toilets or water, and they where inhabited by lower class citizens. Here tenants paid by the week or even day and faced the constant threat of eviction.

The construction of insulae really developed on the last century of the Republic (from 133BC) as the city's population exploded. Crassus, notoriously the richest man in mid 1st century made his fortune in properties speculation. He would turn-up with his gang of fire-fighting slaves when an insula caught fire, commiserate with the bereft owner and buy up the smoldering site cheap for redevelopment at greater density. Even the high-minded Cicero owned insulae which brought him the sizable income of 80.000 sesterces.
 

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