[Chapter four from J.-P. Descoeudres, Pompeii Revisited: The Life and Death of a Roman Town (Sydney: Meditarch, 1994).]



Penelope Allison

Throughout the surviving written texts from the Roman world, both Latin and Greek, there are many references which inform us of some of the activities that took place in Roman houses.  These references also supply us with the names that were used for the different rooms and spaces in a Roman  house.  Three authors provide the most information on the names and locations of the various parts of a house.  These are Vitruvius, in his De architectura (‘On architecture’); Pliny the Younger, in one of his letters, trying to entice his friend Gallus to visit him at his Laurentine villa; and Varro, who in his De lingua Latina, a study of the Latin language, discusses the origins of the names of the rooms in Roman houses.

From Vitruvius, who write a manual on architecture, we learn a lot about what he saw as the ideal Roman house.  He describes the recommended proportions of the house, its constituent parts and their locations.  He uses the terms cava aedium and atrium when discussing the courtyards of the houses.  H refers to room called alae and tablina whose proportions must be related to the atrium.  He also tells us that an area called fauces must be proportional to the tablinum and that the peristylium, a name which implies a colonnaded space, lay crossways to the tablinum.  He also discusses rooms called the triclinia, which he says can also be called exedrae or oeci, and which should be twice as long as they are wide.  There are many other names of rooms given by Vitruvius, for example, balnearia, cubicula, bibliothecae, pinacothecae and plumariorum textrina, but he does not say anything about where these rooms might have been in the plan of the house.  However he does tell us that cubicula, triclinia and balineae are private rooms whereas vestibula, tablina and atria are areas where people can enter uninvited.  He suggests that these latter rooms might therefore be grander in the houses of people of high rank.

A German scholar in the 19th century, W.A. Becker, used Vitruvius’ description to draw the plan of a Roman house.  The plan he drew (Fig. 50) is rather different from that of any of the houses which were being excavated at Herculaneum and Pompeii.

In his letter to Gallus, Pliny took him on a tour of his villa on the coast near Rome.  He began from the atrium which led onto a porticus, in turn leading to a cavaedium and a triclinium, which opened onto the seafront.  To the left was a large cubiculum and then a smaller one.  Round the corner was located another cubiculum, built around an apse and fitted with shelves as a library.  Next came the heated dormitorium.  Pliny described another room which could be used as either a large cubiculum or a moderate cenatio.  Behind it was another cubiculum with a procoeton, from which was divided yet another cubiculum and procoeton.  Then came the frigidarium, the unctiorum, the hypocauston and the other rooms connected with the balinea.  Close by was a sphaeristerium.  The upper storey had four diaetae as well as a cenatio, an apotheca and a horreum, below which was a triclinium.  In another part of the complex Pliny described a cryptoporticus with a xystus in front.  At the far end of the latter was Pliny’s favorite diaeta, containing a heliocaminus and a cubiculum.  Opposite the intervening wall was a zotheca, large enough to hold a lectus and two cathedrae.  Next to it was a cubiculum noctis et somni.  A cubiculum hypocauston had been added here and there was also a procoeton and a cubiculum which faced the sun.

This villa of Pliny has never been excavated.  Many scholars have tried to make hypothetical plans of it but find his description, unlike that of Vitruvius, very confusing, and in fact impossible to recreate as a house plan.

It must be remembered that these two ancient sources had quite different purposes.  Vitruvius, the architect, was trying to set up rules for the ideal Roman house, whereas Pliny the Younger, the literary man, was trying to create an irresistible impression of a luxurious dwelling.

We can see that both Pliny and Vitruvius used a lot of terms which, whether or not they were common terms, applied to spaces in Roman houses.  For some of them the translation into English is quite straightforward and gives us a good indication of the activities which were carried out in rooms with such names.  For example, balinea implies a place where one bathed, a heliocaminus, a place where one could walk in the sun, and a bibliotheca was probably a library, although we should note that Pliny also has a cubiculum which was also used as a library.  Other words help us with the shape of the room or give us an insight into its furnishings.  For example, fauces comes from the Latin word for throat and presumably applies to a corridor.  A room called an ala must have been a wing.  The word triclinium suggests a room with three couches, and a tablinum possibly refers to a room where archives (tabularia) were kept.  But other words like cavaedium, atrium, cubiculum, oecus, zotheca or zystus give us little indication of what types of rooms these were.

Varro, the third author, was writing about the names of spaces in Roman houses and was concerned with the origins of Latin words.  From him we gain a little more information on how some of these names have been derived.  He describes how the central courts of a house came to be called the cavaedium and the atrium.  He also describes how the rooms around these courts had a number of different purposes and gained their names from these original uses.  This may be taken to imply that, in his day, the activities in these spaces had changed.  These names were cellae or penaria for storage, cubicula for lying down, or cenacula for eating.  He describes how cenacula were later moved upstairs and notes that the Romans had several rooms for dining.

Thus, we have three main written sources—an architectural treatise, a letter to a friend and a history of the Latin language—which provide most of our written information on rooms in Roman houses.  While we have a lot of names for spaces which would have meant something to the Romans, some of them do not mean much to us or help us understand what type of rooms these were or what functions they performed.  Varro and Vitruvius do give us a little more information about what activities took places in these spaces.  For example, Vitruvius gives us some indication of where the portraits of the ancestors might be located.  But he does not make it precisely clear whether this is in the alae or atrium.  And Varro tells us that cubicula take their name from lying down and cenacula came from cena (dinner) but does not tell us whether these terms were still used during his lifetime in the 1st century BC.  If we want more information on the sorts of activities which went on in the various spaces with these names we must look through other Roman texts which use these terms and refer to events going on inside rooms which had these names.  For example, Seneca gives us a picture of an atrium filled with clients waiting to see their patron, while Livy describes women spinning and Virgil children playing in this space (see above, chapter on Family Matters).

However, if we look at the use of these terms by these three authors alone we can see that some of them (e.g. cavaedium and atrium) could possibly be used for a similar architectural and functional entity, while others (e.g. cubiculum) might be used for a number of different spaces with a range of functions.  Furthermore, when other ancient authors, often writing in different centuries, use such terms they sometimes seem to be referring to different architectural spaces, or to different functional spaces.  If we think for a moment about the names of spaces in our own culture we will see not only changes in the names of some room types (e.g. no one has a parlour these days) but also that the shape, and indeed the functions, of some rooms change (e.g. a kitchen in sometimes quite large houses today often includes the family, and even the formal, dining area).  Also, we may each have our own bedroom which we consider our private space, but in the 18th century, even in grand European palaces, most of the bedrooms were not very private places.  Thus, one must also be very wary of assuming that the occasional references in Roman texts to the activities in a room, for example, in the tablinum, describe what happened in that room for the entire Roman period.

So far I have only discussed the textual information on rooms in Roman houses and their possible functions.  We have seen that it is very difficult to make an actual plan of a house from any of these descriptions.  It is also very hard to decide exactly what activities were carried out in rooms with these names.  When we try to relate this information to the houses excavated in Pompeii, like the House of the Painted Capitals, it is even more difficult.

When Pompeii was first excavated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries such texts were well known to the excavators, who were trained in the classics.  It was common practice, at that time, to assume that the information from such texts could be directly related to the excavations.  Little attention was paid to the actual purposes for which these texts were written.  During the late 18th and early 19th centuries people interested in antiquities concentrated their studies on how these objects could provide illustrations of the ancient texts.  The early excavators were mainly concerned with giving Latin names, often without a rigorous assessment of whether the application of such names was valid, to the objects and spaces that they excavated.  It was because of this principle that the archaeological evidence came to serve as the pictures to the written texts, and names like atrium, tablinum and cubiculum were given to the rooms in the excavated houses.  Consequently the activities which were described in these spaces were assumed to have taken place in the so-named spaces in Pompeian houses.

As is well known, Pompeii was destroyed by a sudden eruption, and therefore it is probable that a large number of houses would have been rapidly abandoned.  If this is indeed true, then it is very probable that many of the furnishings and other objects would have been left in the rooms where they were habitually used.  Therefore, by studying these objects, one should be able to reach an understanding of which activities happened in which rooms in Pompeian houses.  It is not necessarily the case, as assumed by the excavators who removed most of these furnishings, that sporadic references to domestic activities in diverse Roman texts will give us a better insight into what actually happened in Pompeian houses than will the furnishings themselves.  However, the combination of the two sources of evidence, the texts and the archaeology, should provide us with a more precise understanding of what happened in spaces in Pompeian houses and possibly what these spaces were called.

Unfortunately for us, the House of the Painted Capitals was excavated at an early date when notes on the precise locations of objects were not made.  We can perhaps look at other Pompeian houses of a similar plan and see what kinds of things were found in what kinds of rooms.

For example, the forecourt of the House of Obellius Firmus, a very large Pompeian house, had a statue, a marble basin, and a marble table at one end of the central pool.  It also had a large iron chest against one wall.  Cupboards and chests with domestic material, like pottery, glass, and bronze vessels and other household utensils, were commonly found in such courts in other houses in Pompeii.  In fact there were more frequent than the more luxury furnishings as displayed in the House of Obellius Firmus, and more frequently contained utilitarian material rather than—as generally assumed—valuables.  Thus, from a comparison with what was found in other houses in Pompeii we can perhaps imagine what was to be found in which rooms in the House of the Painted Capitals, and therefore the sorts of activities which went on in them.  However, we can never be absolutely sure of what went on in which room in this particular house.  And we certainly cannot be certain what name each room might have had.  Given what we know about a courtyard, referred to as an atrium in the written texts, it is very probable that this space in a Pompiean house was also called an atrium.  However we do not have enough evidence to be certain of this—it could have been called a cavaedium.

We should, therefore, be critical about the application of these textual terms to spaces in Pompeian houses.  Let us take a few examples.  The entranceway to a Pompeian house (e.g. entranceways 1 and 50 in the House of Painted Capitals) is usually referred to as the fauces.  However, another term for entranceways that occurs in the texts is vestibula.  Furthermore it is not certain that other corridors inside the house were also called fauces (e.g. corridors 14 and 15).

Likewise room 17 is often referred to as a triclinium and room 13 as a tablinum.  While these names were used by Vitruvius to describe spaces which sounded as if they might be similar to those in the House of the Painted Capitals, it is by no means certain, without perhaps knowing more about how the Pompeian rooms were furnished, that these names were used by the owners of the house, and therefore that we have an understanding of what happened in these rooms.

However, some names do seem to fit very well with some other spaces.  For example, peristylium, meaning a place with many columns, seems undoubtedly the name which one might use for the large garden courts 18 and 40 as it is a direct description of what these spaces look like.

In summary, we do not know what these excavated spaces in Pompeii were called.  We can only suggest that they may have had some of the names we know from written texts.  Thus, the commonly held assumption that, because modern scholars have used a term from the ancient texts, for example cubiculum, as a label for a type of room in Pompeii, this particular Pompeian room type is known to have been a bedroom, is misleading for three reasons: we have no explicit evidence of what rooms in Pompeii were called by their owners; the term cubiculum is used in the ancient texts to describe a variety of rooms with a variety of functions; and there is no evidence that the concept of bedrooms, as we know them today, existed for Pompeians.  Because we are dealing with fragments of frequently unrelated evidence, both textual and archaeological, the information which they provide is also fragmentary and often inconclusive.