The purpose of this research is to discuss Greek and Roman houses according to their individual components and the artistic vision they reflect and to compare the two. Since architecture is not an art which arises from a vacuum but generally reflects the needs and philosophic level of its time, mention will be made of the social, political, economic and philosophical aspects of the architecture in question.
The foundation of the classical Greek building, whether
temple, amphitheater or house rested on the foundations, grounded
in the Greek system of thought, of order, proportion and space.
In determining the order of Greek architecture, we may refer to its congruity with the Greek city-state and the needs of its citizens. In Greek urban life, Greek architecture was: “first and foremost, the expression of a community and, more, especially in its early stages, of the basic ties assuring unity.” Thus, Greek architecture of the fifth’ and sixth centuries B.C. was primarily reflective of the group life of the polis, rather than individual needs. Administrative buildings devoted to government and commercial needs, including agoras, defensive walls, markets and porticoes, predominate as do religious edifices. Housing of this time, even for the prosperous and prominent citizens of the polis, is simple, even austere, and not the subject of artistic emphasis.
With the rise of imperialism in the Greek city-stat r, in the third and fourth centuries B.C., the fundamental of Greek life changed. The formerly democratic institutions and open immigration policies began to rigidify into quasi-imperial institutions. Personal and corporate wealth increased as did contacts with foreign countries, and these factors were reflected in the increasing preoccupation with private architecture, including houses and funerary needs. These centuries, while witnessing the development of prestigious architectural developments in areas colonized by Alexander the Great, also saw a lessening of the Greek artistic vision, which she had so generously exported to her subjects. Greek architecture and art began in these centuries to reflect an orientalized influence and the former unity of Greek architecture waned.
The proportion, which is so evident in Greek architecture, was based on mathematical precepts, according to C.A. Doxiadis, who analyzed Greek architecture in terms of proportions based
on geometrical discoveries of the Pythagoreans. This cult assigned certain angles with specific gods: “the 60 degree angle with Rea, Demeter, Hera and Hestia; the 150 degree angle with Zeus.” Doxiadis gives numerous charts and tables of the public buildings with their angles broken down into mathematical formulae in support of his thesis that Greek architecture, particularly temple architecture, was built as a series of angles reflecting religious and philosophical values of the era. Whether or not one accept his thesis, it must be agreed that Greek architecture embodies to many, the essence of harmonious proportion.
The space values of Greek architecture both framed and concealed the landscape. The simultaneously open and closed areas created by the colonnades reflected the dual aspects of Greek city life: bustling commercial and political activity and a pursuit of philosophy and contemplation. The spatial unity of the individual buildings is reflected in a corresponding spatial unity of the polis itself. A notable example of this can be seen from the Acropolis in Athens. The development of town planning arising in the third and fourth centuries B.C. in response to the increasing commercial wealth of the polis (for reasons noted previously) sought to plan the spatial unity of the entire polis:
A town . . . now played the part of the capital of a vaster world and its proportions increased to a scale commensurate with this new pretension. Its plan and buildings were now on a monumental scale, its squares assumed an architectural unity hitherto unknown and a new aesthetic standard was applied to the streets.
The role of Greek housing, which had heretofore been of a haphazard, then austere, nature began to reflect the wealth and aesthetic vision of the polis or kingdom. Early Greek housing, like that of peasants in other parts of Europe, had used the circular, elliptical and/or rectangular shapes depending upon materials available, size of house desired and intended use. The circular form, dictated to a degree by the use of wattles, mud and sticks as building materials, may also represent the logical evolution of housing from cave to above-ground dwellings. The logical transition to races accustomed to building in the round is the elliptical shape of house, allowing for greater expansiveness than the round form. As size of settlements increased, leading to use of common walls and where timber and stone become available as building materials, the shape of the house assumes a rectangular appearance. This was found in Mycenean excavations of architecture circa 1700-1500 B.C. by Bulle.
The development of more sophisticated housing on the Greek mainland was slow. The Greek citizen, who was always a male, since women had few legal rights, viewed his home as a retreat away from the activity of the City. He went from his home early in the day and came back late, seldom using his house for entertainment. The private character of Greek family life was therefore reflected in the Greek home. Thus:
The domestic architecture of the Greeks did not contribute anything to the beautiful appearance of the city for the simple reason that houses were designed externally to attract as little attention as possible.
Even the notable men of the period such as Miltiades the general lived in these austere homes.
In discussing the components of Greek housing, it must be remembered that Greek builders were not bound by the traditional requirements of housing in general: enclosure of a living space; the construction of passages or openings for people, light and air; and protection from the elements.
Unless a space needed enclosing for reasons of privacy, as in the women’s quarters, or for defensive reasons, space in Greek housing could be defined by a boundary of columns. The peristyle, a courtyard surrounded by columns supporting a portico, was a component of Greek mainland housing. This architectural device, interestingly, fulfilled the three functions of housing listed above. The portico protected the houses inhabitants from the elements–in Greece the rainfall has always been light and the blazing Greek sunshine was softened and tamed by the use of columns and the portico to filter and delineate the amount of light. The system of columns and the peristyle delineated the living space used communally from the system of rooms used more privately by the occupants. Then, too, the peristyle provided a central passageway, since most rooms opened onto it.
Since the Greek system of construction dictated that all openings be flat at the top, as seen in the square heads of windows and doors, the columns and portico provided necessary relief from the sun. The openings made for doors and windows in otherwise solid walls were covered with a “stone or marble
lintel, and framed in with a band of moldings; sometimes the openings were protected or outlined with wooden casings.” With the climate so reliable, roofing was not always provided, if we define roofing as a waterproof covering. Such roofs as did exist were made by constructing a sloping wooden framework from a central pole, thus making each end of the house a gable. This frame was covered with terra-cotta tiles or thin marble slabs. Roofs were carried by supporting walls or columns and were richly ornamented on the inside ceilings. The longevity of the buildings and the few recorded instances of fires within the Greek city-states can be attributed to the superior construction of the housing and the almost-fireproof nature of the roofing. As we will see later, this was not the case in Rome, where great fires regularly devastated the houses of her inhabitants.
Characteristic of Greek houses was the megaron, a main
room opening onto the peristyle through a vestibule. The
megaron served as the main reception room of the house and in earlier buildings may have contained the family hearth. The early Greek houses were haphazard affairs often containing only a courtyard and the megaron. As housing became more elaborate, the megaron became more lavishly decorated with mosaics on the floors and decorative hangings.
In keeping with the male-oriented Greek society, there was connected to the megaron a room or series of rooms known as the andron (plural andronitis) for the exclusive use of the men of the house. The andron was available for entertainments and private dinners, such as are mentioned in the Dialogues of Plato.
Behind the andron or above it were located the women’s quarters, or gunaikonitis, where the spinning and other household crafts were practiced by the women and female slaves of the house. Although the gunaikonitis apparently let onto the peristyle and women had the freedom of the entire house, its existence was intended to keep women under the control of the head of the house. Ischomachus, in a conversation with Socrates (Xen. Oec. IX 4) shows this as he recounts to Socrates how he showed his wife the plan of their new house:
And I showed her the women’s apartments cut off by a door with a bolt from the men’s apartments so that nothing could be carried out which ought not to be.
Other rooms in the Greek house included the kitchen with its hearths and even bathrooms, since plumbing was of a generally advanced type.
Having surveyed components of Greek housing, it will be
useful to discuss below the variations and styles found throughout Greece and the islands.
Excavations of houses of the Minoan period in Crete reveal a method of construction and planning detail that were advanced. Houses customarily contained more than one story and were divided into separate rooms of a rectangular shape. Even in very early excavations, the evidence of flooring is apparent, whether plaster or flagstones. The early Aegean practice of communicating rooms side by side with the megaron or hearthroom was followed on Crete.
At Kato Zakro on the east coast of Crete several wellpreserved houses have been found on the eastern spur of the town. The best preserved house shown a fine pebble concrete floor and wall plaster. The entrance of the house leads through a narrow passageway into a large courtyard with doorways at each end. A curiosity here is a plastered room with a sunken recess in the southwest corner and two large basins sunk into the west wall, which becomes a platform of stones and clay. It is hypothesized that the room could have been a wine press or bathroom. Certainly excavations of the palace at Knossos indicate that the Cretans had a central plumbing that was both sophisticated and yet simple.
In general, Minoan houses reveal a “wonderful adaptation
of plan to environment . . . when endless pains were taken to prepare and utilize a difficult site.”
Excavations at Olynthus in Northern Greece have uncovered a type of house exemplifying Xenophon’s principles for a comfortable house (cool in summer and warm in winter). The southern exposure was considered ideal and the houses at Olynthus are built with the facades on the north leading to a Rhodian portico facing south. They contain kitchens and bathrooms of a functional arrangement and most living rooms open onto the colonnade.
At Pirene the houses are based on a megaron opening onto the peristyle through a vestibule. A corridor with length varying according to the position of the house in the block, leads from the street to the courtyard. Interestingly, the fronts of the Pirene houses are separated from the street by a system of shops independent of the houses in back of them. Passages between every third or fourth shop lead from the street to the doorway of the house.
Houses excavated in Melite have been identified as fifth and sixth century B.C. and they reveal foundations of masonry in a polygonal shape. The poor condition of the remains has rendered attempts at reconstruction futile. Evidences of the appearance of the houses must be gleaned from literary sources such as Plutarch, who speaks of the house of Phocion in Melite thus:
And the house of Phocion is shown yet this day in Melite adorned with brass plates, but in other respects plain and simple.
Themistocles also had his residence in Melite. Literary and historical records show that it, too, was unadorned, lending credence to the words of Demosthenes:
In public then they completed for us edifices and ornaments of such beauty and magnitude in temples and the dedications set up in them, that none of their posterity has now the means of surpassing them, while in private they were so modest and so constant to the principles of the constitution that those of you who know the kind of house that Aristeides inhabited . . . and the other illustrious men of that time, realise that it was no more elaborate than the houses of their neighbors.
The excavations at Delos reveal a wealth of information on the more elaborate styles of third and second century houses. The excavations by M. Couve have yielded five houses of similar construction and decoration. All exhibit a central court, usually surrounded by Doric columns. The court is entered through a narrow passage with access to the street. The bedrooms and kitchens open directly onto the courtyard. An elaborate andron with decorated walls and mosaic floors lets onto the peristyle. All of the excavated dwellings have a large pastas or recess opposite the entrance. The pastas is believed to have supplanted the megaron (hearth room) of earlier Greek houses.
In discussing Roman houses, one is struck by the similarity between the dignified early austerity of the Roman republic and the excesses of the later years of the Roman Empire, a situation paralleling that of Greece. The first Caesar, Augustus,lived thus:
He later acquired the house of Hortensius, no less modest for all that it stood on the Palatine. It was an unostentatious building of average size, with a short colonnade only, made of peperino. There was no use of marble for interior decoration no fancy pavements.
There were two main types of Roman houses: the domus and the insula. The domus, like its Greek counterpart, had a blind wall to the street, its doors and windows opening to interior courts, similar to the narrow passageway into the peristyle characteristic of the Greek house.
The domus was the house of the well-to-do and was composed of halls whose size were dictated in advance by custom. “These halls opened off each other in an invariable order: fauces, atrium, alae, triclinium, tablinum and peristyle.” The domus combined some features of the old Etruscan house such as the tablinum or central living room with the Greek style of housing. The Etruscan farmyard at the front of the house became an enclosed area known as the atrium and formed a sort of courtyard, similar to that found when one entered Greek houses from the street. The atrium had halls and chambers letting onto it and provided the ventilation and light for which Greek builders had designed their interior colonnades. There was a cistern or pool in the center of the atrium designed to trap rainwater. This was important in the cities because although water was plentiful and abundant in the many public fountains and aqueducts, the service to residences was poor to non-existent. When the atrium was supported by columns (usually of a Grecian design) it formed a close parallel to the Greek peristyle. It should be noted, however, that Italian weather, particularly Roman weather, was more variable than the weather of Greece. Consequently, the inadequate roofing of the atrium was a liability in rainy weather.
The fauces was the corridor through which one entered the house from the side of the street. Sometimes there existed a door between the hall and the atrium to prevent one from gazing into the main part of the house when the fauces was open.
The principal room of the house was the tablinum, a survivor of Etruscan times closely related to the older Greek megaron. In ancient times this room had been the master bedroom. It was the room in which the household gods were kept and where the family archives, account books, heirlooms and ancestor masks were kept. The tablinum opened into the atrium and looked out also onto a garden or courtyard behind the domus. Ventilation between the atrium and the garden was controlled through the use of movable shutters, hangings or folding partitions.
On both sides of the tablinum were the alae, two rooms for use as dining or drawing rooms. The kitchens and bathrooms let off onto the atrium, but their placement was not as rigidly dictated by custom as that of the main rooms.
The domus was often multi-storied, to allow for the housing needs of the large families and slaves making up the normal Roman household of the wealthy classes. The men’s and women’s quarters were again separate, as were those of the Greek houses, but access was less rigidly controlled. There was no room in the domus, for example, to correspond with the andron of the Greek house.
The domus showed a high degree of adaptivity to the changing social and economic conditions of Rome as she moved from being a republic to an empire. As personal wealth increased, the atrium expanded and was covered over (atrium testudinatum) in order to accommodate the large numbers of clients and hangers-on of the well-to-do.
The Roman domus was characterized by its axial structure and by the fact that it was closed in on itself with all its rooms opening onto an inner piece of ground. The evolution of the Roman domus, as the social tempo of the empire increased, saw an almost beehive structure emerge within a rectangular shape, as courtyards and atria were built in several places within a large domus.
The furnishings and decorations within the domus reflected a Hellenic taste for quality over vulgar quantity. The mosaics were often quite elaborate as can be seen from Pompeii and Herculaneum. The furniture was usually sparse, although the pieces were of good quality and rare woods. The couch was an indispensable piece of furniture and there were many scattered throughout the domus. Naturally, the type of furnishings referred to herein are those of a more classical period -in later years the level of decoration increased and, presumably, the same decorative excesses consistent with degenerating artistic standards, were apparent in the domus as elsewhere.
The second and more prevalent type of Roman housing was the insula, or apartment dwelling. Of the insula much has been written, little of it favorable. There were two types of insulae. one kind had a large apartment, really a kind of domus, on its ground floor. The other type (tabernae) had shops on its ground floor with a room behind each shop where the proprietor and his family lived. Rents for the domus of an insulae were often astronomical, with annual rents as high as $1,200.00.
The insulae were owned by the wealthy. Such citizens as Cicero, for example, were in reality slumlords. The construction was deplorable. Three, four, even five tottering and flimsy stories would be built on a foundation. The stories would be constructed of wood and rubble and the spectacle of entire floors falling off into the streets of Rome was a common one. The insulae were unbelievably noisy and crowded, the high rentals of even Roman slums forced many tenants to sublet their already crowded rooms (cenaculum). The filth was indescribable and running water was non-existent. Vermin abounded.
But the real danger of the insulae was from fire. Fires were a common occurrence in Rome and quickly became uncontrollable. Since the insulae were crowded against the domuses of the elite, both rich and poor alike had much to suffer from this calamity. The fear of fire was so prevalent that writers such as Juvenal said, “No, no I must live where there is no fire and the night is free of alarms,” as he prepared to move to the country. It has been noted that real estate speculators often set fires themselves. Cassius of the republican triumvirate is said to have followed fire “engines” to the spot of the disaster whereupon he would make the weeping victim of the calamity an exploitative offer for his burning property. The horrendous fire in Nero’s reign has been well documented. Although he accused the Christians of setting the conflagration, it is unlikely that any arson was involved. The idea of the “penthouse” apartment in our time is very different from the top-story dwellers in the insulae. They had the most disadvantageous condition. Their roof leaked and there was no possibility of them having running water in their homes. In case of fire, they were the last to know and could not escape, usually, since their exits would be aflame by the time they had any alarm.
There was no parallel for the insula in the Greek cities. Lacking the tremendous influx of population characteristic of the Roman empire, slums never grew to the extent in Greek cities that they did in Italian ones.
In summation, it is certainly true that Rome copied many aspects of Greek art and architecture. Pompey and Herculaneum are more faithful examples of this Greek derivation than are other Roman cities. The atrium of the Roman domus bore a vague resemblance to the courtyard of the Greek house, but the Etruscan antecedents were visible in the domus. The insula was a uniquely Roman architectural concept and was based on greed rather than an artistic concept. The style of public buildings of the Roman empire most fully reveals the worship of things Hellenic.