Where did the lower and middle classes live in ancient Rome?

Most of the city lived in insulae, a term that translates to “islands” in Latin. These were tenement blocks of five or more stories, even nine in some cases, despite Emperor Augustus making the legal height limit 68 feet, and then Trajan lowering it further to 58.

A fourth-century census reveals that there were over 40,000 of these buildings in ancient Rome, compared to fewer than 2,000 private residences. This high-rise building boom was not seen again until the Industrial Revolution.

Ruins of insulae in the ancient Roman harbour city of Ostia. (Picture by Getty Images)

Each living space within these buildings would usually contain just one to two rooms. The landlords of these buildings would rent out space at the very bottom to shopkeepers, which would spill out onto the street below. Just above this ground floor, there would be the most expensive flats, while the poorest tenants lived at the very top in tiny spaces called cellae. As water could only be pumped to the lower levels, tenants on higher floors had to use public latrines and source water from public facilities.

The lifestyle in these buildings was precarious. Due to their cheap construction and limited water supply, insulae often caught fire or collapsed, resulting in the plot being sold for a lower price, and then another insula would be reconstructed on the same site. Many wealthy Romans profited from this process.

What was a domus in Ancient Rome?

A Roman domus (Latin for “house”) was a residential building designed for one family. Found in almost all major Roman cities, these houses were occupied by wealthier residents. As with modern homes, the buildings shared many primary features and ranged in opulence.

In the Catacombs

Deep below the streets of Rome lie the ancient catacombs where early Christians buried their dead and sustained hope for eternal life.

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


About the same time as the persecution of Decius, middle of the third century, is also when we begin to get the Roman catacombs developing. Now, according to tradition, you know, the catacombs are thought of as where all the martyrs are buried, but there’s far too many catacomb burials for all of them to have been martyrs; there’s over six and a half million burials, it’s usually estimated, and they last from the mid third up to the sixth or seventh century. So, clearly all of those aren’t martyrs. What are they? We have pagan catacombs, Jewish catacombs, and Christian catacombs.

What was life like in the Roman army?

Presenter: The fort here at Vindolanda was the home to 800 soldiers and their job was to guard the wall against people they described as barbarians.

Now, for the Romans, barbarians were local tribes who lived on the other side of the wall in what’s now, northern England and Scotland.

But it wasn’t the legionaries that guarded the wall. This was the job of auxiliary soldiers who came from right across the Roman empire… places like Belgium, Spain, Greece, and even as far away as Africa.

After 25 years working as an auxiliary, you could become a Roman citizen. And when the soldiers weren’t on duty guarding the wall, they lived here with their families. These are their barracks. And we can still see their remains today.

Barracks are soldiers’ homes. These ones at Vindalanda used to have two floors and an attic on top.

This was the main road in the middle and it would have been humming with activity with the soldiers coming out and washing themselves in the morning and at the end of the day.

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