Roman Living: Inside an Insula

A Housing Crisis

During the rule of Augustus from 27 BC to 14 AD, about 750 years after Rome was founded, the city's population had ballooned to one million people. The hub of the Roman empire had transformed itself from its origins as a small agricultural community into the biggest city the world had ever known. It wasn't until London, as hub of the British Empire, grew to one million in the mid-nineteenth century that there would be another city to equal the size of ancient Rome.

However, the infrastructure and housing of Rome before the rule of Augustus was simply inadequate to accommodate the masses that were descending on the city for work and protection. While the aristocratic, Patrician families could afford to live in spacious villas set in their own gardens, the growing pleb population had to crowd into the existing badly built structures. Parts of Rome were increasingly looking like a refugee slum.

Flats for the masses

Ancient Rome's architects found a novel and ingenious solution for this problem – they invented the block of flats and called the new construction an 'insula', named after the word for 'island'. This was the first time that social housing had been designed to accommodate many families together within the same building. It is thought that many blocks could hold about 200 inhabitants. Most insulae had three of four storeys, although some were built as high as nine storeys before Augustus introduced safety restrictions placing a height limit of about 20 metres. The ground floor would usually be occupied by shops or taverns, and families would live in the upper floors.

Health and Safety

Although the buildings innovatively helped to reduce the housing problem in Rome, they were far from ideal and there were serious safety and sanitation problems. Apartments on the higher floors of the insulae would be accessible only by wooden stairs and would not have heating, running water or latrines. The buildings would be noisy and the close proximity and materials used meant there was a fire hazard. Flats on the lower levels would cost more to rent as they had latrines, running water and were easier to access.

The insulae were usually built around an open courtyard. Rooms would have windows without glass to let in light. These windows were also useful for throwing household waste (including excrement) out onto the street below – an antisocial practice that was common, even if it was not legal. 

Collapse and Fire

Furthermore, the insulae were prone to collapse as they were often built very badly – using materials such as wood, mud and a rough form of concrete. Usually erected by the ruling classes, they also provided another income for the rich through high rents. For example, the orator Cicero (106-43 BC) was a notorious slum landlord.

The poor construction and overcrowding of Roman tenements are widely blamed for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. Following the fire's devastation of the city, the emperor Nero reduced the height limit of insulae to 17.75 metres and stipulated better building materials. Insulae built during later years used fired brick and concrete instead of wood and mud. By the end of the third century BC, when the city was already in decline, there were thought to be up to 50,000 insulae in Rome.

The Capitoline Insula

Few intact examples of Roman insulae remain today – one well preserved building can still be seen at Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman port 15km outside Rome. However, there is another preserved insula much closer to the heart of the ancient city, on via del Teatro di Marcello. It is a somewhat neglected site, completely overshadowed by the more famous and showy attractions of the piazza del Campidoglio and the imposing Altare della Patria in piazza Venezia. Nonetheless, it is an evocative reminder of city life some 2000 years ago.

The Capitoline Insula, sometimes also known as the Insula dell'Ara Coeli or Insula Romana, was built between 100 and 120 AD and stood at the bottom of the Capitoline Hill on the opposite side to the Roman Forum. It is one of the best existing examples of a brick-built apartment block (as opposed to many that were built with wood).

Demolition works in the 1930s, which removed the Renaissance church of Santa Rita de Cascia, uncovered these Roman living quarters. Many other similar buildings were discovered in the area at that time, but only this one was preserved. After the fall of the empire in the fifth century, most of the insula, and indeed much of the rest of Rome too, was buried. In the 11th century the upper floors of the building were rediscovered and became part of the church of San Biagio de Mercato. Santa Rita de Cascia was then built on top of St Biagio de Mercato in 1665 by the architect Carlo Fontana.

The building has now been excavated and has five storeys, including a mezzanine. It is thought the building originally had six floors – only traces remain of the sixth. Its ground floor was, as was typical of Roman insulae, occupied by 'tabernae' – porticoed shops, warehouses or hostelries facing onto a central courtyard. The ground floor now lies nine metres below present-day street level – in fact much of the modern city has been built on top of a layer of older buildings and is now up to 10 metres higher than it was in Roman times. Wooden steps inside the shops would have led up to a mezzanine at first floor level.

The rooms on the three existing upper floors of the insula were for residential use and included features such as wooden paving and rectangular windows with wooden window frames. On the second floor there is the remains of a balcony. Rooms on the upper floors are smaller, and therefore it is thought they were rented out to poorer citizens. It is thought this insula could have housed up to 380 people – almost twice the number of most insulae of the time. 

There are two features visible today that date back to the 11th century medieval church of San Biagio de Mercato: a striking fresco in good condition and a bell tower. The colourful fresco shows the burial of Christ between the Virgin Mary and Saint John. It adorns what used to be the façade of the insula and was added in the 11th century when San Biagio was built, as was the Romanesque bell tower.

Images by Bija Knowles. All rights reserved.

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About The AuthorBija KnowlesBija Knowles
Bija Knowles is a freelance journalist based outside Rome, Italy. She graduated in Italian and English Literature from the University of Birmingham, UK, and her main areas of interest are art, travel and history in Italy.

Last three pieces by this author: Rome's Ancient Via Tiburtina: From Neolithic Shepherds to Roma Gypsy Camps, From Medici to Italy: Repatriation for Boscoreale Fresco and Corinthian Vase , Grunts From the Front: From Roman Tablets to Army Blogs

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