CHAPTER IX. THE ROMAN TOWN HOUSE

We have taken a general survey of the city of Rome, its open places, streets, and public buildings. We may now look at the houses in which the Romans lived, and at the furniture to be expected inside them.

Mention has already been made of the large and lofty tenement houses or blocks, often mere human rookeries, which were let out in lodgings to those who did not possess sufficient means to occupy a separate domicile of their own. These buildings, which were naturally to be found in the busier streets and more thickly inhabited quarters, were not, however, the habitations most typical of the romanized world. They were created by the special circumstances of the city, and might recur in other towns wherever the conditions were similar. The cramped island part of Tyre, for example, possessed houses even loftier than those of Rome. Where there was sufficient room - that is to say, where there was no large population crowded into a space limited by nature or by walls of defence - the ordinary house was of a very different character. It was built on a different plan and seldom ran to more than two stories, if so high. We shall shortly proceed to describe such a house; but it is first desirable to say something more of the tenement "block" in the metropolis. It is to be regretted that no such building has actually come down to us; we are therefore compelled to form our notions of one from the scattered references and hints of literature. Nevertheless if these are read in the light of customs still observable in Rome itself and in other parts of Italy, the picture becomes fairly definite.

A block - or "island," as it was called - might be a building of four or five stories, surrounded by four of the narrow streets, lanes, or alleys which formed a network in the city. Whether managed by the landlord, by his agent, or by a tenant who sub-let at a profit, it was divided into lodgings, which might consist either of a single room or of a suite. Some such rooms and flats were "ordinary," others were described (as they are still in the advertisements of modern Rome) as "suitable for a gentleman," or, to use the exact language of the day, "suitable for a knight." Access to the respective quarters of the house was to be gained, not solely through a main door, but by separate stairs leading up directly from the streets and lanes. It would appear that each tenant had his own key, corresponding, though hardly in convenience of size, to our latch-key. Whereas it will be found that the ordinary private house of one storey was for the most part lighted by openings in the roof and by wide courts, this arrangement could manifestly be applied only partially to the tall tenement buildings. There might, it is true, exist in the middle interior of such a block an open space or "well," with galleries running round it at each floor, so that the inner rooms could obtain light from that quarter. It is also to be assumed that stairs ran up to these galleries, so that the inward rooms or flats were made accessible in this way. Mainly, however, the light came from windows opening on the street. If we glanced up at these from below we should find them narrower than ours at the present day - since we have discovered how to produce large and entirely diaphanous sheets of glass - but probably not narrower than those of a century ago. They were either mere openings with shutters, or, in the better houses, were glazed with transparent material. In the brighter part of the year they contained their boxes of flowering or other plants, and were often provided with a shade-awning not unlike those so familiar in Paris.

The roof of such a building was either gabled and covered with tiles or, though perhaps less often, it was flat. The flat roof sometimes formed a terrace, on which the plants of a "roof-garden" might be found growing either in earthenware tubs or in earth spread over a layer of impermeable cement. The lowest floor, level with the street, commonly consisted of shops, which were open at full length in the day, but were shuttered and barred at night. As with the shops which are now built into the sides of large hotels and the like, they had no communication with the interior of the building. Regularly, however, they possessed a short staircase at the back or side leading to an upper room or entresol, where, in the poorer instances, the shopkeeper might actually reside. To the aristocratic Roman, with his contempt of petty trade, "born in the shop-loft" was a contemptuous phrase for a "son of nobody."