CHAPTER IX. THE ROMAN TOWN HOUSE

Facing you in the middle of the vestibule are double or folding doors, more or less ornate with bronze, ivory, and other work, and generally bearing a large ring or handle to serve either as a knocker or to pull the door to. Above them is a bronze grating or fretwork for further adornment and to admit light and air. Some householders, more superstitious or conventional than the rest, affected an inscription, such as "Let no evil enter here," and over some humbler entrance you might find a cage containing a parrot or magpie, which had been trained to say "Good luck to you" in Greek. At either side of the door, or of the actual entrance to the vestibule, is a column or pilaster, either made of timber and cased with other woods of a more beautiful and costly kind, or consisting of coloured marble with an ornate capital. These "doorposts" were wreathed with laurel or other foliage on festal occasions, such as when the occupant had won some distinguished honour in the field, in the courts, or at the elections, or when a marriage took place from within. At funerals small cypress trees or branches would be placed in and about the vestibule. At one side of it you might sometimes find a smaller door, to be used for the ordinary going in and out when it was unnecessary or inconvenient for the larger doors to be opened.

The doors themselves turn, not upon hinges of the modern kind, but upon pivots, which move, often too noisily, in sockets let into the threshold and lintel. The fastenings consisted of locks - often highly ingenious - of a bar laid across from wall to wall, of bolts shot across or upward and downward, and sometimes of a prop leaning against the inside of the door and entering a cavity in the floor of the passage. The floor of the entrance passage itself might be paved with marble tiles, or made simply of a polished cement with or without patterns worked in it; or it might consist of small cubes of stone, white and black or more variously coloured, frequently worked into figures, and now and then accompanied by an inscription just within the threshold, such as "Greeting" or "Beware the Dog." In one Pompeian house the floor bears the well-known mosaic likeness of a dog held upon its chain. At the side of the passage there is often a smaller room for the janitor. When there is none, he must be supposed to have used a movable seat.

Passing through the passage, you find yourself in a rectangular hall, upon which was lavished the chief display in the way of loftiness and decoration. In the middle of the ceiling is an open space, square or oblong, to which the tiles of the gabled roof converge from above, and in the middle of the floor beneath is a corresponding basin, edged and paved with coloured or plain marble. The basin is of no great depth, and contains the water which has been poured into it from the ornamental pipe-mouths of bronze or terra-cotta projecting, like gargoyles, from the edge of the opening above. Sometimes the basin contained a fountain. There is of course an outlet pipe for the surplus water, but some of that overflow often ran into a covered cistern, over which you would find a small circular well-mouth, ornamented with sculptured reliefs. The opening in the ceiling may be formed simply by the space between the four cross-beams, or it may be supported by a pillar - of marble or of brick cased with marble - at each corner, or it may rest upon a greater number of such pillars. It is this opening which lets in the light and air to the hall, and it should always be remembered that the Italian house had more occasion to seek coolness and freshness than warmth. On a day of glaring sunshine and heat it was always possible to spread under the opening an awning or curtain of purple or other colour, of which the reflected hues meanwhile lent a richness to the space below. If we take one of the finer houses, we shall see, in glancing at the ceiling which covers the rest of the hall, that it is divided into sunken panels or coffers, which are adorned with reliefs in stucco and are painted, or else are decorated with copper, gold or ivory. The height may be whatever the owner wishes, but perhaps 25 feet would be a modest average estimate. The floor in such a house will generally consist of slabs of marble or of marble tiles arranged in patterns. In houses of less show it may be made of the same materials as those described for the entrance passage. To right and left are various chambers, shut off by lofty doors or by portieres or both. To these light is admitted their doors and the gratings over them, from the high window-slits already mentioned in the outer wall, or sometimes, when there is no upper storey, from sky-lights. And here let it be observed that the notion that the Romans of this date used very little glass is altogether erroneous, as the discoveries at Pompeii and elsewhere sufficiently prove.