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Title: Insulae  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Roman villa, Ancient Roman architecture, Apartment, Ancient Rome, Outline of classical architecture, House of the Faun
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


In Roman architecture, an insula (Latin for "island," plural insulae) was a kind of apartment building that housed most of the urban citizen population of ancient Rome, including ordinary people of lower- or middle-class status (the plebs) and all but the wealthiest from the upper-middle class (the equites). The traditional elite and the very wealthy lived in domus, large single-family residences, but the two kinds of housing were intermingled in the city and not segregated into separate neighborhoods.[1] The ground-level floor of the insula was used for tabernae, shops and businesses, with the living space upstairs. Like modern apartment buildings, an insula might have a name, usually referring to the owner of the building.[2]


Strabo notes that insulae, like domus, had running water and sanitation. But this kind of housing was sometimes constructed at minimal expense for speculative purposes, resulting in insulae of poor construction. They were built in timber, mud brick, and later primitive concrete, and were prone to fire and collapse, as described by Juvenal, whose satiric purpose in writing should be taken into account. Among his many business interests, Marcus Licinius Crassus speculated in real estate and owned numerous insulae in the city. When one collapsed from poor construction, Cicero purportedly stated that Crassus was happy that he could charge higher rents for a new building than the collapsed one.[3]

Living quarters were typically smallest in the building's uppermost floors, with the largest and most expensive apartments being located on the bottom floors. The insulae could be up to six or seven storeys high, and despite height restrictions in the Imperial era, a few reached eight or nine storeys.[4] The notably large Insula Felicles or Felicula was located near the Flaminian Circus in Regio IX; the early Christian writer Tertullian condemns the hubris of multiple-story buildings by comparing the Felicles to the towering homes of the gods.[5] A single insula could accommodate over 40 people in only 3,600 sq ft (330 m2); however, the entire structure usually had about 6 to 7 apartments, each had about 1000 sq ft

Because of safety issues and extra flights of stairs, the uppermost floors were the least desirable, and thus the cheapest to rent. Often those floors were without heating, running water or lavatories, which meant their occupants had to use Rome's extensive system of public restrooms (latrinae). Despite prohibitions, residents would sometimes dump trash and human excrement out the windows and into the surrounding streets and alleys.

Regulation and administration

Because of the dangers of fire, and collapse, the height of the insulae were restricted by Augustus to 70 Roman feet called the pes (20.7 m), and again by Emperor Nero down to 60 Roman feet (17.75 m) after the Great Fire of Rome. According to the 4th-century regionaries, there were about 42,000–46,000 insulae in the city, as compared to about 1,790 domus in the late 3rd century. Data on the number of insulae and to a lesser extent domus are used for classical demography. The city's population in the late 3rd century is thought to have fluctuated between 700,000–800,000, down from more than 1 million, based also on figures for the amount of grain to feed the population in Rome and surrounding areas.


External links

  • Photo of Insulae in Ostia
  • Model of another insula in Ostia
  • Insula 9, an excavation of a Pompeii insula
  • Roman apartment building

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