DOMUS, THE TOWNHOUSE

Knights and below lived in ground-or first-floor apartments in insulae, but patricians of senatorial rank traditionally operated – because theirs was a powerhouse too – from a domus, an ancestral town house, often sited on one of the Seven Hills of Rome. (We have seen how Caesar rejoiced at being able to abandon his in the Subura, which had become a slum.) Like townhouses in eighteenth-century London, graded from I to III, they varied in scale but all were designed to the same pattern. None was as grand as the houses of the rich in Park Lane, Park Avenue or the Champs-Elysées, although they would have needed more servants to function, for in a pre-mechanical age, a patrician with his resident barber and hairdresser for his wife also had to have messengers, stokers for the furnace, pole-bearers for the litters and the sedan chairs, a brigade as extensive as a London hotel’s for his chef – all slaves of course, and even an individual to announce the time of day. A resident poet laureate, might, engagingly, form part of the establishment.

In a large domus husband and wife slept in separate, barely furnished bedrooms, and the staff were crammed, sometimes locked, into basement rooms so small they were virtually cells. The regular domus was built as one rectangular floor, all rooms being lit from within, with no outside views, whether free-standing or part of a street; shops were let into the outside walls. If there was an upper floor it would not cover the whole building and the rooms would be small. Augustus, in the modest house he lived in for forty years which was sans mosaics, sans marble, sans anything much,57 retreated to an upper room he called ‘Syracuse’ for secret discussions. During the construction of the embankment for the Tiber, remains were found of five-storey houses with vaulted domes built into the rock, but these were as unusual as, say, the Countess of Seafield’s house on the south-east corner of Belgrave Square, or the Frick Mansion in Manhattan.

The domus was entered by a vestibule, where visitors waited (and were kept waiting unless you tipped the usher) looking at the statues and trophies of the ancestors of the owner, or indeed of the previous owner, since they were integral to the house. Giant double folding doors, ornate with bronze and ivory, faced the visitor (though the family could slip into the main part of the house via a side entrance, above which there would be an inscription or a parrot in a cage trained to say ‘Good luck’ in Greek). The doors gave on to a large rectangular reception hall where the wealth and style of the owner, in the shape of statues, brilliant – nay, garish – murals, mosaics and marble everywhere, especially for the basin and fountain which was in the middle of this space under the open skylight. It was a room designed for showing off. Seneca, with little right since he too was a self-indulgent millionaire, complains of the nouveau riche: ‘He seems to himself poor and mean unless the walls shine with great costly slabs, unless marbles of Alexandria are picked out with reliefs of Numidian stone, unless the whole ceiling is elaborately worked with all the variety of a painting, unless Thracian stone encloses the swimming-baths, unless the water is poured out from silver taps . . .’ Prominent was the strong box, secured to the floor by an iron rod, which held the family silver and money not lodged with a banker and which accompanied them on their travels. The private rooms opening off the hall through tall doors consisted of the dining-room, triclinium,(quite small because only three couches surrounded a table), bedrooms, the library (with up to 3,000 scrolls stored in pigeon-holes) and a picture gallery. Another room would be filled with family treasures and the wax death-masks of ancestors, which were trotted out for funerals and which, like much in Rome, could be bought by parvenus wanting instant lineage, just as ‘family’ portraits could be acquired by war profiteers – often what they were – in the twenties in England. Beyond the hall was the parlour where the master of the house would transact business and beyond that a window – the Romans used glass – with a view into the peristyle and garden, where the family could dine outside in the summer.

In winter, portable charcoal-burning braziers and a central-heating system from the furnace in the basement circulated hot air through ducts in the floors and walls. Lavatories were cued into the public sewers and water tapped from an aqueduct. (The Roman equivalent, for an ambitious maiden, of a ‘breakfast-eating Brooks Brothers guy’ was a man with a library and a private loo.) Furniture was scanty, consisting of couches and beds (without sheets and blankets but with a few cushions), chests and wardrobes, tripods, backless chairs and folding stools, all, like the kitchen utensils, beautifully made, with carved lamps burning olive oil. Investing in elaborate drinking vessels of crystal, gold and silver, encrusted with jewels, was a favourite way of spending money for Emperors (especially Nero) and subjects alike.

All in all, apart from the fact that a master or mistress could, in our period, have a slave crucified in the garden, the domus was a cosy place compared to the palaces of the rich in the capitals of later Empires.

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