Make Roma Great Again
ru | en


Грачева А.Д.

Attention! The text below was auto-translated from Russian. You can switch the site language to Russian to see the text in its original language or wait until it is fully translated.

Insula (Latin insula - island) – an ancient Roman multi-storey residential building in which middle-class and poor people rented housing. At first, such buildings appeared in Rome itself, and later spread to many other cities of the Empire.

In Rome, since the time of the Republic, the number of inhabitants increased, more and more merchants, craftsmen and just people of different social status appeared, many of whom could not afford not only luxury houses with an atrium in the city center or outside the city limits, but also their own housing in general. It should be noted that Rome was limited in the availability of free land: in the center of the capital there were a large number of temples, houses of wealthy citizens, and later forums. The lack of land in the city led to a high price for it. Ordinary citizens who worked in cities settled in apartment buildings-insula, with 4-5 floors.

Reconstruction of the Roman insula. Outside view
Reconstruction of the Roman insula. Outside view
Reconstruction of the Roman insula inside

Here is what Cicero says about similar buildings in Rome, of which, it should be noted, there were a great many: "Rome ... rose to the top and hung in the air " (Cic., De leg. arg. II. 35). Over time, insula began to be built in many Roman cities, for example, they were in Pompeii and Ostia. Depending on the population of a particular city, land prices and the social status of tenants, the number of insula and the number of floors in them varied. The construction of such houses was carried out by the future homeowner, who rented it out completely to one person. The tenants paid for the apartments not to the landlord, but to this large tenant, who paid the rent to the landlord. Residents reserved the right to dispose of their rooms as they saw fit. Insuls were designed for people of different social incomes, so both externally and internally the houses were different: some had some sort of decoration, others were completely devoid of it. If there was a need and money allowed, residents could increase or decrease their apartments. It is important to note that one apartment of a wealthy person could occupy an entire floor, and sometimes two, which were connected by a staircase. But this applies only to rich residents, an ordinary person of average income could not afford such a luxury and huddled in a small two-room apartment.

People with very low incomes lived, if not on the streets and not in their workshops, then in insula for two or three families in one apartment, as a rule, such apartments were located on the upper floors. There was also a category of people for whom the apartment "under the tiles" was inaccessible, they had to settle in basements and crypts (Sergeenko E. M. Life of ancient Rome.P. 89).

Insuls had many disadvantages that neither rich guests nor poor people could avoid. First of all, such houses did not have running water except on the ground floor, and this was not always the case, since permission to run water into the house had to be obtained from the authorities, and homeowners were often refused. Residents of 2-5 floors had to drag water up the stairs, which were often located from the outside of the building. There was also no semblance of modern garbage chutes and centralized landfills – waste and garbage were thrown directly out of the window. Roman insulae did not provide toilets, although they did exist in the houses of Ostia. Here is what Juvenile writes about this: "windows where people are awake: broken dishes fly from above; it's good if only a bulky bowl is thrown out." (Juven., III, 269-277) There was no heating in the houses, and the tenants had to build something similar to modern mangalas in their rooms. The water was heated over a fire in special vessels. To preserve the heat in the rooms, mica or shutters were inserted into the windows, since glass was very expensive (Sergeenko E. M. Life of ancient Rome.P. 89).

Insula Aracoeli at the foot of the Capitol. Rome. Modern look
Insula in the Forum Trajan with shops on the ground floor, mezzanines and apartments above. Rome. Modern look
The Domus on Caelia on Clivus Scauri, built into the Church of Saints John and Paul, was created in the IV century by combining two multi-apartment insula. Modern look

Another problem with insuls is that their layout is not always convenient and their construction materials are cheap. Homeowners saved on construction costs. Like any entrepreneurs, they tried to get as much profit as possible for less investment, and on small plots of land multi-storey buildings grew up, which could accommodate a large number of residents. Often, a disproportionately high building was built on a small square and a shallow foundation (5-6 m), which led to numerous landslides. In the future, the emperors began to combat this problem by issuing laws that limited the height of the insula. The appearance of the first insula and the invention of cement dates back to the third century BC. This building material is strong, provided that the proportions of its components are observed: bute (small crushed stone, broken bricks, clay shards, marble fragments) mixed with red pozzolan (special volcanic sand). Red pozzolan was expensive, and it was replaced with dark gray, which made the cement, and therefore the building itself, short-lived. The floors in the insula were built of wood.

Booth number
Red Pozzolan
Image of Insula in a fresco in Villa Boscoreale I in BC Modern view

If you put all of the above together, it turns out that most insula were built from a short-lived flammable material, without centralized water supply and heating, with a center of flame in almost every apartment. It is not surprising that Plutarch refers to fires and landslides in one of his biographies as "cohabitants of Rome" (PL., Crass.2). It is necessary to say a few words about the insula of the cities of Ostia and Pompeii. The apartment buildings here were similar in layout to those in the capital. They, like the Roman ones, mostly did not have peristyles and faced the street with walls in which small light holes were made. Most of the houses of Ostia have survived, but only their lower parts, although there is no doubt that they were multi-tiered, although lower than in Rome itself (Hartmann K. O. History of Architecture.T1. S. 264).

Now let's turn to the houses of rich tenants that were excavated in Pompeii. The first of these houses is a house with triclinics, a large open courtyard surrounded by a portico, which resembles a peristyle; the House of the Muses with an apartment of twelve rooms on the 1st floor, with frescoes and mosaics made by first-class craftsmen; the House of the Dioscuri, one of the largest and most beautiful Ostian insulae with a built-in bath (Sergeenko E. M. Life of Ancient Rome.P. 77).

The insula of Pompeii were different from both the Ostian and Roman apartment buildings. Pompeii was a provincial city, and there was no need for very tall buildings. In the city, two-story apartment buildings were built, the first floors of which were made of stone, and the second of wood. Middle-class people could afford to set up a workshop on the first floor, and use the second floor as living rooms. The upper floors of both the Insula of Pompeii and Ostia jutted out somewhat above the street (Hartmann K. O. History of Architecture.T1. S. 265).

Insula in Ostia Antica (Italy). Modern look
Insula in Ostia Antica (Italy). Modern look
Reconstruction of the insula in Pompeii

In conclusion, it can be noted that today multi-storey houses for people of average income, as well as then, during the Roman Republic, are built as low as possible, as high as possible and do not differ in special decor.


1. Hartman K. O. Istoriya Arkhitektury [History Of Architecture].T1. Moscow: Izogiz Publ., 1936-267 p.

2. Decimus Junius Juvenal. Satires. St. Petersburg: Aleteya Publ., 1994-224 p.

3. Marcus Tullius Cicero. Speeches. In 2 volumes. Moscow: Nauka. 1993-444c.

4. Plutarch. Comparative biographies in 2 volumes, Moscow: Nauka Publ., 1961-503 p.

5. The Life of Ancient Rome-Sergeenko. pdf

Related topics

Roman water supply system, Roman roads