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A.D. Gracheva

Insula (Latin for 'island') was an ancient Roman high-rise apartment building inhabited by middle- and low-income people who rented apartments. This type of building first appeared in Rome, later spreading to many other cities in the empire.

Since the times of the Republic, Rome had seen an increase in the number of inhabitants, with more and more merchants, craftsmen and ordinary people of varying social status, many of whom could not afford not only luxury houses with an atrium in the city centre or outside the city limits, but even their own dwellings. It should be noted that Rome had a shortage of available land: there were a large number of temples, houses of wealthy citizens and later forums in the centre. The lack of land led to its high price. Ordinary citizens, who worked in the cities, settled in the rental buildings with 4-5 floors, insulae.

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

Here is what Cicero says about similar constructions in Rome, the number of which was notably great: 'Rome… rose and hung in the air' (Cic., De leg. arg. II. 35). Over time, insulae have been built in many Roman cities, such as Pompeii and Ostia. The number of insulae and the number of floors depended on the city population, land prices and the social status of the tenants. These houses were built by the future landlord who rented them out in full to a single person. The tenants did not pay for the apartment to the landlord, but to this tenant who then paid rent to the landlord. The tenants could arrange their rooms as they wanted. The insulae were intended for people of different social backgrounds, so the interior and exterior of the houses differed: some had some decorations, others were completely devoid of them. If there was a need and money, the occupants could enlarge or diminish their apartments. It is important to note that a single apartment of a wealthy man could occupy an entire floor, sometimes even two floors connected by a staircase. But that only applied to wealthy tenants; the average person could not afford such luxury and squeezed into a small two-room apartment.

People with very low incomes lived either in the streets, or in their workshops, or in insulae with two or three families in one apartment; these apartments were usually on the upper floors. Then there was a category of people who could not even rent an apartment in a building roofed with tiles and had to live in basements and crypts (E. M. Sergeenko. Жизнь древнего Рима [Life of Ancient Rome]. P. 89).

Insulae had numerous drawbacks that neither rich tenants nor poor ones could avoid. Firstly, such houses had no running water except on the ground floor (and not in all cases), because permission to bring water into the house had to be obtained from the authorities, and landlords were often refused. Tenants on 2-5 floors had to drag water up the stairs, often located on the outside of the building. Nor was there any semblance of modern rubbish chutes or centralised landfills, with waste being thrown out of the window. There were no toilets in the Roman insulae, although there were in Ostian houses. Here is what Juvenal writes about this: 'Windows where the inmates are awake inside, as you pass by. Pray, therefore, and bear about with you this miserable wish, that they may be contented with throwing down only what the broad basins have held' (Juven., III, 269-277). Houses had no heating and tenants built some kind of fire pit in their rooms. Water was heated over a fire in special vessels. The window openings were filled with mica or shutters to keep warm, as glass was too expensive (E. M. Sergeenko. Жизнь древнего Рима [Life of Ancient Rome]. P. 89).

Insula dell'Ara Coeli at the foot of the Capitol. Rome. Modern view
Insulae at Trajan's Forum with ground-floor market stalls, mezzanine and apartments above. Rome. Modern view
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 of insulae was that their layout was not always convenient and the building material was cheap. Homeowners saved on construction, tried to get as much profit for a smaller investment like any other businessmen and built high-rise buildings that could accommodate a large number of occupants on small land plots. It was often the case that a disproportionately high building was built on a small area and shallow foundation (5-6 m), which led to numerous collapses. In the future, the emperors fought this problem by issuing limits on the height of the insulae. The first insulae and cement were invented in the 3rd century B.C. This building material is strong if the proportions of its components are observed: rubble (small crushed stone, broken bricks, clay crocks, marble shards) mixed with red pozzolana (special volcanic ash). The red pozzolana was expensive and was replaced by a dark grey one, which reduced the longevity of the cement and the structure. The ceilings in the insulae were constructed of wood.

Rabble stone
Red Pozzolan
Image of Insula in a fresco in Villa Boscoreale, I BC. Modern view

Putting all of the above together, it appears that most of the insulae were built of short-lived flammable material, with no centralized water supply or heating and with an open flame in almost every apartment. It is no wonder that Plutarch describes conflagration and collapse of buildings as the cohabitants of Rome in one of his biographies (PL., Crass.2). A word or two should be said about the insulae of Ostia and Pompeii. The rental buildings here had a similar layout to those in the capital. Most of them, like Roman ones, had no peristyle and faced the street with walls with small light holes. Most of the houses of Ostia have survived, but only their lower parts, though there is no doubt that they were tiered, though lower than in Rome (K. O. Hartmann. [History of Architecture]. V1. P. 264).

Now we turn to the houses of wealthy tenants that have been excavated in Pompeii. The first is the house with triclinia with a large open courtyard surrounded by a portico resembling a peristyle; the House of Muses with a twelve-room apartment on the ground floor, with frescos and mosaics by first-class masters; the House of the Dioscuri, one of the largest and most beautiful Ostian insulae with a built-in bath (E. M. Sergeenko. Жизнь древнего Рима [Life of Ancient Rome]. P. 77).

Pompeii insulae were different from both the Ostian and Roman buildings. Pompeii was a provincial town, and there was no need for very tall houses. The town built two-storey apartment buildings, the ground floors of which were made of stone, and the first floors were made of wood. Middle-income people could afford to have a workshop on the ground floor, while the first floor could be used as living rooms. The upper floors of both Pompeian and Ostian insulae slightly protruded over the street (K. O. Hartmann. История архитектуры [History of Architecture]. V1. P. 265).

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

To sum up, it may be said that modern multi-storey houses for people with moderate incomes, just as in Roman times, are built as cheaply as possible, as high as possible and without much decoration.


1. Hartman K. O.History of Architecture [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. 1993-444p.

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

5. Life of Ancient Rome-Sergeenko. pdf

Related topics

Roman water supply system, Roman roads