Have you ever shouted, “The rent is too damn high”? Watched your monthly rent payments skyrocket with no end in sight? Dodged disgusting vermin? You're not alone. The ancient Romans had the same problems with their apartments. From slumlords to sanitation problems, pests to putrid odors, Roman urban living was no walk in the park., especially with tiles and waste falling down on you from windows above.
Shoved Together in Uncomfortable Quarters
Even in the very early days of Rome, people were shoved together in uncomfortable quarters. Wrote Tacitus, “This collection of animals of every kind mixed together, distressed both the citizens by the unusual stench, and the peasants crowded together into their close apartments, with heat, want of sleep, and their attendance on each other, and contact itself propagated the disease.” That continued on into the Republic and empire.
Roman tenements were called insulae, or islands, because they occupied whole blocks, with the roads flowing around them like water around an island. The insulae, often consisting of six to eight apartment blocks built around a staircase and central courtyard, housed poor workers who couldn't afford a traditional domus or house. Landlords would rent out the very bottom spots to shops, much like modern apartment buildings.
Scholars have estimated that 90 to 95 percent of the population of the port town of Ostia resided in insulae. To be fair, there are dangers in applying data from other cities, especially Ostia, where insulae were often well-built, to Rome itself. By the fourth century A.D., though, there were around 45,000 insulae in Rome, as opposed to fewer than 2,000 private homes.
Lower Floors Had Wealthiest Tenants
Many people would have been crammed into their quarters, and, if you were fortunate enough to own your apartment, you could sublet it, leading to lots of legal complications. Not much has changed, let's be honest. Apartments-a.k.a. cenacula-on the lower floor would be the easiest to access and, therefore, contain the wealthiest tenants; while poorer individuals were precariously perched on higher floors in tiny rooms called cellae.
If you lived on the top floor, life was a trip. In Book 7 of his Epigrams, Martial told the story of a gluttonous social hanger-on named Santra, who, once he finagled an invitation to a dinner party, pocketed as much food as he could. “These things he carries home with him, up some two hundred steps,” Martial noted, and Santra sold the food the next day for a profit.
All Falls Down
Often made of concrete-covered brick, insulae usually contained five or more stories. They were sometimes so flimsily built, thanks to poor craftsmanship, foundations, and building materials, that they collapsed and killed passersby. As a result, emperors restricted how high landlords could construct insulae.
Augustus limited the height to 70 feet. But later, after the Great Fire in 64 A.D.-during which he supposedly fiddled-Emperor Nero “devised a new form for the buildings of the city and in front of the houses and apartments he erected porches, from the flat roofs of which fires could be fought, and these he put up at his own cost.” Trajan later lowered the maximum building height to 60 feet.
Building Codes and Slumlords
Builders were supposed to make walls at least an inch and a half thick, so as to give people a lot of room. That didn't work so well, especially since building codes probably weren't followed, and most tenants were too poor to prosecute slumlords. If insulae didn't fall down, they could be washed away in a flood. That's about the only time their inhabitants would get natural water since there was rarely in-home plumbing in an apartment.
They were so unsafe that the poet Juvenal quipped in his Satires, “Who fears, or ever feared, that their house might collapse” in the countryside? No one, obviously. Things were very different in the city, however, he said: “We inhabit a Rome held up for the most part by slender props since that's the way management stop the buildings falling down.” The insulae caught fire frequently, Juvenal noted, and those on the upper floors would be the last to hear warnings, he said: “The last to burn will be the one a bare tile protects from the rain.”
Strabo, in his Geography, commented that there was a vicious cycle of houses burning down and collapsing, sales, then subsequent reconstruction on the same site. He observed, “The building of houses… goes on unceasingly in consequence of the collapses and fires and repeated sales (these last, too, going on unceasingly); and indeed the sales are intentional collapses, as it were since the purchasers keep on tearing down the houses and build new ones, one after another, to suit their wishes.”
Some of the most famous Romans were slumlords. The illustrious orator and politician Cicero derived a lot of his income from rents from insulae he owned. In a letter to his best friend Atticus, Cicero discussed turning an old bath into tiny apartments and urged his pal to outbid everyone for the property he wanted. The uber-wealthy Marcus Licinius Crassus supposedly waited for buildings to burn down-or perhaps set the blazes himself-to snap them up at a bargain price. One can only wonder if he then hiked the rent…