A Day in Old Rome: A Picture of Roman Life

By William Stearns Davis | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
THE HOMES OF THE LOWLY AND OF THE MIGHTY

26. The Great Insulæ -- Tenement Blocks. -- Perhaps another age will imagine that most Romans have lived in vast marble palaces, moving through spacious halls amid stately pillars and spraying fountains. Nothing like this is the case for the great majority. A census report declares "there are some 44,000 tenement blocks (insulæ) in the city and only about 1750 separate 'mansions' (domus)."1 Such figures can merely imply that an overwhelming proportion of "the toga-wearing race, the Lords of the world" (to quote Virgil's threadbare line) are flat-dwellers.

Considering the extreme congestion of population, no other solution than this is possible if Rome is to remain Rome. There is a great profit in building these huge, ungainly "islands," the tenement blocks. Everywhere around the city we meet the gangs of laborers mixing the concrete whereof the structures are mostly constructed, or setting the wooden molds to shape the material as it solidifies; or else tearing down and carting away the wreckage of insulæ that have begun to decay. Such property employs a great amount of capital. Nearly every senator has his men of business caring for his housing investments and rentals, and the "realtor" is a very familiar personage.

Rightly is it complained also that many insulæ are put up in a cheap and absolutely dangerous manner, and at

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1
These figures seem to come from the fourth century, but there is no reason to think that housing conditions in Rome had changed very much since the second century.

-34-

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