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Houses in Roman Italy - 10 credits (HS4363)

Staff: Ruth Westgate

This module is an introduction to the study of ancient houses, focusing on Italy in the late Republic and early Principate (second century BC to second century AD). It examines the architecture and decoration of houses, villas, apartments and palaces in Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia, and considers various approaches to interpreting them and using them as historical evidence. Literary sources such as Vitruvius, Cicero, Pliny and Petronius are used to give an insight into the role of the house in Roman social and political life. Although the module focuses on Roman Italy, it introduces methods and approaches that can be applied to housing in any period or place.

Optional for: all Archaeology and Ancient History degrees
Availability: spring semester in alternate years
Teaching: 10 lectures and 2 seminars
Assessment: one essay (50%) and one 1-hour examination (50%)

Syllabus content

  • the development of Roman housing in the late Republic and early Principate, and its relationship to social and economic change
  • interior decoration: the meaning and function of wall painting, mosaics and sculpture
  • domestic space and society: concepts of public and private space; the relationship between space, gender and status
  • reconstructing the use of space through texts, architecture, artefacts and decoration
  • the economic role of the household
  • the house as political power-base; Roman debates about luxury and propriety
  • the development of the Imperial palace


  • To gain a knowledge of Roman domestic architecture, the domestic life of the Romans, and the role of the house in Roman society and politics.
  • To learn about ways of interpreting and understanding the archaeological remains of houses and related literary evidence, and in particular about the debates which have directed research into Roman houses.

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, the student will demonstrate:

  • a knowledge of the archaeological evidence for Roman housing.
  • a knowledge of the literary sources relevant to Roman domestic life.
  • an understanding of key approaches and debates relevant to the interpretation of domestic architecture.
  • an ability to evaluate the evidence critically with reference to these approaches and debates.
  • an appreciation of the problems encountered when trying to interpret archaeological and literary evidence together.
  • an ability to discuss these issues in written work with coherent and logical arguments, clearly and correctly expressed.

Preliminary reading

I. M. Barton, Roman Domestic Buildings (1996)
J. R. Clarke, The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250. Ritual, Space, and Decoration (Berkeley 1991)
S. P. Ellis, Roman Housing (2000)
S. J. Hales, The Roman House and Social Identity (2003)
R. Laurence, Roman Pompeii: Space and Society (1996)
R. Laurence & A. Wallace-Hadrill (eds.), Domestic Space in the Roman World: Pompeii and Beyond (1997)
E. Leach, The Social Life of Painting in Ancient Rome and on the Bay of Naples (2004)
R. J. Ling, Roman Painting (1991)
J. T. Smith, Roman Villas: A Study in Social Structure (1998)
A. Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (1994)
P. Zanker, Pompeii: Public and Private Life (1998)

Related modules

Prerequisite modules: HS2102 Archaeology of the Greek and Roman World or HS3102 Introduction to Roman History

Other modules to consider taking in conjunction with this one:

HS3316 Conquest and Crisis: The Roman Republic

HS3317 Roman Imperial History 31 BC–AD 138

HS4356 Hellenistic Art and Architecture

HS4358 Life in Ancient Rome

HS4368 Art and Power in Rome, 211 BC–AD 138

HS4308 Death and Burial in the Roman World