Apartments in Ancient Rome

by N.S. Gill/ThoughtCo

In the city of ancient Rome, only the wealthy could afford to live in a domus—in this case, house, like a mansion. For most, Rome apartments—or the back rooms of their ground floor shops—were the affordable alternative, making Rome the first urban, apartment-based society. The Rome apartments were often in buildings called insulae (sg. insula, literally, ‘island’). Some Rome apartments may have been in buildings 7-8 stories high. Lodging houses were diversoria, where residents (hospites or diversitores) lived in cellae ‘rooms’.

Also Known As: Cenacula, Insulae, Aediculae (Frier)

Roman Apartment Terminology
Generally, insula is treated as a synonym for a Roman apartment building, although sometimes it can refer to the Rome apartments themselves or tabernae (shops), etc. The individual apartments in the insula were called cenacula (sg. cenaculum) at least in Imperial records known as the Regionaries.

The Latin that seems closest to Rome apartments, cenacula, is formed from the Latin word for a meal, cena, making cenaculum signify a dining area, but the cenacula were for more than dining. Hermansen says the balcony and/or windows of the Rome apartments were major centers of social life in Rome. Upper-story windows (on the buildings’ outsides) were illegally used for dumping. The Rome apartments may have contained 3 types of rooms:

cubicula (bedrooms)
exedra (sitting room)
medianum corridors facing the street and like the atrium of a domus.

Wealth Through Property

Romans, including Cicero, could become wealthy through property. One of the ways property equated with wealth was the income property generated when it was rented out. Slumlord or otherwise, landlords of the Rome apartments could develop the capital needed to enter the Senate and live on the Palatine Hill.


“Regionaries-Type Insulae 2: Architectural/Residential Units at Rome,” by Glenn R. Storey American Journal of Archaeology 2002.
“The Medianum and the Roman Apartment,” by G. Hermansen. Phoenix, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 342-347.
“The Rental Market in Early Imp

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