Roman Insulae - ancient Roman apartment houses
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Roman Apartments (Insulae)

Ostia insula
Ostia (can you see where the wooden
balconies would have been?)

May 2016 - In big cities, most Romans lived in apartment buildings we call insulae (IN-sue-lie), or islands (because they often took up a whole city block). During the 100s AD, there were almost 50,000 apartment buildings in Rome (mostly with many families living in them), and fewer than 2000 private houses. At first insulae were usually built of wood. They were usually three or four stories high.

stairs going up
A staircase in a Roman insula (Ostia)

Later, because of the risk of fire, insulae were more often built of brick. We have many insulae preserved to look at today, especially in the Roman port town of Ostia, near Rome. There are also insulae at Pompeii, and at Italica in Spain.

Which would you rather live in, an insula or a house? Why? Suppose you were a slave?

Bibliography and further reading about Roman insulae:

City : A Story of Roman Planning and Construction, by David Macaulay (1983). For kids - brilliant!

Houses, Villas, and Palaces in the Roman World, by Alexander McKay (1998). For historians, by a specialist.

The City in the Greek and Roman World, by E. J. Owens (1992). Also by a specialist, about town planning.

Roman Architecture
Ancient Rome
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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