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. They often had latrines built into them on each floor. But you had to go down to the street fountains to get water.
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.
Many insulae had shops and restaurants on the ground floor, like our city apartment buildings today. Often they had fast food places called thermopolia because you could get hot food there. Some of the nicer insulae were built around four sides of a small enclosed garden, but poorer people lived in crowded apartment buildings without gardens, just narrow airshafts to let in light.
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Which would you rather live in, an insula or a house? Why? Suppose you were a slave?
More about Roman houses
More about Roman fast-food restaurants
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.