Living at Home

After his forced exile from the city of Mecca, Muhammad was a man without a home. After a period of wandering, the prophet and his followers found refuge in the city of Medina in 622, and Muhammad acquired a plot of land from locals there which eventually became his new residence in the city. Over the centuries, Muslim leaders would build, rebuild, and renovate constructions on that holy site as it became one of the most extravagant buildings in the Islamic world, but the home that once stood there was humble in comparison. The prophet’s home was based on the pre-Islamic architectural traditions of Arabia that were common among the wealthy at this time, utilizing  a large uncovered courtyard, surrounded by three roofed sections of the complex to accommodate guests and worshippers looking to pray, along with the private quarters of Muhammad and his family. The complex was built with sun-dried mud bricks, clay, and both the trunks and leaves of palm trees—the trunks being used as columns to support its roof—utilizing the most prevalent natural resources located within the immediate region.

Plan of Muhammad's home in Medina.

While Muhammad never expressly outlined how places of worship should be framed or constructed, the use of the structural space in his Medinan home proved to be influential for how mosques were built across the early Islamic world, as architects across the Middle East and Mediterranean brought on their own regional characteristics. Mosques would go on to feature a space for worshipers to congregate and pray, a qibla to indicate the direction of Mecca that followers would pray towards, and a roof that would allow for protection from the weather. With the Medinan framework, Muslims were able to create a uniquely Islamic framework of construction that was separate from the architectural traditions of the Mediterranean.

By contrast, typical of the lower-class living spaces in the Roman Mediterranean, most urban dwellers took up residence in insulae. A single structure would house multiple families in the insulae units within them.  Often the rooms on the ground floor served as locations for stores and businesses, with numerous floors above them to accommodate residents. The residential spaces within the insulae were intended to accommodate virtually all free individuals that were below the upper class. Construction materials varied on location and economic situation, but could vary from timber to concrete, and the size of the buildings were often large enough to encompass a city block, or at least be a sizable portion of one.   

An example of insulae from the second century CE in Ostia.

While the framework of the insulae can be dated back to the Roman Republic, there is evidence that the structures continued to be popular through the Mediterranean world in the late antique period, proving to be an economical and convenient method of residential space within the confines of urban areas. The structures could also be constructed on sloping landscapes, providing much-needed residential space in a location that would be unfit for larger complexes but fitting for more vertically-minded constructions. Insulae  would also collapse overtime and be rebuilt on top of the ruins of older structures.

 The domus typified the domestic spaces of middling to elite urban residents. They often varied in shape and size according to local needs of space; yet the rooms often opened up to a modest, central peristyle, or courtyard. In the city of Augusta Emerita in the province of Hispania, the Casa Basilica, which probably doubled as a collegia, or gathering space, adjoined the theatre there. Through the vestibule, with rooms which doubled as shops or separate apartments, one entered the courtyard and finally passed into the dining room, or triclinium, fit with paintings. In the city of Emerita, the so-called “Casa de los Marmoles,” on the other hand, accommodated the city walls by its trapezoid shape. The domus was greatly expanded with multiple rooms in the fourth century. Having a plain, marble floor, the domus similarly opened onto a central peristyle, surrounded by insulae, two bathing rooms, and a triclinium. In both cases, after the fifth and sixth centuries, both domus were replaced by independent apartment complexes. In the case of the Casa de los Marmoles, the peristyle, due to its central well, became common pastoral ground. This pattern more broadly exemplifies the pragmatic reuse and subdivision of living space. Once attributed to increased “barbarization” of the provinces, scholars are now uncertain as to whether the increased use of perishable elements like daub, stucco, and paint rather than stone and frescoes reflects genuine impoverishment or simply a cultural shift.

Aerial view of Villa del Casale (currently under renovation)

Late antique villas only underscore the initial, increased privatization of the public sphere in Late Antiquity. Indeed, the estate on the Caelian Hill, before its renovation by Pammachius and Paulina in the fourth century, replaced a collection of insulae in the second century and sported its own nymphaeum, or fountain, in the courtyard. These villas often represented entire, enclosed worlds unto their own, acting like ancient “gated communities.” Not only the “super-rich” built villas, but even the moderately ambitious could commission smaller versions, complete with the architectural signs of cultured discoursesuch as depictions of philosophers or classical mythsto show literary interest. For example, at the Villa del Casale, built in Sicily at Piazza Armerina in the fourth century, the owner boasted images of Hercules in the dining triclinium, unusually crowned with Dionysian ivy leaves.

Hercules mosaic in the triclinium

The villa also contained controlled public space, audience halls, and banquet halls for the powerful who wished to do business ensconced at home. Its decor served to project the public face of the owner.  At the Villa del Casale, as shown on a fresco in the “Hall of the Great Hunt,” the owner is shown dramatically overseeing the capture of exotic animals. With a different fresco showing female athletes, he made sure his guests saw him immortalized as the sponsor of  athletic competitions for women. In the private baths of the villa, the walls featured depicitons of circus races in Rome’s Circus Maximus. The villa, no matter what size, played a critical role in social competition. Above all, they were designed to awe, delight, and impress visitors as much as serve the creature comforts of the occupants.

Following the downsizing trend of late antiquity, the impressive Villa del Casale radically evolved after the seventh century. Some scholars have proposed the baths became a semi-public oratory due to the discovery of vigil lamps with Christian symbolism. On the other hand, while some areas remained untouched, others were replaced with multiple, private residences unrelated to the previous structure. Following the larger shifts in cities as described below, the needs of people had changed, and these were reflected in the alterations to the Villa del Casale.

By the fifth century, some residential spaces were creeping into previously public areas of civic life, as shown in the remnants of North African cities. Urban centers shifted away from public values of local pride, civic display, and aristocratic patronage to control by more distant imperial bureaucracies. Some cities undertook a profound and practical reuse of civic space as even amphitheatres were transformed into makeshift housing complexes. Whether due to changing religious scruples concerning the amphitheatre games or not, theatres and amphitheatres in cities like Lepcis Magna and Sabratha were stripped of their materials and broken up into low-scale living spaces.

Domestic reuse of amphitheatres at Sabratha and Lepcis Magna

These exemplify the widening, although not uniform, loss of civic centers as the imperial-administrative complex wore on in favor of greater functional use, as seen in the transformation of forums into olive presses. While still venerated in lip-service, state authorities no longer defended the absolute importance of public space as a necessary part of a citizen’s life. Similarly, in Carthage, the public colonnade along the main road was walled up in favor of private occupation. Even the forum itself at Belalis Major lost out to private housing. In part, this represented simply the living growth of urban centers. For example, even in the second century, the once-frequented Temple of Isis in the city of Baelo Claudia in Hispania was subdivided into multiple family dwellings.   In a trend best exemplified by the end of the late antique period, local social and economic needs trumped the civic ideal of the classical Roman city. This should not be seen as decline but rather as the responsive evolution of living spaces. 


Further Readings:



Alaric Powell and Joel Cerimele