Roman Insulae and the House of Diana: A Western Contemporary Perspective (Essay)

House of Diana, Ostia, ItalyIntroduction

Ancient Roman society maintained a steadfast orbit around its powerful leaders. These figures, owning incredible influence and authority, were larger than life in their time, and often deified after. Today, the story of their succession provides a political narrative accompanied and informed by archeological evidence. These physical remains, which tend to depict Roman life and governance, aid in the historical understanding of the ancient world and thus Western Civilization. The most studied architectural building types, or genres include the forum, temple, market hall, basilica, circus, theatre, bath house, mausoleum, and triumphal arch, which remain today as artifacts representing the political dynamics of the period and the human and material capital expended for construction. In addition to their role as forensic objects, the Roman ruins have profoundly shaped every aspect of Western Architecture, Engineering, City Planning and Design from their earliest days of service.

In Europe, Asia Minor, and The New World, the [physical] framework for civilization set out by the Romans informed urban planning, building design and construction, and a system of hierarchy for our built environment. Echoing Roman precedent (or in cities once under the Empire’s rule), buildings with monumental, civic, and religious purposes have since occupied the prominent nodes within an urban setting.

In contrast, domesticity has been [naturally] adapted to the subordinate acreage of a city, in “polite deference” (1) to those spaces which are communal. Obvious exceptions to this rule are the Roman palace, domus, and villa genres, which provided cues for subsequent elite classes to follow suit, often using extravagance and locale as their chief symbols of status. Still, the majority of Romans were not elite, senatory, nor even bourgeoisie, and like all civilized cities to follow, these middle and lower classes represented the undisputed majority, often by several orders of magnitude. It is the residential housing of this majority which will be examined in this study, since this genre is prone to scholars’ neglect as a building type – perhaps for its perfunctory or infrastructural nature – even as it may be the most important model for contemporary building today, especially as a world-wide exodus into cities gains momentum.

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