Don’t let the boys have all the fun! In case you haven’t heard about the viral Tik-Tok trend going around where women ask the men in their lives how often they think about the Roman empire, allow me to get you up to speed: Men think about the Roman Empire more often than you imagined they did.
Some would even say they are a little obsessed with it.
As designers who took architectural and art history as part of our education, we can’t exactly blame them. The legacy of Rome extends far beyond the enduring effects of its military conquests. Rome was just as much a cultural powerhouse as it was a political one.
Indeed, with all the renewed buzz about the Roman Empire, we’ve gotten a little thirsty for some of the best architectural, design and art history on the planet. So without further ado, here’s an awesome list of fifteen lesser-known facts about Roman Empire interior design that might just come in handy at your next block party or couples night.
1. Roman Interiors Had Underfloor Heating
Your underfloor heating system is not as modern as you thought. The idea of underfloor heating, that is, not precisely the way it’s designed. Yes, the innovative hypocaust heating system was used in Roman villas and bathhouses more than two millennia ago. How did it work? It circulated warm air beneath the floors and walls to create comfortable interiors.
To do this, the ancient Roman underfloor heating system actually utilized a network of raised supports and hollow tiles under the floors of buildings. A furnace, often located outside the structure, heated the air and circulated it through the voids, warming the floor above. This innovative method provided efficient and even heating for Roman baths, villas, and other structures. As you can imagine, this greatly improved comfort during the colder months. As if life under Nero’s rule wasn’t chilling enough!
Fun fact about Roman hypocausts: Not only were Roman hypocaust heating systems highly advanced, but they were even eco-friendly for their time. Besides providing warmth they also improved indoor air quality by circulating fresh, heated air. Experts claim that the design demonstrates the Romans’ impressive engineering and architectural skills and shows their early commitment to energy efficiency and comfort.
2. Roman Interior Frescoes Could Be “Naughty”
We’ve all heard about the racy scribbles and rude graffiti uncovered on the walls of Roman pubs which were excavated in the eighteenth century. But did you know that even upstanding Roman citizens enjoyed erotic art work?
It’s common knowledge that vibrant and intricate frescoes adorned the walls of Roman homes. What’s lesser known is that the themes used in these ancient paintings often crossed over to the risque in the private areas of the home? The more you know.
In ancient Rome, some murals and frescoes featured quite explicit and erotic content. These explicit artworks, often found in private homes and bathhouses, were known as “Erotic art” or “Roman erotica.” They depicted sexual acts and were intended for entertainment and possibly fertility rituals. These pieces provide insights into Roman attitudes toward sexuality and were seen as a form of amusement and, in some cases, a symbol of social status. Many such artworks have been preserved in sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum, offering a glimpse into the more risqué aspects of Roman culture.
Fun fact about erotic Roman art: Erotic art was not totally limited to the private sphere. Some explicit imagery has been found in public spaces, such as in the city of Pompeii. This suggests that the Romans were relatively open and unapologetic about sexual expression, even in more public contexts. It challenges modern perceptions of sexual taboos and underscores the differences in cultural attitudes toward eroticism between ancient Rome and contemporary society.
3. Roman Empire Mosaics: The Original ‘Instagram Story’
You might think that social media is only for millennials, and that everyone before the twenty-first century missed out, but that’s where you’d be wrong. The Romans actually had their own versions of reels and Instagram stories. How so? They might not have been as quick to produce, but mosaic floors in Roman times were created to depict scenes of everyday life. This evolved into their version of tile-crafted IG stories, telling popular ‘cult classics‘ and even urban legends through Roman interior design.
Roman mosaics were intricate and beautiful artworks made from tiny pieces of colored stone, glass, or ceramic called ‘tesserae‘. They often depicted everyday scenes and stories, providing valuable insights into Roman life and culture. These mosaics could be found in public buildings, villas, and even on the floors of ancient Roman homes. They showcased a wide range of subjects, from mythological tales to scenes of daily life, including gladiatorial contests, feasts, agricultural activities, and more. Roman mosaics were not only decorative but also served as a form of visual storytelling, preserving historical and cultural narratives for future generations.
A surprising fact about Roman mosaics is how durable they were. Many of these intricate artworks have survived for centuries, and their colors and details are remarkably well-preserved. This resilience is due to the durable materials used, such as stone and glass tesserae, as well as the practice of setting them in a layer of mortar, making them resistant to wear and tear. Some Roman mosaics have even been uncovered in excellent condition, providing invaluable insights into ancient life.
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4. Roman Empire Plumbing Was Actually State of the Art
The next time you flush your toilet, you might take a cue from your man and think of the Romans, too. In fact, the sophisticated plumbing systems of Roman houses went beyond the sanitary and included aqueducts, fountains, and indoor plumbing. These had a notable impact on both the legacy of interior design and home comfort.
The Romans developed an advanced plumbing system that was a marvel of engineering for its time. It included features such as aqueducts, lead pipes (okay, in hindsight that might not have been the best call), public baths, and sewage systems. The Roman aqueducts transported fresh water from distant sources to cities, providing a reliable water supply for public fountains, baths, and private residences. Lead pipes were used for distributing water within buildings. The sewage system featured underground conduits and drains to carry wastewater away from populated areas.
One surprising fact about Roman baths is that they had both hot and cold water. The Baths of Caracalla, for example, exemplified their sophisticated plumbing systems, with hot and cold water, and even a rudimentary form of central heating. This engineering achievement significantly contributed to public health and urban development. After all, who likes a cold shower?
5. Volcanic Excavation is Responsible for Our Love of Roman Design
The tragic end of life for the victims of the Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption of 79 AD was the really the beginning of fame for their culture. Under the ruins and rubble of the volcanic eruption that wiped out two whole cities lay archaeological discoveries that would catapult the romance of the Roman way of life to stardom in the western world and beyond. The preserved Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum still offer insights into the layout, decor, and lifestyle of Roman interiors, and they continue to influence architecture and interior design today.
The volcanic excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum is instrumental in our understanding of Roman design and daily life. These cities were remarkably well-preserved under layers of ash and pumice, providing a time capsule of Roman architecture, art, and culture. Archaeologists have unearthed structures, frescoes, mosaics, and everyday artifacts, offering invaluable insights into Roman urban planning, architectural styles, interior decoration, and the daily activities of its inhabitants. The preservation of these sites has greatly enriched our knowledge of ancient Roman civilization.
One fun tidbit about Roman design revealed by archaeology is the use of advanced earthquake-resistant construction techniques. In cities like Pompeii, researchers have discovered that Romans used a construction method known as “opus craticium,” which involved interlocking wooden frames filled with concrete. This technique allowed buildings to withstand seismic activity, like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and helped preserve many structures in remarkably good condition. It demonstrates the Romans’ early understanding of engineering principles. In fact, we still use these techniques for earthquake-resistant building design today.
6. Domus vs. Insulae Was Not a Gladiator Sport
Life in Roman times was fraught with danger, rampant inequality and difficult choices. Consider the very different living conditions of the Roman ‘one percent’ and the working or slave classes, evident in the building styles of domus vs. insulae. Not surprisingly the living spaces of the Roman elite (domus) existed in stark contrast with those of the common people (insulae), and a close look reveals great disparities in their interior design, size, and amenities.
In ancient Rome, “domus” and “insulae” referred to two different types of housing.
- Domus: A “domus” was a single-family home typically owned by wealthy Romans. These were spacious, well-appointed residences with multiple rooms, courtyards, and often included decorative elements like mosaics and frescoes. Domus houses were usually found in the city’s more upscale residential areas.
- Insulae: “Insulae” were apartment buildings or tenement housing. These were multi-story, often cramped living spaces, designed to accommodate the more substantial part of the population, including the lower and middle classes. Insulae were more basic in design and often lacked the amenities and luxuries of a domus.
The contrast between the two types of housing reflects the social and economic diversity of ancient Roman society. Domus obviously represented the wealthier elite, while insulae were a more practical and affordable housing option for the majority of the population. Then again, maybe some things don’t change all that much with the millenniums.
7. Roman Gardens Were More Formal Than Gardens Today
Was life in Roman times a walk in the park or a proverbial picnic for some people?
Especially if you swap out the word park for private garden. The role of gardens in Roman home design cannot be overstated. Their designs provided tranquil retreats for residents of the day and they still stand as sources of inspiration for modern landscape architecture.
It’s clear that the Romans placed great importance on gardens, and that they considered them an essential element of their lifestyle. Romans of all social classes, from the wealthy elite to the common citizens, valued gardens for their aesthetic and practical purposes. Gardens were places of relaxation, social gatherings, and cultural pursuits. They often featured ornate landscaping, sculptures, fountains, and carefully cultivated plants.
In modern times, many people still appreciate gardens, but the nature of urban living and changes in lifestyles have altered how we perceive and use them.
So did the Romans appreciate their gardens more than modern people do?
While the answer is relative to the modern home in question, and varies by region and neighborhood, it’s clear that gardens held a more significant role in Roman life and culture overall.
Wondering what made Roman gardens so special?
It turns out that Roman gardens differed from modern-day gardens in several ways:
- Purpose: Roman gardens often had a mix of practical and aesthetic purposes. They were used for growing herbs, fruits, and vegetables, in addition to serving as spaces for socializing and relaxation. Modern gardens often focus more on aesthetics and leisure.
- Layout: Roman gardens had a formal layout with geometric shapes, walkways, and symmetrical designs. Modern gardens can be formal or informal, but there’s a broader range of design possibilities.
- Plant Selection: Romans used a specific selection of plants like boxwood, myrtle, and roses, and they often incorporated them into geometric patterns. Modern gardens feature a wider variety of plant species from around the world.
- Water Features: Roman gardens frequently had elaborate water features, like fountains, reflecting pools, and artificial streams. While modern gardens can also include water features, their design and functionality differ.
- Sculptures and Art: Roman gardens were adorned with sculptures, statuary, and decorative elements. Modern gardens may or may not incorporate art to the same extent.
- Size and Location: Roman gardens were often smaller in scale and located within or around residences. In modern times, gardens can vary in size and be found in various settings, including public parks and botanical gardens.
- Technological Advancements: Modern gardening benefits from advanced horticultural knowledge, tools, and irrigation systems that Romans did not have.
The bottom line is that while there are significant differences between Roman and modern gardens, both reflect the values, aesthetics, and cultural contexts of their respective eras. Plus, the gardens we enjoy today probably wouldn’t be the same if it hadn’t been for the Romans.
8. Roman Design Endured Thanks to a Love of Rock
The Romans loved rock. Marble and stones, that is. Marble and stone materials were featured extensively in Roman interiors, showcasing a wide variety of materials, colors, and patterns used in flooring, walls, and columns.
The use of marble and stone held profound significance in Roman design. Romans valued the aesthetic beauty of stone, admiring the natural patterns and colors of these materials. They had a particular fondness for the pristine white appearance of marble. These materials were reserved for the grandest structures, symbolizing opulence and social status. But their beauty wasn’t their only quality.
Beyond their beauty, the durability of Roman building materials turned out to be a key asset, helping to ensure that Roman constructions would withstand the test of time. Marble and stone were versatile in nature and allowed for intricate carving and sculpting which greatly enhanced the grandeur of Roman designs. These natural materials also offered practical advantages, such as temperature control in Roman baths and improved acoustics in theaters.
The use of marble and stone wasn’t all the Roman’s own idea, though. In fact, these material choices represented a cultural homage to Greek architecture and art, which came long before. They also reflected a desire to emulate and surpass their predecessors. The use of marble and rock in Roman design showed off the technical expertise and craftsmanship of Roman architects and delivered aesthetic and also practical benefits.
Fun fact about the use of stone in Roman times: Vast quantities of stone were sourced from distant quarries as far afield as Greece, Turkey, and North Africa. The Romans transported these massive blocks over long distances. The construction of iconic structures like the Colosseum and the Pantheon involved the use of stone from various regions, demonstrating the Romans’ logistical and engineering prowess in acquiring and moving heavy materials. No easy feat!
9. The Romans Liked to Engineer Their Lighting
It’s time to shed a light on the Romans’ superb lighting skills. The ancient trend-setters used both natural light and innovative artificial lighting techniques, such as oil lamps and candles, to illuminate their interiors and create ambiance.
- Oil Lamps: Romans commonly used oil lamps for interior lighting. These lamps were typically made of clay, and some were quite ornate with decorative designs.
- Colored Glass: Some Roman oil lamps had colored glass or mica shades that added a touch of color and diffused light.
- Hanging Lamps: Romans had hanging lamps suspended from the ceiling or mounted on walls, providing functional and decorative lighting.
- Candle Power: Candles were also used, made from materials like tallow or beeswax. Wealthier Romans had access to beeswax candles, which produced brighter and cleaner light.
- Sconces: Wall-mounted sconces held candles and were often adorned with intricate designs or sculptural elements.
- Reflective Surfaces: Romans used reflective materials like polished metal or mirrors to amplify and distribute the available light, making the most of natural light during the day and artificial light at night.
- Candle Clocks: Romans sometimes used graduated candles as timekeeping devices. By measuring the time it took for a candle to burn down to a certain mark, they could estimate the passage of time.
- Lighting Rituals: Romans employed specific lighting rituals during religious ceremonies and festivities, using candles and lamps to create a mystical ambiance.
- Private and Public Lighting: While interior lighting was common in Roman households, public streets and buildings were often less well-lit.
Fun fact: The government of Rome was not responsible for lighting the streets at night. Instead, wealthier Romans provided lighting as a type of public service, demonstrating their status.
10. Roman Design Was Woven with Secrets
The Roman’s were lovers of cryptic and secretive design elements. Indeed, Roman interior design was rich with hidden symbols, religious iconography, and cultural references that conveyed deeper meanings.
One prominent feature was the use of frescoes and mosaics that often depicted mythological scenes, gods, and heroes. These artworks not only added to the aesthetic beauty of a space but also carried symbolic significance, connecting the occupants with the Roman pantheon of deities. For example, a fresco of Venus, the goddess of love, might be incorporated into a bedroom to symbolize love and fertility, while depictions of Neptune might be found in spaces associated with water, such as baths or fountains, to invoke protection and good fortune.
Roman design also incorporated architectural elements that held religious and cultural importance. The use of columns, for instance, symbolized strength and stability and was inspired by Greek architecture, highlighting the Romans’ admiration for their Hellenistic predecessors. The use of marble and stone in various colors and patterns had symbolic significance as well. For instance, black and white marble floors in some Roman temples symbolized the duality of life and death. In addition, the layout and orientation of rooms were often aligned with astronomical and religious principles, connecting the occupants with cosmic forces.
These intricate layers of symbolism and iconography demonstrated the Romans’ deep-rooted belief in the power of design to communicate cultural, religious, and even metaphysical ideas within the confines of their interior spaces.
11. Roman Bathhouses Were Not Just for Bathing
Roman bathhouses, or “thermae,” were celebrated for more compelling reasons than simply getting in a good scrub. Beyond bathing, they served as vibrant social and recreational hubs. These communal spaces were not just about cleanliness but also offered settings for exercise, relaxation, and social interaction. The array of amenities included hot and cold baths, saunas, swimming pools, and communal spaces, making them a central part of Roman social life. Additionally, the architectural design of many bathhouses was striking, featuring exquisite mosaics, frescoes, and intricate decorative elements, creating a luxurious and visually captivating atmosphere.
Roman bathhouses were inclusive long before it was cool. The public amenities were accessible to people from diverse social backgrounds. Public bathhouses ensured that even those with modest means could partake in the experience. This inclusivity, coupled with the promotion of personal hygiene and public health, underscored the broader cultural significance of these communal bathing spaces. As such, bathhouses became deeply ingrained in Roman daily life and culture, transcending their function as mere bathing facilities.
Why bathe at home when you can bathe with friends? The practice of not bathing at home can be attributed to the broader appeal of Roman bathhouses. Yes, personal hygiene was essential, but these public institutions offered a holistic experience that went beyond cleanliness. The communal nature of these spaces made them unique and made sure that Roman bathhouses remained an integral part of daily life for many.
12. The Influence of Roman Empire Design Lives On
It’s hard to forget about the Roman empire when the influence of Roman design continues to be evident in modern architecture and interior design in several important ways. Here are a few to know:
- Classical Architecture: Roman architectural elements like columns, arches, and domes continue to be foundational in classical and neoclassical architectural styles.
- Symmetry and Proportion: Romans valued balance and proportion in their designs, which remains a fundamental principle in contemporary interior design.
- Mosaics and Frescoes: The use of mosaics and frescoes to decorate spaces can be seen in modern interior design, adding artistic and decorative elements to homes.
- Marble and Stone: The use of marble, stone, and other natural materials in contemporary interiors reflects the enduring appeal of Roman design’s emphasis on durability and aesthetics.
- Atriums and Courtyards: The concept of open-air courtyards and atriums in interior spaces is seen in modern architecture, promoting natural light and ventilation.
- Centralized Spaces: Roman villa designs with a central open space surrounded by rooms are echoed in modern open-concept floor plans.
- Architectural Details: Modern interior design often incorporates architectural details like moldings, cornices, and ornamental elements that harken back to Roman design.
- Influence on Furniture: Furniture design often incorporates Roman-inspired elements, such as the use of classical motifs and styles.
- Color Palette: Romans favored a rich color palette, and these hues continue to influence contemporary interior design choices.
- Practicality and Functionality: The Romans emphasized both aesthetics and functionality, a principle that modern interior design continues to prioritize.
As you can see, the enduring influence of Roman interior design can be found in the timeless principles of balance, proportion, and the use of natural materials that continue to shape modern interiors and architectural styles.
13. The Mystery of Roman Red
While there isn’t a single story that unravels the mystery of Pompeian red, its use in Roman interiors is linked to both practical and symbolic aspects of Roman life. This distinctive shade of red, derived from a pigment called cinnabar or red ochre, was popular for several reasons.
One theory suggests that Pompeian red was favored for its connection to the protective deity, Mars, the Roman god of war. Red was associated with strength and courage, making it an ideal color for spaces like the atrium where guests were welcomed. It was also believed to ward off evil and bring good fortune. In this context, Pompeian red was not merely an aesthetic choice but a symbolic one that conveyed a sense of strength and protection.
Fun fact: The practical aspect of Pompeian red was its ability to hide imperfections. Roman walls were often constructed using a type of plaster, and the vibrant red color could mask structural flaws and imperfections, maintaining the appearance of opulence and grandeur. The use of Pompeian red, then, was both an aesthetic and symbolic choice that contributed to the overall charm and mystery of Roman interior design.
14. The Rockstars of Roman Design
Do you like name dropping? The next time the Roman empire comes up in conversation, drop a few of these notable Roman designer’s names.
Actually, several notable figures from ancient Rome made significant contributions to interior design and architecture. One prominent architect was Vitruvius, whose work “De Architectura” outlined key principles of architecture and design, emphasizing proportion, functionality, and aesthetics. His writings influenced Roman architects and designers for centuries, and his insights on design and construction continue to be studied and admired today.
Another influential figure was Pliny the Elder, a naturalist, and writer. While not an architect or designer himself, his encyclopedic work, “Naturalis Historia,” documented various aspects of Roman life, including architecture and interior design. This comprehensive account offers valuable insights into the materials, techniques, and aesthetics of Roman interior design, providing a rich source of knowledge that continues to inform our understanding of the era’s architectural achievements.
A surprising fact about Roman designers is their mastery of concrete. The Romans developed a remarkable concrete formula that allowed them to construct enduring and monumental structures. The composition included volcanic ash, lime, and water, creating a durable and resilient material. This engineering innovation enabled the construction of iconic structures like the Pantheon and aqueducts, which have withstood the test of time for over two millennia. Roman concrete was so advanced that it often outperformed modern concrete in terms of durability, challenging our assumptions about the technological achievements of ancient civilizations.
15. Roman Empire Architectural Legacy Under Threat
Is the Roman empire’s legacy in danger of being forgotten. Not so fast. However, the ongoing preservation and restoration efforts of Roman interiors and the challenges of maintaining these historical spaces is ongoing and worthy of our appreciation.
It turns out that preserving Roman historical spaces and their history poses several challenges:
- Deterioration: The passage of time, weathering, and environmental factors can cause deterioration to structures, frescoes, and artifacts, necessitating ongoing maintenance and restoration efforts.
- Tourism Impact: High volumes of tourists can lead to wear and tear on sites, and inappropriate behavior, such as touching or graffiti, can further damage historical spaces.
- Urban Development: Modern urban development and expansion can encroach upon and threaten the preservation of historical sites.
- Looting and Vandalism: The theft of artifacts and the intentional destruction of historical spaces by looters and vandals remain persistent challenges.
- Conservation Costs: Restoration and preservation can be costly endeavors, requiring financial resources and expertise, which may not always be readily available.
- Environmental Factors: Climate change, earthquakes, and natural disasters can pose significant risks to the preservation of ancient structures and artifacts.
- Inadequate Planning and Regulations: Insufficient planning, regulations, and oversight can lead to uncontrolled development near historical sites, jeopardizing their integrity.
- Conflict and War: Armed conflict can lead to the destruction of historical sites or make them inaccessible due to safety concerns.
In short, preserving Roman historical spaces requires a multi-faceted approach that combines conservation efforts, public awareness, funding, and legal protections to safeguard these invaluable pieces of our shared history. Who knew that Rome needed saving? Well, now you know.
We hope that you’ve had fun exploring these lesser-known facts about Roman Empire architecture and interior design. If you got through all fifteen facts your man doesn’t know about the Roman empire, you are truly prepared to take on the next dinner party with all the confidence of a cultural gladiator.
If nothing else, at least you gained a deeper understanding of the rich and influential history of interior design during the remarkable period that was the Roman empire. But don’t stop there. If you enjoyed this one, join our newsletter to get more exclusive content, interior design tips and tricks.
Until next time, ciao!