Ancient Romans were just as dependent on their pocketbooks as modern homeowners for the size and comfort of their housing. Within the walls of Rome, housing prices soared, much as house and land prices do today, while smaller cities and towns afforded homeowners more spacious dwellings, to make up for the sacrifice of living outside the Eternal City.
Excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum have brought many dwellings to light, and allow us to see not only the floor plans but give one a sense that the home's owners have just moved out, allowing new owners to walk the rooms and imagine their own furnishings within.
Large Roman houses provided living arrangements not only for the immediate family, but also other relatives and, of course, the household servants and slaves, and often rooms along the periphery were rented out to shopowners. Thus, possession of a large home did not necessarily mean that its owners had a great deal of privacy.
In addition to the houses themselves, writers such as Vitruvius left us with a veritable handbook to architects of his day describing the type of dwelling a person, depending on his status in life, would require.
Most Roman houses, and indeed many modern Italian and Spanish homes, present a more or less unbroken wall to the streets outside, with most doors and windows open onto its interior courtyard. Its proportions were dictated by years of custom, stretching back to Etruscan times; in fact, one of the major features, the atrium , has its origin in Etruscan houses.
Based on evidence found in Etruscan tombs, homes were simple, with a main room opposite the entrance, or a set of rooms built around an atrium. These were later roofed in, except for the opening in the roof (compluvium) to let in light and air.
From its Etruscan forebears, the Roman house grew in size and functionality, incorporating many architectural elements from the Greeks, while retaining its essential Roman function and character.
Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Daily Life in Ancient Rome, Jérôme Carcopino, Yale University Press, 1940
As the Romans Did, JoAnn Shelton, Oxford University Press, 1998