Imperial Rome’s Manhattan: the Insula of Ara Coeli

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Skyscrapers seem to embody the very essence of modernity: we associate them with the hectic life of the great metropolises, the epicenter of business and pleasures. And this is the truth indeed, considering that, the idea of exploiting the space in height – rather than in width – in order to give accommodation to as many people as possible, was born right in the heart of a metropolis (1st century BC Rome), overcrowded (about a million inhabitants), center of an Empire (“Roma caput mundi” was not a brash nor a joke, but a matter of fact). The problem of overcrowding and lack of space was already urgent at the end of the third century. A.C., when began the construction of real condominiums called ‘insulae’, elevating for an average three or four floors. Romans, however, got carried away with it, since in the the 1st century A.D., ten-story blocks of flats were anything but an exception in the Roman landscape, so much so that Emperor Augustus was forced, following frequent collapses, to enact a law fixing the maximum height of a building at 70 feet (corresponding to 6-7 floors) . The insula was in all and everything similar to a nowadays apartment building: the ground floor was occupied by shops and ‘tabernae’, while the housing floors, starting from the first, faithfully mirrored the composite Roman social pyramid, only turning it upside down: the affluent classes occupied the first floor, the only one equipped with water; climbing up the building ladder ment to climb down the social one. Unlike the domus, in which the light penetrated from narrow openings, insulae were equipped with very large windows, but without glass: they were closed by wooden shutters, animal skins, cloth curtains. There were no bathrooms nor toilets: physiological needs were satisfied in public latrines (efficient, clean and capillary), while ablutions could be comfortably performed in the omnipresent baths (numerous and for all pockets). The apartments were equipped with an average of three or four rooms, simply furnished with tables, stools, benches, sofas and beds. Given the extremely high rents (at Caesar’s time the rent of an apartment could reach seven thousand sestertii, which is almost four thousand euros today), sublet was a common practice, so that these buildings arrived to accommodate even two hundred people: with such overcrowding, dirt, risk of epidemics and, above all, arguments between condos, were anything but uncommon. The massive spread of the insulae – there are surviving, beautiful specimens in Ancient Ostia, Pompeii, Herculaneum – was also due to the particularly lucrative nature of the building activity; Crasso, for example, a wealthy banker and triumvire with Caesar and Pompeo, owed a small fortune to the builder’s business.

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