Explore the Exhibition!

Examining the organization, decoration, and use of houses in ancient Greece and Rome provides understanding not only of the everyday life of people in these cultures, but also of the way their societies functioned. The arrangement and appearance of rooms in the house were intimately connected with their use. By learning about their houses, we also can appreciate the way Greek and Roman societies distinguished between space that supported the activities of women vs. the activities of the men, and about areas of the house that were accessible to outsiders, and those that were private. We also better understand the mindset of those who maintained and lived with these distinctions.

In Greece and Rome, restrictions were placed on access to different parts of the house. As in society today, certain rooms in the home were set aside for certain functions carried out by members of the household. Most of the rooms belonged to the women. Because women were believed by men to be naturally domestic creatures destined by the gods to remain in close proximity to the hearth, most women spent their days in the home. In fact, the ideal for women in ancient Athens was probably seclusion. The less a woman was seen, the more virtuous she was considered to be. Only wealthy women would have had the luxury of adhering strictly to this ideal, however, and working class women and slaves would have had simply too many reasons to venture outdoors to remain secluded at home. But in upper class families, where women stayed home, most of the house was the woman’s domain. The workrooms, bedrooms, and kitchens of an ancient house were generally off limits to guests, and in these private spaces, women of ancient societies passed most of their time. Men were more often found working or tending to business in public; in the commercial and civic spaces of a forum or agora. The rooms set aside specifically for the use of men in the house were fewer in number than those for women; generally only one in a modest home. These male places were an extension of the public space of a city. Conducting business, formal dining, and entertaining were activities that involved dealing with the outside world, and therefore, it was in the male rooms of the house where guests were received.

Archaeological evidence supports the distinctions of these spaces in ancient houses. The male, public rooms were lavished with the most elegant furnishings and decoration the family could afford. Beautiful floor mosaics, elaborate frescoes, and finely painted pottery were the norm, all designed to impress the visitor and demonstrate the taste and erudition of the owner. The private rooms of the women’s quarters were not designed to impress, but rather to be functional, and therefore contained only modest furnishings and decorations.

Houses that crowded ancient cities represented a wide range of economic strata. Most of them were small in scale and built of relatively inexpensive materials. Large, elaborate houses would have been exceptional, and found in the suburbs and countryside rather than in urban centers. Still, most ancient houses had upper floors, now lost to us, that would have considerably added to the available living space. This was necessary to accommodate all the members of a typical household, which included not only a single family group, but members of the extended family, long-term guests, and slaves.

This exhibition attempts to recreate the appearance of the ground floor of the type of house seen in ancient Greek and Roman cities. Although domestic space in the two societies functioned somewhat differently, there were many similarities both in the objects these rooms contained and in the arrangement and decoration of the space. Thus, combining traditions from both cultures is pedagogically sound and thought-provoking. The ground floor rooms that have been recreated are:

  1. Greek andron
  2. kitchen
  3. bedroom
  4. Roman garden
  5. workroom or textrinum

Each room has been furnished with actual or recreated ancient objects, including furniture, pottery, kitchen utensils, and toilette articles. Every effort has been made to simulate the appearance of these rooms as they would have looked in antiquity, even when it has not always been possible to use ancient objects.

This exhibition attempts to highlight historical issues such as the concept, function, and use of domestic vs. community space in the ancient world, the roles of men and women in the house in Greece and Rome, activities that occurred within the ancient house, and what and how we learn about ancient societies from the archaeological and literary evidence regarding the ancient house. Yet many of the objects displayed here possess their own beauty and visual power. This exhibit is therefore designed to promote understanding and appreciation of both art and history.

Lee Ann Riccardi

Assistant Professor of Art History

Department of Art

The College of New Jersey