The Pompeiian House

What was the archaeological context of the originals of these objects? The vast majority of the works were found in the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, sites along the Bay of Naples buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Both of these cities have left archaeologists a rich record of urban life in Italy; numerous houses and villas, as well as other religious, civic, public, and private structures have been excavated at both sites, and have yielded large quantities of finds of all sorts. Housing in the ancient world ranged, as it does today, from modest to grand. A wealthy family in Pompeii or Herculaneum in the 1st century CE might have a house like the one modeled in the Museum’s Rome Gallery, made by Christopher Ray of Ray Museum Studios.

The Roman House Model in the Rome Gallery. Object EP-2003-2-1. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

At the front street-facing side of the house, one might find one or more tabernae, or shops, leased out to sellers of food or wine. Also on this side of the house is the fauces, the main entrance into the house. On this main door might be a knocker, similar to the one in the Rome Gallery.

The taberna and fauces of the Roman House Model. Object EP-2003-2-1. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

A door knocker from Beth Shean. Object 29-108-105. Courtesy of the Penn Museum (

One of the central features of a Pompeiian house is the atrium, a front courtyard. The roof over this structure features an opening called a compluvium; the corresponding impluvium, a pool in the ground, catches the water that falls through. In this courtyard one might find mosaic decorations, small pieces of furniture like benches, and plastered and painted walls that continue throughout the house. Cubiculi, small bedrooms, open off of this courtyard. These rooms might contain one or two beds and small tables. Moving further back into the house, one would enter the tablinum. This room was used for receiving guests and dining, and would feature chairs, tables, couches, and dishes for food service, eating, and drinking.

The atrium of the Roman House Model, with the compluvium opening in the roof and impluvium in the ground. Object EP-2003-2-1. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.


The tablinum of the Roman House Model. Object EP-2003-2-1. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Behind the tablinum is the larger courtyard, the peristyle. This open-air colonnaded area would have a fountain (or fountains), garden plants, sculptures or other decorations, and a lararium, a small shrine to the lares (household gods). Several other types of rooms surround the peristyle. One is the triclinium, a more private room for dining or entertaining guests that features couches in a U-shape along three walls. Tables and objects for food consumption are also found in these rooms, and guests would recline on the couches while they ate and drank.


The peristyle of the Roman House Model. Object EP-2003-2-1. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.


The triclinium of the Roman House Model. A cubiculum is to the left and an exedra is behind it. Object EP-2003-2-1. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

The oecus was where day-to-day activities like spinning and weaving took place. A room crucial for the functions of the house was the culina. This was the kitchen where food was cooked and prepared. The toilet was also in this room, as this arrangement dictated that water needed to be piped into and drained out of only one location. Exedrae, general purpose rooms with couches where members of the house or guests might converse, open directly off of the peristyle. Additional cubiculi might also be found in this back portion of the house. Braziers, or heating devices, and lamps or candelabra for lighting would be found throughout the house, as would decorations like painted plaster walls, mosaics, and other adornments like plaques that contributed to the grandeur of the house. While houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum certainly vary in plan, many contain these fundamental features and room types.


fistula, or water pipe, from the Roman Imperial Period. Object L-1033-60. Courtesy of the Penn Museum (


A decorative glass plaque in the image of Medusa. Object MS5656A. Courtesy of the Penn Museum (