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Interior Decoration

Houses changed greatly while Rome was growing. Until the last century of the Republic, houses were small and simple, with little decoration. Bright colours were used simply and appealingly to brighten interiors. Eventually, however, things became much more ornate.

Ceilings were vaulted and painted in brilliant colours, or they were divided into panels by beams. These ceilings are sometimes imitated by modern architects. Doors were richly paneled and carved, or plated with bronze, or made of solid bronze. Doorposts were sheathed with beautifully carved marble. Floors were covered with contrasting marble tiles or with mosaic pictures. The most famous of these is "Darius at the Battle of Isus," measuring 16 feet by 8 feet, with about a 150 separate pieces in each square inch.

Our knowledge of Roman furniture comes from the stone and metal articles which have come down to us, the restorations made from platter casts made in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the references in literature and depictions in art. The Romans were not big fans of furniture, but what they had was usually of rare and expensive materials, fine workmanship, and graceful form. Many of court common pieces of furniture were unknown to the Romans, for example, mirrors on walls, desks/writing tables, chests of drawers, and display cabinets with glass doors. Even wealthy homeowners had mostly essential articles: couches, chairs, tables and lamps. There was an occasional chest, wooden cabinet with doors, brazier for coals, and a water clock (seldom). This was essentially the list of Roman furniture.

Couches were extremely popular. They were often extremely ornamental. A couch (lectus) could act as a sofa and a bed. In its simplest for it would be a wooden frame, with a back and one or two arms, with straps interwoven across the top, on which a mattress was laid. A couch always had pillows, a mattress, and coverlets. Early mattresses were stuffed with straw; later they were made of wool and even feathers.

The primitive form of Roman seat was a four-legged stool or bench with no bench. Some could be folded. The famous curule chair, to which only high magistrates were entitled, was a folding stool with curved legs of ivory and a purple cushion. The first improvement on the stool, was the solium, a stiff, straight, high-backed chair with solid arms, so high that a footstool was necessary. This was the chair in which a patron sat when he received clients in the atrium. Poets represented it as a seat for gods and kings.

After the solium came the cathedra, and armless chair with a curved back. A cathedra supina was a cathedra that had been fixed at an easy angle. At first used only by women, it eventually came into general use. Because teachers in schools of rhetoric sat in cathedrae, the term ex cathedra came to mean any kind of authoritative utterance. Bishops often used this term, explaining the derivation of the word cathedral. Chairs were not upholstered, but cushions were used.

The design of tables was extremely varied. They were often very beautiful. Their supports and tops were made of fine materials - stone or wood, solid or veneered, or even covered with thin sheets of precious metal. The most expensive were round tables made from cross sections of citrus wood, the African cedar. A monopodium was a table or stand with one supports, used to hold a lamp or toilet articles. The abacus was a rectangular table with a raised rim, used as a sideboard to hold dishes. A mensa delphica - of bronze or marble - had three legs. Tables were often made with adjustable legs, so that they could be raised or lowered. A table of solid masonry or concrete, with a top of polished stone or mosaic, was often built into the dining room or peristyle. Tables gave an even better opportunity than couches or chairs to display elaborate workmanship.

Chests were found in every house. They were usually made of wood and often bound with iron. Small chests, used as jewel cases, were sometimes made of silver or gold. Cabinets were made of the same materials as chests and were often beautifully decorated. They were frequently divided into compartments, but they had no sliding drawers and their wooden doors were without hinges or locks. The cabinets in the library held books, while those in the alae held wax masks of ancestors.

The Romans produced heat with their charcoal stoves, or braziers. These were metal boxes which held hot coals. They were raised on legs and provided with handles.

The clock as we know it did not exist in Roman times. In the peristly or garden there was sometimes a sundial, which measured the hours of the day by the shadow of a stick or pin. The sundial was introduced from Greece in about 268 B.C. A sundial gives the correct time twice a year if it is calculated for the spot where it stands. Since the first Roman sundials were brought from Greek cities, they did not give the exact time. The largest at Rome was set up by Augustus, who used an Egyptian obelisk for the pointer and had lines of the dial laid out on a marble pavement.

A clepsydra was a water clock (a container filled with water, which escaped from it at a fixed rate, the changing level marking the hours on a scale). This was also borrowed from the Greeks. This was more useful than a sundial, because it marked the hours of night as well as day and could be used indoors. However, it could not be accurate because Roman hours varied in length with the season of the year.

Romans had very simple (but often very ornate) lamps: containers for olive oil or melted fat, with loosely twisted threads for the wick(s), drawn out through one or more holes in the cover or the top. There was also usually a hole through which the lamp was filled. As there was no chimney, the flame must have been uncertain and dim. Some lamps had handles. Some were suspended from ceilings with chains. Others were kept on stands. For lighting public rooms there were tall stands like those of our floor lamps, from which numerous lamps could be hung. This was called a candelabrum. It must have originally been intended for candles, but they were rarely used as the Romans were not skilled candlemakers. A supply or torches (fasces) of dry, inflammable wood, often soaked in or smeared with pitch, was kept near the outer door for use at night. Light was reflected from polished floors and from water in the impluvium.