Grand Designs: Interior Décor the Republican way

The history of the late republic is full of daring generals, duelling orators and scheming politicians spending their days outsmarting each other in the quest for power. But where did they go at the end of the day? If we think of today’s politicians We might be tempted to think of the senate spilling out at closing time and heading out to the suburbs, like modern MPs, for a relaxing evening away from it all. Far from it. When Cicero climbed down off the rostra he’d be heading a matter of feet away, shuffling home to his house up on the Palatine, the hill that rises immediately above the forum. Cicero was very proud of his house, to pay for which he took out the Roman equivalent of a huge mortgage.


The house was a celebration of his political career, overlooking the scene of his success, the forum. We know it must have been very conspicuous as it towered over the forum because its first occupant had instructed his architect to build it in full view of the city. The Palatine Hill (fig. 1) was certainly the place to be for an aspiring politician – it was an expensive area (living on a hill is always best in a city prone to flooding, fire and malaria), full of history (the preserved Hut of Romulus, the founder of Rome, was a major tourist attraction) and full of other city leaders. Lots of the stars of the republic had houses on the Palatine, including Mark Antony. The close proximity was not always a blessing – Cicero found himself living next door to his arch-enemy Clodius Pulcher, a crony of Julius Caesar’s. And when Clodius moved in on Cicero’s political career, forcing him temporarily into exile, he also moved in on his house, demolishing it and building his own extension over it!

The signs are all there then that the republic elite did not go to home to escape the limelight, instead they used their houses to hog it. And this is reflected in their decoration of the house, which began at the front door. The front of generals’ houses were decorated with the booty they had conquered in battle – ships prows and enemy weapons (in one of the more bloody street battles of the republic, the rioters grabbed their weapons from just such a display). Julius Caesar had a special gable on the front of his – when his wife dreamt it had fallen off the house, she knew it spelt curtains for Caesar, who was assassinated the next day. So important was it to recall your public exploits that the general and dictator Sulla even had his country house at Tusculum painted with murals showing his exploits in battle. The smaller houses of ordinary veterans, settled in a colony for retired soldiers called Fregellae, show that they too liked to show off their military prowess – several featured terracotta panels of land and sea battles. And if you didn’t have your own exploits, you could always borrow someone else’s: the owner of Pompeii’s richest house, the House of the Faun, installed a huge mosaic (fig. 2) showing Alexander the Great, the ultimate warrior hero, defeating the Persian king Darius.


Given all this display, it ought not be that surprising to find that the rich Roman’s taste in interior décor was hardly discreet or soothing. There was no beige or magnolia in the Roman equivalent of Homebase because walls were not the plain backdrop of a room, they were the main feature and they were made to overwhelm and impress.


The earliest wall painting used in Roman housing is called First Style and it divides the wall into coloured blocks. Brick and rubble walls were covered with stucco which was either moulded or incised to give the illusion of being composed of individual blocks, which were painted to add variety and to give the illusion of different types of stone, particularly marbles. The effect seems to have been to pretend that the wall was in fact made of expensive cut stone blocks of a sort usually seen only in public buildings. The First Style is most easily shown by its survival in the Houses of the Faun and of Sallust in Pompeii (fig. 3) where it gives an air of grandeur to the space.


If First Style is imposing, it is Second Style, popular during most of the first century BCE, that shows just how far the Romans’ imagination could take them. The wall paintings make us believe we are looking not at a flat wall but through a window or colonnade to a fantastic landscape beyond. From the villas around Pompeii we have some tremendous examples. This first example (fig. 4) is from a bedroom of a villa at Boscoreale, now reconstructed in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Although the room is small and dark, the walls spirit you away to a busy landscape full of buildings, perhaps a town or palace complex.


The richness of the effects is exaggerated in the paintings at the nearby Villa at Oplontis where the craftsmen have really gone to town. One painting (fig. 5) shows a low platform on which stand columns made of gold and studded with gems. Over the low wall behind we can see a two-storey colonnade retreating in the distance and in the middle a circular temple, called a tholos. It seems as if we are supposed to imagine we have been transported to a lavish sanctuary of a deity - all while we are actually standing in an average-sized reception room in Oplontis.


If this effect seems impressive then we need to bear in mind that the painting is repeated on all three of the walls (the fourth wall is open with shutters to look onto a small garden area). Surrounded by these views on all sides, it’s hard for us to remember where we are and where the walls stop and start. The paintings on the three walls of the so-called Coriunthian oecus in Pompeii’s House of the Labyrinth are quite similar to that at Oplontis – you can see through the broken wall to a colonnade surrounding a tholos (fig. 6). But the trick is magnified here because the painted columns that run across the front of the scene are mirrored in real life by real columns standing in front of the wall.


These wall paintings are clearly impressive and, of course, we have to imagine them alongside the mosaics and painted ceilings of each room, not to forget the expensive furniture and drapes on couches and across windows. There’s so much going on that it’s hard to imagine getting to sleep in the Boscorelae bedroom! So what did these homeowners think they were doing? One clue might lie in the theatrical nature of these walls, which look like painted backdrop scenery. Perhaps it’s best to understand the walls as providing the perfect setting for the performance given by the homeowner himself as he plays his part to his guests. In the competition for power and prestige in, any device that could help you impress the voting public was happily employed. This fantastic wall painting is perfect – in his home the homeowner can impress you by whisking you to his imaginary world, conjuring up a world of wild riches and high culture. One house in Rome was decorated with scenes from the Odyssey - very highbrow. The walls of another, on the Palatine was painted to imitate coloured marbles, marbles which would have had to be quarried from all round the Mediterranean. Its neighbour was decorated with fancy Egyptian motifs. Exotic Egyptian motifs were popular in Pompeii too. The House of the Faun has mosaics of hippos and crocodiles wallowing in the Nile. Whatever the homeowner wanted to say about himself, paint allowed him to do it. Dizzied by the overwhelming effects of his home, he’d be banking on the fact that his guests would carry their impression of his boundless riches back to the public world outside.


But the world of wall painting was ultimately only a fantasy and most of these elite’s dreams came to nothing. Most of the second style paintings we have seen today come not from the Palatine Hill but from Pompeii. The houses of the richest and most powerful men in Rome, of Cicero and Mark Antony, are long gone – those that survive like the House of the Griffins with its pretend marble walls, survive by accident. They were filled with rubble and made into the foundations of the great palace built by the Emperor Domitian. Even the House of the Griffin’s painted marble fantasy cannot compete with this gigantic palace, sheathed in marble, which was said to house Domitian as if were Jupiter on earth – a splendid design of which the republican elite could not even dream.