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Roman skyscrapers

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman tenement house
Roman tenement house

In 1884, the first skyscraper was built in Chicago, USA. It was 42 meters high. Shortly afterwards, the New York World Building exceeded a hundred meters. In both cases, however, it was only an imitation of the ancient Romans. The first skyscrapers grew in ancient Rome. They were insulae, including the most famous of them, the real miracle and singularity of the city – Insula Felicles.

However, before Feliculi’s property – a brief reminder of what insula was.

Insula was – simply put – a rental house. Tenement house. Those started to be built in Rome around the 4th century BCE and were the answer to the constant growth of inhabitants within the Servian walls. With the expansion of the Republic, and then of the Empire, insulae appeared in many other cities of the empire – an example would be Tire, which will be discussed later. But of course, they have not become the only type of city houses.

In Pompeii – a rich city – apart from rent insulas, single-family domus, often extended to the size of a villa (this is the ancient version of the modern division of cities into the block of flats and single-family housing estates). But where the population is increasing rapidly and the city area is not, this traditional Roman house is disappearing. Due to lack of space, insula grows not outwards but upwards. Already in the 3rd century BCE, most of these buildings have three floors – and will soon cross this barrier. Insula was supposed to generate profit for the owners – hence they were built very quickly, cheaply and very messily. Collapses or fires in insulae occurred more often than often. Hence the attempt to limit the height of Roman buildings by subsequent emperors, for example, Octavian Augustus (maximum height 70 pes, Roman feet, just over 20 meters; 1 pes = ca 44.5 cm) or Trajan. After a great fire in Rome, Nero limited its height to 60 pes. These restrictions did not apply in other cities of the empire, hence the surprise of the famous Strabo, that in the mentioned Tire the insulae are almost as impressive as in the capital.

In Rome, imperial restrictions were considered fairly freely. Suffice it to say that the only preserved Roman insula, dating from the second century CE the five-story Insula dell’Ada Coela at the foot of Capitol Hill was estimated at 30 meters in height (23 ruins have survived). The height of the world’s first residential skyscraper – the Insula Felicles (Felicula) – was hard to say. The eight-story creation was created during the period of the greatest prosperity of the Empire, and its fame reflected a wide arc throughout the entire Mediterranean Sea. An example would be placing this building in polemics of Tertullian and Valentinians. This building stood near the Flaminius Circus in the 4th century CE and was treated, along with the Aurelian Column and the Pantheon, as a tourist attraction of the city. Against the background of five or six floors, 40 meters high, insulae Feliculi’s property must have looked really impressive. Much less information is available about the building on the south-eastern slope called Septizodium (from the Emperor Septimius Severus). There is not much left of it, but some scientists estimate its height at about 70 meters.

Unfortunately, these giants have not survived to this day. Fortunately, the slightly lower insulae has survived. In Rome itself, as I mentioned, there is one; a little unearthed in Pompeii and Herculaneum. The real mainstay of these ancient blocks of flats is Ostia – a huge number of these buildings have survived in the former port city, making us realize how many inhabitants crowded in the cities of that time – just like in modern metropolises.

Author: Adam Adamas
  • J. Carcopino, Życie codzienne w Rzymie, Warszawa 1960
  • G. R. Storey, The „Skyscrapers” of the ancient Roman World, Bruksela 2003

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