“The hero returned to his house.” Wait—what did Byzantine houses look like?



domus model

Model of a Roman city domus.

Writing historical fiction is like driving in a city you’ve never been to before: you have to keep stopping your progress to find out where you are and check that you’re going in the right direction. And you never know when you’ll get detoured.

I’m making good progress with my next historical fantasy, The Triumph of the Sky. I plan on writing seven major parts. (It’s predecessor, The Bones of the Earth, comprises three parts. I feel like numerology should be a part of fantasy stories.)

Set in the seventh century CE, the action moves from Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, to ancient Cappadocia to the Carpathian foothills and deep into ancient Anatolia.

While I have done a lot of historical research before starting to write, as I write I often stumble upon a tiny question that requires hours of research on the Internet as well as in books. These are usually about things we take for granted today, such as “What kind of clothes did people in Constantinople wear?” or “What were their houses like.”

I found some answers pretty quickly, such as “what kind of shoes or boots did Slavic peasants wear?” It turns out there are a lot of Web pages devoted to ancient clothing.

Then there was another that took a little more time. In an early scene in the book, the hero, Javor, returns home after a long journey. But what did wealthy homes look like in Constantinople in 603 CE? It turns out there is quite a lot of interesting information, and even pictures.

Javor in The Triumph of the Sky is a very wealthy man. (To find out how he got his riches, you’ll have to read The Bones of the Earth.) So it makes sense then that he lived in a Roman-style domus, the dominant style for wealthy homes in the Roman Empire. Remember that the term “Byzantine Empire” is a 19th-century invention. The people of the time thought of themselves as Roman, and Latin was the official language of Constantinople at the time—although most people in the city spoke Greek.

A domus was a single-storey structure, looking from the top like two rectangles, open to the sky in the middle. They were often fronted by small shops that opened onto the street. In my imagination, Javor leases those out to vendors of various things: food, household items and so on.

Entering the main door brings you to the atrium, a formal reception hall open to the sky. A basin in the centre collects rainwater, and drains it into a cistern below the house. It’s tiled and decorated with chairs and hangings to show off the owner’s wealth. In a corner was a shrine, and in the seventh century, this would include a Christian icon.

Rooms open on both sides, such as bedrooms. Bedrooms in ancient Roman cities like Constantinople were small, usually just big enough to hold a bed.

The dining room opened off the atrium, too. While in ancient Rome, rich people reclined on couches to eat, according to the research I have done this practice was fading out by the time of my story.

atrium

The atrium of a Roman Domus. The roof was open to the sky, and the basin, called the impluvium, collected rainwater and fed it to the cistern below the house. Source: Realm of History

Continuing through the atrium, the next, roofed room was the tablinum, the owner’s study. From it, the head of the household could view most of the house at once.

At the back of the house is another rectangle, the peristylium. This is a large garden with a peristyle roof—rows of columns that go around the perimeter to hold up the roof, which is open to the sky in the middle, like in the atrium. Rooms opening off the perimeter include the culina or kitchen, bathrooms and store-rooms.

Peristylum garden

While this is a villa, not a city domus, it gives you a good idea of what the peristylum was all about. Image: Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Romans spread this style of home across the Empire, including to their second capital, Constantinople. Over the many centuries of the Roman and Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, construction techniques, architecture and technology evolved quite a lot. But at the same time, older elements would continue alongside newer styles.

I hope you have a mental image of the style of house. The next question to answer: did seventh-century Cosmopolites eat meals while lying on a couch, like the wealthy of first-century Rome?

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