Ancient Houses Hold History Lessons for Homes Today


By Marni Jameson

History was never my favorite subject. Maybe because of the way the lessons revolved around egomaniac men and their wars, which still don’t interest me.

But history came alive for me last month when I saw it through the lens of houses from the past. And I mean PAST – as in the days of the gladiators and before Jesus Christ, for heaven’s sake.

This forces the question, why can’t schools teach history through the lens of home design, or fashion, or jewelry, or chair styles?

All this started when DC, who is a history buff, got a hankering to visit the cradle of civilization – ruins and remains of ancient cities like Pompeii, Athens, Rome, and parts of Turkey. Though seeing a bunch of crumbling buildings only holds my interest for about as long as a movie preview, when DC said we could throw in a couple of Greek Islands, I hopped on board.

This is how last month I came to stand on the threshold of houses dating back to 500 BC and thought to myself: Holy reality check, we really haven’t come so far.

This isn’t the first or last time I will show my ignorance. Until this trip, I somehow thought the world of home design didn’t get rolling until four or five hundred years ago, during the Renaissance, when the King Louis line up created eye-popping castles, and over decorated a hall with mirrors. But in fact, beautiful home décor started many centuries earlier.

Please just pause for a minute and wrap your head around that: TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO – back when people managed to live without cars and television and iPhones, and instead had carts, and amphitheaters for live performances, and, I’m told, actual, real, face-to-face conversations (Ooooooh!) – people had houses, nice house, houses I would totally live in, even if they didn’t have a microwave.

Pompeii was the first stop on our tour of old places. One tragic day back in 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city, population 20,000, under a layer of volcanic ash, preserving it like a time capsule until the mid 1700s when workers dug it out. There they found a city of fully furnished houses, streets lined with shops, temples, fitness centers, and Starbucks, left just as they were that fateful day, back when the Earth was cooling.

These homes had kitchens and baths, and elegant mosaic entryways, with signs in tile at the front doors that read Cave Canem, Latin for “Beware of Dog,” like yard signs of today.

A few days later, around the Aegean Sea, we visited Ephesus, Turkey, and the Terrace Houses, built around first century BC, and occupied until third century AD, when an earthquake covered them up. About 50 years ago, archeologists began uncovering half a dozen or more luxury homes built into the hillside, giving us a glimpse into how the Clintons or the Trumps may have lived back then.

Not until I saw and walked through these older-than-dust places, did I realize that people didn’t just exist 2,000 years ago, they LIVED, and sometimes beautifully.

They didn’t just wake up in their one-room, mud-brick huts with raw-timber roofs, and roll out of from under their animal hides. Folks with means apparently had fine digs, fine linens, and fine furnishings — homes far more like upscale homes today than I ever thought.

Although much has changed over the last two millennia, surprisingly much in housing has stayed the same. Here are some of the features certain ancient homes had that may surprise you:

  • Yes, we live in an age of touch-free faucets, but the ancients’ homes, which were wisely designed to be downhill from the main water source, had hot and cold running water, and a purification system.
  • Radiant heat. The houses in Ephesus had clay pipes that ran under the floors and through the walls, which provided forced-air, radiant heating.
  • Fine furniture. Though the furnishings from these ancient dwellings are now in museums, these homes were exquisitely furnished with elaborate, hand-carved wood, marble inlaid and gilded furniture.
  • Thoughtful floorplans. As today, a typical home circa 1 AD was often two stories, with the kitchen, dining and living rooms downstairs, and bedrooms upstairs. However, because the ancients had not yet stumbled upon electricity, they did not have lights. Houses often centered on an open courtyard, which let in natural light. One common room of yore has fallen out of favor: the vomitorium.
  • Even the ancients knew of the fountain’s ability to mask the sounds of a noisy street (all those carts rumbling over bricks), and of noisy neighbors. Thus, fountains graced the front of many homes.
  • Although much of the wall art that once adorned these ancient homes now hangs in museums, still visible are the impressive hand-painted, floor-to-ceiling frescoes.
  • Fantastic tile and stone work. Impressive architecture and finishes include halls, walls and floors of marble, 12-foot ceilings suspended with stone columns, and intricate mosaic-patterned tile floors.
  • Walking the main boulevards of Pompeii and Ephesus, you can see the remains of what were once bustling, shop-lined streets. You appreciate, too, that these people had cash money, coin currency; their society had evolved beyond bartering chickens for goats.
  • Theater. One look at the giant amphitheaters in these cities, where live plays and concerts were performed, tells you that culture was as big a part of everyday life back then as now, and maybe more so. After all, they weren’t all staring at their Facebook.

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016). You may reach her at