Images of Italy and the Mediterranean generally include bright sun shining on sparkling water and dusty groves of olive trees.
In fact, according to Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who wrote a 10-volume treatise on architecture in the first century, “Divine providence has so ordered it that the metropolis of the Roman people is placed in an excellent and temperate climate, whereby they have become the masters of the world.”
But even in that balmy region, winter brought a chill, and even masters of the world reached for a woolen cloak in January and February.
The ancient Romans had several methods for keeping their homes warm, including the earliest-known forms of central heating, space heaters, hot toddies, and a simple strategy of moving toward the sun. They vacated the northern-facing rooms that they enjoyed in the summer and inhabited the western-facing rooms that captured more warmth and light during the winter.
In doing so, the Romans were following Vitruvius’ advice. “Winter triclinia [dining rooms] and baths are to face the winter west, because the afternoon light is wanted in them; and not less so because the setting sun casts its rays upon them, and but its heat warms the aspect towards the evening hours,” he wrote.
“It’s worth considering the difference between our modern rooms and those in wealthy Roman homes,” said Shelby Brown, Getty senior education specialist. “Our rooms often have a fixed function and are filled with quite heavy furniture that no one would want to wrestle into a new location. Roman rooms were more flexible and had more easily moved furniture. A favorite space could fairly easily change with the weather.”
As Brown points out, there was a human cost to all these comforts. Enslaved Romans moved the furniture and stoked the furnaces. They served warm wine and carried portable heaters. “Slave culture permeated all luxury living in antiquity,” she said.
The wealthiest had luxuries that weren’t available to everyone. These might include underfloor heating. Known as hypocaust, this heating system, more common in public baths, used a furnace to force heat into a series of hollow chambers between the ground and the floor, and up pipes in the wall, heating the rooms. It is considered the world’s first central heating.
However, most Romans made do with portable braziers, metal boxes filled with coals, with feet to protect the floor and handles to carry them from room to room.
With their feet toasting against a brazier, ancient Romans fortified themselves with drinks like calidum, according to Getty antiquities curator Kenneth Lapatin. “Calidum was a warm spiced wine mixed with water, served in heated samovar-like vessels, bronze examples of which were found at Pompeii and are now housed at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli,” he said. Coals in the hollow center of the vessel heated the drink, which came out of a tap.
Finally, when all else failed, the Romans simply retired early in the winter, going to sleep when it got too cold and dark to keep drinking.