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View of a street lined with apartment buildings (insulae) near the via Della Fontana at Ostia. The staircase on the left led up to the upper floors of the building—at least 3 stories high. This large structure was probably owned by one person who rented apartments, shops, and workplaces to tenants.
The term insula refers to a multi–storey housing block, that was sub–divided into apartments for rent with shops on the ground floor. Windows and balconies were the principal light sources for the tenants. The insulae were probably first built of wood and thus susceptible to destruction by fire—a big problem! (I am not aware of the preservation of any wooden insula) Often times they were constructed of baked Roman bricks—like this example at Ostia.
The best dwellings were on the lower floor and sometimes were decorated with simple paintings and mosaics. The upper apartments were smaller, more difficult to reach and dangerous (fire!). The upper storeys were typically without heat, running water, and toilets. The poor, who lived there, would sometimes dump trash and human excrements out of the windows into the street below!
Most of the people, poor and "middle class," would live in these structures.