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High-rise apartments flourished in classical antiquity. Ancient Roman insulae there and in other imperial cities reached 10 and more storeys. Beginning with Augustus (r. 30 BCE-14 CE), several emperors attempted to establish limits of 20–25 m for multi-storey buildings, but met with only limited success. (^) [Reference: Gregory S. Aldrete: "Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii and Ostia", 2004]

The insulae could be up to six or seven storeys high, and despite height restrictions in the Imperial era, a few reached eight or nine storeys. (^) [Reference: http://heritage-key.com/rome/roman-living-inside-insula [dead link]]

While both above quotes are quoted from Wikipedia, it seems there is no concordance between the two in reference to how tall insulae were.

In fact, whereas the first quote refer to '10 and more storeys', the second claims as exceptional the case that insulae were made up by 'nine storeys'.

Can anybody shed a bit of light on this matter, possibly explaing how tall insulae were and the reason why these divergences exist?

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This question would be improved by citing here, on stackexchange the sources the encyclopaedia uses for those two claims. –  Samuel Russell Aug 21 '13 at 3:59
    
the divergence may be explainable by the age of sources for the statements. It's conceivable (even likely) that as materials science improved, the Romans learned to build taller. Geographical differences also play a part. As to how high they could build, during my classical literature and history classes we read Roman sources (long forgotten by me which) that mentioned 5-7 floor high buildings made of concrete, but again that's a moment in time and space. –  jwenting Aug 21 '13 at 5:22
    
Some reasoning on this: Since Augustus thought that a limit of 70 feet was necessary, that must reasonably have meant that they were building to 80 feet or more before that, and with 85 feet there is plenty of space to build ten floors if you don't have the requirement of having a lot of headroom. So there could have been some Insula that reached 10 stories, yes, but the height seems to have quickly been limited to lower, probably because some of the higher ones collapsed. –  Lennart Regebro Aug 22 '13 at 6:10

2 Answers 2

The height limits weren't actually legal, they were those of the materials and construction techniques available. Without the aid of steel beams to provide tensile strength and other modern techniques and materials, something around 200 feet tall is the limit of a brick structure before the ground floor is starting to approach solid wall over the entire footprint.

The reason is that while brick and wood make a structure very strong in compression, they are unable to provide the tensile strength needed for larger structures. This can be compensated for somewhat by filling in the base, converting some of the tensile load into compressive loads, but the walls at ground level are getting very thick at this point.

Certainly one can push the limits a bit in order to set a height record, but land has to be very, very, dear to justify the expense other than for bragging rights. Even then, adornments on the roof, similar to those designed late into the Empire State Building, are more effective in attaining increased height than extra stories.

However, this question then rapidly then becomes about strength of materials, architectural techniques, and other subjects beyond the scope of this site.

Update: Yes of course the Romans used a concrete similar to modern Portland cement; but without steel reinforcing bar that exhibits the same compressive strength and tensile weakness as any other masonry.

Update 2: Can 200 feet be related to stories?
Yes, and no. Ostensibly the 200 feet is roughly 20 stories, but there are two caveats:
1. That is assuming modern brick/concrete, which is significantly stronger than ancient Roman; and
2. Such a building (and I use the term loosely) would have a bottom half resembling the Great Pyramid, with an 8 or 9 or 10 story insula perched on top. Usable non-wall space in the bottom stories would be on the order of only 10 to 15% of footprint.

No sane landlord of any age would build such a structure as a money-making insula. However, if this is fantasy game research, make up some reason why the extra height is worth the prohibitive cost. 

For example, the Great Pyramid topped out at about 480 feet originally.

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Romans knew about and made large scale use of high strength concrete, not (just) brick and mortar or natural stone. Claiming they can't have built tall because of using brick is therefore incorrect. The lack of steel is a good point, Roman construction would have used wood, iron, copper, and bronze instead. –  jwenting Aug 22 '13 at 8:44
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@jwenting They did not use reinforced concrete of any type, so it's doubtful it would have made a difference. –  Lennart Regebro Aug 22 '13 at 12:22
    
@LennartRegebro poured concrete is stronger than laid bricks, even when not reinforced. And Roman concrete was particularly strong, stronger than typical concrete used today. –  jwenting Aug 22 '13 at 12:29
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@jwenting It's possible that their strongest concrete was stronger than typical portland cement (50MP) but their typical concrete was far from that strong, and came in rather around 6MP. academia.edu/1214963/The_toughness_of_Imperial_Roman_concrete The strongest they found in that research was 30MP, far below modern concrete. The average of about 6MP is less than half that of their bricks. –  Lennart Regebro Aug 22 '13 at 12:55
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@James: Yes, and no. Ostensibly the 200 feet is roughly 20 stories, but there are two caveats: (1) That is assuming modern brick/concrete, which is significantly stronger than ancient Roman; an (2) such a building (and I use the term loosely) would have a bottom half resembling the Great Pyramid, with an 8 or 9 or 10 story insula perched on top. Usable non-wall space in the bottom stories would be on the order of only 10 to 15% of footprint. –  Pieter Geerkens Aug 22 '13 at 23:52

The reason for not building apartments higher than six or seven stories will quickly become obvious to anyone who has carried groceries and children up seven flights of stairs: it's not something you want to do on a regular basis. Until the invention of the electric safety elevator even buildings in Manhattan and London were rarely more than six stories tall, and the upper floors rented for less because of the inconvenience.

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While essentially true, I have had friends that lived on the 7th or 8th floor in Paris with no elevator. Yes, they were students with little money. The same would have been true in Rome. With no space you build high. And the fact that there were laws against building over a certain height indicate that people indeed did build over that height. –  Lennart Regebro Oct 14 '13 at 5:31
    
And... this is not an answer. –  Lohoris Mar 21 at 16:02

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