The House of Hippolytus, a peculiar Roman school

Some places just have misleading names. For instance, anyone who learns that an age-old monument like this one is called the House of Hippolytus will probably assume that it belonged to a Roman citizen called Hippolytus. However, that is not the case here. These remains in the outskirts of Alcalá de Henares were actually a school from ancient Rome, a place where young students gathered, learned, and played. Nowadays, only researchers and a few curious people come to visit one of the most important Roman archaeological sites in the center of the peninsula, mainly due to the exceptional mosaic of the fishes.

A playground for the students

Old stone ruins

Ruins of the House of Hippolytus. | Shutterstock

It seems like a happy coincidence that this Roman building had the same function as the pride and joy of Alcalá de Henares: its university. In both cases, we are talking about learning facilities. Nevertheless, the students of the House of Hippolytus were considerably different from the students that attend lessons and seminars today. It’s believed that the youths were local nobles that used this building at the end of the 3th or the beginning of the 4th century.

It wasn’t a good time for the Roman Empire, which was constantly facing civil wars or barbarian attacks. Nonetheless, this school in Alcalá de Henares remained a haven of peace. According to some studies, they not only taught conventional subjects there, but also religious matters. We believe they also had time for leisure activities.

A geometrical mosaic on the floor

A mosaic in the House of Hippolytus. | Wikimedia

This monument was built over previous structures dating back to the 1st century AD, and it was divided into different spaces that provided all kinds of services for the Roman youngsters coming from the center of Complutum. For instance, the building had a remarkable thermal complex with hot- and cold-water zones, an effect they accomplished through piping and heating systems. Both this area and the latrines were decorated with mosaics.

When it comes to the exterior, there was a garden where they probably grew plants from the north of Africa or from eastern countries. According to the monument’s webpage, exotic animals coming from outside Hispania roamed in the House of Hippolytus, for example pelicans. There were other exterior elements such as a mausoleum, which we shall address later, and a temple dedicated to the worship of Diana, the Roman goddess of the countryside and hunters, equated to the Greek goddess Artemis.

The story behind the name Hippolytus

We have yet to address the mysterious person this monument was called after. In order to unearth the origin of its name, we’ll have to head to the greatest treasure in the House of Hippolytus: the mosaic of the fishes. It’s a large piece that takes up most of the central room, which would correspond to the frigidarium of the thermal baths, or the place containing the cold-water pools.

The mosaic depicts a fishing scene where three infants are sailing on a boat surrounded by sea creatures. Regarding the original intention of the artist, many believe that this detailed work was created with an educational purpose.

A mosaic depicting a fishing scene with children sailing on a boat and sea creatures

The mosaic of the fishes. | Wikimedia

It is worth noting that the mosaic of the fishes is so well-preserved, that one can easily read the signature of its creator. In fact, the inscription tells us that the artisan or mosaic artist behind the picture was no other than Hippolytus himself. It was him the monument was named after, and not the owners who hired him and funded the building, although we do know who they were: the Anius family. They were citizens of Alcalá de Henares and they contributed to the establishment of one of the few schools for young students from the Roman Hispania we have discovered so far.

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