From the ruins of Trajan’s Markets in Rome to the archeological evidence of the small shops buried in the cities of Pompeii Herculaneum and Ostia, it has been possible to reconstruct an accurate picture of commercial life in the ancient Roman world. Paintings and tomb reliefs illustrate in detail the interiors of a variety of shops and stores. And from under the lava of Mt. Vesuvius, loaves of carbonized bread dried fruit, nuts, dishes fabric, jewelry and even wine have been found to supplement our knowledge of the products sold in antiquity.
It is surprising how familiar are many of the retail scenes portrayed of the ancient shops, which ranged in size from the single-room tabernae to the enormous complex of Trajan's Markets, the world's first shopping mall. There are still lessons to be learned from the Roman store in the use of mosaics and paintings as symbolic signage the variety of material employed and the organization of forms and space in the creation of large-scale shopping markets.
Ancient Rome was a crowded city, often the result of shops that protruded beyond the building line. The Roman historian Martial relates how the Emperor Domitian attempted to ease the congestion. “Barber, taverner, cook, butcher, keep to their thresholds. Now Rome exists, of late it was a huge shop.”
The basic commercial unit was the tabernae, a single-room barrel-vaulted space opening directly onto the street. Such units were commonly set into the ground floor of the insulae, the Roman walk-up apartment house which could reach five or six stories. A masonry or stone counter was in front of the shop, with a back area reserved for storage. An upper level, lit by a single window, was reached by a wooden ladder, and was often the only home of the shopkeeper and his family. A door on one side and wooden shutters, examples of which have been found in the ruins of Herculaneum, were locked and bolted from within for security.
A very popular adaptation of the tabernae was its use as a thermopolium, or hot bar similar to the modern Italian café serving cappuccino. One was discovered on the Via di Diana in Ostia, the seaside resort neat Rome dating from the third century. At that time marble was readily available from older monuments in disrepair, and rare, multi0colored marbles are used on the counter, for shelves, cupboards, and washbasins. In the counter were large earthenware pots called dolia, holding hot drinks and food. Above a stepped open shelf for bottles was a painting of figs, grapes, olives and pomegranates. In the back was a small open court with a mosaic pavement and fountain, surrounded by a stone bench for the patrons.
Often the thermopilia were connected with inns and wine shops. At Herculaneum, a 1900-year-old wine shop was discovered in which a completely preserved wooden gallery was stacked with two tiers of amphora hung from a pole supported on their shoulders.
In Pompeii, gardens were frequently part of the design for the store, as in the jeweler’s shop where a showcase was found filled gems and cameos. The store surrounded a garden courtyard whose walls were painted with a series of illusionistic scene of trees, fountains and birds. A real fountain stood in front of the painted one creating a play between illusion and reality.
Sometimes the place of business expanded into the garden itself as in the Fish Sauce Shop. Pompeii was famous for its sauce garum, which was made from small whole fish, fermented and left to dry in the sun and was discussed by Apicius in his ancient cookbook. Numerous terra cotta containers with labels and containing tiny fish bones, the remains of the sauce, were found in the garden. Garum was apparently produced and sold in the peristyle (colonnaded) garden, again with paintings of flowering oleander and peacocks.
A fish vendor’s store at Ostia on the corner of the town’s main street included bold, black and white mosaics of fish on the floor as a kind of advertisement. A marble table with curving legs served as counter for the fish caught in the nearby Mediterranean Sea.
In Pompeii, shops were not organized in groups other than along street fronts, but in Rome, more elaborate complexes were designed to accommodate the larger population. The Roman comic playwright Plautus makes one of the earliest references to the Old Shops of the Roman Forum, as opposed to the New Shops that stood nearby, although even the New Shops were really very old, since as early as 338 BC projecting balconies were constructed over both sets of stores for the benefit of spectators of entertainments in the Forum. In 310 BC, the shields captured from the Samnites (original inhabitants of Pompeii) were displayed on these balconies.
Along the Sacred Way, the street leading away from the Forum, inscriptions have been round referring to the many types of stores that originally stood there, including sellers of honey, perfumes and ointments, makers of gold-embroidered dresses, hairdressers, chemists, and bookstores. Another luxury market north of the Sacred Way was the Forum of Desire.
The Old and New Shops were later incorporated into two large rectangular buildings with Internal colonnades, the Basilica Aemilia, first built in 179 BC a business center and the Basilica Julia of 54 BC, the law courts of Rome Along the outside of the Basilica Julia, 315 ft. long, shops were installed in the arcade between the arches and engaged columns.
Across from the Roman Forum, the Emperor Trajan constructed the largest of the Imperial Fora, of which only the great Column and the famous Markets survive.
Trajan’s Markets included over 150 individual shops of offices on five levels, set into the hillside of the Quirinal Hill. One of the grandest assemblages of Roman architecture, its curving walls and terraces recall the organization of the Temple of Fortune at Praeneste. By implication the act of shopping is given ritual significance in the great procession op the hill, the shopper spending sesterces (Roman bronze coins) all along the way.