Setting up shop

The Greeks went to markets, the Romans to shops

If you like to take a leisurely stroll down the shopping street on a Saturday afternoon with your mum, it’s all thanks to the Romans, inventors of shopping.

Text: Paul Serail

The streets of Pompeii were bustling just before the city was buried under a thick layer of ash and rubble after Vesuvius erupted. People were walking among the grain and fruit shops, past the ironmonger, baker and barber. They ate fish there and bought wine and olive oil. Ordinary shopping streets by the look of it, not much different than ours today. But shops were still a relatively new phenomenon back then.

‘The first shops were set up during the Roman Empire,’ says Miko Flohr, historian at Leiden University. There were no shops yet in Greek cities, before the rise of the Romans. ‘In the Greek world there were temporary stalls in the agora,’ a central square with a market, Flohr explains. ‘People who sold the same goods sat together. As soon as the market closed, everything vanished again.’ What you did have in Athens were dark rooms with a small entrance, Flohr continues: ‘They may have been used for storage: you sell your products on the square and store your goods around the corner.’ You couldn’t take a peek inside to see what was for sale, as you can in a shop. Shop spaces appeared later, from the third century BC onwards, in what is Italy today.

Open storefront

A building in Ostia where goods were sold and stored.

To use a building as a shop required a bit of innovation, Flohr says. The historian studied buildings in Roman cities such as Pompeii, Ostia and Herculaneum, which are well preserved. ‘Often the entrance to a shop was extremely wide.’ Even as wide as the entire space. ‘And that had an impact on the roof construction. You needed a long cross-beam that spans the entire entrance.’ Another important development was the emergence of the counter. You can still see them in about a quarter of the shops in Pompeii,’ Flohr says. ‘On the threshold there’s a wide counter where goods were displayed.’ Whereas the Greeks still went to markets to do their shopping, Roman cities had permanent buildings, tabernae, where you could go every day to buy a pot, a pair of sandals or a tunic.


Who opened the first shop? That’s anybody’s guess. We do know that shops first appeared around the forum, the central square in Roman cities. ‘That’s where markets were always located,’ says Flohr. ‘So it wasn’t much of a leap to start using these areas to set up permanent shops.’ The city council benefited from it as well. The shops were part of the public buildings around the forum, and the rent that shopkeepers paid ended up in the city’s coffers.

Using coins was much less of a hassle than bartering.

Shops popped up in other places too. ‘There were shops on all of the streets in Ostia. Taking to the streets thus automatically meant taking a leisurely stroll. You could see what was being sold and where, and you could even go shopping for the fun of it.’ Shopkeepers often lived in the space behind the shop or on the floor above it. What’s striking is that the shops could also be part of large houses. The largest dwellings in Pompeii are the size of an entire housing block. If you walk down the street, you see a row of shops. Behind them are the rooms and courtyards belonging to the house.

Copy shop

‘The emergence of shops went hand in hand with the emergence of coinage. In the third century BC, Rome began to mint coins,’ Flohr says. How did the Romans conduct trade before that? We don’t know, says Flohr. ‘There was probably much less trade. People exchanged goods in small circles and they were probably largely self-sufficient. Later it became customary to take the vegetables you had grown or a few pots or clothes that you had made to the market.’ As the cities and their populations grew, society most likely became more impersonal. ‘That led to the emergence of coinage and shops,’ Flohr says.

Prosperity was on the rise, especially when the Romans took control of Greece in the second century BC. ‘You can see from the way houses were furnished that people had more to spend. People had more possessions and they were of higher quality.’ Romans began to import luxury objects from Greece and copied them. ‘Think of beautifully ornamented furniture, sophisticated pottery, bronze bowls, plates, pots and cups. And they were often richly decorated,’ Flohr says.

Like father, like eldest son

Each shop probably had its own specialty. If you needed a bronze pot, an earthenware plate and a wooden bowl, you had to visit three shops. The merchandise was often produced in workshops belonging to the shop. Who worked there? At Leiden University, Miriam Groen-Vallinga studied the labour relations in Roman companies. For a long time, historians thought that the patriarch was the one who made these goods, while his wife sold them and the children helped out in the business. ‘But sometimes the woman produced goods as well,’ Groen-Vallinga says. They were cobblers and goldsmiths, for example.’ Ordinary free citizens worked in shops, but so did slaves. ‘The more skilled craftsmen probably had one or even two slaves helping them,’ says Groen-Vallinga. And the children? Surviving apprenticeship contracts reveal that they learned the trade with other families. ‘But the apprenticeship contract of the eldest sons are often missing in our archives,’ says Groen-Vallinga. ‘They probably didn’t need a contract because they learned the trade at home. There wasn’t enough work in the family’s workshop for the other children, so they learned the trade with a family that did have an opening.’ You even had the option of learning a completely different trade than your father’s.

Luxurious location

Unfortunately, many shops in Pompeii were already excavated in the nineteenth century,’ Flohr says. ‘We have hardly any reports from that period. At the time, archaeologists focused mainly on the large houses and not on the small shops.’ As a result, it’s difficult to tell today whether most of the shops sold pots or sandals or something else. ‘For example, we don’t know if clothes shops were kept together in rows. Though there are indications that this was the case.’ Flohr says. ‘Some old street names in Rome refer to crafts. But we don’t know whether there were only tanners on Tanner Street or not.’ We do know that there were expensive and less expensive locations. ‘Shops located in places where more people passed by stood to make more profit. So rent was higher there.’ In Rome, tradesmen who sold luxury products occupied the prime locations in the centre. ‘Think, for example, of goldsmiths, incense sellers and traders in purple clothing.’ At the time, purple was an extremely expensive and exclusive dye.

Eating out

Gold was bought in the Roman version of Bond Street, whereas laundries were located in less desirable locations. ‘They were situated just outside the centre of Pompeii, but still pretty centrally located. Similar to today, where launderettes are usually no found on main shopping streets but around the corner from them.’ The same was true of eating establishments. Some historians think that most people got their food from these kinds of businesses every day. Many apartments were small, and even the large villas didn’t have kitchens. But Flohr believes otherwise. ‘We have found portable cooking stoves in the dwellings. Why would we find pots so often if people didn’t cook at home?’ The eating establishments in Pompeii are easily recognisable because they have counters with huge, built-in, earthenware vessels. These pots were found in nearby Herculaneum as well, the contents of which have been examined: they contained grain, nuts and dried fruits. ‘They served as storage spaces for basic materials,’ Flohr says. ‘In a number of shops that had counters with these pots we found remnants of a cooking stove. So it’s blatantly clear that ready-made food was sold there.’ That means Roman shopping is not far off from how we shop today: you would stroll past shops, which was even more fun than today because you saw craftsmen at work, and you bought some food when you got hungry. These Romans weren’t as crazy as they seemed.

Well-preserved cities

This horse near Pompeii didn’t survive the volcanic eruption.

How did the Romans live? Archaeologists have learned a great deal from a few well-preserved cities.

  • When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, many inhabitants of Pompeii suffocated from the toxic gases they breathed in. The city was buried under falling rock and ash.
  • The same eruption covered Herculaneum in a river of lava, rock and mud. As a result, buildings are more intact than the houses in Pompeii.
  • Ostia was a port city near ancient Rome. After the Roman Empire fell apart, the city was gradually abandoned and the area silted up.

What does that pay?

Emperor Diocletian issue an edict on maximum prices for all kinds of goods and for labour. As a result we have an approximate idea of what people in different professions earned.

The edict that set the prices.

  • A farm labourer, a mule driver and a sewage cleaner earned 25 denarii a day for their efforts.

  • The baker, carpenter and ironsmith earned 50 denarii a day.

  • A muralist could charge 75 denarii a day.

  • A portrait painter could charge double that: 150 denarii a day.

  • A haircut cost 20 denarii.

  • A lawyer’s fee was 1,000 denarii per lawsuit.

What does that pay?

Thanks to Emperor Diocletian’s list, we know what shoes, chickens and onions cost. Failure to adhere to these prices was punishable by death.

  • An egg cost a denarius.
  • 0.55 litres of beer from Egypt: two denarii.
  • The same volume of cheap wine cost eight denarii. A better vintage would cost you 30 denarii.
  • 25 onions cost four denarii. The same amount of money would get you 10 apples.
  • Two chickens ran you 60 denarii.
  • Same goes for a pair of lady’s shoes.
  • Men’s shoes cost 120 denarii.

Special profession

If your underarm hair was bothering you, you could have it depilated in bathhouses by an alipilus.

For her PhD research at Leiden University, Miriam Groen-Vallinga compiled a list of 564 professions from Roman times. She looked at the professions that people had engraved on their tombstones, for example. There are some special trades among them, such as:

  • The alipilus worked in the bathhouse. He would depilate your underarm.
  • The faber ocularius made eyes for statues. He may have made artificial eyes for patients as well.
  • A rhyparographus was a painter, but one specialised in bedroom scenes for adults.

Special slave

Wealthy Romans had a separate slave for every task.

It was a matter of honour for wealthy Romans to have a special slave for every task.

  • It was the task of the vestiplicus to fold his master’s clothing. Others washed and dried the clothes and dressed the boss.
  • The ornatrix was often a young slave who sculpted the matriarch’s hair into an intricate hairdo.
  • Ever wonder where you saw that person before? A nomenclator would whisper the name of the people you encounter into your ears.
  • It’s not entirely certain what the capsarius did. It could be he carried your scrolls when you walked to school or work. It could also be that he carried a clothes chest en route to the bathhouse.

(photo credits: Peter Connolly/AKG-images, Prisma/Getty Images, Carlo Hermann/Getty Images, G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Archives, North Wind Picture Archive/AKG-images, Samuel Magal/Bridgeman Images, Michael Nicholson/Getty Images, DeAgostini/Getty Images, Shutterstock)