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UC prof reveals revolutionary world of Roman retail

Ancient Romans revolutionized ‘the shop,’ producing them in numbers never before known, says UC archaeologist Steven Ellis. He explores the revolutionary world of Roman retail in a new book released earlier this summer

When it comes to retail therapy in the ancient world, no one perfected it quite like the Romans, says University of Cincinnati archaeologist Steven Ellis.  

A stroll through the main streets of Pompeii or Herculaneum reveals the ruins of what was once a buzzing cityscape of bars and shops (or tabernae) with wide openings facing the street and walk-up counters to display products and hawk wares. And ancient Romans, says Ellis, embraced shopping with a gusto that would rival even the most determined of today’s Black Friday crowds.

As Ellis notes in a new book released earlier this summer, “The Roman Retail Revolution: The Socio-Economic World of the Taberna,” such shops were a teeming mainstay among ancient Roman cities, lining the busiest urban thoroughfares and outnumbering even the number of homes.   

A man in a blue shirt and khakis stands in front of Roman ruins

Author Steven Ellis at Pompeii

In fact, says Ellis, an associate professor of classics, Romans’ hunger for retail brought with it a new kind of thriving retail city.  Yet the commercial aspect of tabernae has long remained an underappreciated and underexplored topic in Roman studies.

Now there’s a corrective to that scholarship gap — yet another example of how UC is redefining academic excellence as part of its Next Lives Here strategic direction. Ellis’ book offers a detailed investigation into the social and economic worlds of the Roman shop, with a special focus on food and drink outlets.  

Ellis identifies three major waves or revolutions in the shaping of the Roman retail landscape — findings that challenge many of the conventional ideas about not only the subject matter itself, but the historical development of tabernae.   

The book also reveals two new bodies of evidence: the first from UC’s recent archaeological excavations into a Pompeian neighborhood of nearly 20 shopfronts and the second resulting from a field-survey of the retail landscapes of more than 100 cities from across the ancient Roman world.

Ellis discusses some of his findings and research into tabernae in ancient Rome.  

 

Why study tabernae?  What makes them such a key focus of Roman life?

Of all the types of urban structures in the Roman city, none outnumber the shop. They line all the major streets. They gather around the intersections. They hover around all the major city monuments. And the motivation behind their construction is both social and economic — they respond to a whole range of urban needs. So any study of tabernae is a study of the social and economic underpinnings of a city. There’s just so much we can learn about urban life from a study of a city’s shops.

We’re talking about an ancient Roman concept so successful that it has survived into the present.

Steven Ellis

So, Romans invented the shop? Surely, earlier cultures had retail-like spaces? 

Yes, that’s right. There were shops earlier — you find retail spaces in the Greek world, for example — but what you get [in Rome] is a more dedicated, specialized form of architecture associated with retail. And you get shops in numbers never before known in the ancient world. Effectively, we see three waves, or three ‘revolutions’ in retailing. The first is not really until the second century B.C.E. when we see a sudden and striking spike in a particular type of space given over to retail. Instead of making things in one’s house and selling it from your house, you now have a part of the house that is dedicated to retail activity on the streetfront.  That is a Roman theme.

 

What are the two new bodies of evidence you offer in your book?  

Cover of Steven Ellis's book The Roman Retail Revolution,  which shows Roman ruins with text overlay of book title

One of the new bodies of evidence is thanks to our UC excavations of a large neighborhood of Pompeii.  Archeological excavations in the Roman world haven’t often targeted this kind of sub-elite space.  They tend to look for and celebrate the largest and most lavishly decorated homes.  What we did for UC was a lot different. We went in and found the retail spaces, the shops, the workshops, the hotels, the restaurants and we excavated these to get this really highly detailed data on each individual shop and their neighboring shops. We could see how some were developing at different rates and in different ways to their neighbors. That type of data is really unusual to get and rare to have.

The second body of evidence was rather different again, coming from a field survey I did of the remains of all the shops from more than 100 Roman cities [in] Spain, Portugal, Turkey, North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Greece, France.… These provided a much broader overview and offered different stories. Ultimately, the value was being able to zoom in and out of the very different types of data.

 

 Why have tabernae been dismissed or overlooked in classical scholarship?

Compared to the study of temples, large houses and villas, big important civil monuments and amphitheaters, the study of shops have been passed off as a daily life kind of topic. Even though the general public finds it interesting, the scholarly world hasn’t found it as interesting as they probably could have or should have. In terms of classical archaeology, the tradition has been to look at powerful people, powerful spaces.  

I try to look at this fabric of society not just as something that’s different or opposite to the world of the elite, but to understand how all of it was integrated: it’s about the social stratigraphy, the social hierarchy. What I’ve found is that there is a much tighter connection with the elites of the Roman city and the sub-elites of the shops.  When we look at the motivations behind the investments in shops, we see that all of the social classes associated with retailing are really rather interconnected. What fuels it all is mutual benefit, whether social, economic, or even political.

It’s not just about studying the elites or subelites; it’s about recognizing how these seemingly subelite spaces are actually more integrated into the whole city structure.
 

Two women kneel over Roman tablets

Members of the UC team examine ruins found in the excavation of Pompeii

What do you hope your book offers to the larger scholarship on ancient Rome?

I’m hoping that the book demonstrates the intellectual value of studying nonelite spaces. For too long these types of topics — the study of shops, bars, taverns — have been given this kiss-of-death of daily life studies. What that does is passes it off as simple and simplistic when, in reality, there are some wonderfully complex issues and ideas that we have to try and grapple with in studying these spaces.  

My hope with this book is to open up the study of these types of spaces and shine a light on how interesting the study of retail landscapes can be and the many important contributions they contain.
 

What does the study of the Roman retail landscape tellus? Can you give some examples?

Aerial view of the excavation of Pompeii

Aerial view of the excavation of Pompeii

I like to think there are innumerable things we can get from such a study, but I’ll aim at a short answer. For one, it helps us understand living conditions at the level of the shopfront and the types of foods being retailed. What we’re seeing from that is an extraordinary level of sophistication of the kinds of foods and richness and variety of the diet, with consumption of lots of imported foods. We’ve long known that Romans were bringing these foods in, but we’ve typically associated such consumption with the elite houses.

What this book does is show how those who are even picking up a simple meal in a humble bar in Pompeii are also able to access spices that come from the east, peppercorns and cumin and caraway. It’s shining a light on the richness and complexity of the urban diet beyond the elites. And we’re not just seeing it from one shop. Instead of having a rich and a poor [diet], there is a far greater texture across all of those spaces.  

Because shops were so ubiquitous, this study helps us to look at the development of Roman cities at large. We can trace the rise and rise and rise of these types of spaces and see where it happens and when it happens. It’s giving us new understanding of the overall development of the Roman city, one that is underscored by the significantly high numbers of shops. There’s probably a few lessons for today, as well. We’re talking about an ancient Roman concept so successful that it has survived into the present.  

Featured image at top: The neighborhood of the Porta Stabia under the excavations of the University of Cincinnati.  Photos provided by Steven Ellis

 

 

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