Shopping and shops in ancient Rome were pretty much what one would expect nowadays: Rows of shops could be found along main streets offering their wares. Most of these would be common goods but then there would also be specialised streets and areas where one could find high quality luxury goods also.
The poorer areas of the city were built more or less without planning and streets and alleys were tight, uneven and tortuous – at least before the reconstruction of Rome which followed the great fire in the time of Nero. Here you could imagine shop-keepers cluttering the streets even further with their wares on display.
Shops had signs and would also have to display their license to trade in the particular goods they sold. This license was sculpted in marble and displayed publicly. The shop buildings in areas which had been planned with greater care would often be designed to have back entrances for the goods and even living quarters for the people who worked there or owned the shop.
Settlements such as Ostia Antica, Rome’s port on the Tiber’s river mouth would have all sorts of imported merchandise and still today we can see that many of these shops were decorated with mosaics which depicted the wares which were on offer in that establishment.
As well as shops selling common and luxury goods one could find places dedicated to food and drink and the plebeians and slaves could access these to eat something not too dissimilar from modern pizzas or sandwiches. These could perhaps be said to be the ancestors of the Fast Food shops we know (and love?) today.
Often the shops would be tended by slaves who would refer to their manager, the shop owner, in situations they themselves were not in power to handle – rather like a modern shop attendant would refer an unhappy customer to the manager.
The government kept a keen eye on trading and markets and this task was undertaken by the Aedile. A famous Aedile was Julius Caesar, but his fame was more due to the wonderful games he organised at the circus which almost drove him to financial ruin.
Forums and markets
When one talks of shopping in ancient Rome we also have to consider the markets, which like nowadays were often dedicated to specific products such as meat, vegetables or oil. The markets were called Forums and these were more than just markets as we know them. The affluence of the public to these central areas meant that they were suited to all sorts of activities such as government and public administrative offices, banking, temples and so on, as well as shops and trading. Trajan’s markets have been considered a true shopping precinct until very recently and it is only because of the lack of obvious goods entrances that we are beginning to think that perhaps it was exclusively administrative in nature.
All the activities that went on within the Forums would be contained within dedicated buildings the most remarkable of which, from a shopping point of view, were the Basilicas. Nowadays a Basilica is regarded as a large church building, built in the same architectural conformity of the ancient Roman basilicas. In ancient Roman times, before Christianity, the Basilicas were several stories high and contained a large number of offices, lawyers, accountants and rows of shops – I imagine them to be rather like a modern shopping mall only missing the sliding doors, escalators and electric lifts.
The Forum Boarium is an interesting area – nowadays there is much to be visited there but little in the way of ancient shops as such. It was the meat and cattle market of Rome and its name stems from this initial purpose. What is most interesting is that it was built in the days when Rome hadn’t adopted coinage yet but still dealt through bartering and as such meat and cattle was an extremely important commodity. Later the meat merchants of the Forum Boarium were removed to another area and replaced by money dealers, lenders and banks. These activities are remembered in the nearby “Arco degli Argentari” (arch of the money traders) which was erected by the two guilds of the money and cattle traders as can be seen in the inscription of the arch: “…argentari et negotiantes boari..“. After the fall of the Roman Empire the area of the Forum Boarium returned to become an area dedicated to cattle grazing and handling and this went on until the 19th century.
Next to the Forum Boarium we also have the four-way arch said to be of Janus (a god) which acted as a meeting point between the commodity markets and the imperial forum. This area was extremely busy and acted as a meeting point for the many merchants, bankers and business men. Nowadays it is relatively quiet but the noise of modern traffic nearby helps one imagine the hustle and bustle of the business which was going on here.