Shops, workshops and the commercialization of private space in Roman houses

While scholarly discourse on public and private in the Roman house usually puts a lot of emphasis on social, cultural and even political processes taking place in domestic contexts, it should not be overlooked that one of the key aspects of the relation between public and private in a house was the way in which it incorporated commercial activities: there is ample evidence that houses played a central role in many urban economies in the Roman world and a considerable proportion of urban retail and manufacturing took place within or in the direct environment of houses. 

However, what is much less well-understood is to which extent, and in which way, the physical presence of retail and manufacturing in domestic contexts had an impact on the role of public and private in domestic space. To some extent, commercial spaces may be seen as ‘semi-public’ in the sense that, for business purposes, they may be penetrated by outsiders who were not members of a household, but this differs between shops and workshops, and it is not the whole story: the question is to which extent this also had consequences for the functioning of the rest of the house.

Focusing on Pompeii, this paper will analyze three aspects of this issue. It will first zoom in on the role that tabernae associated with houses could play in bridging the gap between public and private space. Subsequently, it will assess the potential impact of workshops situated in the back parts of houses. Finally, it will be discussed how the public image of houses could be defined by the commercial activities of their occupants even if shops or workshops were absent. The paper will argue that it is impossible to understand issues of public and private in the Roman house without incorporating the role of houses in retail and manufacturing into the picture.


Innovation and Society in the Roman World

Rome, Via Appia: Landscape of Innovation - Early imperial tombs along the Via Appia. (Photo: Miko Flohr [2012])

M. Flohr (2016), 'Innovation and Society in the Roman World', Oxford Handbooks Online. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935390.013.85

One of the most eye-catching tombs along the Via Appia stands some four miles outside the city, close to the Villa dei Quintili, on the east side of the road. Essentially, what remains of it is just an enormous mass of concrete, meticulously deprived of its stone facing at some point between antiquity and modernity. Its construction date is unknown, but to judge from its size and its use of concrete, it is probably early imperial, perhaps Julio–Claudian or Augustan. It is a large example of the monumental Roman tomb architecture that emerged in the late republic and of which the development cannot be seen apart from the development and spread of opus caementicium, which made it possible to construct larger, architectonically more daring monuments at a reasonable price, making them available to much larger groups of people—as the first miles of the Via Appia attest. Not far from the tomb is the point where there was, in antiquity, a good view from the Via Appia over two aqueduct bridges that were built to cross the plain between the Alban Hills and Rome. The lower of the two aqueduct bridges dates to the second century bc. It was built for the Aqua Marcia but had the Aqua Tepula and the Aqua Iulia superimposed on it later. It was made of tufa and had low, wide arches. The higher, more monumental aqueduct bridge stood out with its elegant, high arches in tufa. It was built between ad 38 and ad 52 and carried the Aqua Claudia and the Anio Novus. Critical to both aqueducts is the arch, an innovation that became increasingly widespread from the second century bc onward. At the time they were constructed, both aqueducts presented a clear innovation in hydraulic engineering: the Aqua Marcia was the first Roman aqueduct with such a long section above the ground, and the Aqua Claudia was unparalleled in its height. Obviously, the Via Appia itself also presented an innovation when it was constructed in the late fourth century bc in the way it was imposed on the landscape, running in an almost perfectly straight line between Rome and Terracina, with the exception of a short section near Ariccia, where it had to divert in order to successfully cross the southern part of the Alban Hills. What for modern viewers might look like a landscape of memory may very well have looked differently through Roman eyes: as an environment, the Via Appia, in the early imperial period, was not a romantic relic of a faraway past but a clear manifestation of Roman achievement. Especially in the first century ad, it was a landscape of innovation at least as much as a landscape of memory.


Building Tabernae: emerging commercial landscapes in Roman Italy

Ostia, III 7, 3-4: Domus Fulminata - Tabernae surrounding the main entrance of this house just outside the city walls of Ostia (Photo: Miko Flohr [2012])

Building Tabernae is an NWO Veni Project based at the University of Leiden (2013-2017). The project focuses on urban commercial space in Roman Italy and deals with the impact of economic growth on urban communities in the late Republic and the Imperial period (200 BCE – 300 CE). It will investigate how favourable economic circumstances under the Roman Empire fostered the emergence of new and more ambitious forms of investment in commercial space, and it aims to understand how this transformed the physical and social fabric of the cities of the Italian peninsula. 

The project will use archaeological and textual evidence and belongs to the field of ancient history as much as it belongs to that of classical archaeology. Thematically, it operates on the interface of social and economic history and explores to which degree economic developments fostered social change. It specifically attempts to connect two highly vibrant debates: the debate about Roman urbanism and that about Roman economic life.

Both debates have seen significant development over the last decades. Discourse on Roman urbanism has moved away from the traditional emphasis on (monumental) architecture and urban planning towards studying urban landscapes in a more integrated manner (seminal is Laurence 1994). Discourse on Roman economic life has developed beyond the consumer city debate that dominated the field in the 1990s (e.g. Mattingly 1997; Erdkamp 2001), now focusing more and more on the social and spatial contexts of economic processes (Mouritsen 2001; Robinson 2005; Flohr 2007).

Yet, while these debates play a central role in Roman scholarship and thematically increasingly overlap, they interact only to a limited degree. Consequently, the relation between economic developments and developments in urbanism is not well-understood. This significantly impedes our understanding of Roman history. This project will contribute to filling this gap.


The World of the Fullo

M. Flohr (2013). The World of the Fullo. Work, economy and society in Roman Italy. Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford University Press. Oxford. Hardcover, 424 Pages / 159 illus. 9.2 x 6.1 inches. ISBN: 9780199659357. £ 90,00 (here).

While research for a second book is already under way, my first monograph, the world of the fullo. Work, economy and Society in Roman Italy, came out May 31st (2013) at OUP. It is the final publication of the research I did while I was working on my dissertation at Radboud University Nijmegen. Most of the original thesis was written between early 2008 and late 2009, but the text was substantially revised in 2011, while I was in Oxford, and finalized in March 2012, when it was sent to OUP for publication. More details, and ordering info, are available on the OUP website. In the following paragraphs, I will briefly describe what the book is trying to do, and how the narrative of the book develops from chapter to chapter.


The World of the Fullo takes a detailed look at the fullers, craftsmen who dealt with high-quality garments, of Roman Italy. Analyzing the social and economic worlds in which the fullers lived and worked, it tells the story of their economic circumstances, the way they organized their workshops, the places where they worked in the city, and their everyday lives on the shop floor and beyond.

Through focusing on the lower segments of society, I uses everyday work as the major organizing principle of the narrative: the volume discusses the decisions taken by those responsible for the organization of work, and how these decisions subsequently had an impact on the social lives of people carrying out the work. It emphasizes how socio-economic differences between cities resulted in fundamentally different working lives for many of their people, and that not only were economic activities shaped by Roman society, they in turn played a key role in shaping it. 

Using an in-depth and qualitative analysis of material remains related to economic activities, with a combined study of epigraphic and literary records, this volume aims to contribute to current and future debates on the socio-economic history of urban communities in the Roman world. Yet, that is, obviously, for reviewers and future scholars to decide.