Come with me on a pub crawl – around Pompeii. There are some 163 pubs known so far in Pompeii, so it’s going to be quite an evening. But first, we’d better find out what a pub is in Latin, in case we lose our way. There is quite a choice. We could go to the taberna, or the caupona, or the popina, or even try the thermopolium. A learned Swedish librarian, Tonnes Kleberg, tried to sort them out and found there is a problem with thermopolium – the most widely used term in modern literature – because it only occurs three times in known Latin literature. All three of these usages are by Plautus, the writer of comedies in the 2nd century BC, so if we ask our way to the thermopolium in 1st-century AD Pompeii, we might be considered a little old-fashioned and quaint.
We are going on our pub crawl with Steven Ellis, who has written a book, The Roman Retail Revolution: the socio-economic world of the taberna (see ‘Further reading’). He suggests that taberna is the best general term for bars or shops in the Roman world. Steven Ellis is a Professor at the University of Cincinnati and an ace field archaeologist, who has been excavating parts of a couple of insulae – the blocks into which a city is divided – at Pompeii. These lie just inside the Stabian Gate, which is the main entrance on the south side of Pompeii, whereas most modern visitors approach the city on its west side via the Marine Gate. And because these city blocks lie just inside the gate, they were full of bars, with close to 20 shops in total. One staple of Roman urban architecture is that city blocks usually contain one or more grand houses. By contrast, neither of the insulae just inside the Stabian Gate contain such plush residences.
But how do you identify a pub, or indeed a shop? The most obvious feature is the counter, which was sometimes just a couple of planks between two trestles, but many were made of masonry that has survived. The counters were often L-shaped, with one side facing the street and the other for customers inside the shop. Some of them had ceramic containers or basins set into the counter, and there is often a hearth underneath to heat up the contents – one suspects most of these establishments were more like modern fast-food restaurants than a pub, where hot food was served up. After all, many of Pompeii’s poorer inhabitants would have lived-in accommodation where there were no cooking facilities.
The other way to recognise a shop is that they had open fronts, which could be closed off by shutters at night. Often there is a groove in the floor to receive the shutters, and sometimes there is also evidence of a night door to one side, so that the occupiers could venture out. Grooves left by the night door are sometimes also visible.
So how can we classify the pubs at Pompeii? There are three things to look for. First, was there a counter? Then, how many rooms? Many pubs only consist of a single room, but these often include a door leading into a big house behind. Indeed, smaller apartments offering retail opportunities of many kinds frequently cut into such grand residences. In some cases, openings into the big house presumably allowed access to cooking facilities. So this brings us to the third consideration – whether the establishment had cooking facilities, for this is what makes it a pub, or rather a fast-food outlet, otherwise it might simply be a shop.
While many pubs were single rooms, more came with two or three rooms, while a number could boast four or more. Indeed, the biggest examples were fine restaurants, with some even equipped with a garden and several small rooms overlooking it, presumably where you could take your loved one for a slap-up meal.
There are so many shops in Pompeii that one wonders how they made a profit. Steven Ellis notes how often retail space was set into the fabric of the large houses, and he wonders whether this was let out by the owners to their freedmen. It was quite normal in the Roman world that when a slave grew old, he or she was freed. There was a certain cold logic to this, as owners had a duty to look after their slaves, so if they freed them when the slave grew old, they no longer needed to look after them. Nevertheless, freedmen remained under an obligation to their patrons (and vice versa), so if they gave a freedman the lease of a fast-food shop just round the corner from the patron’s front door, they could be certain of getting a good service when they wanted a snack.
Steven Ellis’s investigations have extended far beyond Pompeii. Indeed, he has visited more than 100 towns in the Roman Empire in search of the best pubs, and can therefore offer a history of pubs in the Roman world. The result sheds fascinating light on Roman retail trends.
Roman retail revolution
At Pompeii, commercial life did not really take off until the 2nd century BC. The first 30 years of that century were a time of great boom for the Roman world generally. Following the end of the Second Punic War and the final defeat of Hannibal, the Roman Empire expanded, with loot and slaves pouring in. This was a great age of expansion in Pompeii, too, when the area inside the walls that had mostly hitherto been given over to market gardens suddenly filled up, and shops and pubs appeared everywhere. This was also the time when the classic Roman atrium house was formalised. What seems strange to us is that on either side of the front door, there was usually a shop – if you wanted to pop out for the Roman equivalent of a coffee, there was a Starbucks just by your front door!
In the later 2nd century, the pace of development slowed, but a second retail revolution took place in the Augustan era (31 BC-AD 14), which saw the rise of shops that were purely used for selling goods. Previously, many shops were also workshops – so the potter, for instance, would make his pots at the back of the shop, before selling them in the front. This now changed. In the area that Steven Ellis excavated inside the Stabian Gate, tanneries, potteries, and fish-salting factories had lined this principal entrance to the city. At least six fish-salting vats were discovered under the street fronts of the later bars, all of them in use from the 2nd century BC until they were filled in during the Augustan era and buried beneath the newly raised floors of the shops.
These retail outlets continued down to the destruction of the city. In the later stages, the masonry counters were smartened up and received marble tops, but this refinement need not point to rising profits. Instead, it may have been the result of the great earthquake in AD 62, which destroyed many of the grand houses. In the aftermath, broken marble tiles could have been scavenged from where they lay in the streets and reused to make posh counter-tops in the shops.
The third retail revolution came after the destruction of Pompeii in AD 79. Here, naturally, Steven Ellis needed to look elsewhere: the best-known example being Ostia, the port of the city of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber. Ostia became something of an out-of-town shopping centre for Romans in search of a bargain. It was packed full of shops, but they were not scattered higgledy-piggledy as at Pompeii: they were tightly packed together. This marks the third retail revolution and the rise of retail homogenisation, with the tabernae of this period conspicuous for their common form.
The turning point in Roman city architecture was the great fire of Rome in AD 64, after which Rome was rebuilt to a new plan under strict building regulations. Gradually these building regulations spread to cities throughout the Empire, so that shops no longer sprang up pell-mell, but were laid out in specific rows. The best example of this is Trajan’s Market, adjacent to Trajan’s Forum in Rome, where close to 170 single-room outlets were constructed, some 30 of which still survive from the 1920 excavations. These were spread out over six levels and cut into the side of the Quirinal Hill: on the face of it, here was a shopping complex that would rival any modern retail centre. How far they were shops or offices is debatable, though, as imperial officials were also stationed here to distribute oil, wine, and grain. But it is an impressive, if puzzling complex.
This is a splendid study not only of Pompeii, but also of Roman architecture as a whole. As is usually the case with academic publications, it is written in a scholarly style, and – another vice with such volumes – one wishes it could be published as a paperback at a more reasonable price. But I have learnt a great deal about how Roman cities worked, and a lot about Roman history generally: this is a fascinating pub crawl around the pubs and fast-food shops in Pompeii and the wider Roman Empire. I will look at Pompeii with new eyes.
All images: courtesy of Steven Ellis, unless otherwise stated.
FURTHER READING Steven Ellis (2018) The Roman Retail Revolution: the socio-economic world of the taberna (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0198769934, £77).