Shopping in the Roman World

By Ray Laurence

Shopping is such a familiar part of our lives that it seldom crops up as a topic of historical interest. However, a recent conference session at the Roman Archaeology Conference at the University of Edinburgh explored the nature of shopping in antiquity. It was a session of surprises.

First up, the Romans would appear to have invented the architectural form of a shop. There is no precedent for the shop or taberna within the Greek or Hellenistic world. Thus, the Romans invented the shop that is so familiar to us from the sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. Typically, a Roman shop had a wide opening which was closed using a grooved threshold to house wooden shuttering.

Second surprise, there is some evidence of governors building shops in some of the more remote parts of modern Turkey. This parallels the building of shops in Rome paid for by the state and then sold to private individuals.

Yet, how do we consider a shift from forms of exchange associated with the Iron Age in Britain to the purchase of goods via shops? The transition to shopping was not just a cultural change or a shift to a new form of economic distribution. Indeed, the development of shops in the Roman Northwest provinces caused a total dislocation from forms of exchange present in the earlier Iron Age.

This viewpoint causes us to take stock of when this development happened. Detailed analysis of shops in Pompeii shows that many were not created when much of the urban fabric of the city was built. Instead, they are later additions dating to the late first century BC or early first century AD. This provides a time horizon for understanding what may be described as a “Roman retail revolution” (to quote the title of Steven Ellis’ new book).

However, we need to be clear about what we wish to look at in analyzing the possibilities of studying “shopping”. Papers in the session tended to focus on the selling of goods. This fits with earlier work on the topic. Thus, to date, the social act of shopping remains understudied in favour of the perspective of economic historians focused on the seller, rather than the purchaser.

Ray Laurence in the Department of Ancient History is co-editor (with Mary HarlowUniversity of Leicester) of the first volume of The Cultural History of Shopping dealing with antiquity. Interestingly, the chapters and their focus are set so that this volume and the other five volumes, which take the cultural history of shopping right up to the end of the twentieth century, have the same shape – a key feature of this Bloomsbury series of Cultural Histories. Thus, there will be discussions of children and shopping, gendered shopping, the regulation of goods, and the nature of trust within the world of retail. The end result will be a book that not only brings shopping into the study of ancient history, but also enables the reader to compare the character of shopping in this time period with its development in later historical periods.

Ray Laurence

Ray Laurence is Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University (Australia). Previous to his move to Macquarie University -- he was Professor of Roman History and Archaeology at the University of Kent (UK). He has published prize-winning books on Pompeii: Roman Pompeii: Space and Society and Pompeii: The Living City. His work based in Archaeology, History and Classics is characterised by a cross-disciplinary aspect that causes it to be accessible and of wider interest to architects, landscape historians, geographers and urbanists. Of particular interest is his work on the relationship between the physical form of the Roman city and its residents. He has also published extensively on Roman roads and communications, childhood and ageing, quantitative approaches to Latin inscriptions and approaches to cultural change in the Roman Empire. In addition, he has written scripts for cartoons that can be found on TED.Ed that have attracted more than 11 million views on YouTube.