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Street Work and Commerce in Roman Antiquity

By Rafael Monpean, PhD candidate in Social History, University of São Paulo.

Via dell'Abbondanza, Pompeia, looking towards the Forum. Photo: Rafael Monpean.

Every year a few million tourists visit Rome, Ostia, Pompeii, Herculaneum. They appreciate several ancient monuments in each of these cities, such as temples, houses, theatres, amphitheatres, baths, and shops. But, at the end of a day's journey, few give importance to the space through which they walked on these visits. The streets they walked through become something naturalized, when they are not attractive just because of their unusual shape. Such an attitude has its explanations. It was rooted in the ways in which we perceive and deal with the streets and large avenues in modern cities: as what is between one place and another, paths, spaces of transition and locomotion. And it's not just tourists who let the importance of the streets go unnoticed. To have a small idea, just remember the large number of representations and graphic reconstructions of old buildings that shaw the streets only as an empty space between buildings.

This conception, however, is far from representing the practices and perceptions of streets in Roman antiquity. It is no exaggeration to say that a large part of daily life occurred and was developed on the streets. In addition to being paths between one point and another, places for pedestrian, cart and animal transit, the streets were places of great triumphs of military campaigns, of appearance and demonstrations of power by prominent figures in the political scene, of religious processions, commercial exchanges, for the use of various services, the collection and use of water from sources, meeting points for conversation between the inhabitants, among other activities that varied during the day and night. They were, therefore, places occupied by inhabitants and visitors from different social strata.

It is possible to repopulate the streets and demonstrate part of their uses by the popular classes through some examples taken, in particular, from the world of work. Dealers of different types of goods carried out their sales on the streets in various places in the city, such as on major roads or in front of public buildings that were very frequented. The philosopher Seneca gives us a good example of the bustle of these businesses when he complained about the noises that bothered him when he was next door to a public bath. After complaining about the screams and moans of the locals, Seneca (Ep. 56. 2) criticizes the cries of advertisements made by merchants who were on the streets, among them “the cake-seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.” Seneca also adds the noises caused by other workers in the streets, but which no longer bothered him because he had been used to it for a long time, such as those made by carpenters, builders and flute sellers.

Other services were also offered on the streets. This is the case of teachers who could hold their classes on the streets or beside public buildings. Barbers customarily carried out their work in the streets, in front of shops, bars and theatre porticoes, as evidenced by inscriptions demarcating the locations of their activities engraved on pavements or columns. In fact, the demarcation of public roads for commerce and even the expansion of commercial buildings towards the streets were other common practices that affected the lives of passers-by. Stall marks for shop tents and stalls on wide-circulation streets are still visible today in cities like Pompeii and Caesarea of Mauretania.

If Seneca complained about the noise of the vendors, the poet Martial provides us with a good example of those who were bothered by the phenomenon of these occupations of the streets by commercial practices. Commemorating Domitian's achievements in an edict of 92 that intended to “clean” the streets by removing these structures in front of the stores, Martial (7.61) states that “No pillar is girt with chained flagons, nor is the praetor forced to walk in the middle of the mud, nor is any razor rashly drawn in the midst of a dense crowd, nor does the grimy cook-shop monopolise the whole of the way. Barber, taverner, cook, butcher keep to their own thresholds. Now Rome exists: of late it was the huge shop.” However, Martial's normative vision, shared by many other members of the elite, was far from being realized. The continued use of spaces in front of the stores was a phenomenon that lasted throughout Roman history. Trying to stop these occupations, too. Lawmakers such as Papinian (Digest., in the second half of the second century, recalled subsequent efforts that were used to curb the obstruction of streets by shops and bars.

Scenes of street life in a 5th century CE mosaic found on the outskirts of Antioch.

The persistence of these practices of occupation and the intertwining of activities present in the streets can be well exemplified in the figurations of a mosaic from the 5th century of our era, found in the outskirts of Antioch. Famous for the representation of Magnanimity and hunting scenes in its central part, the mosaic is all surrounded by a small strip with scenes of various practices carried out in urban areas. In its composition, the city is visualized from the perspective of a passer-by who walks through the streets. Among its images that have reached our days, it is possible to follow tables in bars in the streets with board players, butchers and bakers working in the middle of the streets, as well as teachers, merchants, porters, beggars, women and children who, among others, were in this space that connected and brought to view the buildings right at the back.

The streets in the Roman world were conceived and experienced as a destination for their regulars. Characters like Seneca, Martial and many of their peers knew this and enjoyed the goods of street life, but they also had ideals of how the behaviour on the streets should be: no disturbing noise, no tumult on the sidewalks, no dirt produced by stores and its regulars. In turn, labour and trade relations demonstrate how these ideals collide with the experiences and practices of the popular classes. The daily lives of workers do not fit into an empty and aseptic street. Their activities had and spread sounds, smells, flavours and debris through the streets. In other words, their practices were one of the main elements that gave life and filled the streets.

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