façade with Tabernae

Forma Urbis: Costruire Tabernae

In a letter to Atticus dated 18 april 44 BC, Cicero writes his friend that two of his shops in Puteoli had collapsed, and that he is planning to rebuild the property in a way that allows him to make even more money out of it. It is one of the very few references to a phenomenon that is likely to have been widespread in the cities of Roman Italy: investment in, and ownership of commercial facilities by the elite.

Commercial space was a defining element of the landscape of Roman cities, and the quintessential commercial facility in the Roman world was the taberna – a large room with a wide opening onto the street to maximize opportunities for interaction between inside and outside. Never an independent building itself, the taberna features only marginally in studies of Roman architecture and urbanism, and few scholars have studied the taberna as a socioeconomic phenomenon.

There are, however, good reasons to take a closer look at the taberna. Rather than a constant, unchanging element of Roman urban space, the taberna had a history of its own, and this history is extremely important for our understanding of the history of cities in Roman Italy. This is especially true if we focus on the construction of tabernae: building tabernae was a form of economic investment that, as in Cicero’s case, served to earn proprietors a profit, and the decision to build (or not to build) tabernae was based on at least some understanding of the local market situation.

Tabernae were constructed in a variety of contexts, both public and private, and can be found throughout cities, though they are especially dominant along through-roads, which were commercially attractive because of the many people passing by. The density of the commercial landscape depended on the size and structure of the local market. For example, while there were uninterrupted rows of tabernae along the major streets of Pompeii in 79AD, they seem to have been much fewer in number in cities like Paestum and Norba, even along major roads. Within Pompeii, where we can to some extent understand the chronological development of the urban landscape, there also seems to have been a general increase in the number of tabernae from the second century BC to the first century AD, and a slight change in the commercial emphasis of the city away from the forum and the old town centre immediately east of it.

Starting from well-known sites like Pompeii and Ostia, the NWO-funded project ‘Building Tabernae’ (Leiden University) aims to understand the historical development of commercial landscapes in the cities of Roman Italy. Besides looking at the number of tabernae and their spread over the urban area, the project specifically investigates the contexts in which tabernae were built: the emergence of new forms of investment is of course as relevant for our understanding of the taberna phenomenon as the quantity and location of tabernae in cities, and even in cities that too fragmentarily known to fully understand their commercial landscape, it is often possible to understand the context in which tabernae were being constructed: focusing on the context of investment makes it possible to compare developments in Pompeii, Ostia and Rome to what is happening elsewhere.

House with two tabernae around the entrance
Pompeii: House with two tabernae around the entrance

Originally, in the republican period, tabernae mainly seem to have been constructed in two contexts: privately, as part of atrium houses – surrounding the fauces – and publicly, along the sides of the forum. Atrium houses with tabernae can be found throughout Italy, while evidence for republican period taberna rows around the forum has been found in, for example, Pompeii and Paestum. Both forms of investment continued to exist throughout the imperial period – as is e.g. attested by the second century AD forum at Herdoniae, and by Domus Fulminata at Ostia.

Forum with shops at Herdonia
Forum with shops at Herdonia

However, there also were developments. In the first place, while most atrium houses with shops initially only had one or two, the emergence, in the late republic, of wealthy urban elites who built large residences with long façades, led to houses with much larger numbers of shops; at the same time, people building on plots in the corner of insulae increasingly began to explore the long sides of the plot, building tabernae not only around the entrance, but also around the corner. Both developments are clearly visible at Pompeii, and partially also elsewhere.

Pompeii - Tabernae along the Via degli Augustali
Pompeii – Tabernae along the Via degli Augustali

Yet new forms of investment also emerged. At Pompeii, the second century BC seems a turning point in that respect: public buildings, such as baths and markets, began to be surrounded by rows of shops, a development that can later also be seen at Ostia and in Rome. In Ostia, the two major imperial bath complexes even had shops directly around the palaestra. The Baths of Caracalla were built with a long row of more than forty shops along the Via Nova. Moreover, there also is an emergence of purpose-built commercial buildings consisting of long rows of tabernae. In Pompeii, these can be found along the Via degli Augustali, and outside the Porta Ercolano. In Ostia, they can be found along the western decumanus, and between the forum and the Tiber. The third century Forma Urbis Romae suggests similar buildings existed also in Rome. In Rome and Ostia, the insula was another new context in which tabernae were constructed in large quantities, together with apartments to be rented out on the market.

Ostia, western Decumanus
Ostia, western decumanus: tabernae along the north side

One of the key questions to be addressed by the project is to which extent these new forms of investment became normal throughout Roman Italy, and to which extent they remained restricted to the Roman metropolis and its ports, and the wealthy bay of Naples region. The first impression is that commercial investment in large parts of Roman Italy remained largely traditional; building projects did not often reach the scale that can be seen at Ostia and Pompeii, though at the same time, tabernae seem to have been abundant in most cities. This, in itself, tells an important story about the urban history of Roman Italy, and particularly about the relative position of Pompeii in the urban spectrum: rather than a small, provincial town, Pompeii seems a highly commercialized urban centre, which can easily be explained from its location in the Bay of Naples.
The coming years, work on Pompeii, Ostia, Rome and the cities of the Apennines will enable the project to corroborate this picture, and to get a more complete view on urban commercial investment in Roman Italy.

This is the English version of the article ‘Costruire Tabernae. l’investimento commerciale nelle città dell’Italia romana‘, as it appeared in Forma Urbis XIX, 9 (L’Archeologia Olandese in Italia – Settembre 2014), p. 42-44.