By the late first century BC, Rome had more than one million inhabitants, an urban population figure not reached again until the XVIII century.
Alike any other modern city resident, the people of Rome luxuriated in a complex sewage system, spacious houses and plenty of leisure building, such as public baths and the Coliseum. Nevertheless, Rome would have never reached such high levels of development if it hadn´t had it´s thriving retail trade. Nearly everyone in Rome relied on retailers to cater for all their needs: food, clothing, slaves, etc. Today, we know all this thanks to the ancient artists, which somehow featured this type of commerce in their artwork. Reliefs and paintings from Pompeii and other cities are the best evidence for the appearance of Roman stalls. Also, numerous poets and historians write about ambulant vendors promoting their wares and describe the variety of goods on sale.
Along the colonnades of the great city uncountable sellers would exhibit their goods according to the area in which they were. For example, shops around the temples sold votive offering, like flower garlands, whereas, near to the amphitheatre, shoppers could find weapons and armour. Nonetheless, the most popular items were food and clothing. Perishable goods that could be eaten straight away were quite common in almost any street. In addition, some vendors intended to catch the buyer´s attention with different plans. Some were mobile, carrying their wares on trays in baskets around their necks. As shown in some pictures, they would hold one aloft while shouting some sort of jingle to lure in the crowd. In contrast, other retailers set up stalls under awnings or curtains strung between trees, stakes or columns. These would display their items on wooden trestle tables or inside metal vessels and cauldrons suspended over a fire, if they sold food, so that it all looked more appetising. However, upper-class Roman writers condemn retail as a deceitful practice and repeatedly call the quality of the goods into question. Galen is specially scathing about this, claiming that some meat sellers used human flesh in their dishes.
The busiest places of Rome must have been a mind-blowing sight for the foreign visitors and certainly this economic system made a huge impact on social life. First and foremost, retailing in Rome surely attracted all sorts of people from everywhere in Europe. Poor slaves, savage gladiators, wealthy merchants, lavish senators and many more travelled to Rome searching for a better life. Secondly, in the retail environment men and women mixed freely, attenuating the social segregation between both sexes. On the other hand, retailing had some negative effects too. One of them was the excessive noise that stemmed from this activity. Seneca complains about the bawling hawkers that frequent the bathhouse below his apartment and cause too much racket. This tumult could even be considered as a public nuisance, because the uproars from the loudest vendors sometimes woke up dormant children during their sleep. Another negative outcome was the prosperity of human trade, including women and black race people.
All in all, it´s easy to see that, at least in the sense of retailing, Rome was a very modern metropolis. The Roman capital, and in a way the whole nation, flourished due to this magnificent economic scheme. Retailing helped define social classes while providing the essential needs for the citizens. The extravagant constructions or the high technology weren´t the only reason for which this city has been remember so long. Without a doubt, retail trade should be added to the list of greatest discoveries or advancements that Rome has achieved (law, unifying language, paved roads, military weapons, etc.). All of these made Rome and the entire Roman Empire the most dominant faction of early history.
By Juan G. Alonso Gurmán
Student at Atlantic Schools Garoe