Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.51

Claire Holleran, Shopping in Ancient Rome: The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xii, 304.  ISBN 9780199698219.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Miko Flohr, University of Oxford (

This is a highly relevant book that breaks important new ground in an area of Roman studies that has suffered from neglect both traditionally and in recent years: retail, though socially and economically a defining aspect of urban life in the Roman world, has not been high on the agenda of Roman scholars – neither of those studying urbanism, nor of those focusing on the Roman economy. While various scholars have focused on certain aspects of retail or certain datasets related to it (e.g. macella or bars), Holleran is the first to discuss the topic in a broad and thematic way. Thus, while the primary focus of the book is on the city of Rome, it provides a conceptual framework that will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on future debates on retail and consumer economies in the Roman world.

The argument, which is well-written and easy to read, starts, as far as the evidence is concerned, from texts. While archaeology features prominently throughout the book, it is primarily studied through publications, and does not tend to play a very decisive role in the argument. That is, the iconographic evidence is well-integrated into the narrative, but the discussion of architectural remains is, beyond Rome, limited to well-known sites, particularly Pompeii and, to a lesser extent, Ostia. However, while some archaeologists might have wished a more thorough analysis of this evidence, it is important to point out that this focus on texts does not really harm Holleran’s argument. Rather, it is a logical consequence of her choice to focus on everyday retail processes and strategies: material remains of tabernae, macella and other commercial buildings, even at Pompeii, have simply less to say in this respect than texts have.

In making sense of the evidence, Holleran makes frequent use of parallels with other preindustrial societies for which our evidence for retail economies is more detailed. Particularly, early modern Europe and eighteenth-century London are used to sketch scenarios for aspects of the retail trade that are invisible in the evidence from Rome and Roman Italy. At the same time, the argument is well connected with current debates in the study of Roman economic history and demography, and shows an acute awareness of the structural complexity of the consumer economy of a preindustrial metropolis of one million inhabitants. This makes the book much more than a simple discussion of the evidence for buying and selling. Rather, Holleran offers a model of the Roman metropolitan consumer economy that helps us understand the often fragmentary and scattered pieces of evidence available. This model consists of five major components: wholesale trade, retail through shops, retail in markets and fairs, street trade and forms of trade directed towards elite consumption. It is around these ‘mechanisms of distribution’ that the narrative of the book is organized.


After a short introductory chapter that sets out the agenda of the book and puts it in its scholarly context, the first numbered chapter discusses, in generic terms, the relation between retail trade and the economy, discussing the nature of retail and some structural aspects of Roman society and Rome’s urban economy that had an impact on it. Here, Holleran, while acknowledging the emergence of mass-production in certain branches of the economy, positions the argument a bit on the primitivist side of the Roman economy debate by emphasizing the small scale of manufacturing in general and the important role of social structures (and particularly the presence of slaves and freedmen) for our understanding of the retail economy. In Holleran’s model, Rome’s retail economy was to a large extent dominated by ‘craftsmen-retailers’, who were more often than not of servile or freed status (and were thus socially tied to the elite). As a consequence, the entrepreneurial possibilities of the freeborn poor were limited.

The second chapter deals with the ties between retail and the wholesale trade: as Rome depended on imports, so did the city’s retailers. Holleran discusses the topography of import on the Tiber banks and the way in which the wharves and the horrea functioned as a hotspot in the commercial landscape of the metropolis, as well as the commercial fora connecting traders and retailers. She also makes a strong case for the city gates as key nodes in the commercial network, performing a similar role, but on a smaller scale, and oriented towards the rural hinterland.

Chapter three focuses on that canonical unit of retail – the taberna. Here, Holleran starts by signaling the ubiquity of tabernae in the archaeological record of almost any urban excavation in Roman Italy, but rightly emphasizes that their material remains rarely reveal anything about the way in which tabernae were used, as this use was, by nature, highly flexible. To understand the nature of commercial activities in tabernae, we need to rely, mostly, on textual evidence. This suggests that tabernae were used not only for retail but also for manufacturing and for the service industry. While tabernae were ‘fundamental to the distribution system of Rome’, their flexibility makes things a bit fuzzy. A slightly worrying implication of Holleran’s argument is that it becomes very hard to see how important tabernae were in Rome’s retail system: it is unclear what proportion actually was partially or completely devoted to selling consumer goods.

The subsequent chapter four deals with markets and fairs, starting with a discussion of the Roman macella and their location, followed by a discussion of the nature of the macellum, which Holleran sees as a market for exclusive, high-quality foodstuffs. While this certainly is an attractive idea for the macella of the city of Rome, one could argue that the evidence does not really make clear whether this was the case in smaller urban centres as well. The subsequent discussion of periodic markets (‘nundinae’) shows their importance in the retail economies of smaller cities, but Holleran rightly notices that the evidence for the city of Rome does not allow us to be completely sure as to where in the city they were held, and what role they performed. The same is true for mercatus or fairs.

Chapter five is the chapter that will probably have the largest impact on future scholarship. It introduces an aspect of the urban retail economy that is likely to have been omnipresent but thus far has received little or no attention at all from scholars: street trade. Holleran not only shows that there is a variety of evidence for street trade and hawking, but also discusses the spatial logic of street trade within the city, emphasizing how street traders, for good reasons, were to be found at crossroads, and near concentrations of people. More importantly, Holleran argues, street trade provided low-threshold income opportunities for freeborn poor, women and, particularly, immigrants, though part of the market was also occupied by institores, often slaves selling wares produced in the households to which they belonged.

The sixth and last chapter deals with elite consumption. The focus here is slightly different from that of the other chapters in the sense that it is the consumer more than the retailer who is in the center of the narrative. Holleran discusses the two main ways in which the Roman urban elite acquired its products – privately and publicly – and concludes that, despite all the ideology and rhetoric of self-sufficiency, elites were not at all independent from the market – buying luxury items in specialist stores or at auctions, which Holleran sees as fundamental to the circulation of luxury goods in Rome.

In a brief concluding chapter, Holleran emphasizes the fundamental role of the retail trade: despite the annona, retail was the most important mode of distribution in the city – both quantitatively and qualitatively – and because of the complexity of the Roman consumer market, the wide range of commodities sold and the variation in consumer strategies within the population, the retail trade was diversified, operating through a variety of channels, each satisfying another type of demand. Holleran sees this system as largely unplanned, ‘evolving in response to the needs and desires of the population’ (263). Thus, despite, being ‘embedded’ in socio-cultural structures on the level of individual agents and their strategies, the system as a whole was, essentially, a market driven phenomenon – albeit one that was subjected to certain institutional controls and regulations.

Holleran’s book is a great contribution to our understanding of Rome’s urban economy, and to debates on Roman urban economies in general. It uses a wealth of information and fits it into a credible framework that covers the Roman retail trade in all its variety – from ‘normal’ retail in ‘shops’ through markets and street trade to auctions and retailers visiting their clients at home. Of key importance is that Holleran consciously breaks with the old-fashioned (and often counter-productive) practice of organizing narratives about everyday economic processes by commodity. As Holleran herself notes (262), this allows her to shed light on the mechanisms of retail, rather than on the peculiarities of specific products. In this respect, her book sets a clear example for future scholarly work.

This book does not aim to be and must not be seen as the definitive account of Roman retail. Rather, it deserves to be a starting point for further debate. The argument makes one realize that there is a number of challenges that were beyond the scope of Holleran’s agenda for this book, but that do deserve the attention of scholars in the future. In the first place, there is a clear challenge for archaeologists to find a way to integrate the material remains of retail architecture into the debate so that the possibilities of this evidence are more fully explored than now is the case. The remains of tabernae in particular are simply too numerous and too widespread to remain forever sidelined in serious academic debate on the history of Roman retail as, essentially, they still are. Secondly, there is a set of questions related to the relative historical position of Rome that are not directly relevant to our understanding of Rome’s urban distribution system, but are essential to understand its meaning. To what extent, for example, did the retail system of the Roman metropolis differ, structurally, from that of other cities in the empire? More importantly, how did Rome, as a preindustrial metropolis, perform compared to other preindustrial metropolises? These are key questions that emerge from Holleran’s work and that deserve our attention.

Moreover, they point to a methodological issue that the field will have to come to terms with: ancient historians are increasingly eager to use evidence from other historical periods as a ‘parallel’ to improve our understanding of the Roman world. Similarly, when discussing aspects of urban life in the city of Rome, there is a (more traditional) tendency to use evidence from other cities – particularly Pompeii and Ostia – as parallels in a similar way. Holleran’s book is no exception. Yet while this is often extremely helpful, and partially is indispensable, it also tends to obscure the historical peculiarities of the Roman world in general and of the city of Rome in particular. The question thus is how, in the debate on the city of Rome (and in that on Roman urbanism in general) the comparative evidence can be used in a more confronting way, so that it not only fills in gaps, but also highlights differences.

However, since Holleran’s book is the first analytical monograph in this oft-neglected field, it should be seen as a merit rather than as a problem that it evokes a couple of research questions, and it does not mean that it can be fully appreciated only once these questions are answered. Quite the contrary – it is to be expected that the model outlined in this book, in general, will provide a reliable basis on which future research can build, and it is to be hoped that ‘Holleran 2012’ will become a widely used standard reference for years to come.

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