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Roman Fish Market. Arch of Octavius

Exotic Goods and Foreign Luxuries: The Ancient Roman Marketplace

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The word forum is a Latin term denoting a ‘public open space’. In ancient Rome, forums would normally be found in the center of cities, and were often surrounded by a number of other buildings, such as temples, basilicas (in this context, public court buildings), and shops. Thus, the forum was considered as the center of religious, civic and economic life in Roman cities. The primary function of the forum, however, was to serve as a marketplace for the people of the cities.

Trade for the elite

It has been pointed out that, in theory, members of the Roman Senate and their families were prohibited in engaging in any form of trade. On the other hand, members of the Equestrian order were allowed to be involved in business, in spite of their class values that placed emphasis on the pursuit of military and leisure activities. In the marketplaces of the Roman world, however, stalls and shops were usually held and manned by plebeians or freedmen, whilst most of the hard work was done by a large quantity of slaves. These merchants were known as the mercatores. Apart from the marketplaces, the mercatores sold their goods by the side of roads, and were also present near Roman military camps during campaigns, where they sold food and clothing to Roman soldiers, and purchased war booty from them.

A wall painting from Pompeii depicting everyday activities in a Roman marketplace.

A wall painting from Pompeii depicting everyday activities in a Roman marketplace. (public domain)

Specialized markets

The marketplaces of the Roman world sold a huge variety of everyday goods. Prepared foods, such as bread, chickpeas and pastries, would have been a common sight at these markets. In Rome, for instance, there was even a specialized marketplace called the Forum Cuppedenis (located between the Sacra Via and the Argiletum), where various delicacies were sold. Other specialized markets in Rome include the Forum Boarium, the Forum Holitorium and the Forum Piscarium. The first was a cattle market, and originally extended from the boundary of the Velabrum to the Tiber; the second was a vegetable market that was located just outside the Porta Carmentalis; the third was a fish market, which, like the Forum Cuppedenis, was also situated between the Sacra Via and the Argiletum.  

Ancient Roman marketplace and temple dedicated to the god Serapis, Pozzuoli, Italy.

Ancient Roman marketplace and temple dedicated to the god Serapis, Pozzuoli, Italy.  (public domain)

Ancient trade routes

Apart from such everyday objects, exotic goods were also sold in the marketplaces of ancient Rome. Whilst the Romans were famed for their skill in building roads, it is said that these were meant to connect military posts, rather than for the purpose of transporting trade goods. It has also been pointed out that it was the rise of Roman maritime trade routes from the 2 nd century B.C. that facilitated the transportation of commodities between different Roman regions. Whilst these maritime trade routes were originally located in the Mediterranean, they would later expand outwards into the Indian Ocean as well, thanks to the changing tastes of the Roman people. Following the rise of the Roman Empire, the wealthy members of Roman society began to develop a taste for foreign luxuries, and this was fulfilled by exotic goods transported via sea routes as well as the famous Silk Route.

Such exotic goods include silk, spices, ivory and jewellery. One of Rome’s trade partners was India, and a number of sites with Roman remains have been discovered in the south of that country. The discovery of Roman pottery remains at a site called Naduvirapattu, near Tambaram, Chennai, for example, has led to the speculation that Roman merchants travelled inland, and may even have had temporary settlements there. These merchants would have then brought their goods back to Rome, where they were sold.

Traders in a Roman Marketplace

Traders in a Roman Marketplace (public domain)

The Trajan’s Market – world’s oldest shopping mall

One of the places where such luxury goods were sold was a complex of buildings dubbed in the early 20 th century as ‘Trajan’s Market’. This complex was constructed between 107 AD and 110 AD during the reign of Trajan. Located on a hill overlooking the Forum, this complex was semi-circular in shape, and had six storeys. It is said that the market housed more than 150 lots, many of which were believed to have served as shops, though some were used as offices. These shops are thought to have sold products coming from all over the empire, including exotic spices, wine and oil. Additionally, one floor, known as the Via Biberatica, is said to have had taverns. Some consider Trajan’s Market as the world’s oldest shopping mall.

Trajan’s market, Rome, Italy

Trajan’s market, Rome, Italy (public domain)

Featured image: Roman Fish Market. Arch of Octavius (public domain)

By Ḏḥwty


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dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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