The commercialization of private space in Roman houses

7-11-2014, 21:04

While scholarly discourse on public and private in the Roman house usually puts a lot of emphasis on social, cultural and even political processes taking place in domestic contexts, it should not be overlooked that one of the key aspects of the relation between public and private in a house was the way in which it incorporated commercial activities: there is ample evidence that houses played a central role in many urban economies in the Roman world and a considerable proportion of urban retail and manufacturing took place within or in the direct environment of houses. 

Pompeii, Casa del Fauno: Main Entrance - fauces VI 12, 2 surrounded by tabernae VI 12, 1 and VI 12, 3 (Photo: Miko Flohr [2011])

However, what is much less well-understood is to which extent, and in which way, the physical presence of retail and manufacturing in domestic contexts had an impact on the role of public and private in domestic space. To some extent, commercial spaces may be seen as ‘semi-public’ in the sense that, for business purposes, they may be penetrated by outsiders who were not members of a household, but this differs between shops and workshops, and it is not the whole story: the question is to which extent this also had consequences for the functioning of the rest of the house.

Focusing on Pompeii, this paper will analyze three aspects of this issue. It will first zoom in on the role that tabernae associated with houses could play in bridging the gap between public and private space. Subsequently, it will assess the potential impact of workshops situated in the back parts of houses. Finally, it will be discussed how the public image of houses could be defined by the commercial activities of their occupants even if shops or workshops were absent. The paper will argue that it is impossible to understand issues of public and private in the Roman house without incorporating the role of houses in retail and manufacturing into the picture.

Tabernae and the Atrium

The most common way in which commercial activities could have an impact on the relation between public and private is through tabernae that were related to the house, either in the sense that they were part of the building and could be associated with the main entrance, or, particularly, in the sense that they were internally connected to the house. To give an indication: of the 806 tabernae at Pompeii, 555 are in some form or another related to a house that had some room resembling an atrium – they are not all Casa del Fauno style buildings with a fauces and a tablinum and cubicula on both sides, but they are domestic buildings of a more-or-less complex structure that seem to have their own independent building history. Of these 555 tabernae, 225 were directly connected to the house, and thus potentially played a role in negotiating the relation between public and private: if tabernae were connected to a house, they also can be seen as a possible way to enter the house. It is worth emphasizing that this is more than a quarter of all tabernae in Pompeii. 

A good example is the House of the Faun, where two of the four tabernae stand in direct connection with the first atrium of the house. In the past, such connections between tabernae and atrium houses were mostly explained from the perspective of the relation between house-owner and shop holder: tabernae that were directly connected to the main house were run directly from the household through slaves, whereas the other tabernae were rented out – and the idea is that they were often rented out to freedmen. It must be emphasized that archaeologically, this is all highly debatable: there is no reason why tabernae that were not connected internally could not be operated with household staff, nor is there any reason why the staff working in tabernae with a connection to the main house all were members of the household in question. Rather, the information that can and should be distilled from the presence of a connection between taberna and house is much more basic: that at least at the moment when the door was made, regular traffic was supposed to be taking place between shop and house, on a scale or of a nature that needed to be accommodated on a structural basis.  Sometimes, there may be a workshop elsewhere in the house, so that the door served traffic between shop and workshop, but this is in fact only rarely the case: of the 169 houses with shops directly connected to them, only 18 have clear remains of a workshop situated inside the house itself. Three main groups can be distinguished: houses were a taberna was the only entrance to the building, houses were one or more tabernae potentially provided a secondary way in towards the atrium or front hall, and houses where the taberna potentially provided a kind of back door. 

The main-entrance model

Pompeii, I 6, 7: Main Entrance - Main entrance to the house through taberna I 6, 7 (Photo: Miko Flohr [2009])

In 28 cases, the taberna was the only entrance to the house. In these cases, the relation between public and private obviously was dictated by the house’s involvement in commercial activity. A well-known example is the fullonica of Stephanus, which had a well-defined domestic zone that was only accessible through the shop. As I have argued at several occasions, both decorations and artefacts found in the atrium emphasize its fundamentally domestic character, contrary to what some scholars have suggested in the past.  Yet, there are other examples as well, particularly in insulae VII 3 and VII 4, such as here in the NE corner of the former insula where two medium-sized houses were only accessible through their shops. Interestingly, the one on the corner of the insula also appears to be very old, going back to before the second century BC. 

The secondary entrance model

The second group, however, was by far the largest. In 102 cases, a taberna gave direct access to an atrium through a door in its back. In another 41 cases, this access was a little bit more indirect, and ran through a cubiculum or through the fauces. Especially with the tabernae directly connected to the atrium, it is possible to see the taberna and atrium operating together as different components of one and the same business. Schematically: the easy, everyday stuff was handled by the staff in the taberna, whereas the more complex negotiations were referred to the atrium, where the legal owner of the company – the paterfamilias – resided. In a similar fashion, we may imagine that new customers went to the taberna, whereas established business contacts of a higher status may have had the privilege of entering directly through the fauces. In this way, taberna and fauces worked as two alternative entrance systems – the latter of a privileged status, the former of a more pedestrian status.

The back-door model

In the third group, contact between the core domestic zone and the taberna is likely to have been more restricted. These 52 tabernae often were connected to the house via a couple of other rooms leading to the service quarters or to the peristyle, as was the case, for example, in the Casa dei Postumi, with taberna VIII 4, 50, or in the Domus Cornelia, in the same insula, with taberna VIII 4, 22. Here, regular traffic is of course not excluded, but it is likely that it mostly served internal purposes – in the case of the Casa dei Postumi, for example, the wool-washing or felt-making workshop on the other side of the peristyle. 

Independent tabernae

Besides the connected tabernae, there also were the independent tabernae that were part of the same building. Indeed, these form the majority: 325 of the tabernae related to houses were physically independent units, and of the 485 atrium houses with tabernae, 316 did not have internally connected tabernae. As argued above, their independence does not necessarily mean they were rented out – though they surely were rentable. Rather, it means that people could not directly enter the house through them. Still, they contributed to the way in which the relation between public and private was shaped as they often could visually be associated with the main entrance, and conveyed a message about the size, nature and connectedness of the household in question. This is something that should not be underestimated – especially not from the point of view of the house-owners: tabernae that were not functioning well, looked shabby, or had to close through lack of business harmed not only the economic status of the household, but also their social well-being: being successful in the business in which you were investing was a social blessing – and failure a social risk. 

Workshops, public and private

While tabernae were pretty flexible in their use, they provided limited space for businesses and were too small for certain forms of economic activity, particularly manufacturing processes. Still, the large majority of all Pompeian workshops was in some way or another related to an atrium house. If we just take the five most common Pompeian workshop types – which in total amount to about 69 workshops, two are related to a public building, seven are part of what may be seen as a ‘commercial complex’, and another 3 belong to complexes that we do not understand very well, but that did not have a residential function. Yet, the other fifty-seven workshops all had some form of structural relation to an atrium house. This amounts to some 83%.  

This relation could however take several forms, and these could have a different impact on life within the house itself, and on the relation between public and private behind the front door. There are three basic degrees of integration. On one end of the scale, there is the workshop that is fully integrated into the house in the sense that it was visible from the main living spaces, and traffic to and from the workshop crossed the core living area of the house. Fourteen workshops meet these criteria. Second, there is a group of workshops that is internally connected to a house but has its own entrance, and thus can operate relatively independently. Seventeen workshops belong to this category. Finally, there are those workshops that are evidently part of the same complex, but function completely independently from the main house, and are not internally connected to it. This is the largest group, and includes 24 establishments. 

Integrated workshops

The first group of workshops, of course, had the most impact on the domestic environment, and it is here, too, that we find a few cases where houses appear to have lost their domestic function. As I have argued several times at different occasions, there is no doubt that living and working, in most cases, took place alongside each other, but this is likely to have had a significant impact on the degree to which outsiders penetrated into the private realm. For instance, in mill/bakery V 4, 1-2, both the supply of grain, and the finished bread had to pass through the small atrium that formed the core of the domestic unit, and, perhaps more problematically, the animals that operated the mills, too, when they entered or left the building, as did anyone who needed to be in the bakery to do maintenance. Al this movement seriously compromised the private character of the domestic core of the house. Part of the house was a professional ‘mixed zone’, where strangers could easily penetrate for business reasons.

Connected workshops

Pompeii, VII 14, 5.17: Plan - (Plan: Miko Flohr [2018])

The private sphere was of course much less directly influenced when the workshop had its own entrance, and its own separate movement system. In ideal circumstances, the degree of integration between workshop and house was so limited that the two were almost completely independent. For instance, in this house in region VII, house and workshop are separated by a corridor, and no visual connection existed. Yet, in most cases, there was some degree of integration which, during working hours, compromised private life to some extent. Often, the workshop was integrated in a place close to the back yard, which essentially created a kind of ‘mixed zone’ between public and private in an area close to the domestic core. [An example is the dyeing workshop in the Casa della Regina Inghilterra. One can imagine that the arrival of, for instance, supplies, was noticeable around these parts of the house, and that, occasionally, it was possible to see business contacts walking around in the workshop. Yet, this should not be overstated: most of the time, workshops are unlikely to have received visitors. 

Independent workshops

Pompeii, VII 2, 41: Overview - Plan of the taberna with remains of fulling installations and possible press (Plan: Miko Flohr [2007])

Least impact of all had those workshops that belonged to the property of atrium houses but were no part of the main structure. Indeed, in about half of the cases, such workshops were situated in tabernae or in work areas that could not be visually associated with the main entrance of the house. How many passers-by would have noticed that the small fullonica in VII 2, 41 actually belonged to the property of the house of Popidius Priscus? Indeed, visitors to this house, which had its main entrance on the north side of the insula, would not easily have noticed, unless they knew, that the house owned four tabernae and a large bakery: the bakery was on the west side of the insulae, the tabernae all on the south side. In other cases, however, the connection between workshop and house was much more clearly visible, the best example being the two dyeing workshops in the tabernae of the Casa del Toro. Whatever the precise arrangement – the workshops may have been rented out or directly managed from within the household – the connection with the house is patently obvious because of the tufa façade. Still, of course, direct impact on what happened inside the house was limited, but if the tabernae are indeed a mixed zone between public and private, the public image of the household was directly affected.

Houses and the economy

So it is pretty obvious that, when houses were related to shops and workshops, this had a fundamental impact on the way the relation between public and private in these complexes materialized, and I think it makes sense to see the commercial activities in these houses as a factor that partially opens up the inner domestic core to the outside world, and makes the private zones of these complexed more ‘public’ so to speak. This also raises the question of to which extent this actually was the case in houses where there are less explicit material traces for the involvement of the inhabitants in economic life.

Pompeii, VI 14, 39: mosaic - Lucrum Gaudium

A good example of this is the small atrium house VI 14, 39, which basically consisted of a small atrium, a couple of cubicula, a tablinum, and a narrow back yard with an exedra attached to it. Neither the standing remains, nor the objects found by the excavators suggest any commercial activity taking place here on a regular basis. However, the mosaic in front of the impluvium, which reads ‘lucrum gaudium’, makes clear that, actually, the inhabitants took pride in whatever they did for profit. The text was placed on the side of the fauces, prominently visible for all who entered the house. Whatever the amount of people visiting this small house, it is clear that the public profile maintained was strongly based on the idea that they were involved in commercial activities that lead to lucrative, monetary transactions. That picture is, at least at some point during the history of this house, likely to have been rooted in reality. The same is true, of course, for the much larger house VII 1, 46, which has, still visible in its main entrance, at the end of the fauces, the text ‘Salve Lucrum’, again suggesting a prominent commercial role of the atrium itself. Here, however, the remains of a bakery also point to the business in which the household was involved, even though the workshop – as far as I have understood – was dysfunctional in AD 79. 

Pompeii, VII 1, 46-47: Salve Lucrum - (Photo: Miko Flohr [2009])

The public advertisement of commercial profit in the private sphere was not a matter of certain classes of people, but can be found in some of the largest elite residences of the city, such as the now famous house of the wealthy Umbricii Scauri, which advertised the source of the households economic pride in the mosaics around the impluvium, explicitly referring to the quality of the garum that the household, again, at some point, sold for profit.  Indeed, it may be suggested that these mosaics also can enrich our view on the well-known ‘Have’ mosaic outside the house of the Faun: while the simple greeting is not, in itself, very specific, it can be read in the context of the three mosaics we have just seen: the House of the Faun was open to visitors, but specifically welcoming those who came for business. 


Economic life in Pompeii was, to a significant extent, organized around the domestic sphere, and – unless we assume that Pompeii was some kind of fictitious ‘leisure society’ where nobody ever worked, a large majority houses were not only residences, but also places where people worked hard on earning themselves a living – even in cases where houses did not have shops or workshops, and do not show other signs of economic activities. For instance, even someone who would work as a salesman or businessman at the forum or in the macellum, would use his house for administrative purposes, and perhaps for storage as well – as is attested by the discovery of several small doliaria in Pompeian houses, and by the fact that several atria contained large quantities of amphorae when they were excavated – evidence that I have not explicitly discussed here, but that could be added to the picture.  

While the economic role of houses has been acknowledged in the past, especially by Wallace-Hadrill, the implications for the functioning of houses – large and small – have generally been much less thoroughly considered. Indeed, in discussing the spatial functioning of the Roman house, and the relation between public and private, scholars have tended to gloss over the economic roles of the atrium house. This overview has hoped to show that actually this economic role was very central to the functioning of many houses, and played a pivotal role in shaping the relation between the public and private spheres: in many houses, many of the interactions with outsiders taking place in especially the atrium zone had to do with manufacturing, trade, retail, or business. The visible involvement of houses in commerce, manufacturing and retail had a fundamental impact on the public image of households, and thus on the way private space was approached by outsiders. There is no evidence at all that this fundamental role of houses was ever consciously hidden away. Rather, the evidence suggests it could be publicly advertised, and could contribute positively to the socioeconomic standing of the people involved – that is, if business was successful.