Building Tabernae

2013 - 2017

Building Tabernae is an NWO Veni Project based at the University of Leiden (2013-2017). The project focuses on urban commercial space in Roman Italy and deals with the impact of economic growth on urban communities in the late Republic and the Imperial period (200 BCE – 300 CE). It will investigate how favourable economic circumstances under the Roman Empire fostered the emergence of new and more ambitious forms of investment in commercial space, and it aims to understand how this transformed the physical and social fabric of the cities of the Italian peninsula. 

The project will use archaeological and textual evidence and belongs to the field of ancient history as much as it belongs to that of classical archaeology. Thematically, it operates on the interface of social and economic history and explores to which degree economic developments fostered social change. It specifically attempts to connect two highly vibrant debates: the debate about Roman urbanism and that about Roman economic life.

Both debates have seen significant development over the last decades. Discourse on Roman urbanism has moved away from the traditional emphasis on (monumental) architecture and urban planning towards studying urban landscapes in a more integrated manner (seminal is Laurence 1994). Discourse on Roman economic life has developed beyond the consumer city debate that dominated the field in the 1990s (e.g. Mattingly 1997; Erdkamp 2001), now focusing more and more on the social and spatial contexts of economic processes (Mouritsen 2001; Robinson 2005; Flohr 2007).

Yet, while these debates play a central role in Roman scholarship and thematically increasingly overlap, they interact only to a limited degree. Consequently, the relation between economic developments and developments in urbanism is not well-understood. This significantly impedes our understanding of Roman history. This project will contribute to filling this gap.

Ostia, III 7, 3-4: Domus Fulminata - Tabernae surrounding the main entrance of this house just outside the city walls of Ostia (Photo: Miko Flohr [2012])

Key scientific objectives are to reconstruct and understand, for the first time, changing strategies of investment in urban commercial space, to investigate how newly emerging investment strategies changed the physical landscapes of Roman cities, and to explore how economic growth transformed the dynamics of urban life in the Roman world.

Pompeii, Terme Centrali: Via Stabiana - Facade with series of tabernae, with opus vittatum mixtum and opus latericium on foundations of grey lava; no thresholds (yet) (Photo: Miko Flohr [2011])

Research Strategy

The main focus of the proposed research will be on tabernae, small-scale commercial units flanking urban thoroughfares. Tabernae were characterized by wide entrances fostering interaction between the people working inside and those passing by on the street (cf. Laurence 2007: 113). They were used for a variety of commercial purposes, mostly retail, but also manufacturing. The choice for tabernae is based on three observations:

  1. Tabernae are a predominantly Roman phenomenon: comparable Greek and Hellenistic facilities tend to be less open to the street, and fewer in number. There seems to be a considerably stronger commercial articulation of urban space in Roman cities. This raises questions about Roman urban economies. 
  2. In the better known cities of Roman Italy, such as Pompeii and Ostia, the amount of tabernae seems to increase throughout the late republic and early imperial period, and commercial landscapes seem to become ever denser, suggesting that urban economies changed considerably in this period.
  3. In the same period, investors began to build tabernae in larger quantities and in new contexts. At Pompeii, already in the second century BCE, independent complexes of tabernae emerged alongside the traditional model in which tabernae were related to atrium houses (Flohr 2012). In Rome and Ostia, a spectacular increase in scale eventually led to enormous complexes like Trajan’s Market (Rome).

Two strategic decisions have shaped the approach of the project. In the first place, the project limits its geographical focus to Roman Italy. The Italian peninsula provides a large quantity of material and textual evidence from a relatively coherent historical context, which is methodologically essential. The presence of the Roman metropolis and the variety of urban scenarios in Italy make that the widest possible range of investment patterns can be included in the analysis. In this way, ‘Building tabernae’ will lay a solid foundation for future research, in which Italy can be compared with other parts of the Roman world.

Secondly, the project combines two levels of analysis: on a micro-scale level, it studies the development of commercial landscapes of individual cities and the impact of this development on the urban social fabric; on a macro-scale level, it compares individual site histories and integrates them into a broad narrative about commerce and the urban history of Roman Italy. This guarantees that the analysis will take into account specific local circumstances and developments, while also fostering the development of a synthetical perspective.

Pompeii, VI 12, 1-3.5.7-8: Façade - Overview of the façade of the House of the Faun with the main entrance (roofed) surrounded by shops (Photo: Miko Flohr [2013])


The proposed project breaks new ground in three ways. In the first place, it  addresses the relation between economy and society in the Roman world, an issue that is vital to our understanding of Roman history, but plays little or no role in current debates. Most scholars have not moved much beyond the substantivist idea that economic life in the Roman world was socially ‘embedded’ and shaped by cultural values (see, originally, Finley 1985). While it is undeniable that social and cultural processes influenced economic practice in the Roman world, this project will explore to which degree the reverse is also true: society shaped economy, but to what degree did economy also shape society?

Secondly, in this context, investment in urban commercial space is a promising perspective that scholars have left untouched: approaches to commercial space have thus far mainly focused on its daily use in retail and manufacturing and neglected the investment involved in its construction. Thirdly, the tabernae constitute a large and easily accessible dataset that provides ample possibilities to discuss these issues, but they have received little scholarly attention: there are no monographs on the subject, and only a few articles (e.g. Ellis 2004; DeLaine 2005).

Pompeii, VII 4, 45-47: Typical second century BC Tufa faade - The main entrance of the house (in the shade) is surrounded by two tabernae on each side. (Photo: Miko Flohr [2011])


The project is expected to develop and test, amongst others, the following hypotheses:

  1. Increasing investment in tabernae between 150 BCE and 200 CE was related to a spectacular growth of urban consumer markets throughout Roman Italy in this period.
  2. The increasing dimensions of building projects and resulting properties led, especially in Rome, to decreasing social control for proprietors and increasing independence for shop holders. 
  3. Roman urban landscapes were shaped by economic rather than socio-political priorities.


Flohr, M. (2011). ‘Tabernae, economische groei en stedelijke ontwikkeling in republikeins Pompeii’. TMA 46: 34–41.