The World of the Fullo

2002 - 2012

M. Flohr (2013). The World of the Fullo. Work, economy and society in Roman Italy. Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford University Press. Oxford. Hardcover, 424 Pages / 159 illus. 9.2 x 6.1 inches. ISBN: 9780199659357. £ 90,00 (here).

This book is the final publication of the research I did while I was working on my dissertation at Radboud University Nijmegen. Most of the original thesis was written between early 2008 and late 2009, but the text was substantially revised in 2011, while I was in Oxford, and finalized in March 2012, when it was sent to OUP for publication. More details, and ordering info, are available on the OUP website. In the following paragraphs, I will briefly describe what the book is trying to do, and how the narrative of the book develops from chapter to chapter.


The World of the Fullo takes a detailed look at the fullers, craftsmen who dealt with high-quality garments, of Roman Italy. Analyzing the social and economic worlds in which the fullers lived and worked, it tells the story of their economic circumstances, the way they organized their workshops, the places where they worked in the city, and their everyday lives on the shop floor and beyond.

Through focusing on the lower segments of society, I uses everyday work as the major organizing principle of the narrative: the volume discusses the decisions taken by those responsible for the organization of work, and how these decisions subsequently had an impact on the social lives of people carrying out the work. It emphasizes how socio-economic differences between cities resulted in fundamentally different working lives for many of their people, and that not only were economic activities shaped by Roman society, they in turn played a key role in shaping it. 

Using an in-depth and qualitative analysis of material remains related to economic activities, with a combined study of epigraphic and literary records, this volume aims to contribute to current and future debates on the socio-economic history of urban communities in the Roman world. Yet, that is, obviously, for reviewers and future scholars to decide. 

Chapter 1. Introduction (1-52)

The book starts with an introductory chapter which defines the issues at stake, discusses the criteria used to identify relevant material and textual evidence and sketches the chronological and geographical spread of the evidence, most of which comes from central Italy and dates back to the first three centuries of our era. Subsequently, the chapter introduces the most important sites where the evidence comes from – Rome Ostia, and Pompeii – and brieflys discuss the historical context of these sites in antiquity and the specific problems related to the material and textual records from these sites.  

Chapter 2. The economy of fulling (52-95)

As fulling was, in the first place, an economic activity related to the production, trade and consumer use of textiles, the logical first step is to discuss the economic contexts of fulling. Key questions at stake are to what degree fulling in the Roman world must be seen as related to textile production, trade, or consumption, and what the evidence for fulling from Roman Italy reveals about the textile economies of the cities where it was found. After a rough sketch of the wider economic context relevant to the topic, the chapter moves on to an analysis of the demand for fulling: what purpose served the activity? How was demand divided over society? How was demand geographically spread over the Italian peninsula? Next, the chapter investigates the direct economic context of the evidence for fulling, focusing on economic orientation (towards end users or traders), scale, and evidence for ties between fulling and other branches of the textile economy. The final section discusses the implications of the evidence for fulling for the textile economies at Ostia, Rome and Pompeii, and the other places where evidence has been found. Basically, it is argued that fulling generally tends to be more closely related to consumption than to production, and that concentrations of consumer demand could generate patterns of investment that led to rather spectacular increases in the scale on which fulling took place, as exemplified especially in Ostia and Rome.

Chapter 3. The Rational Workshop (96-180)

Once the broader economic contexts of the fulling workshops have been discussed, the focus shifts to the micro-level and to the decisions taken by owners and managers about the layout of the workshop and the spatial organization of the production process. This, of course, first necessitates a thorough analysis of the fulling procedure, the phases of which it consists, and the possible material remains of these phases. Subsequently, the chapter discusses the economics of designing and constructing fulling facilities, and the way in which these fulling facilities were spatially arranged to optimize the efficiency of the workshop. It is argued that both in design and construction of the equipment and in the design of the workshop as a whole one can see clear tendencies towards rationalization and cost efficiency, especially in the larger workshops in Ostia and Rome, which operated for traders and worked with clothes imported from elsewhere in Italy and the empire.

Chapter 4. Fulling and the urban environment (181-241)

Besides decisions taken about the organization of the production process, an important issue in the design and construction of a fulling workshop was its spatial position in the city. This has been a particularly sensitive issue in the modern perception of Roman fulling, as the activity has commonly been thought to have caused considerable nuisance, particularly because of the (allegedly) frequent use of old urine. This chapter examines the location of fulleries in the cities where they were found and the way in which these workshops were embedded in their urban environment. It critically examines the degree to which the alleged nuisance caused by fulleries shaped the spatial position of fulling workshops in the city and their relations with surrounding public and private space. Based on both textual and archaeological evidence, it is concluded that there actually is little evidence suggesting that location choice for fulleries, or their embedding in the urban environment was influenced by the ‘dirty’ nature of the business. It is argued that rather than cultural, practical and economic factors, including land prices and availability, are likely to have played a key role in decisions about these matters.

Chapter 5. Populating the fullonica (242-287)

After discussing the economic nature of fulling workshops, their design, and their spatial position, it is time to move on to people: if we understand what fullonicae aimed at, what they looked like and where they were situated, it becomes possible to discuss the impact of all this on the daily lives of the people who actually worked in these workshops. The discussion is divided over two chapters: chapter five focuses on the daily life in the workshop itself, and chapter six on the way in which their involvement in fulling shaped or influenced the social position and identity of fullers. Chapter five discusses a wide range of issues: the communicative atmosphere on the shop floor – whether it was integrated or dispersed – the social background of the ties between workers – whether they were just colleagues or also belonged to the same household – the way in which the various parts of the fulling process differed from each other in terms of skill demand and attractivity and the way in which task allocation may or may not have resulted in social competition. In the analysis of the material remains a sharply differentiated picture emerges opposing the intimacy of the small fullonicae and the medium-sized workshops at Pompeii to the anonymity of the large workshops at Ostia and Rome, arguing that the size and economic background of the workshop could have a considerable impact on the working lives of the people operating it.

Chapter 6. Fullones and Roman society (288-349)

This final chapter discusses the way in which their involvement in fulling shaped the social lives of the  fullers of Roman Italy. It starts with a discussion of the everyday position of fullers at work in their immediate social environment, which consisted of customers, passers-by, and people working elsewhere in the same street. Subsequently, the relative social position of fullers is assessed on the basis of patterns of commemoration, the activity of their professional associations, and their role in urban politics. This involves drawing comparisons between fullones and other occupations based on the epigraphic and literary records. Finally, the symbols and rituals related to the occupational identity of fullones, such as the ulula, the sacred owl of Minerva, and the quinquatrus, the holy feast in honour of that deity are analyzed and it is discussed how these could be used by fullones and their fellow citizens to construct and maintain that occupational identity. The chapter argues that there were big differences in the degree to which fullones actually were visible whilst at work and could be publicly associated with their profession. These differences depended on the scale and economic orientation of the workshops, and the workers in the large industrial workshops were much worse off than their colleagues in this respect. The degree to which fullers actually were seen or saw themselves as fullones may have differed considerably, but the evidence also suggests that embracing the occupational identity, may have been a rather attractive choice for those who could: fullones seem relatively well off compared to other craftsmen. 

Epilogue (350-356)

The concluding epilogue summarizes the main argument, and puts the most important conclusions in the wider context of current and past debates on Roman crafts, and Roman urban economies, arguing not only that the evidence for fulling leaves us with a rather striking picture of Roman economic history, but also that there is an entire interpretative world beyond the traditional assessments of Roman urban crafts, that predominantly focus on the question whether they served export.


Flohr, M. (2013). The World of the Fullo. Work, Economy and Society in Roman Italy. Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.