Banter about Dildoes

Mary Beard

  • BuyShopping in Ancient Rome: The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate by Claire Holleran
    Oxford, 304 pp, £65.00, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 969821 9

The most memorable account of an ancient shopping expedition is found in some comic verses by the third-century BC poet Herodas, who lived in Alexandria, by far the smartest city in the Western world at the time. In his poem a woman called Metro and a couple of her friends visit a shoe shop owned by one Kerdon (‘Mr Profiteer’). As soon as they arrive, slaves bring a bench for the ladies to sit on, while Kerdon tries to interest them in his wares with a pushy sales pitch that mixes extravagant claims for the styles, workmanship and glorious colours of the shoes, with what sounds like a well practised hard-luck story lamenting his life of unremitting toil and all the mouths he has to feed. Eventually every variety of shoe in the shop is brought out – Sikyonians, slippers, boots, Argive sandals, scarlets, flats – before the ladies start haggling about prices and thinking about the footwear they are going to need for an upcoming festival.

It is often said that shopping in the modern meaning of the word – that familiar combination of economic exchange, voyeurism and leisure pastime – is a relatively recent invention. The English verb ‘to shop’, for example, in the sense of retail activity (rather than its earlier – now slang – meaning of ‘to imprison or inform on someone’), is not attested until the mid-18th century; and the noun ‘shopper’ not until a hundred years after that. But this poem about a ladies’ outing to the shoe emporium seems to show that a very similar kind of activity, with some of the same pleasures, took place in the ancient Mediterranean. In fact it is not so different from another (fictional) shopping trip, more than two thousand years later, also in Alexandria. In the middle of Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen, Mrs Stitch goes off to the bazaar with Guy Crouchback, visits the shoemaker’s shop, is given a stool to sit on, listens to the sales pitch while she inspects the stock – and then goes away, the proud possessor of a lovely pair of crimson slippers.

Waugh’s account tells us more about Mrs Stitch than her preferences in footwear. Herodas’ poem, too, is not quite as simple as it may appear. It does not take a reader long to spot that the same female character, Metro, features in the poem that comes immediately before the one about the shopping trip in Herodas’ collection; in it she admires a friend’s scarlet dildo and is told that it was made and sold by a man called Kerdon. Most critics have assumed, given the matching names, that the story of the shoe shop should be read as a sequel to the banter about dildoes, and all kinds of sexual double entendre have been unearthed in the encounter with the shopkeeper to suggest that these ladies were interested in something rather more risqué than shoes (Sikyonians, for example, were a sort of Greek footwear, but also a famous variety of cucumber and so a comic term for a phallus, and the ‘scarlets’ are a suspicious match for the scarlet dildo). If this interpretation with its knowing parody and decidedly erotic tinge is correct, the poem offers an even clearer glimpse of an ancient culture of retail therapy that looks not so very different from our own.

But the truth is that it is a very rare glimpse indeed; or perhaps the commercial culture of third-century BC Alexandria was quite untypical of antiquity more generally (whether in its actual retail practices or in the way it chose to write about them). Claire Holleran, in her careful study Shopping in Ancient Rome, has not found anything so plausibly modern in tone and style, apart perhaps from a few epigrams of the poet Martial, which imagine what Holleran calls ‘aspirational’ window-shoppers wandering round the Saepta in Rome, ogling the expensive antiques and designer luxuries they couldn’t afford. (The Saepta –‘enclosures’ – have their own story of commercialisation to tell: they were planned by Julius Caesar as a vast, purpose-built hall for electoral voting, but at the very moment the democratic Roman Republic was giving way to a style of autocratic government that dispensed with popular elections and they were speedily converted into an arena for gladiatorial shows and then into a very upmarket bazaar and antiques market.)

As Holleran’s subtitle – ‘The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate’ – more accurately has it, her book is really about buying and selling in ancient Rome, rather than shopping, for which there is, in any case, no equivalent Latin word. And most of it is concerned with making sense of the puzzling archaeological traces of commercial activity in Roman towns, from fast-food outlets and bars to the infrastructure of finance and wholesale supply. Holleran gathers together an impressive range of material from all over the Roman Empire (including Viroconium in Shropshire, where crockery was on sale, stacked high, in the portico of the forum, when a devastating fire struck: the bowls were found by archaeologists 1800 years later, still in their piles, if a bit charred). But, as is common enough with subjects like this, she sometimes ends up either stating the obvious (‘street sellers and hawkers tended to be found where there were concentrations of potential customers’) or defeated by the sheer opacity and difficulty of the surviving evidence when looked at closely.

Take the shops and bars you see lining the streets in all the best-preserved Roman towns. Walk down the main streets in Pompeii or Herculaneum and (as modern tourist guides always insist) you can feel comfortably at home in what seems recognisably close to a modern cityscape: bars and cafés (tabernae, popinae or cauponae) with their counters facing the pavement to catch passing trade, and shops (also called tabernae) with wide openings to display products and entice customers inside. There are even traces of the big shutters that made these openings secure at night, and the little snicket doors that would let the proprietor into his establishment if he didn’t want to take his shutters fully down. So far, so good. But Holleran makes it clear that, if you want to go much further, and repopulate these places, or even simply work out what they sold and to whom, things get much trickier.

The bars are a well-known conundrum. It always used to be thought that the big jars set into their counters held wine and cheap hot food, soups and stews – ladled out to a poor and hungry clientèle by an accommodating landlord or landlady. But the jars are not glazed, and could not be removed for cleaning. It doesn’t take long to see that they would be completely inappropriate for liquids, hot or cold – not to mention a deadly health risk. Amedeo Maiuri, who directed the excavations over several decades of the 20th century (adeptly navigating both the fascist and post-fascist periods), claimed that at Herculaneum he had discovered all kinds of pulse and grain in them. But this turns out from the detailed excavation reports to have been largely wishful thinking (the beans and grains were actually found in amphorae on the upper floors). As Holleran notes, the only food that we know for sure was found in a counter jar at Herculaneum is walnuts. That suggests rather sparser fare for the average Roman takeaway customer (though presumably the beans and grains upstairs were cooked up into something).

The puzzles are even bigger for the other sort of tabernae: the shops. Just occasionally the finds make it clear enough what went on in them. There’s an obvious medical establishment in Pompeii, and a metalworker in Herculaneum (who probably made his money in part from repair work, to judge from the damaged lampstand awaiting attention on the day of the eruption), and the presence of butchers’ knives in other places most likely indicates the sale of meat. Occasionally too a shop sign, or an advertisement outside, will give away the nature of a business (one set of splendid paintings shows the various stages of the felt business, from the preparation of the wool to the final sale).

In most cases we have very little clue what goods or services were sold, or whether workshops were combined with retail business. And we have still less clue about the personnel on either side of the counter. Did the shopowner or manager live on the premises, cramped together with his wife and kids on the mezzanine floor that many of the small units have? Or was that where he kept surplus stock? And who actually came into the shop to buy? Where, for example, did a rich household draw the line between getting slaves to make cloth at home and sending them out to purchase it ready-made? And when it came to luxury silks or jewellery, did the master or mistress of the house go out to window-shop, or was everything brought round for home inspection?

Part of the problem is that – apart from some fairly routine denunciation of the disreputable types who hang out in bars – Roman writers were not much interested in day-to-day retail or consumption. Rich Renaissance documentation lies behind Evelyn Welch’s brilliant Shopping in the Renaissance (2005), but in ancient Rome for the most part we learn about shops only when something goes wrong or in some unusual circumstance. Holleran retells Seneca’s story of a philosopher with a conscience who had ordered a new pair of shoes; when the cobbler died before the customer had paid the bill he pushed the money through a crack in what was presumably a firmly shuttered shop. It is, as she notes, a clear hint of the secure frontage of such an establishment; it also shows, although she doesn’t mention this, that you could get your shoes made on tick.

Predictably perhaps, it is Roman legal specialists who most often deal with the world of buying and selling. One of the most vivid cases concerns a back-street shopkeeper (tabernarius) who had a lamp shining over his counter after dark; a passer-by pinched it and in the fight that ensued the shopkeeper blinded the thief. The Roman legal interest concerned the matter of whether the shopkeeper was liable to pay damages. For us it is a nice reminder of the dangers for an ancient shopkeeper of remaining open after dark, and of the vulnerability not just of his stock, but of his fixtures and fittings too.

The archaeology doesn’t get much less murky even when we move to larger retail establishments. Holleran has a fascinating few pages on the so-called Markets of Trajan in Rome, which are just behind Trajan’s Forum and Column. This multi-storey complex, nestling against one of Rome’s hills, is regularly hyped as the first shopping mall. And when you visit it now it gives exactly that impression: a series of interconnecting roads and internal walkways lined with identikit tabernae, just like those at Pompeii. But as she points out, this is a mirage: by the time they were excavated in the 1930s most of these tabernae had lost any distinctive architectural features; they were rebuilt and restored in this form by the archaeologist Corrado Ricci to look like an ancient shopping arcade. The complex may not have been commercial at all; some people have plausibly suggested that it was an imperial administrative centre, even a barracks.

The so-called ‘market’ (macellum) at Pompeii, a large rectangular precinct at one end of the forum, is just as perplexing. In this case Holleran is rather less puzzled than usual, and writes confidently about its layout and function: a fountain in the centre which had been used for the pre-sale preparation of fish (excavations turned up quantities of fish scales); a sloping horseshoe-shaped counter from where meat and fish were sold; and a series of tabernae, presumably selling other kinds of food, running along one side of the precinct. She may be right – those fish scales are a bit of a giveaway. But she doesn’t mention the fact that many non-retail functions have been proposed for this building in the two hundred years since it was uncovered. The horseshoe-shaped sales counter has been taken for a set of Roman dining couches, and – somewhat less plausibly – the tabernae have been imagined as a series of restaurant booths. Alternatively, a religious function has been suggested: it is, after all, right next to the Temple of Jupiter, has a very prominent shrine within the precinct, and contains sculpture and wall paintings of strangely high quality for a market, not for the most part on themes related to food, sale or consumption. Sadly it is now in a rather dilapidated state, but in the early 19th century it was one of the most celebrated structures in the town – not as a food market but as a pantheon, ‘a shrine of all the gods’.

The most impressive parts of Shopping in Ancient Rome are those that capture the ubiquity of buying and selling in Roman towns and cities beyond designated shops or markets, or in areas where you might not quite expect it. The forum in Rome itself was obviously buzzing with trade as much as with law and politics. A wonderfully vivid range of epitaphs introduce us to some of the shopkeepers, craftspeople and characters who made their living out of retail in, or very near to, that ceremonial heart of the empire: from booksellers to florists, from Marcus Caedicius Felix, the sword dealer, to Sellia Epyre, who had a niche market in producing and selling expensive fabric shot through with gold thread.

It was even the case that some of the very grandest buildings in Rome were built specially to accommodate retail alongside their ceremonial function. One of the iconic buildings in the Roman forum is the Temple of Castor, with its distinctive trio of upstanding columns. Few people notice that built right into the temple podium, on both sides, is a series of tabernae. One of these, in the reign of Tiberius, may well have housed a shoemaker’s shop, to judge, at least, from a story in Pliny the Elder about a raven that lived on top of the temple and was a pet of the shopowner (the bird was killed by another nearby shoemaker, furious about the droppings on his stock). Another unit certainly housed a barber-cum-dentist at some point, as we can tell from the large number of extracted teeth found in its drain. The religious and ceremonial life of the temple obviously went on against a backdrop of ravens squawking, cobblers hammering and the screams of those having their teeth pulled.

Trade also went on outside such buildings – on street corners all over the city, under porticos, at temporary booths and on trestle tables put up for the occasion. Holleran nicely evokes the glorious mess of the Roman retail business, which spilled out onto the city streets and pavements, much as it does in a place like New Delhi now. These traders very occasionally have a walk-on part in Roman political history: the fig-seller at Brundisium was shouting about his ‘cauneas’ (Caunean dried figs) on the waterfront just as Marcus Crassus was leaving for his disastrous expedition against the Parthians in 55 BC; it was interpreted as a bad omen – cauneas sounding in spoken Latin much like cave ne eas (‘don’t go!’). More often, upmarket Roman writers complained rather snootily about the traders and the terrible nuisance they were as you made your way through town – the usually laissez-faire Roman authorities even tried to regulate them. On the amphitheatre at Pompeii there are still traces of painted notices marking out the different tradesmen’s pitches that had been licensed by local officials (not all that different perhaps from the regulated pitches for souvenir sellers and fake gladiators outside the Colosseum today).

The most striking impression we have of this improvised world of Roman trading comes not from literature but from a painted frieze decorating a large house at Pompeii. This appears to show (exactly how realistically we cannot be certain) the portico of the local forum. A teacher with his pupils is using the colonnade as a classroom; a seemingly posh lady is giving some coins to a beggar with a dog; some men appear to be reading a notice pinned up on the columns. But more than anything else we see rough and ready trade going on: some hawkers are wandering round trying to flog fabric to women; a couple of hopefuls have laid out pots and utensils on the pavement to attract passing custom; and a dozy ironmonger has to be woken up because he has nodded off without noticing that a sale is in the offing.

It’s vivid evidence, but it seems a very long way from the knowing visit to the shoe shop in Herodas’ poem – until, that is, you see that in the middle of this busy street scene a shoemaker has set up a rather elegant stall. The painting is very worn and it is hard to be absolutely certain, but it seems that four ladies, one with a young child, are sitting on benches and the shopkeeper is bringing out the stock from his display stands for them to try on and to chat about. It is presum-ably the Roman equivalent of ‘Sikyonians, slippers, boots, Argive sandals, scarlets, flats’. Somehow, eroded as the image is, I don’t imagine they are meant to be dildoes.