Last Updated 11 Jul 2021

Commercial life in Pompeii

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Commercial Life in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Historians have debated the nature of Pompeian economy – whether it was based on agriculture or trade. Some see the Roman empire in modern terms as one vast single market where demand drove up prices and productivity stimulated trade to a never before seen level (residue of pollution can be found in Greenland’s ice-cap and the many ship wrecks indicating the large volume of sea borne traffic).

Other historians see Roman economy as ‘primitive’ based primarily on agriculture and the main aim of any community was to feed itself, with trade as the icing on the cake (based on the risky and costly sea travel, lack of banking system, social mores for respectability being against trade and laws forbidding senators and their sons from owning trade ships). More likely it was a combination of the two scenarios. Pompeii, unlike the quieter fishing/resort town of Herculaneum, can be seen to be a bustling commercial centre, a town where making a profit and accumulating wealth was regarded as being favoured by the gods.

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This picture is based on evidence such as:

  • High number of privately owned shops, workshops, bars and inns, about 600 excavated
  • The markets around the Forum
  • The epigraphic (written) evidence of the guilds of tradesmen and retailers
  • The roughly 20 maritime warehouses & buildings lined with wine jars
  • Paintings of cargo boats on the Sarno River and porters carrying products to be loaded onto vessels
  • Trade signs advertise goods and services
  • Inscriptions on walls and floors on the benefits of making profit, eg. welcome gain” in the impluvium of the house of a carpenter
  • Images of Mercury, the God of commerce displayed The economies of Vesuvian towns were based on agricultural production (grain, grapes, olives and sheep) and fishing. The wealthiest families owned large houses in the city and also estates in the country side which were run and worked by freedmen and slaves .

There were numerous medium-sized farms and villa rusticae as well as market gardens inside the walls of Pompeii occupying 10% of the town so far) that provided daily needs (wine, oil, cereals, fruit, vegetables, meat and wool). The fishing fleets of Herculaneum were large (based on the volume of fishing nets, hooks etc found) and supplied fresh seafood and the garum industry. These industries would’ve needed subsidiary industries too, such as pottery that was needed for the storage and export of products. From the evidence found in the Pompeii there were 50 occupations other than farming.

There is a good argument to be made for the fact that Pompeii would’ve had enough surplus product for export – ancient writers associated the area with wine, as well as onions and cabbage. Also, numerous pottery jars have been found far from Pompeii, such as off the coast of Cannes (in France) stamped with the name Lasius an Oscan name with well-known members of the family from Pompeii; wine jars stamped with the name Eumachus have been found in Carthage, Spain and France. Inside Pompeian houses jars have been found stamped with their origins (perhaps ready for distribution or sale) such as Spain, Crete and Rhodes.

Microscopic analysis of containers in Pompeii has shown evidences of spices (such as pepper and cumin) as well as Egyptian glassware and Gallic bowls and pottery lamps (90 and 40 respectively still packed in their crates). Thus Beard reasons that “however small by comparison with the great trading centres of Puteoli or Rome, Pompeii’s port must’ve been a thriving, international and multilingual little place”.

Wine and oil were the main sources of income for people in the Vesuvian area, though only wealthy landowners could afford the outlay needed to set up and maintain these industries as the oil presses were costly and the long wait between planting and harvest. Large quantities of wine don’t appear to have been stored in bars or even inside the city, but brought in from the villas when needed which were stored large dolia “completely or partially buried in the ground thus protecting them from the weather” according to Pliny. At the Villa of Pisanella at Boscoreale there was an nternal courtyard with 120 dolia that could hold up to 50,000 litres of wine which was transported in leather wineskins and decanted into amphorae for storage or serving in the thermopolia. Advertisements show there were a wide variety of types and vintages of wine on sale, Pliny said that Vesuvian wines were “injurious because of the hangover they cause, which persists until noon the following day. ” The same estates also produced olive oil which was used for a variety of uses including cooking, lighting, washing and the production of perfume.

Most of the pressing was done on estates in a two-step process – rubbing the olives to remove the skin and pips and then pressing them in the same press as used for wine to extract the oil. The manufacture of Garum:Pompeii was renowned for its garum, a fish sauce which was one of the main condiments used for flavouring Roman food. There were various types and qualities made from the guts and left overs of fish (such as red mullet, tuna, mackerel, sardines and anchovies) which was salted and left to ferment for a month.

There is no evidence of equipment needed for production within the city itself, only dolia for distribution have been found (based on the small bones found at the bottom). The wealthiest families had a monopoly on the manufacture of garum and then sold it to street retailers or prepared it for export.

Wool was the basis for one of the most important industries in Pompeii – the washing and dyeing of wool and the manufacture of cloth, as well as the laundering, bleaching and re-colouring of clothes. The raw wool was first degreased by boiling in leaden boilers, then once it was carded it was sent to spinners and weavers in private homes or shops and then it was coloured (often in bright colours such as purple and saffron) before distribution to cloth merchants. There have been 18 fullonicae (laundries) found in Pompeii and are identified by the series of interconnected basins or tanks with built in steps for washing and rinsing.

Workers trod the cloth in a mixture of potash, carbonate of soda and urine (collected in jugs from the inhabitants of the town!). Four fulleries were large and the rest have been found as part of private homes. The Fuller’s guild may have been a powerful organisation within the city.

There have been more than 30 pistrina found in Pompeii easily identified by their mills and ovens, some bakeries did the whole process from milling the grain whilst others prepared loaves from ready prepared flour. Lava stone mills were turned by donkeys and the flour collected at the bottom. The flour was then kneaded at a table, shaped into circles, scored into wedges and baked in a stone oven. In Herculaneum a baker known as Sextus Patulcus Felix appears have specialised in cakes as 25 bronze pans of various sizes from 10 to 25 cm diameter were found.

In the Bakery of the Chaste Lovers there is a two roomed shop, a bakery with large oven (that had a large repaired crack, and smaller newer cracks), four mills (though only one was operational at the time of eruption) and a dining room (a very large triclunium). The remains of seven donkeys in their stables were found which suggests that bread was also delivered. The large number of animals (who were expensive to keep) also indicates that the owners of the bakery had intention of returning it to full operating output.

Bakery of Modesto, Pompeii, where 81 loaves were found still ‘baking’ in the oven!

Tabernae are usually translated as shops or workshops and they are found along main roads along the street front with wide open fronts that were part of insulae and integrated into the town rather than in ‘commercial zones’ as in modern town planning. Owners would live above the shop, called cenacula, accessed by stairs. An example is Insula Arriana Polliana – the white sections are an elite residence whilst the grey sections are shops, domus and upper floor apartments (accessed at 18, 19, 6, 8, 10) available for rent. About 200 public eating and drinking places have been identified in Pompeii identified by their open fronts and the counters with dolia set into them. Though there was no ‘zoning’, there is a cluster of shops at three of the gates into the city (northern entrance of the Herculaneum Gate, to the south the Vesuvius; Stabian Gates) as well as on a 600m stretch of the Via dell’ Abbondanza.

Shop and workshop owners advertised their businesses with painted signs or painting on the outside of walls. Inns and bars did continue service into the night with lamps as lighting but there is also the evidence of the wood shutters put in place for when shops did close. One of the largest tabernae found at Herculaneum opposite the Palestra had two entrances and had eight large jars set into the counter, other amphorae that may have been used for oil or sauce and a stove behind the counter that had terracotta casseroles warming over a charcoal fire.

One wine bar or tavern on Via dell’ Abbondanza in Pompeii was owned by a woman named Asellina who employed foreign waitresses named Zmyrina, Maria and Aegle (some believe they are prostitutes) has sums showing customers’ debts written on the insides of the walls of her inn and on the outside there are political slogans which may reveal her interest in politics or an ancient version of a slur campaign against a candidate. The walls of Pompeii’s inns also provide evidence for what activities occurred there, one painting shows customers seated below hanging hams and sausages, a sign reads “if you’re going to fight, get out! ; while the bill for one customer ambiguously lists the cost of a girl, bed and fodder for his mule. There were also hotels where visitors to Pompeii could rent a room, either close to the port or clustered around the northern and southern Gates. One building named Hotel of the Muses on the banks of the Sarno River had a small jetty, 8 triclinia with brilliant frescoes and a large kitchen that is estimated could feed 50 guests.

Other Industries

In Pompeii there is evidence of workshops of carpenters, plumbers, wheelwrights, tanners, tinkers, ironmongers, gold/ silver/bronze/coppersmiths, marble-workers, stonemasons, gem-cutters and glassmakers, tanneries, cobblers, painters and weavers. Many of these industries seem to have been conducted from a room in the home (based on finds of tools) or on the streets (based on paintings of street life). Metal working seems to have been big business in Pompeii as there is a profusion of metal implements all over the town.

A few small workshops and retail outlets have been found, however only one forge has been uncovered so far, just outside the Vesuvian Gate. Historians also do not know where the raw materials came from. Pottery also must have been a large industry as so many activities required pottery vessels, though only two small potters’ premises (one of which was a specialist lamp maker) have been found within the walls. Perhaps the fire hazards of metal work and firing pottery meant that they had workshops outside the town.

One luxury industry was perfume production – a combination of olive oil and flowers or spices. There are large gardens (for example the Garden of the Fugitives and the Garden of Hercules) that some historians believe to be for the growing of flowers for perfume and fragments of small terracotta and glass containers found there. Wall paintings in the House of the Vetti portray olives and flowers being pressed to extract the oil in wooden mills; another scene shows a woman seated with her feet on a cushion as sales assistants dab perfumes on her hand from a selection on display in a tiered cabinet.


  1. Beard, Pompeii – Life of a Roman town London, Profile Books, 2008
  2. Bradley Cities of Vesuvius – Pompeii and Herculaneum Cambridge Uni Press, Melbourne, 2006, Chapter 6
  3. Butterworth ;amp; Laurence Pompeii – The Living City London, Orion Publishing Group, 2006
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