Forma Urbis: Costruire Tabernae

22-09-2014, 18:00

Vulci: Vulci: House of the Cryptoporticus - Fa├žade with tabernae (Photo: Miko Flohr [2014])

In a letter to Atticus dated 18 april 44 BC, Cicero writes his friend that two of his shops in Puteoli had collapsed, and that he is planning to rebuild the property in a way that allows him to make even more money out of it. It is one of the very few references to a phenomenon that is likely to have been widespread in the cities of Roman Italy: investment in, and ownership of commercial facilities by the elite.

Commercial space was a defining element of the landscape of Roman cities, and the quintessential commercial facility in the Roman world was the taberna – a large room with a wide opening onto the street to maximize opportunities for interaction between inside and outside. Never an independent building itself, the taberna features only marginally in studies of Roman architecture and urbanism, and few scholars have studied the taberna as a socioeconomic phenomenon.

There are, however, good reasons to take a closer look at the taberna. Rather than a constant, unchanging element of Roman urban space, the taberna had a history of its own, and this history is extremely important for our understanding of the history of cities in Roman Italy. This is especially true if we focus on the construction of tabernae: building tabernae was a form of economic investment that, as in Cicero’s case, served to earn proprietors a profit, and the decision to build (or not to build) tabernae was based on at least some understanding of the local market situation.

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