Ancient Rome was a fascinating time, and we have been able to restore the city in its heyday from numerous historical sources to see what you could see if you went shopping.
The Romans started farming and ranching, so if there were no big parties, everyone kept to the habit of going to bed early and waking up early. Most Romans lived in apartment buildings, and like the shops along the streets today, the ground floor of the apartment buildings was filled with shops. You could go downstairs and start shopping when you get up early in the morning.
The bread was the most common staple food for the commoners and enslaved people in the towns. Most commoners did not have kitchens in their homes, so breakfast was usually eaten outside. Rome has many bakeries, taverns, and restaurants where people can get a cheap breakfast. By the time of the Roman Empire, bakers were improving and innovating milk bread, egg bread, pepper bread, grape bread, and so on. There were more styles to choose from.
Those who ate in the street could also pay for a glass of wine, although the ordinary people could only afford low-quality wine, and a little dried fruit would be a good breakfast.
The Romans do not spend much time on breakfast as they have a lot to do in the morning and are pressed for time.
The breakfast shop was probably next to a dried fruit shop, and a wide variety of fruit was available to the ancient Romans. According to statistics, there were over 40 kinds of figs and 32 kinds of apples alone, pears, plums and grapes, papayas, pomegranates, cherries, peaches, and olives. Of course, fresh fruit could not be kept for long, so many were dried, and the shop could sell them all year round.
Of course, there are also shops selling general household items. For example, the coppersmith’s workshop clinks all day long, the cloth shop owner is busy cutting clothes for his customers, the shoe merchant is articulate and selling his new goods, the pearl merchant is always watching the seemingly well-to-do passers-by, and the barber is trimming people’s hair. You could even buy carved ivory pieces from Africa in the streets.
Ancient Rome was known to be crowded, with narrow streets and many public areas packed with vendors. Just like modern commercial pedestrian streets, the streets were all lined with stalls, some of which had taken over the road, making it very difficult for pedestrians to move around.
So shopping in the cities of ancient Rome was not an easy task. Such a cluttered environment often led to complaints. Several emperors even ordered the city to be cleaned up, such as Tunisians, who tried to stop “barbers, shopkeepers, cooks, and butchers from occupying the streets.”
Cleaning up the city with so many people and businesses was difficult.
There were two famous markets in Rome, one for fruit and vegetables and one for livestock. The livestock market, for example, was a vast area full of livestock traders.
In the center of the market is a vast bronze bull, around which the traders have set up many corrals, temporary huts, and tents to do business permanently. As this was a livestock market, the customers were, of course, there to buy meat.
Unlike today’s slaughtered animals, there was little refrigeration to keep them fresh, so most of the livestock was life. The vendors would kill them on the spot, depending on the customer’s request and how hot the business was that day.
What kind of meat can you buy here?
You could take home a few live chickens, a freshly slaughtered lamb was famous, baby goat meat was a delicacy, and pork was the most common.
For most Romans, especially the wealthy ones. Wild boar, hares, porcupines, yellow deer, wild goats, and even turtles were famous.
Flying birds were also in demand, such as spot-tailed pigeons, wild geese, turtledoves, red storks, parrots, goldfinches, fire cranes, and you could even buy peacocks.
One of the main Roman cooking methods was boiling and roasting, and one of the games was very popular among the roasted meats. You can see stalls like this in livestock markets: there seems to be no blood here, and all laid out on the floor is a clay pot, which is a sleeping rat.
The Romans kept them in pots with grooves on the inside so that they could climb and move around in them. Once they had been fattened up, the vendors took them to the market with the pots. The Romans took them home, skinned and gutted them, and were ready to be put on the grill and seasoned.
Did the Romans eat beef? Of course, they did, but it was a luxury that the poor didn’t have much access to. During the Republic, the nobility would buy bulls for sacrifice, which were only eaten after the ritual, and the giblets had to be given to the priests beforehand.
Spices were a typical luxury in medieval Europe, but Romans could easily find spice shops near the meat markets. All sorts of spices in jars or bags filled the shops. Chilies, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and many more were brought to the city from all over the world to serve the tables of the Romans with delicious flavors.
Finally, we are going downstream to the Tiber to see the Roman warehouses of goods.
Goods or raw materials that needed to be brought in from all over the world were brought to the docks by merchant ships and then stored in large warehouses nearby. These warehouses, which could be hundreds of meters long, stored large quantities of grain, marble, wine, and olive oil.
Behind these warehouses was a small hill called Mount Testaceo – it was a vast rubbish heap where the Romans piled up the pieces of jars and bottles containing their goods. The large ‘rubbish heap,’ which can still be seen today, is about 37 meters high and is estimated to be made up of over 40 million pieces of wine bottles.
So, people living in Rome had access to goods from all over the world. Although many of these items were only available to the nobility, at least it proves that the benefits of the great military power of ancient Rome were evident everywhere.