A taberna (plural tabernae) was a single room shop covered by a barrel vault within great indoor markets of ancient Rome. Each taberna had a window above it to let light into a wooden attic for storage and had a wide doorway. A famous example is the Markets of Trajan in Rome, built in the early 1st century by Apollodorus of Damascus.
According to the Cambridge Ancient History, a taberna was a “retail unit" within the Roman empire and furthermore was where many economic activities and many service industries were provided, including the sale of cooked food, wine and bread.
Origins and proliferation
Tabernae probably first appeared in Greece in locations that were important for economic activities around the end of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Upon the Roman Empire’s expansion into the Mediterranean, the numbers of tabernae greatly increased, in addition to the centrality of the taberna to the urban economy of Roman cities like Pompeii, Ostia, Corinth, Delos, New Carthage, and Narbo. Many of these cities were major port areas where imported luxury and exotic goods were sold to the public. Tabernae functioned as the structural buildings that facilitated the sale of goods.
Livy writes about an encounter that Marcus Furius Camillus, a Roman general present during the expansion of the Roman Republic in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., had with tabernae of Tusculum, a city in the Latium region of Italy:
"Camillus having pitched his camp before the gates, wishing to know whether the same appearance of peace, which was displayed in the country, prevailed also within the walls, entered the city, where he beheld the gates lying open, and everything exposed to sale in the open shops, and the workmen engaged each on their respective employments…
The streets filled amid the different kinds of people”.
An interesting thing to note about tabernae is that their spread across the empire, in terms of format, were fairly marked by uniformity. As urbanization continued to increase rapidly, the need for tabernae did as well. Tabernae were indicators of the economic success, growth, and expansion of the empire.
There were mainly two forms of tabernae within the Roman empire, those found in domestic and public settings. Domestic houses had shops fronting their premises. Tabernae were also established in residential multi-storey apartment blocks called insulae, which were heavily occupied by freedmen. As the development of urban centers in Roman cities increased, the Roman elite continued to develop residential and commercial buildings to accommodate the large masses of people coming in and out of these market centers. Insulae were constructed, with tabernae located on the lower levels of them. The class of people who ran the tabernae are called tabernari, who were mainly urban freedman who worked under a patron who owned the actual property.
The second form of tabernae were similar to domestic tabernae found in insulae because they were in a fixed location within a complex of buildings, however they were instead located within public markets and forums, areas that received high amounts of traffic.
Ardyle Mac Mahon writes about tabernae in the Roman empire in Britain:
“Tabernae were located so that they fulfilled the purpose of providing goods and services to customers. Many social, economic and other factors may have had an influence on this, but, in general, it must be assumed that retailers in Roman Britain wished to sell their products. A good site will have helped to maximize a retailer’s net selling potential and for this reason, tabernae will normally be located within reach of their markets.”
Tabernae revolutionized the Roman economy because they were the first permanent retail structures within cities, which signified persistent growth and expansion within the economy. Tabernae provided places for a variety of agricultural and industrial products to be sold, like wheat, bread, wine, jewelry, and other items. It is likely that taberna were also the structures where free grain would be distributed to the public. Moreover, tabernae were used as lucrative measures to gain upward social mobility for the freedmen class. Although the occupation of a merchant was not highly regarded in Roman culture, it still pervaded the freedman class as means to establish financial stability and eventually some influence within local governments.
In Italy, they still survive in a number of place names.
- Cambridge Ancient History, vol. IX The Last Age of the Roman Republic 146-43 B.C.; 2nd ed. Edited by J. A. Crook, Andrew Linott, and Elizabeth Rawson, 1994 pp. 656-688
- Livy, The History of Rome, Book VI. v.25
- Mahon, Ardle Mac “FIXED-POINT RETAIL LOCATION IN THE MAJOR TOWNS OF ROMAN BRITAIN,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 2006.
- Alberto Manco, “Taverna della Schiava ~ tríbarakkiuf […] slaagid ?”, AION sezione Linguistica 28, Naples, 2006
Cambridge Ancient History, vol. IX The Last Age of the Roman Republic 146-43 B.C. 2nd ed. Edited by JA Crook, Andrew Linott, and Elizabeth Rawson, 1994 p. 656-688. Livy, The History of Rome, Book VI. v.25 Cambridge Ancient History, vol. IX The Last Age of the Roman Republic 146-43 B.C. 2nd ed. Edited by JA Crook, Andrew Linott, and Elizabeth Rawson, 1994 p. 656-688. Mahon, Ardle Mac “FIXED-POINT RETAIL LOCATION IN THE MAJOR TOWNS OF ROMAN BRITAIN,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 2006.