Commercial Life in Pompeii

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  • Topic: Pompeii, Olive oil, Herculaneum
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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) (Beard pp.152-3)[i].  

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. 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 ii].  

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.” (Beard p.162)  

Villa rustica in Boscoreale | Drawing of an olive press, for first pressing| Wine press, from Herculaneum|  
Wine and oil industries:
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...
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