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Topographical dictionary - Shops and bars


Shops (tabernae) consist of rooms that are almost always large and rectangular. They were accessible from the street or from the interior of a building. The former are often behind a portico, especially along the city's main streets. In the facade may be a terracotta shop-sign. The entrances to the shops are wide, with a characteristic threshold and lintel, having a groove for vertical shutters and a depression with a pivot-hole for a door.

Sometimes a light partition-wall was used to set apart a dwelling, working area, or storage area. Annexes on the ground floor must have been used for these purposes as well. Many shops have a mezzanine (pergula). This is a floor above the shop, usually at a height of three-and-a-half to four metres, accessible along a wooden ladder resting on a brick or travertine podium with a few treads, usually in a corner of the shop. The pergula received light through a window above the entrance to the shop. It was most likely used as dwelling.

In the excavated part of Ostia (about two-thirds of the city) 806 shops have been counted, 577 have been found in Pompeii. It should be remembered that the Ostian shops were also visited by sailors and merchants.

Closing a shop with vertical shutters.

At night shops were closed by inserting a number of wooden shutters in a long groove (B) in the threshold. Next to this groove was a depression with a pivot-hole for a door (A). The shutters were first inserted in this depression and then slid sideways.

A shop threshold

From Boersma 1985, fig. 312.

A shop entrance

From A. Pascolini, Usanze e techniche nell'edilizia
degli antichi Romani, pp. 66-67.


Most bars are simply shops in which food and drink were served. Their main characteristic today is the bar counter. Hermansen (1982, 187) describes the counters as follows: ""Two styles exist: some counters [...] are placed with their backs against the wall, with a water basin built into the base and stepped shelves on top. To modern people they look like a fireplace. [...] The vast majority are of the second style, the free standing counter, which is a counter in the real sense, with a vaulted water basin in its base that is accessible from both sides of the counter." The water in the basin was mixed with wine and used for cleaning crockery.

Without doubt many bar counters, some of wood, have collapsed and disappeared during the later stages of Ostia's existence. Thirty-nine bars can still be identified.

[JThB - 4-Oct-1999]