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Les boutiques d’Ostie: L’économie urbaine au quotidien. Ier s. av. J.-C.–Ve s. ap. J.-C.

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

Les boutiques d’Ostie: L’économie urbaine au quotidien. Ier s. av. J.-C.–Ve s. ap. J.-C.

By Julien Schoevaert (CÉFR 537). Pp. xviii + 310. École française de Rome, Rome 2018. €39. ISBN 978-2728312948 (paper).

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Arising out of Schoevaert’s doctoral thesis, Les boutiques d’Ostie begins a long overdue conversation about the nature of the urban economy of Ostia, one that embraces different types of commercial space and treats them as dynamic locations evolving through time, instead of focusing on individual industries or simply dating them to the final century of the city’s inhabitation. The book consists of four sections: a prologue (chs. 1–4) and parts 1 through 3 (chs. 5–13) in which Schoevaert lays out his argument. Each part builds on the last, moving from the physical evolution of shops to their place in the evolving urban fabric of Ostia.

In the prologue, Schoevaert provides the evidence and epistemological approaches that guide his study. As in most work in the field of classical archaeology, Schoevaert begins his investigation by looking to the literary evidence for a definition of the word “taberna” (ch. 1) but ultimately rejects this approach and chooses an archaeological definition grounded in the observable traits and features (ch. 2). He reviews the issues surrounding the identification of shops and workshops, including the dating of commercial architecture in Ostia more generally (ch. 3), and favors the identification and dating provided by previous scholars (42–3). Particularly welcome is Schoevaert’s survey of the archival resources for Ostia (ch. 4), in which he helpfully identifies various types of archival data—including early photographs, field journals, city plans—and discusses their usefulness and weaknesses. Chapter 4 is filled with insightful tidbits for other researchers, such as the description of the Capitolium as the Temple of Vulcan by earlier excavators (47) or the fact that an early plan showed six large warehouses that were later proven not to have existed (50).

In the three substantive parts of the book that follow, Schoevaert lays out his case for viewing shops not as fixed, synchronic entities but as spaces that changed with the passage of time and whose development has a reflexive relationship with Ostia’s own evolving nature as Rome’s port city. In part 1 (chs. 5–7), Schoevaert explores the physical morphology of shops and workshops, moving from their interior features to the evolving architectonics of their construction. Particularly instructive is his treatment of threshold morphologies and current hypotheses about their operation (55–62). These chapters contain convincing claims in areas of great importance for the study of shops and commercial spaces more generally; Schoevaert demonstrates that Ostia was different from its Vesuvian counterparts from its very beginning (99) and establishes shops as diachronic spaces that can reveal important information about shifting patterns of commerce. While it might not be surprising that the shops in Ostia were linked to the city’s role as the port of Rome, Schoevaert establishes that as the shops increased in number during the late first and second centuries C.E., they reproduced architectural forms found in Rome. But as the port declined, beginning in the fourth century C.E., the shops increasingly were abandoned or were replaced with more regionalized architecture (100–3, 115).

Part 1 serves as a foundation for Schoevaert’s larger interest: the economic significance of commercial spaces in a city—and an empire—that was itself evolving economically and socially. In part 2, he employs the diachronic evidence previously outlined to explore the changing ways in which shops and workshops functioned. Chapter 8 frames the commercial activity in the shops in terms of chaînes opératoires, the conceptualization of production as a sequence of operations and, at least in architectural studies such as this one, a way to associate process with space. While scholars such as Miko Flohr have recently addressed in detail production or services in the workshops of a single industry, Schoevaert instead cursorily treats a number of activities potentially taking place within shops and workshops in Ostia, building toward a more comprehensive model of commercial activity than industry-specific studies can provide. Schoevaert next examines the ways in which “the shop” is framed within the discipline of economic history and what the shops of Ostia can tell us about the nature of the Ostian economy in general. He largely rejects as overly simplistic the models for urban economies favored by a previous generation, which dealt with “producer” or “consumer” cities. Instead, Schoevaert examines a number of different industries, including fulling and baking, in terms of markets rather than models: he addresses the scale of production, the role of imports, and the intended markets. Finally, he attempts to populate the shops, including the various types of people who owned, labored inside, or frequented shops. He finds evidence for hommes d’affaires, men who belonged to professional associations but did not know the craft or trade themselves, as well as signs of investment in the form of ownership and participation in multiple industries (192–94). But Schoevaert believes that elite engagement with shops and street commerce was mostly indirect; he paints a picture of a largely subelite population serving as both operators and customers of Ostia’s shops (199–202).

The third and final part (chs. 10–13) shows how the shops revolutionized the urban character of the city, creating not only a monumentalized and public visual tone along Ostia’s decumanus and other major streets but also a vibrant commercial atmosphere. In chapters 11 and 12, Schoevaert first examines the relationship of shops to the street network with specific attention to major thoroughfares. He then identifies concentrations of various activities within the city, though he refrains from positing industrial or commercial quarters or planned zoning. Schoevaert notes, for example, the collection of textile producers and shops around the Baths of Neptune (253), but he argues that no one area is completely dominated by a single industry even if some clustering occurs, and so artisan quarters or zoning cannot be substantiated. But the clustering does raise an important question for Schoevaert, and in his final chapter, he analyzes the physical remains of shop and workshop facades to understand the advertising strategies of shopkeepers, vendors, and craftspeople. He identifies three broad approaches: explicit signage, elaborate decoration of shop facades, and street-side display of the goods or services provided inside. He is inclined to view the location, organization, and decoration of shops functionally as an effort to attract customers or increase accessibility for potential customers.

The summary above perhaps presents a more coherent narrative than Schoevaert actually offers; the book is broken up into hundreds of small sections, sometimes as short as a single sentence. The episodic nature of Les boutiques d’Ostie can be somewhat jolting, but each microsection contains an insightful and well-researched observation. In sum, the author has produced a thorough and nuanced work. Graduate students looking to build an exam bibliography, as well as scholars working on Ostia or the ancient economy more generally, will find this volume a veritable treasure trove of references and state-of-the-field summaries. By way of examples, I noted useful sections on population estimates for Ostia (77–8) and on the work in the Isola Sacra necropolis (194–99) that walk the reader through the evolution of scholarly thought on each topic. For French colleagues, the author also summarizes some important scholarship in English, such as that of Janet DeLaine and Claire Holleran, which should help facilitate conversations across linguistic boundaries. Similarly, his engagement with the work of Francophone scholars such as Nicolas Monteix and Nicolas Tran, which has not seen the attention it deserves in Anglophone scholarship, means that Les boutiques d’Ostie offers those who read French a bridge in the other direction.

Schoevaert makes significant contributions to the study of Ostia’s economy and the dynamics of commerce as the city’s relationship to Rome evolved. This book bears comparison with Ellis’ The Roman Retail Revolution: The Socio-Economic World of the Taberna (Oxford 2018) because Schoevaert and Ellis approach shops and their role in Roman society in different ways. While Schoevaert focuses primarily on the economic motivations of those operating the shops and workshops under discussion, Ellis devotes considerable attention (109–25) to the possible social motivations for their decisions. The difference points, perhaps, to the only real critique one could make of Les boutiques d’Ostie. It does not take a synthetic approach to production and services in Roman urban economies, linking producers and service people together through the processes and technologies found in workshops and homes, unlike other recent studies that detail the complicated networks of crafts, trades, and services that comprised a city’s economy. 

Jared T. Benton
Old Dominion University

Book Review of Les boutiques d’Ostie: L’économie urbaine au quotidien. Ier s. av. J.-C.–Ve s. ap. J.-C., by Julien Schoevaert

Reviewed by Jared T. Benton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.benton

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