If you needed in one day to go to the gym, to visit your hairdresser, to pick up your clothes from dry cleaning, to cash your last check, to buy a new pair of shoes, as well as some groceries, and eventually to have lunch, where would you go? Chances are, you would go to the closest shopping center or mall where you could do all of those things at ones.
Where would an ancient Roman have gone for similar activities? Again, to the shopping center! Was this possible in Antiquity? Yes, because the concept of a multifunctional public place (what a mall is) was born in Ancient Rome.
Plan of Trajan's Market, Courtesy of Wiki Commons & 3coma14
The first large shopping center was built in the 2nd century AD by the Greek engineer and architect Apollodorus of Damascus. He was commissioned by the Roman Emperor Trajan who was building a new forum at that time (100-110 AD). The center was called “Trajan’s Market” (Mercatus Trajani) and consisted of shops, restaurants, administrative offices, library, halls for different performances (auditoria), and probably school. The complex was a two-sided multi-level brick structure extended on approximately 60, 000 m² (648, 800 ft²). The roof of the market was fashioned in such a way that it allowed the light through the shops while generating proper air-conditioning and creating a rain shelter. It was designed as an arched concrete vault on piers – very advanced technique at that time.
Other technical marvel was the terraced slope on which the construction was made. The lower terrace, so-called Great Hemicycle, was given a round shape not only for aesthetical but also for safety reasons. It withstood better the pressure of the adjacent hill - a task it’s still performing today! The Great Hemicycle was additionally strengthened by two supplementary hemicycle halls at either end, covered by low domes.
Although not much has left from the inside decoration of the market, the few remaining suggest elaborate marble ornaments. The pavement of the square in front of the big hemicycle was made of colored marbles. The shops had a mosaic floors-different scheme in every shop. Curved lines and vaults dominated the interior design.
There were more than 150 rooms in the building, but no not all of them were shops. Apart from a giant marketplace, Trajan’s Market was also an administrative and financial center. Part of the Emperor’s administration was located on the second floor where it supervised the Rome’s grain, oil, and wine supplying. One of its main tasks was the distribution of the corn dole – liberal food donation (congiarium) for the poor people in the city. Next to these offices was a large warehouse. At that place, unfortunate Romans received food supplies either for a price below market rates or for free.
However, the center of the real commercial activity was the first floor. There, in a labyrinth of hundreds of shops, scattered in different corridors, Romans bought fruits, vegetables, fish, wine, oil, spices, and other grocery items. The shops were not of a big size but rather small cubicles with tiny windows and large openings to the corridors and streets. People probably approached the owner at the door and after one good conversation the client ready to buy would be served there, without entering the room. Those “tabernae” (as they were called in Latin) coexisted with different drinking establishments that were on service of market shoppers. They have given the name of the main street that cut through the Trajan’s Market – “Via Biberatica.”
The name, although medieval, derived from the Latin verb “bibo, bibi” – “to drink”. According to some scientists, the Vulgar Latin infinitive of this verb “biber” which denominated “a beverage, a drink” could be seen in the stem of the modern English word “beer”.
Baths of Caracalla
One century after the construction of the magnificent Trajan’s Market, one ruler of Rome will offer to the citizens of the Eternal City a better place to spend their afternoons. Seeking people’s support for his reign (as he just has killed his brother to take the throne) Emperor Caracalla built a leisure center known today as Baths of Caracalla. They were constructed between 212 and 217 AD with the original name “Thermae Antonianae” – “Baths of the Antonine dynasty”, emphasizing Caracalla’s aspirations to be considered as an heir of the Antonine dynasty. That dynasty was interrupted by several claimants for the throne who tried to seize it with power, including, his father, Septimius Severus.
The complex was much more than its name could suggest. It was, in fact, multifunctional recreation center consisting of a huge bathhouse, gyms, libraries, massage rooms, saunas, gardens, galleries, restaurants, and various shops. The access was free, and the Baths were open to the public.
The magnitude of that place could be still grasped today – 1,900 years later; even though in ruins (some of them pretty 30m / 98 ft high!). The whole complex covered approximately 250, 000 m² / 2,691,000 ft² / 62 acre with capacity of 6, 000 to 8, 000 people per day. The bath building was 228 m / 750 ft long, 116 / 380 ft wide, and 38, 5 m / 125 ft height and could hold 1, 600 bathers.
The bathhouse consisted of four levels. Two were underground – the one was used as storage and the second as a heating place where the hypocaust system was located. (It is calculated that ten tons of wood were burned every day to keep the water at the right temperature). The water was provided by dedicated aqueduct “Aqua Antonina,” an extension of the longest Roman aqueduct “Aqua Marcia.” Sixty four cisterns of water (every one of them of 80, 000 liters capacity) ensured the pools.
The other two levels of the Baths were up the ground. On the first floor was situated the bath complex, consisting of one cold room with a small cold water pool (frigidarium), two medium temperature rooms (tepidaria), one hot room with small hot water pool (caldarium), and two saunas. In the north end of the Baths, there was an Olympic size pool (natatio). It was roofless with a system of bronze mirrors mounted on top of the building attracting sunlight and directing it to the pool.
Changing rooms and toilets, massage rooms, and shops were situated on the borders as well as on the second floor. Two libraries (one Greek and one Latin) expected visitors in the east and the west part of the Baths. Next to them, reading rooms were provided for those who wanted to read in privacy. Large gardens with walks, benches, and fountains surrounded the building.
Although totally stripped of its decoration today, the Baths of Caracalla were told to have possessed stupendous ornamentation. The written sources talk about colored Oriental marble flooring and gold-plated bronze decoration of the main halls, mosaic floors in the smaller rooms, marbles and painted stuccoes on the walls, paintings on the ceiling, huge statues and big compositions in and out of the Baths (famous Farnese Bull and Farnese Hercules were part of them).
With such great facilities and extraordinary ambiance, the Baths of Caracalla did gain him the desired Roman approval. Citizens loved to visit the place but not only for sanitation purposes. If one wanted to spend a nice afternoon, to read and discuss something interesting, to stroll in a nice company, to chat and relax, he would go to the Baths. If he needed to invite someone to dinner, to hear and share some news, to play a game with a friend, he would surely go there.
Gaming boards (tabulae lusoriae) of different type have been found carved into the floor of Basilicas, Forums and other public places, as baths for example. Such playing board is perfectly preserved on the floor of the Caracalla Baths. It was cut in the marble, at the edge of the Olympic pool and was obviously used for amusement while seating in the water.
Game board carved in the floor of Caracalla Baths
A walk along the alleys, short swimming at the pool (and maybe some massage), nonpretentious snack with a cup of wine, small talks with a friend and a win over him on a board game. What else could one do at the mall? Romans knew best, I guess!