Earning a Living: Baker, Banker, and Garum Maker

Harvard University Press
5 min readDec 14, 2019

Pompeii is the most famous archaeological site in the world, visited by more than two million people each year. Yet it is also one of the most puzzling, with an intriguing and sometimes violent history, from the sixth century BCE to the present day. Destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 CE, the ruins of Pompeii offer the best evidence we have of life in the Roman Empire. But the eruptions are only part of the story. In The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, acclaimed historian Mary Beard makes sense of the remains. She explores what kind of town it was — more like Calcutta or the Costa del Sol? — and what it can tell us about “ordinary” life there.

Recently, Pompeii has been a focus of pleasure and loss: from Pink Floyd’s memorable rock concert to Primo Levi’s elegy on the victims. But Pompeii still does not give up its secrets quite as easily as it may seem. This book shows us how much more and less there is to Pompeii than a city frozen in time as it went about its business on 24 August 79.

Just along the street from the House of Fabius Rufus, in that row of grand mansions with views over the sea, stood a house occupied in the last years of the city by Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, a man who had made his money in the fish sauce (garum) business. He was, in fact, the biggest garum dealer in town. To judge from the painted labels on garum jars found in the area, he and his associates and subsidiaries controlled almost a third of the local supply of this staple of Roman food preparation. The house itself is a vast sprawling affair, made by knocking together at least two earlier, separate properties. It is now in a sadly dilapidated state, partly as the result of the bombing in 1943, which hit this part of town very badly. But in its final form it clearly had not just two, but three atria, as well as one or more peristyles (one with an ornamental fishpond), plus a bath suite on a lower floor.

We know that it was owned by Umbricius Scaurus because the mosaic decoration on the floor of the third atrium once featured at each of its four corners a jar for fish sauce. Now removed for safe-keeping, these were made out of white tesserae on a black background, and each one carried an inscription referring to different varieties of fish sauce sold by Umbricius Scaurus: ‘Scaurus’ best garum, mackerel-based, from Scaurus’ manufactory’, ‘Best fish sauce’, ‘Scaurus’ best garum, mackerel-based’, ‘Fish sauce, grade one, from Scaurus’ manufactory’. unless we are to imagine that some satisfied customer chose to decorate his atrium floor with versions of his favourite sauce jars, then this must be the house of Scaurus himself. Here interior decoration was a form of self-advertisement and product promotion.

In the atrium of the House of Umbricius Scaurus, four jars of fish sauce in mosaic proclaim the family’s source of wealth. Here the jar proclaims ‘Best fish sauce’ – in Latin ‘Liqua(minis) flos’, literally ‘Flower of liquamen’. Liquamen was a variety of the (to us) better known garum.

Uumbricius Scaurus was not the only resident of Pompeii explicitly to celebrate his business success on the floor of his house. At one of the main street entrances of another huge property, the visitor was greeted by a slogan picked out in mosaic: ‘Welcome, profit!’ The sheer size of this house is enough to suggest that the wish had been amply fulfilled. But elsewhere such words must have been more an expression of vain hope. On the atrium floor of a tiny house, we can still see the catchphrase ‘Profit is pleasure’. There is little sign here that this went beyond wishful thinking.

The Roman economy

Historians have argued for generations about the economic life of the Roman Empire, about its trades and industries, its financial institutions, credit systems and profit margins. On the one hand, are those who see the ancient economy in very modern terms. The Roman Empire was effectively a vast single market. There were fortunes to be made from the demand for goods and services, which also drove up productivity and stimulated trade to levels never seen before. A favourite illustration of this comes — unlikely as it may seem — from deep in the Greenland ice-cap, where it is still possible to find the residue of the pollution from Roman metal-working, not equalled again until the Industrial revolution. underwater archaeology tells much the same story. Many more shipwrecks have been discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean, from between the second century BCE and the second century CE, than from any period until the sixteenth century. This is not an indication of the poor quality of either boat-building or seamanship in the Roman period, but of the high volume of sea-borne traffic.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that Roman economic life was utterly different from our own, in fact decidedly ‘primitive’. Wealth combined with social prestige remained rooted in the land and the main aim of any community was to feed itself, not to exploit its resources for profit or investment. Long-distance transport of goods was risky by sea (witness all those shipwrecks) and prohibitively expensive by land. Trade was only a very thin icing on the economic cake, small-scale and not particularly respectable. Inscriptions on mosaic floors may celebrate healthy profit margins, but there are few Roman authors, elite class that they are, with a good word to say for trade or traders. By and large, trade was vulgar and traders untrustworthy. In fact, from the end of the third century BCE, the highest echelons of Roman society, senators and their sons, were expressly forbidden from owning ‘ocean-going ships’, defined as those that would hold 300 amphorae or more.

Besides, Rome developed none of the financial institutions needed to support a sophisticated economy. There was limited ‘banking’, as we shall see, in Pompeii. It is not even clear if there were such things as credit notes, or if you wheeled around a load of coins in a wheelbarrow to make large purchases, such as houses. and, while Roman metal-working may have polluted Greenland, there is very little trace of the kind of technological innovation that went hand in hand with the eighteenth-century Industrial revolution. The biggest invention of the Roman period was probably the water-mill, and that — so this side of the argument goes — is not saying very much. But why bother with new technologies, when you have vast quantities of slave power to stoke the fires, man the levers or turn the wheels?