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Advertising in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Garum of Scaurus
The inscription on this mosaic reads: Garum of Scaurus, the best quality of mackerel, from Scaurus' workshop. Pour. G(ari) F(fate) SCAM(bri) SCAURI | Photo: Claus Ableiter / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

In the modern world, advertising accompanies us at every step. It may concern all manifestations of human activity: trade, politics, art, etc. The desire to promote one’s own products or a person seems to be inscribed in human nature. It was no different in ancient Rome. However, the means of disseminating advertising were very different from those we know today.

Before proceeding to describe specific examples of ancient Roman advertising, it is necessary to look at the nature and place of commerce in their lives. In Imperium Romanum it was a much less prestigious job than it is today. Senators, for example, are traditionally not supposed to do it. At one point, it was even banned by law. It was believed that financial matters should not influence their political decisions. The senator had to be independent, and therefore his income as well. Therefore, according to the Roman elite, the only worthy source of income should be agriculture. Here you can recall the sentence of Cicero, who believed that all other sources of income, apart from agriculture, are vulgar and ignoble, or because of the methods (e.g. usury) or due to contact with the crowd (e.g. shopkeeping). However, only a few could afford such an approach to trade. After all, someone had to take care of him. Equites, a social group lower than senators, were not so limited in this matter. However, most often they did not have the means to engage in trade on a larger scale. Both of them could deal with trade through intermediaries. These were mostly slaves and freedmen, many of whom were foreigners, very often Greeks. Thus, trade, especially the small one, was in the hands of not very wealthy people who, even if they wanted to advertise, had no money for it.

A significant impediment to the creation of advertising was the lack of information means by which it could be transferred. The only known “newspaper” that resembled a modern one was the Acta Diurna (Acta Diurna Populi Romani Latin “Journal of the Roman People”) founded by Julius Caesar in 59 BCE. It was a kind of official informant, dealing, among other things, with the deliberations of the senate. After the fall of the republic, Acta began to take the form of a more social newspaper, but we have no information if any advertisements were placed there.

Due to the lack of appropriate information channels, advertising most often had to be limited to the immediate vicinity of a person interested in promoting their products. We have many examples of such advertising, most of them preserved in the famous Pompeii. In the house of a certain Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, a very interesting example of floor mosaics was discovered. Aulus became extremely rich by trading garum (a type of fish sauce, extremely popular among the Romans). He practically monopolized the garum trade in and around the city. On the floor of his house, several examples of mosaics depicting different types of sauce were discovered. The inscriptions on the mosaics read: “Best Scaurus Mackerel Garum,” “Best Fish Sauce,” “Scaurus Finest Mackerel Garum,” “Scaurus Top Quality Fish Sauce.” There is no doubt that this is a form of self-advertising and product promotion. Well, unless Aulus Scaurus himself liked, walking around his house, to remember how great quality his garum is.

Despite the limitations described earlier, merchants sometimes tried to advertise their goods on a larger scale. It happened that they placed on amphoras containing various products, short inscriptions testifying to their excellent quality. Although these types of product “labels” contain limited vocabulary that was so widely used throughout the Empire that in some cases it became a formula and could be very shorthand. Some people described their products, for example, simply as garum, so it was more a form of information than advertising. There were those who were more ingenious, such as a merchant from Antium who, knowing that his garum would have to compete with others, wrote LIQ(uamen) on the amphorae with his wares.)/ ANTIA(tinum)/ EXC(ellens) (sauce made in Antium, great quality!). It’s very interesting that the name of the place was underlined in this label, perhaps it was a resort that was famous for its great garum.

Another form of modest advertising was signed at hotels (hospitium) and inns (caupona). Most often, information was placed on them about the type of building, the name of the owner or characteristic emblems. For example, the names of hotels in Pompeii were as follows: Hospitium C. Hugini Firmi (Gaius Huginus Firmus Hotel), Hospitium Sitii (Sitius’ Hotel). The names of some hotels were very similar to today’s: Ad Aquilam – Under the Eagle, Ad Ensem – Under the Sword, Ad Sorores – At the Sisters’. The inscriptions encouraged to enter the inn, for example: “There is a hotel here. Triclinum with three beds and all comforts” or “Edone announces: for an ace you can drink here if you give two aces you will drink better wine, if you give four you will drink Falernum.” It is very interesting to note at one of the hotels that food is served here “in the Roman style”.

It should be borne in mind that most often production and commercial activities were carried out at home. Goods were sold on the street, through the most advanced part of the house. So bakeries, slaughterhouses, dye houses, etc. were marked with their characteristic symbols. For example, with paintings of bread, ham, olive oil, and wine.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the Romans very often advertised themselves. Political life in the Empire was of great importance to the inhabitants. It happened that political slogans were placed on the walls of buildings. Of course, they could praise a candidate for office, but sometimes they tried to discredit one another. A great example is a caricature of a certain Rufus. It seems that he was not liked by his neighbours.

“This is Rufus” – Rufus is the original caption.

Sometimes very simple slogans were also posted, for example: “Please, choose Elvio Sabino, builder of a worthy state, a good man”. The number of different types of inscriptions in Pompeii tells us that political advertising and anti-advertising were extremely popular.

One may wonder whether “Roman” advertising can be considered advanced or extremely primitive. First of all, it should be remembered that many things hindered its development, not only the lack of means of communication, but also the economic system itself, based on slavery, did not encourage innovation. However, we should not compare the ancient Romans to us in this matter. It seems that people in antiquity, and in particular the Romans, had an extremely developed social instinct. They spent an unusual amount of time away from home and did not really need the newspaper we have today, simply because they were looking for information in a different way. Another feature of the Romans also indicates that advertising was as developed as it was necessary for them. Namely, it is their extraordinary pragmatism – if the Romans needed better publicity, they would probably develop it.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Beard M., Pompeje. Życie Rzymskiego Miasta, Poznań 2010
  • Winniczuk L., Ludzie, zwyczaje i obyczaje starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, Warszawa 1983
  • Sage T. E., Advertising among the Romans, The classical Weekly, 1916, Vol. 9, No. 26, s 202-208
  • Curtis R. I., Product identification and advertising on Roman commercial amphorae, Ancient Society, 1984-1986, Vol. 15/17, s. 209-228

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