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Roman macellum

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Macellum in Pompeii
Macellum in Pompeii | Author: Radomil | Under the Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Macellum (pl macella) was a market, the centre of economic activity in ancient Rome.

After all these things which pertain to human sustenance had been brought into one place, and the place had been built upon, it was called a Macellum.

Varro, De lingua Latina

As for the very origin of the word, there are two theses. The first assumes that it comes from the Hellenistic culture. The second, on the other hand, points to Latin culture.

For the first time in Latin culture, the term macellum appears in the comedies of Plautus, a Roman who lived at the turn of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. However, the writer’s work and his credibility are problematic in nature. This was because he translated comedies from Greek and presented them to the public in Rome. In De Lingua Latina Varro gives the genesis of the story of a thief named Romanius Macellus, who was supposed to hide in the square of one of the future fairs. However, it seems unlikely.

On the other hand, in the Greek world, the Spartans used the term macellum for the place where vegetables and cattle were for sale. The Ionians, on the other hand, called the entrance to small, fortified villages – macella. It is worth mentioning the similarity between the trial that took place in the Athenian Agora and the Roman Forum during the republic. The Agora was the venue for public meetings where various matters were discussed. But it was also a place where goods were traded. With time, with the development of the city, the need arose to separate these two functions. It was decided to divide the square into “political” and commercial parts. The commercial part was divided into zones (separate fish, meat, etc.). The scheme of each market was based on the shape of a circle with a surrounding colonnade. Inside, the square, there were stands and shops.


A characteristic feature of macellum was: a low podium, mostly a few gradual ones with the Greek tholos in its focal point; a domed roof supported by a ring of columns. The whole structure was usually oval. Inside the macellum, between the columns, there were shops with an entrance facing inwards or outwards; the sellers were called macelliarus (pl macelliarii). There were macella with a double ring of columns and even with the next tier.

Macellum in Leptis Magna.

The marble counters, sometimes located outside, near shops, were presumably used by butchers to store the meat and keep it fresh.

Tholos, at the central point, was sometimes filled with water and fish that could be bought or served as the official point of weights and measures. Sometimes tholos was abandoned in favour of a fountain.

Macellum in Rome

On macellum, any Roman could stock up on food if he could afford it. But not only. The range of goods was wide – from vegetables (with Forum Holitorium), to fish (with Forum Piscarium), cattle (Forum Boarium) and ending with luxury items (Forum Cupidinis).

Rome from its inception was not a planned city. Therefore, it is difficult to say exactly where exactly the macellas were.

Helpful information can be found in two historical sources: Ab urbe Condita Titus Livius and De Lingua Latina Varro. The first author links macellum to the fishing market (forum Piscatorum). As for its location, he mentions the northeastern part of the forum (later known as the Forum Romanum), at the Basilica of Aemilia.

In 179 BCE, Marcus Fulvius, who held the office of censor, “commissioned (…) the basilica behind the new money exchange stands and the Rybacki Square with the surrounding shops, which he sold into private hands.” Here you can see a similar situation to the one that took place in the Greek agora.

Varron places the macellum in a different place – between the Sacred Way (Sacra Via) and the place where grew a grove of cherry trees called Corneta. Luxury goods were sold there. He also writes about the “old macellum” that sold cattle and vegetables; does not mention fish like Livius. The information contained in the above sources is unique because it is the only one so detailed. Throughout the principate and dominate, macellum appears in Roman literature very rarely, and usually, these are only perfunctory accounts. As an example, there is another macellum – Macellum Liviae, which Appian believed was to be located near Porta Esquilana. We do not know who was the founder, what exactly was the area and what goods could be purchased there.
were also created in other cities under Roman jurisdiction, e.g. in Pompeii. Significant fragments of them have survived to the present day, for example in Leptis Magna.

So what happened to the Roman macella? Maybe they burned down in the great city fire in 64, maybe they were no longer needed, lost their commercial value and were deliberately demolished (they were located more or less on the site of the later Forum Romanum)? Back in the time of Hadrian, they were being built in some provincial cities; in Rome, at that time there was Macellum Magnum. This might suggest that they have also become a determinant of the status of a given community and the degree of its Romanization. The answer to the question of what happened to them can be found in Appian’s words, according to which Julius Caesar:

He laid out ground around the temple which he intended to be a forum for the Roman people, not for buying and selling, but a meeting-place for the transaction of public business.

Appian, Civil wars, II.102

Macellum Magnum

Macellum Augusti (MAC AUG).

It was located on the hill of Celius. Built by order of Nero in 59 CE Thanks to the preserved coins from that period, we know what the main building in the square looked like.

The building itself has not survived to our times in its original form, but its elements do. Foundations made of travertine, part of the outer wall and eight pilasters from the outer colonnade have been preserved. Pope Simplicius rebuilt and transformed the building into St. Stephen. Then, during the pontificates of Theodore I and Nicholas V, various changes were introduced, trying to keep their original shape.

An oval, two-story structure with a colonnade of twenty-two columns, supporting a domed roof. It was then surrounded by a concentric, outer colonnade of 36 columns, also two-story.

Interior of St. Stephen.
Author: Wojciech Kubisztal (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Appian, Roman history
  • Titus Livy, Ab urbe condita
  • Varro, De lingua Latina
  • Walker Susan, The Macella of Rome

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