The Roman market in Naples

A site underneath San Lorenzo Maggiore

Underneath the church San Lorenzo Maggiore in Naples are the impressive remains of an ancient Roman macellum or market building.

Josho Brouwers

Naples, the capital city of Campania in Italy, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s also a good example of something I wrote about last week: you can find evidence of the ancient world at various spots in the city. Not the least of these are the remains of a Roman macellum or market building.

The church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, located in the very centre of Naples, is built on top of the ancient Roman market building, which was covered by soil and dirt as the result of a flood that occurred sometime during the fifth century AD. Within the church, parts of the floor have been replaced with glass panels to reveal older mosaics located at a lower level, just beneath the church’s current floor.

A view inside the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore. This site originally featured a basilica built on top of the Roman market building when it was covered by soil after a flood. The basilica was eventually replaced by a larger church.

To visit the ruins of the Roman market, you have to purchase a ticket at the museum. The museum flanks the church and is housed in buildings that were once part of a monastery. In the courtyard, a glass display case features a model of the museum, church and associated buildings, and gives a good idea of how deep the Roman ruins are located underground. About half of the site has been excavated.

Naples was founded by Greeks as Neapolis. The Roman market building was located in an area that already in the fifth century BC served as the city’s commercial and civic centre, the agora. When you get to the bottom of the modern stairs, you are on the main road (cardo), about three metres wide, that runs parallel to the building.

A model of the Roman market building. Note the open courtyard with tholos in the centre. In the foreground is the so-called cryptoporticus, a covered area with interconnected rooms. The small windows high up allowed light and air to enter the building and would have been difficult for buglars to reach when the doors were closed.

The centre of the building featured an open courtyard with remains of a tholos (round building) where food was sold. Along the courtyard and the outside of the building were various (work)shops and offices.

Many of these places of business have been identified by the excavators, including a treasury (where people paid taxes and public money was kept), a bakery, a workshop where textiles were dyed, a shop where you could drop off your laundry, and so on.

This room has been identified as having served as treasury, i.e. a place where people went to pay their taxes and where public money was kept (for example, to be able to pay for public works in this area).

One of the shorter sides of the building (south) features a covered area, referred to as a cryptoporticus. Seven interconnected rooms with barrel vaults are located here. Holes in the ceiling and walls allowed air and light to enter this space. The different shops have counters and niches to store and display different articles, perhaps food, vessels, textiles, and more. In Roman times, it may have looked like a busy and presumably colourful bazaar.

A view inside the cryptoporticus, looking back towards the main road. This covered area located at one of the short sides of the building consisted of seven interconnected rooms. Note the counters used for displaying the sellers’ wares.

In the southwest, one room featured a mosaic floor and an impluvium (for collecting rain water). The walls were also decorated with frescoes. Because of its more ostentatious decoration, the room has been interpreted as a schola, a “guild hall” used by artisans and religious organizations.

Wandering around and in the remains of this building is like stepping into the past. While not as grand as Pompeii, Herculaneum or the other great archaeological sites, it offers a wonderful experience. If you happen to be in Naples, be sure to check it out.

While I was here last April, I also shot lots of video. Expect a short video about the site to be uploaded to our YouTube channel in the next few weeks. It will also be listed in our video section.