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.
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.
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.
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.
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.