Abstract: The Roman cult of the right: Superstition in the (re-)shaping of shop-fronts and street activity in the Roman world


The 2nd half of the 1st century AD brought on sweeping changes to the shape of the Roman city.  The independent construction of houses and shops was giving way, more conspicuously than ever before, to large building complexes that combined multiple living and retail units in previously unimagined numbers.  A new-look city streetscape had emerged, recalibrating the Roman urbanite’s experience of the street, particularly its retailing component.  A study shop-fronts at Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia, Rome, and several other well-represented sites across the Roman world reveals how their construction and organization, formerly configured to reflect city-wide patterns in ambulatory traffic and retail competition, was wholly abandoned for the emergence of a new social and civic order.  Shops were now entered almost exclusively on the right-hand side, causing the re-arrangement of their internal and external spatial dynamics and, importantly, demonstrating a new set of urban priorities.  This chapter offers an explanation for this cultural phenomenon, its origins and motivations, and outlines a range of consequences that these developments had on the changing shape and psyche of the Roman city: from the rise and diffusion of the Roman ‘cult of the right’, and the inherent anxieties in crossing doorways, to the homogeneity of a Roman retail culture, and to the tension that existed between the forces of economic rationality and robust Roman traditions.

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