So I’m at the supermarket, grocery list in hand, ready to check off “1 can tomatoes,” and I’m going cross-eyed staring at the wall of canned tomatoes before me. Not only does this wall of shelves loom as high as I can reach, it’s also wider than my arm span. Whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, petite diced, crushed, pureed, Italian spiced, Mexican spiced (mild, medium, hot), chili-ready, organic, non-organic. My mind starts to feel like mushed tomato.
Need I mention I hate to shop? Would I have felt different if I had lived in the the world of the Angelaeon Circle novels – roughly based on the ancient Mediterranean world? In much of ancient Italy, market day was every eighth day and was considered a special event. The children got out of school to go to market, and people washed and dressed for the occasion.
Sometimes townspeople gathered just inside or outside their town gate to form a common marketplace, especially if the town was on a well-traveled road and they could expect travelers to stop by. They might display their wares on a mat or cloth spread on the ground, or they might set up tent-like booths. Most small towns and village also had shops located at the front of the merchants’ houses – like the potter who lived in the back of his house and made and sold his pottery in a room at the front, which opened to the street. (These are not just ancient customs. In much of the world, marketplaces are still arranged in these ways.)
Larger cities might have shops in buildings or arcades in addition to the open area or plaza where people set up booths to sell everything from grain to baskets to sheep and goats. The goods offered depended on what the people of the area grew or made – unless the city was a major hub of commerce. In that case the market offered goods brought in by traders from other parts of the world. Money changers always had tables in these markets so you could trade your foreign money for coins of the region – for a price, of course.
In the larger markets, official inspectors strolled around keeping an eye on traders, making sure they used accurate weights and measurements. Haggling over price was expected, and these inspectors were ready to settle arguments about what a fair price was.
So the next time I go on the hunt for my wild tomato, I can at least be grateful that when I spy it camouflaged among the cans, I don’t have to argue over the price. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have seen tomatoes in an ancient Mediterranean marketplace. At the time, my precious tomato grew only in Central America.