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In his book City, David Macaulay creates a fictional Roman city called Verbonia to show how a 'typical', planned Roman city was started from scratch. Although Verbonia and thus its characters are fictional, the book relates how Romans planned and constructed a city. On page 81, I found this passage:

Most of the eating places were owned by Servius Vitellius, who also owned a chain of them in Ariminium....each contained a concrete counter decorated with pieces of coloured marble....A row of clay cups with Servius' name stood on a marble shelf next to the counter.

After some googling, I came across Joe Carlen's 'A Brief History of Entrepreneurship which seems to confirm the above. Referring to 'less respectable residents of Rome' (equestrian class, slaves and freedmen), the author states:

...these were the people who not only established and operated new businesses but, in some instances, even expanded them into something akin to chain stores

(my highlighting)

Unfortunately, there are no details. It would not be surprising if there were entrepreneurs who had several outlets in a city, or outlets in several towns or cities, but the excerpts above are implying something more than that.

A 'chain outlet' would usually be defined as one of a number of stores or restaurants owned by one company or individual and selling the same or similar merchandise or providing the same or similar services. They also usually have similar decor.

What evidence is there for the existence of chain stores and chain restaurants in Ancient Rome (including other cities in Italy)?

Did stores or restaurants have a 'brand name' or some kind of sign on the store front that would identify them as being part of a chain?

One possible (perhaps the most likely) source of evidence might be inscriptions.

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    Verbonia is not typical name for a Roman city. Verbona would be more typical.
    – Anixx
    Nov 11, 2017 at 15:46
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    Centurian Servius' Fried Chicken.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 11, 2017 at 16:17
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    @Anixx. 'Verbonia' and 'Augusta Verbonia' are the names used in the book Nov 11, 2017 at 17:06
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    Note, anyone researching this might want to include Thermopolium (and this) in their searches. This is the term describing one form of these Roman 'restaurants'.
    – justCal
    Nov 11, 2017 at 20:37
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    I don't have access to my Kindle right now, but Mary Beard has mentioned the notion of branding and advertising in her book Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. It's well worth a read.
    – user22859
    Apr 12, 2018 at 15:04

2 Answers 2

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This question was truly a doozy and after a few nights of research this is what I can conclude. Ancient Rome definitely did not have conventional chain stores as we do today such as many grocery stores bearing the name Walmart, or many restaurants bearing the name McDonalds. Roman settlements relied heavily on the usage of their impressive forums to conduct trade amongst the masses of average citizens. Permanent shops were often either run by independent families or by the aristocratic elite as a way of selling their goods. In terms of your question, ancient Rome did in fact have inscriptions on buildings as mentioned in your book. Roman businesses were required to be registered with the government, at least those in the center of Roman territory — can't say much about the Gallic, Spanish, other non-direct Italian provinces, as a result of Rome's impressive bureaucracy.

Shops had signs and would also have to display their license to trade in the particular goods they sold. This license was sculpted in marble and displayed publicly. The shop buildings in areas which had been planned with greater care would often be designed to have back entrances for the goods and even living quarters for the people who worked there or owned the shop.

Additionally, the practice of putting a "makers mark" on artisinally produced goods had existed as far back as the third century B.C.

Evidence of state control can be seen in the many goods which were stamped or carried markers indicating their origin or manufacturer and, in some cases, guaranteeing their weight, purity or genuineness. Pottery, amphorae, bricks, glass, metal ingots (important for coinage), tiles, marble and wooden barrels were usually stamped and general goods for transportation carried metal tags or lead seals. These measures helped to control trade, provide product guarantees and prevent fraud.

Undoubtedly these practices would have especially extended to the aristocratic elite who owned a plethora of businesses. Roman aristocrats owned plenty of businesses from vineyards to restaurants, of which there were few, to bath houses. Even though there were no official chain businesses, in the manner of Walmart, a family of Aristocrats indeed would have owned multiple businesses that would have been adorned with their name or their family name as their proprietary owners. For example, a single aristocrat could have owned several Thermopolia, Roman equivalent of a restaurant, but they would not have had a sign saying Caesars Thermopolium, or your fictional Roman franchise equivalent. Instead, they would have just had the same inscription of who owned them.

So, yes, your book's claim that Servius Vitellius owned something akin to our modern chain stores is essentially correct since many businesses owned by the same person could technically constitute a chain, although they sometimes were unrelated in goods sold.

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    Interesting! You make some comments (e.g., "impressive bureacracy") which are true in some periods, but not in others. It sounds like your answer applies to the later Empire? Can you be clearer as to timeframe?
    – Mark Olson
    Jul 10, 2018 at 14:00
  • I am always impressed by the extensive economical and political power of clan/gens/tribes in Rome. This kind of clan-based power might be behind these same-owner shop chains, inclusive behind the bureaucracy - Bureaucratic licences might be an artificial obstacle to keep outsiders and self-made men out of business until they operate within the system (as medieval guilds and many of today's regulations were/are).
    – Luiz
    May 25, 2021 at 17:46
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    I believe the "chain" in the modern sense requires trademark law. Otherwise any chain identity would be susceptible to copying. While that might not stop families from owning multiple sites as this answer suggests, it would make the concept of a "franchise" impossible. May 25, 2021 at 17:54
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I just googled this question when I came upon a section of Justinian's Digest that might reference this. The Digest implies chain stores, at least as far as my understanding goes.

Digest 14.4.5.16

Even if a slave has two similar shops, one in Bucinum where I take my custom and one across the Tiber where others go...

Unless if I am wrong, that should imply that this sort of practice was common enough to have it written in the law code.

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