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Artisans and Markets: The Economics of Roman Domestic Decoration

This article investigates how consumer demand shaped markets for high-quality domestic decoration in the Roman world and highlights how this affected the economic strategies of people involved in the production and trade of high-quality wall decoration, mosaics, and sculpture. The argument analyzes the consumption of high-quality domestic decoration at Pompeii and models the structure of demand for decorative skills in the Roman world at large. The Pompeian case study focuses on three categories of high-quality decoration: Late Hellenistic opus vermiculatum mosaics, first-century C.E. fourth-style panel pictures, and domestic sculpture. Analyzing the spread of these mosaics, paintings, and statues over a database of Pompeian houses makes it possible to reconstruct a demand profile for each category of decoration and to discuss the nature of its supply economy. It is argued that the market for high-quality decoration at Pompeii provided few incentives for professionals to acquire specialist skills and that this has broader implications: as market conditions in Pompeii and the Bay of Naples region were significantly above average, the strategic possibilities for painters, mosaicists, and sculptors in many parts of the Roman world were even more restricted and, consequently, their motivation to invest in skills and repertoire remained limited.