2nd century CE
An ancient entrepreneur of Roman Verona, Claudia Marcellina was a rich and influential woman who lived in the 2nd century CE. An inscription dedicated to her conveys her important position inside the city. After the death of her husband she managed the family business independently, including some brickyards, as attested by the stamps bearing her name.
The workers, with their heads bent over the wooden moulds and their hands busy shaping brick after brick, are doing their best to look the most industrious and give the best possible impression of the factory. A woman, dressed in dark clothes and with her head covered, is shown around by a freedman between the rows of bricks ready for the kiln. Some of the makers cannot hold back their curiosity and dare to venture a glance at this solemnly paced figure. As in a procession, she is advancing slowly and stops now and then to question the supervisor who answers promptly and subserviently . The woman is Claudia Marcellina, the late master’s widow. Next to the door a young slave is carving small letters on a piece of wood. Marcellina bends over him to inspect his work. She is now the owner of the brickyard and the new mark, almost ready to be stamped on the next batch of bricks, is a reminder of her new position.
The talking stone
Corso Porta Borsari, no. 49. Encrusted in the wall between two windows of Verona’s shopping district, a block of stone carries an inscription. It is almost invisible except to those eyes that are trained to catch traces of the past in the streets and alleys of the city. The monuments, gravestones, offerings to the Gods carved by the Romans are incorporated in the walls of today’s Verona, recycled for humbler but not less essential uses. This piece of stone used to be the base of a statue dedicated to Claudia Marcellina, daughter of Tiberius and wife of the consul Bellicius Sollers, on behalf of Marcus Hortensius Paulinus and Quintus Hortensius Firmus. Apart from these few facts, the inscription doesn’t say anything more. However, the fact that a monument was erected in honour of this woman tells us that she must have been a person of influence inside the city. Today in Verona’s squares not a single statue is standing to honour the women of the present or the past, but this 2000 year old stone is passing on the name and significance of a woman who was part of its history.
A roman woman entrepreneur
The information that the Porta Borsari inscription is withholding is that Claudia Marcellina was an actual ancient Roman entrepreneur. After the death of her husband, the consul Lucius Bellicius Sollers, around 120 CE, she took over the family business. This is not an isolated case, in fact we have traces of several Roman women who were business owners, especially in the field of brick-making. Archaeologists have found many bricks stamped with female names, and, between the 2nd and 3rd century, we know of 50 women producing them. Claudia Marcellina was one of these women.
Roman law considered women eternally underage, always under the responsibility of a father, a husband, a brother. In practice, however, women were taking more and more liberties with their activities, and the laws gradually changed to reflect this reality. The spread of wealthy and independent women questioned traditional gender roles, which was not an easy fact to accept for everyone. Already at the end of the 1st century, the poet Martial wrote:
Why don’t I want to marry a rich woman, you ask.
Because I don’t want to be my wife’s bride!
The entrepreneurial experience of Claudia Marcellina is therefore not an exception, but a reflection of the changes in women’s conditions in imperial Rome.
The trace of Claudia Marcellina’s activity is stamped on the bricks she produces, in the shape of an identifying mark. These stamps can have different styles according to the period, and carry information about the product’s origin and manufacturing date, just like modern labels do. This is a rectangular brick stamp, typical of emperor Hadrian’s era (117-138 CE). These letters are written on it:
APR ET PAET COS
EX PR CL MARC
The words are shortened, as the Romans used to do in order to save space. In full, they would read like this:
Aproniano et Paetino consulibus ex praedis Claudiae Marcellinae
Which means: “Under the consulate of Apronianus and Paetinus from the estate of Claudia Marcellina”.
The Romans didn’t write down the years as numbers as we do, but they mentioned the names of the consuls in office that year. Thus, the names of Apronianus and Paetinus allow us to date the brick back to the year 123 CE. The stamp mentions also the origin of the brick: the estate from which the clay was extracted was property of Claudia Marcellina.
The Great Brickish Bake Off
In Claudia Marcellina’s time brick-making was a flourishing industry which expanded hand in hand with construction development. Indeed, brick was a material far easier to produce and to transport than, for example, stone.
Clay was the main raw material, which was extracted from claybeds in the estates of landowners such as Claudia Marcellina. After a purification process to get rid of unwanted materials, the clay was mixed with water, sand and straw or a type of volcanic ash, called pozzolana. Then the mixture was pressed by hand into wooden moulds. While they were still dry, some of the bricks were stamped with the brickyard owner’s mark. After that, they were dried out, stacked, and cooked at a temperature of 800°C in a special type of oven, the kiln.
Bricks were fired on an open flame, on and off to allow loading and unloading through a door. The kiln was divided in two parts: an upper chamber where the bricks were put, and a lower one where fire was made to reach the necessary temperature.
Firing the bricks conferred them greater resistance and durability compared to uncooked mudbricks, which were used by Romans in earlier times.
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