When archaeologists began to excavate the city of Pompeii, which was remarkably well preserved by the same catastrophe that destroyed it—the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE—they were surprised by both the lack of kitchen facilities in city residences and by the large number of cookshops. These establishments have traditionally been called thermopolia, from a Greek work meaning something like “a place where hot things are sold,” and they are thought to have been simple restaurants that resembled our own fast-food restaurants. The people of Pompeii, archaeologists believe, liked to eat on the go.
The word thermopolium appears only in the work of the comic playwright Plautus, and ancient Pompeiians probably didn’t use the term. Instead, they would have referred to these cookshops as popinae, if they sold food and drink; tabernae, if they sold alcohol; or cauponae, hospitia, or stabula, if they also offered lodging. Some or even many of these places might have functioned as brothels. Some of them retain graffiti that refer to the prices of the female workers.
Pompeii was a resort town, a getaway for wealthy Romans. It is pleasant to think that the popinae were something like crab shacks on a New England beach, but this is unlikely. Large villas in Pompeii did have kitchens, and elite Romans considered it inappropriate to eat in public. They also preferred to eat in a reclining position, an amenity few of the cookshops could have provided. Popinae probably served lower-class people, a hypothesis supported by the contempt in which Roman writers—almost always elites—seem to hold these places. Cicero insults Mark Antony by saying he often went to bars and cookshops; the poet Juvenal describes customers at a popina as sailors, thieves, runaway slaves, executioners, and coffin-makers. Several emperors attempted to regulate commerce in the popinae at various times, forbidding the sale of hot water, cooked meat, and baked goods. Vespasian allowed only peas and beans.
Popinae of all kinds are characterized by a masonry counter into which one or more earthenware pots (dolia) are permanently fixed. They may also have an oven or brazier, and a series of hooks from which food could have been hung. Cookshops attached to the proprietor’s residence often had shrines to the household gods as well. Archaeologists used to think that the dolia contained hot food or wine, but because they were porous and would have been difficult to clean, the current idea is that they contained dry foods like grains, nuts, or smoked fruits and vegetables. Certainly there would have been some other way of storing wine, however, since even popinae that didn’t function primarily as bars would have sold wine to take home or to enjoy with food on the premises. Ancient Romans mixed their wine with hot or cold water because it was substantially stronger than the wine we drink today, and sometimes they seasoned it with honey, black pepper, myrtle, or cedar. For those who wanted to keep their wits about them, there was often lemonade or a decoction flavored with licorice.
The food would have been simple, by Roman standards—no peacock’s tongue here. Instead there would have been things like roasted partridges, pork, goose liver pâté, eggs, sausages, salted hams (a Pompeiian establishment advertised: “Once one of my hams is cooked and set before a customer; before he tastes it, he licks the saucepan in which it was cooked”), lentils, peas, wheat or barley porridge (barley was cheaper), meat stews, and—perish the thought—sow vulvas.
We don’t know if they had pasta. Romans did grow durum wheat, and a chewy pasta-like bread product is easy to make accidentally, so it’s hard to imagine that no one chanced upon this invention. Still, there is no unequivocal evidence. The Apicius manuscript, still the most important source for scholars interested in Roman food, does not include any recipes for pasta, although it mentions something called lagano that sounds very much like the precursor of lasagna—thin strips of bread layered with fish, meat, or eggs. The manuscript comes from the fourth or fifth century CE, however, and describes the food of the wealthiest people. It’s possible that if pasta existed, it was the food of the poor.
As for seasoning, the ancient Romans had garlic, onions, asafoetida, poppy seeds, dill, coriander, chervil, pepper, mint, and cumin. Salt was rare and very expensive—soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, which is where we get the word “salary”—but Romans did have a condiment called garum, a fermented mixture of fish guts and sea water. Like condiments today, it came in various flavors and grades and was occasionally mixed with wine, vinegar, or olive oil. It would have been ubiquitous. It probably functioned like soy sauce.
Were the popinae really like today’s fast-food restaurants? Some of them did have pictorial menus, just like a fast-food restaurant today. There’s one on the Via di Diana (in Ostia, not Pompeii), with a fresco that depicts eggs, olives, fruit, and radishes. They also catered to poor people and people in a hurry. Of course they weren’t national chains that operated on a franchise system, at least as far as we know. But the fact is that we don’t really know, so we’re free to imagine. And it’s an appealing thought, or at least it’s appealing to imagine that human nature and human society are so stable and continuous.
Aaron Thier is the author of The Ghost Apple. His new novel, Mr. Eternity, will be published in 2016.