Roman Fast Food
Updated: Aug 23
The popular representation of Roman dining is that of reclining on benches enjoying a buffet style meal. This image, however, only really reflects the practice of wealthier families, those who could afford a home with a triclinium (dining room) and slaves to prepare, cook and serve them. So, what of the ordinary city folk? What was their dining experience and how would one go about recreating it?
Walk through the remains of ancient Roman towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum or Ostia and you will encounter some form of food or drink outlet on virtually every street corner. They are easily recognisable from their distinctive masonry counters, which in fancier thermopolia (sing. thermopolium) might be decorated with frescoes. Embedded in the counters were earthenware jars (called dolia; sing. dolium) used to store drink or dried foods, as shown in the example from Herculaneum below right. A dolium in the thermopolium attached to the House of Neptune and Amphitrite also in Herculaneum had the carbonized remains of nuts . It is not thought that hot food was kept in these dolia, however. Firstly, because there does not appear to be a way to heat the jar embedded in the counter and secondly because it would be difficult for the dolia to be cleaned out after use .
Archaeologists tend to refer to all such places as “thermopolia” which, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, was a commercial establishment where it was possible to purchase ready-to-eat food. The name derives from Greek θερμοπώλιον (thermopōlion), or “cook-shop”, but literally means "a place where something hot is sold". In Latin literature thermopolia were also called:
· Popinae (sing. popina), a general name for a restaurant.
· Tabernae (sing. taberna, “tavern”) or street-side snack bars that often featured a thermopolium or a tavola calda (“hot table”), which might be accessible from the pavement. Sometimes a taberna was simply called a thermopolium.
· Cauponae (sing. caupona) which were predominantly drinking establishments where food was also available.
· Hospitia (sing. hospitium) a hotel that typically had a ground floor popina.
· Stabula (sing. stabulum) an alternative name for a tavern, public house or hostelry.
Thermopolia were the forerunners of, and comparable with, today's restaurants serving modern fast food. They ought to be likened to a cross between a hamburger fast food restaurant and a British pub or a Spanish tapas bar. Directly accessible from the street, each had a large counter with a receptacle in the middle from which a variety of food and drink was served to ordinary Romans. Many were the inhabitants of multi-storey insulae who simply could not afford a private kitchen. Significantly, excavations of entire neighbourhood blocks in Pompeii have revealed an unusual lack of tableware and formal dining or kitchen areas within the homes . Penelope Allison of the University of Leicester, for example, did find isolated plates here and there, such as in sleeping quarters suggesting Romans would eat food in areas where they might also engage in other domestic activities . What she did find in the homes were multiple mini barbecue-type fire boxes, suggesting that 'BBQ or fondue-style dining' often took place . Allison concluded that the majority of Pompeii’s population consumed food 'on the run'.
Historians often extend findings from Pompeii to other parts of Italy, particularly Rome, given the former's proximity to the Eternal City. Indeed, the numerous fast-food restaurants identified in Pompeii are mirrored in other parts of Italy and across the Rome Empire. It seems, therefore, that most Romans, living in apartment blocks or in rather confined spaces, lacked the room for stoves and other cooking equipment. It makes eminent sense, therefore, to use smaller brazier-style cookers as these would not require large quantities of fuel to be carried up several flights of steps. Smaller cookers, like the Greek-style version shown above, also mitigated the risk of fire which, after the Great fire of Rome in AD 64, remained a major concern in densely packed urban centres. After due consideration, therefore, one might theorise three possible scenarios by which metropolitan Romans fed themselves:
1. Produce, bought daily, was taken upstairs to be prepared and cooked on small brazier style cookers.
2. Cooked meals were purchased from a street vendor, taken upstairs and reheated before consumption.
3. Meals were purchased from a thermopolium and eaten either on the move or at the street side food outlet.
'Fast food' restaurants became popular because they were plentiful. Thermopolia offered a panoply of affordable choices for the residents of Rome, Pompeii and other Roman towns and cities. Clearly, many of these residents must have made enough money as artisans, shopkeepers, and weavers to support the vast quantity of food outlets available. Besides, grabbing a meal to go, either to be eaten in a house or on the street, seems to match the energy and flexibility of the Italian mindset. The vibrant street and bar scenes today, together with the multi-purpose design of Italian homes, with bedsteads stacked in a corner or kitchenettes in surprising places, reflect the wonderful, slightly chaotic, qualities of early Roman life.
1. Berry, J., (2007), The Complete Pompeii, Thames & Hudson.
2. Allison, P.M., (2007), 'The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii Volume III: The Finds, a Contextual Study', Oxford University Press.
3. Viegas, J., (2017) 'Ancient Romans Preferred Fast Food', Discovery News.