The Foods And The Foodways of Pompeii

© Pompei Map
The Foods And The Foodways of Pompeii
Shulie Madnick

An Anthropology Paper

While planning a trip to Italy this year, my guys' only must, was Pompeii. I also had the anthropology paper to write, and I tried to think of ways to incorporate both my trip and the subject of food into my writing. After some brainstorming, I settled on The Food and Foodways of Pompeii. I had not realized at the time how engrossed and excited I would be about the subject. Above is Pompeii's archaeological site map. We walked down the road between I/II to IX/III where many food shops, tabernae, cauponae (inns when food was sold, and overnight accommodation were available), popinae (bars), and thermopolia (places where (something) hot is sold) are. Approximately 150 of these "retail food shops" were discovered, dotted in between other retail shops, workshops, and residences. These food retail shops served the poor who did not have kitchens in their homes. My goal was through the food and foodways archaeological findings of Pompeii to gain an understanding of its social stratification, trade, gender roles, and politics and food in Pompeii and by extension, in the Roman Empire. 
©ShulieMadnick Vineyards Against Mt. Vesuvius In Pompeii
In this photo, you can see Mt. Vesuvius in the background with the now re-thriving vineyards at its feet. However, let's get some historical background on what happened in Pompeii. On August 24, 79AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, and just over 24 hours later, Pompeii and its estimated two thousand, out of ten thousand inhabitants, who did not flee the city, were buried under nineteen feet of the scorching, few hundred degrees Fahrenheit of volcanic ash. Pompeii, located southeast of Naples in the Campania region, was not covered in lava, but Herculaneum, a town nearby and closer to Mt. Vesuvius, was.  Romans at the time did not realize that Mt. Vesuvius was a volcano but shrouded it with mythical beliefs and powers and devoted it to Hercules, the son of Zeus. 
Roman fresco with banquet scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti (section IX 12, 6-8), Pompeii, ©MarisaRanieriPanetta
Many of the Roman elite built vacation villas in Pompeii if they did not reside there full-time. The rest and majority of the population were merchants and freed and enslaved poor. A 1979 NYT article describes the Roman elite's lavish banquets served in opulent, frescoed triclinium (dining room): "Togas were loosened, shoes removed, and slaves brought perfumed water for washing. Then, after a libation to the gods, dinner was served ad ovo usque ad mala (from the egg to apples), the Roman equivalent of our expression "from soup to nuts." Stuffed dormouse (a fattened up mouse that was considered a delicacy) with minced pork was one of the specialties served at a banquet along with a pâté from the liver of a force‐fed goose, boiled ostrich with pepper and ostrich stew with pepper, lovage, thyme, honey, mustard, vinegar, broth, and oil. A blend of white wine and honey, eggs, raw, pickled, or cooked vegetables (beets, cabbage, mushrooms, and leeks), olives, seafood (shrimp, lobster. bass, octopus, and squid), roast kid (lamb and veal), ham, chicken, figs with honey and wild asparagus served with garum, a fish sauce made from roe and intestines were also a part of the feast. Garum, similar to Asian fish sauce, had cheaper (for the poor) and expensive (purer) versions. It was produced in garum vats in Pompeii and was used extensively in Roman cuisine in both savory and sweet dishes. 

©ShulieMadnick The house and thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus (I, #12), Pompeii 2019

But counter to wide spread belief that the rich indulged in delicate luxurious foods and the poor ate porridge and gruel, discoveries and conclusions from the 'Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia,' excavations under the direction of Prof. Steven Ellis prove that varied diet and social stratification existed within the sub-elite poor Pompeiians. Giraffe leg remains, small amounts of expensive cuts of meat, younger cuts of meat, as well as sea-urchin, muscles, and dormice, and expensive imported sesame, caraway, and black pepper from India were some of the luxurious food remains found in taverns and bars and their cesspits.

The house and thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus (photo above ©ShulieMadnick), located in section I, #12 pink/red section of the zoomed in map below, along via dell'Abbondanza where the main tour route of Pompeii took place, further proves Ellis'  socio-economic fluctuations theory within the sub-elite populations. According to the Pompeii official archaeological website and its official tour guide, "The thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus represents social mobility in Pompeii in Roman times, where merchants and craftsmen also held a high social status, reserved only to landowners in older times." On the back wall behind the masonry counter with the dolias there is a beautifully preserved fresco, a shrine depicting Genius, the protector of the house, Mercury, the god of trade, and Dionysus, the god of wine. In the back of the wall, there is a triclinium for outdoor dining and the tavern owner's home. Many taverns were take-away, fast food shops, but at the thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus we find triclinium, a sit-down dining room area, that is usually associated with Roman aristocracy.
© Asselina's Tavern (IX, #6) and The house and thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus (I, #12), Pompeii
©ShulieMadnick Asellina's Tavern Exterior (IX, #6), Pompeii 2019

A few feet down the cobblestone road and across from thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus on via dell'Abbondanza sits the thermopolium of Asellina (photo above and below. Section IX, #6 in zoomed in map above). Asellina was the only woman known to own and run a tavern in Pompeii though other women were in trade; an owner of ships that imported foods and other goods, money lenders, property owners,  and another woman oversaw and managed a garum making shop but did not own it. Asellina was technically a caupona, since it was also an inn with cheap rooms upstairs rented to travelers. Political graffiti were painted on the tavern's exterior and some writings on the interior plea to elect a local official with some special favors offered in return by Asellina's barmaids. The graffiti and phallic relics found on the premises had some archaeologists speculate that it was also a brothel. Other archaeologists dispute that notion. Whether or not Asellina and her slaved or low class freed barmaids engaged in sex for trade or sexual favors, it was a tavern, not a brothel, since food was served. Besides, even though phallic symbols were found at Asellina's, they were commonplace in Pompeii (and the Roman Empire) and a symbol of fertility, prowess, virility and good luck charm. Lastly, the brothel area was clearly defined in Pompeii, slightly away from the main drag.
©ShulieMadnick Asellina's Tavern Exterior (IX, #6), Pompeii 2019

At the time, women could not vote, and "According to Roman law, a woman could not act independently 'on account of the lightness of the mind,' as the second-century jurist, Gaius, put it." - Natasha Sheldon for Ancient History and Archaeology. With the approval and guardianship of a male guardian, a husband, or a brother, some women managed to become owners and businesswomen. Women who gave birth to four kids were free women, released from male guardianship, as they fulfilled their maternal duties to the Roman Empire.
©ShulieMadnick Water Fountain, Pompeii 2019

Overall, women's diet was inferior to men's, and at times sumptuary laws were targeted to curb women's conspicuous consumption of luxuries.  Sumptuary laws were also sporadically enacted and banned consumption at one time or another of dormice, the delicacy consumed by the elite, pulses, pastries, hot water (hot water was sold, though free water from fountains, as you see in the photo above, was available), bread, boiled meat, green vegetables, dried beans, and "fattened fowl and sow's udders, (that) was flagrantly consumed at the most exclusive feasts (The Roman Banquet, The MET)." The austerity measures occasionally limited the number of people attending a banquet to avoid large assemblies and thwart crowd unrest. All restrictions of excessive consumerism and extravagance were a measure of socio-political control. Ironically even though "In Vino Veritas (In wine, there is truth)," a proverb by Pliny the Elder warning about the hazards of alcohol probably echoed with the Roman emperors; it was never banned.

This blogpost is an abbreviated and more informal version of a paper I wrote. 

1. Did you imagine that take-out culture was as ancient as the Roman Empire, and that it was geared counter to today's culture towards the poor? Unless we take into account fast-food. What do you think?
2. I would love to hear your reflections on women's status in the Roman Empire vs. today.  


  1. Great blog! I loved reading about your visit to Pompeii.

    1) My wife is from Rome, and many times over I have heard her attribute aspects of modern culture and government to the Ancient Romans. In fact, at the Philadelphia convention center several years ago, there was an exhibit that showed how the founding fathers of America were classical scholars who shaped the vision of American government from that of Ancient Rome. In addition to the government, I do believe that much of Western Civilization is derived from Ancient Roman culture. It was really interesting to learn in your blog that the fast food culture came from Rome. I read some more about that in this article:

    What I find so interesting about that both fast food cultures have in common is those who it serves: the lower classes. If you drive through lower income areas of a city, there is a fast food joint on every corner, sometimes more than one. If you drive out to more affluent neighborhoods, there are far less, if any at all. This article does a good job of discussing "food inequality" and it even lays responsibility at the hands of our government :

    Great post!

  2. Hi Don,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking comment, the additional historical information and perspective you shared, and the links. It feels like all the research and tormenting over each word was worth it if only just for your and your wife's insights.

    At first, I was contemplating the takeout/fast food establishments issue from a different angle. I was thinking how dining out is a privilege reserved for the middle class and wealthy today, so I was surprised to find out that the poor Ancient Romans dined out. I also fell victim to applying my own cultural biases to ancient Rome, imagining old Roman grandmas churning butter and making food from scratch. Later, I realized that the fast-food culture, as you mentioned as well, is in many ways similar to the fast-food issues we and the less economically mobile segment of our society grapple with today. The difference is that the Roman poor fast food diet was still a healthy Mediterranean diet. Even if the garum (fish sauce) and cuts of meat (when they could get them) were of lesser quality, but still their diet was a healthy Mediterranean diet, unlike the fast-food industry today. Also, the issue of 'food deserts' is alarming. I only discovered it in recent years. Again, I applied my own cultural biases growing up in a struggling household. Still, basic healthy ingredients, legumes, fruit, and vegetables were available cheap around the corner. Yet, in today's American 'food deserts' the poor have no access to fresh produce and supermarkets, only Mcdonalds and corner-bodegas.

    There was so much more I wanted to expand on in my paper but as it is I ran slightly over.

    How lucky is your wife calling Rome home?! It's my favorite European city, and the food is incredible!!! I hope you get to visit often. We've been twice in the last couple of years and spent a week in Rome each time. I absolutely adore everything about it.


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