Fast food in Ancient Rome
Sometimes, when we look at an ancient culture, so much of it seems so totally foreign to us that it can be difficult to see that we have anything in common with the people who lived in those times. Religions, class structures, social mores, cultural touchstones—these are all things that can make Ancient Rome and other ancient societies seem very alien to us. But, on the flipside—there’s always a flipside—sometimes you come across something that is just so utterly relatable that you realise people haven’t fundamentally changed at all.
In 2019, archaeologists in Pompeii uncovered the remains of a thermopolium—a shop that served hot food and drinks.
Isn’t it amazing how the colours are still so vibrant after 2000 years?
The holes in the counters are there so that earthenware jars, called dolia, could be placed inside them to keep hot food and drinks warm. Remnants of ducks, snails, pigs, goats and chicken have been identified in the Pompeiian dolia. You can see some of them depicted in the frescoes along the sides of the counters.
For most Pompeii locals, fast food was a convenient way of life. As the article says, in that area, only 40% of lower class homes and 66% of middle class homes had anywhere to cook. So people ate at the local thermopolium. Over 80 thermopolia have been uncovered in Pompeii already, which is certainly reminiscent of any modern city. Fast, hot, cheap street food—just how we like it today!
But now take a look at what it looked like when it was in operation:
That certainly breathes life into things, doesn’t it?
This video is made by the excellent team at PAR (Arqueología y Patrimonio Virtual - Archaeology and Virtual Heritage). You can find their website here: https://parpatrimonio.com/en/
In Sub Rosa, Valerius spends a lot of time eating at food stalls and thermopolia, despite having a cook at home, and despite risking food poisoning. Roman thermopolia has a generally bad reputation as a place where criminals and drunks hung out. Their reputation was so sordid at one point that Emperor Claudius ordered them all closed down. It didn’t last, of course. It'd be like trying to close down every McDonalds in a major city. The people wouldn't have it!
So next time you're thinking that the past is opaque and the people who lived there are unrecognisable, just think of Pompeii's thermopolia, and the hundreds of people everyday who stopped in for a quick bite to eat on their way to work, school, and home again. They probably looked an awful lot like us.