Roman Taverns

Pompeii tavern with muralRoman Sales Counter Pompeii

Inside a Tavern at Pompeii   Note the wall mural.         A Roman Therompolium-“Fast Food Place”

In my book Casting Lots, Centurion Cornelius owned a tavern which he lost gambling.  Upon a wall of the tavern is a mural which shows a ‘bull’ of Centurion Cornelius engaged in a drunken ‘bar’ fight.  How typical is the tavern describe in Casting Lots?  The answer is very typical.

On a typical street, one would find small restaurants, what were barely recesses in wall, where one could find food.  These in our day would be called fast food joints, but were called therompolia in Latin.  These contained a walk-up counter in which there were openings to large bowls or jugs beneath which contained food.  Behind the counter there might be tables, at which patrons could sit and eat, or often there were no tables and the patron would buy the food and continue strolling down the street eating the food purchased.

This is not what is described in Casting Lots. The tavern which Centurion Cornelius once owned is a classic tavern-in Latin, taberna and taberna diversoria, or simply diversorium or deversorium.  It would have had a bar and would have served both food and wine.  The bar portions would have been inside the building, but also fronting the street. with often a bar fronting the street.  There would have been tables and chairs and even stools around the bar.  The bar would have had, like the therompolia, large round holes in the bar, called dolia (in Latin), from which to access food to be sold to patrons. There would have been a kitchen to prepare food.   In order to provide an experience which would not only be cater to the patrons with its convenience, but also provide additional revenue sources to the owner, there might be an area to stable one’s horse, a latrine, a courtyard,  and maybe bedrooms, often there would have been a second story with additional bedrooms.  Thus the tavern could also function as an inn and house overnight guests.

Often taverns functioned as brothels. Seneca wrote: “Virtue is something elevated, exalted and regal, unconquered and unwary. Pleasure is something lowly, servile, weak and unsteady, whose haunt and dwelling-place are the brothel and the bar.” The clientele of a tavern sat on stools or in chairs-not like the wealthy who reclined in their homes to eat.

Also, the clientele of the taverns were described by Juvenal as being extremely seedy, as well as coming from diverse walks of life:

“… search for him in some big bar. There he will be, lying next a cut-throat, in the company of sailors, thieves and runaway slaves, beside hangmen and coffin-makers, or beside a passed out priest: This is liberty hall, One cup serves for all, No one has a bed to himself, Nor a table apart from the rest.”

This seedy, diverse clientele led some Emperors to worry that taverns might be a site from which rebellion might spring, because the well-bred saw taverns as a place which drew the lower classes together. To counter this threat, some Emperors tried to regulate the food which could be served in the tavern, hoping that a curtailed menu without meats and other delicacies would lessen the draw of the taverns. For example, according to Suetonius, Tiberius forbad all cooked provisions to be sold in these shops.  Many tavern owners simply ignored the laws and continued to serve their usual menus.

There is some evidence that the taverns were a place of political discourse.  In Pompeii, at an inn called Asellina’s Caupona (caupona being Latin for inn) there is a mural (which by the way answers the questions of whether a tavern might paint a mural upon its walls), which also has political commentary.  Asellina’s Caupona or tavern is found in the ninth region of Pompeii. It is situated in the second insula, on the left hand side of the Road of Abundance, not far from the triangular forum.



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