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date: 28 September 2023

bars (taberna, popina, caupona, thermopolium)free

bars (taberna, popina, caupona, thermopolium)free

  • Jeremy Hartnett

Street-side enterprises providing food and drink offered a hallmark of Roman urbanism, and were described by any number of terms. Repeated endeavors to tease out distinctions among the names and to match them with evidence on the ground have largely met with frustration. Aside from caupona and taberna, which often indicate a place where lodgings, in addition to food and drink, were on offer, Romans appear to have used the terms relatively indiscriminately. (Thermopolium, a term used often in site guides and the like, appears only in Plautus as thermipolia.1) Moreover, some of these establishments’ activities, such as furnishing temporary accommodations, are difficult to trace archaeologically, since they featured few architectural forms to distinguish them from residences.

To judge from the evidence of Pompeii and Herculaneum, bars typically opened directly onto the street, being separated by a broad doorway whose shutters could be stowed during hours of operation, thus minimizing any interior-exterior distinction (Figs. 13).

Figure 1. Workers likely served customers across the marble-topped service counter at food and drink establishments such as this one at Herculaneum. What exactly was held in the large containers inset in the counter is not clear.

Photo by Jebulon, Creative Commons License, CC0 1.0.

Indeed, Martial (7.61) laments the street’s occupation by a popina that has burst its threshold. A masonry service counter, often in an L or U shape and inset with large terracotta vessels, typically dominated the first room of any establishment.

Figure 2. Shelves near the bar top likely held drinking vessels, and additional rooms behind the front service space could accommodate clients.

Photo by Marcus Cyron, Creative Commons License, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Tavern staff likely took their places behind the counter to serve customers. Colourful fragments of marble or other stone distinguish some countertops from the simple masonry that characterizes others. The counter’s street-facing side might have carried the same veneer or been decorated in fresco. Other facilities, such as a small water heater or a cooking surface, were frequently located nearby or built into the counter itself.

Figure 3. At left, plaster casts preserve the form of the original wooden doors of a shop or bar at Pompeii. The shutters could be stowed during opening hours, thus reducing much distinction between interior and exterior.

Photo by author.

Additional spaces, perhaps outfitted with stools, tables, and even masonry triclinia (as at Pompeii’s Praedia of Julia Felix, II.4.7), could supplement the street-fronting room (Figs. 45). In late antique Ostia, in a marked difference from the Campanian evidence, water basins were embedded in the counters.

Figure 4. One room within an establishment fronting the Praedia of Julia Felix at Pompeii boasted diverse arrangements for customers, such as these booth-like accommodations.

Photo by Christopher Parslow.

Figure 5. A masonry triclinium stood across from the “booths” in the Praedia of Julia Felix (see fig. 4).

Photo by Christopher Parslow.

Exactly what was stored in the counter vessels is unclear. Aside from the discovery of the vestiges of some nuts in one Herculaneum establishment, few organic remains have been recovered, and the pots’ porous earthenware material would hardly have been well-suited for liquids. Indeed, wine was likely stored in sizeable amphorae, which were a common find within these establishments; the so-called Taberna of Asellina at Pompeii (IX.11.2), for instance, had more than a dozen stockpiled behind the counter (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. In addition to terra cotta vessels, a cooking surface (1), water heater (2), and chimney (3) were also embedded within the counter of the so-called Taberna of Asellina at Pompeii. Behind the counter were found a couple of dozen amphorae, from which wine was presumably decanted into serving and drinking vessels.

Courtesy of Nicolas Monteix, Université de Rouen/IUF.

Both pictorial evidence and bars’ finds suggest that workers funneled wine into pitchers or cups of metal, glass, or glazed pottery before dispensing it to customers. The finds of Pompeian taverns share substantial overlaps with a typical inventory of a taberna cauponia described by the jurist Julius Paulus (dolia, vats, pitchers for pouring out wine, bronze vessels, large and small measures for liquids: Dig. 33.7.13). Additional study of bars’ artefactual records may help to clarify practical details of their functioning and servers’ “workflow.”

When bars are discussed in the sources, they are typically characterized as low-life haunts of the masses. Juvenal (Sat. 8.171–178) famously describes a popina in Ostia busied with an assassin, some sailors, thieves, fugitive slaves, executioners, coffin-makers, and a priest of Cybele. Ammianus Marcellinus (14.6.25), writing at a later date, lists tabernae vinariae among spots where the lowest classes spend the night; he claims they gamble, snort through their noses as they play, and squabble about chariot racing. For Horace, they are greasy (Sat. 2.4.62; Epist. 1.14.21); for Cicero and Horace they were part of a matrix of behavior that included brothels, gambling, and drinking (Cic. Phil. 13.24; Hor. Epist. 1.14); and for the jurist Paulus, introduction of someone’s slave or son into one of these establishments could be tantamount to insult and thus prosecutable for iniuria (Dig. 47.10.26).

In recent years, scholars have turned from literary descriptions and disparagements of bars and their customers—which of course describe bar life with their authors’ interests in mind, such as differentiating themselves and their way of life from ordinary Romans—to other evidence, such as the bars themselves, in order to consider these establishments’ appeal and their function within Roman “popular culture.” At one Pompeian establishment (VI.10.1,19), a room located behind the service counter featured a series of frescoes of tavern scenes. The images of bar life they proffer are idealized and are meant both to attract potential clients and to shape the experiences of current customers: abundant meats and cheeses hang from the rafters, and stools with lathe-turned legs support patrons, who huddle over elegant wooden tables or stand up amid the excitement of a dice game (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. The walls of one Pompeian bar’s rear room were decorated with a fresco cycle that presented an idealized world of exciting gambling, attentive service, and abundant foodstuffs.

Photo by WolfgangRieger, Creative Commons License, CC0.

Servers, both boys and women, stand ready to refill empty cups, answer customer’s demands (e.g., “Give a drop of cold”), and at least in one case, to offer a saucy rejoinder to dice players fighting over a drink (“Whoever wants it, take it”). Two scenes in the sequence show a pair of men engaged in a game similar to backgammon; their argument about a score overheats and they exchange insults (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. The final two scenes of a series of small panels from the so-called Caupona of Salvius at Pompeii show two men engaged in a dice game. At first, they dispute who won; then their argument escalates to fisticuffs, and finally the apparent owner of the property shoves them outdoors.

Photo by Fer.filol, Creative Commons License, CC0.

Some indications suggest that the food and drink on offer were not always so appealing. Graffiti from Pompeii, for instance, add to the list of comestibles for sale, as mention is made of bread (of various gradations, such as for slaves or children, puero pane), wine, cheese, porridge, and various vegetables and fruit (CIL 4.5380; cf. CIL 4.4888, 4.8561). Gradations of wine were available, from low-rent swill to the prized Falernian (e.g., CIL 4.1679; AE1989:182 a,c).

The remains of Pompeii show that eating and drinking establishments were a major feature of the Roman urban landscape. On the basis of these structures’ characteristic masonry counters, Ellis has identified no fewer than 158 such properties in the excavated portion of the city (Fig. 9),2 though it is unclear whether all were in use at the time of the city’s burial, whether all were strictly dedicated to cooked food and drink, whether some had been repurposed for other commercial or residential activity, and whether some establishments functioned without a masonry counter and thus are difficult to detect.

Figure 9. The 158 food and drink establishments in Pompeii concentrate on the city’s busiest arteries and at major intersections.

Courtesy of Steven Ellis

Further study of architectural form, cooking facilities, and both number and volume of counter vessels promises to reveal finer gradations in the types of establishments and to overcome impressions based on repeated reference to a few archetypal examples. (Additionally, sources also testify to ambulant salespeople for foodstuffs: e.g., Sen. Ep. 56; Mart. 1.41.) Drawn to the flow of potential customers, the properties cluster near the city’s gates and favour major thoroughfares and their most important intersections. Interestingly, they do not appear on the town’s forum nor along one otherwise-busy stretch of nearby street, the Via dell’abbondanza. Such a distribution has prompted much debate about whether some degree of moral zoning was in effect in the city.

The proliferation of food and drink establishments—about one for every sixty to one hundred inhabitants of Pompeii—is akin to the density of street-side food stands in cities in the developing world today, such as Iloilo, Philippines, and Manikganj, Bangladesh, where there is one street food vendor for every fifty and seventy inhabitants, respectively.3 Roman taverns were especially convenient for out-of-town visitors, and they also enjoyed popularity because they offered a variety of foods to a poor population challenged by the practical demands of purchasing, storing, and preserving suitable quantities of food, not to mention the smoke, heat, and danger entailed in cooking over an open flame at home. The apparent glut of eating and drinking establishments suggests the degree to which dining at one’s residence was a relatively rare luxury. That said, in Pompeii a number of open-air masonry triclinia—situated in a garden-like setting away from the street and not associated with a masonry counter—appear to have offered a higher-class alternative to the spots derided in historical texts.

Beyond satisfying strictly practical concerns, bars granted customers an opportunity for socializing, excitement, and escape from the mundane. Despite elite characterizations of tavern-goers as drunken and gossipy gadabouts bent on pleasure, common folk found much in these establishments that offered social enhancements. For one, bars offered areas that were privately owned yet open to the public, which rendered them neutral turf on which to avoid the demands of domestic pressures. Toner has emphasized that the gambling linked with bars was not just about entertainment but offered a type of practice for the challenges of poor lives: how to evaluate risk, solve problems, manage resources, and protect one’s interests—all under pressure.4 Toner has also suggested how, when such contests overheated into fights, taverns were crucibles for tests of masculinity in the “popular culture” of Roman cities. Violence such as brawls righted perceived slights to honour, and debates about chariot racing and the like offered contests to establish status among one’s compatriots.5

Emperors in the 1st century ce issued restrictions on what food could be offered at taverns (e.g., Philo Leg. 311–312). Meat appears to have been a special concern, and repeated efforts by Nero and Vespasian sought to limit foodstuffs to simply vegetables and pulses. Their exact motivations are unclear, and some efforts must have been mostly symbolic. The first recorded restriction, on the part of Claudius (Dio Cass. 60.6.7), however, specifically links bars with collegia, groups of individuals who might overlap along any number of different lines, not least on shared work or status. Cassius Dio reports that Claudius disbanded collegia and, “seeing that there was no use in forbidding the populace to do certain things unless their daily life should be reformed,” abolished the taverns where they were accustomed to gather. Dio additionally mentions that Claudius outlawed hot water (which would serve to dilute wine) and boiled meat. Whatever scholars make of this confusing double prohibition, the collocation of social groups with taverns suggests that bars provoked anxieties about the political or social flare-ups they were thought to kindle.

Amid this popular world, tavern owners were mostly described in pejorative terms, and their workers have largely (and correctly) been considered by scholars as objects of sexual exploitation. For example, accusations of watering down wine were lobbed by both poets and wall-scrawlers alike (Mart. 1.56, 3.57; CIL 4.3948), and women working in these establishments were legally classified as immodest and tantamount to prostitutes (Dig., The Copa, a poem included in the Appendix Vergiliana, offers an image of one of these women’s ideal attractions: she beats out a rhythm on castanets and tambourine while dancing sexily and beckoning customers to escape the heat and enjoy a seat in the shade, dainty foods, freshly opened wine, dice, and the kisses of a pretty girl.

Within the life of the bar and its squabbles, however, tavern owners might well have served as arbiters. The fresco cycle that shows the rumbling dice players resolves into a surprising coda, for instance, as the establishment’s apparent owner shoves the duo outdoors (Fig. 8). Additionally, while bars’ intra-urban locations rendered taverns particularly conspicuous to customers, they offered their workers both an opportune vantage point to observe goings-on and a steady flow of customers with whom they might share the latest news. In fact, when they are mentioned in literature, the workers in these and similar establishments are often portrayed as nodes of gossip or sources of local knowledge (e.g., Juv. Sat. 9.102–110; Apul. Meta. 1.7, 1.21). One tombstone from Tivoli (CIL 14.1309) commemorates a certain popinaria named Amemone; word of her sweet demeanor extended beyond her city (fama ultra fines patriae popinaria nota), the text declares, and drew many customers to it (quam propter multi Tibur celebrare solebant). Viewed in this light, bar employees not only played a significant role in the feeding of urbanites and the daily flow of the economy—at the Tavern of Asellina in Pompeii (IX.11.2), for example, fifty-seven bronze coins and five silver coins were found6—but also may have served as key connectors in their cities’ social networks. As they waited on slaves, craftsmen, merchants, dependents of big households, and many others drawn from diverse realms of a city (and beyond), they may have been common figures across many diverse popular circles, collecting information from some, sharing that knowledge with others, and dishing out neighbourhood gossip with a side of legumes.


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  • 1. Cur. 292; Rud. 529; Trin. 1013.

  • 2. S. Ellis, “The Distribution of Bars at Pompeii: Archaeological, Spatial and Viewshed Analyses,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 17 (2004): 371–384.

  • 3. I. Tinker, Street Foods: Urban Food and Employment in Developing Countries (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 47 (Philippines), 76–80 (Bangladesh).

  • 4. J. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1995), 89–101.

  • 5. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 65–88.

  • 6. G. Spano, “Pompei—Scavi e scoperte di antichità avvenute durante il mese di marzo,” Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità 9 (1912): 112–120.