Historian Lindsay Powell reports on an exhibition in Oxford which shows, through images and objects from Pompeii, the variety of the Roman diet and the places associated with its preparation and consumption, from filthy kitchens to elaborate banquets.
“Vivamus, moriendum est” – “let us live, for we must die” – the effusive Vibius Gallus is recorded as saying (Seneca the Elder, Declamations 2.6). It is an observation that could very well capture the approach to life enjoyed by the people living in the farms, towns and cities of Campania on the Bay of Naples in the 1st century AD.
When Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 (probably in October rather than August) the pumice and ash that engulfed the city of Pompeii, collapsing roofs and filling rooms, preserved many of the material aspects of every stratum of society. That included evidence of the food and drink they consumed.
Last Supper in Pompeii at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is an exhibition which explores the ancient Romans’ deep love affair with food and wine. Over 400 rare objects, including everything from the exquisite mosaics and frescoes in the villas of the wealthy to the remains found in kitchen drains, show what the Pompeians loved to eat and drink.
Many of the objects, on loan from Pompeii and Naples, have never before left Italy. They range from the spectacular furnishings of the Roman dining room to actual food which was carbonised as the volcano erupted.
The exhibition shows the extent to which the Romans actually inherited their culinary ideas from other cultures. The Romans incorporated the practices and foodstuffs of pacified peoples. The use of food in religion, for example, was clearly influenced by the Greeks, Etruscans and other Italian peoples.
The remains of food – nuts, fruit, eggs and animal bones – offered to the household gods or Lares were found during excavations. Private offerings to the gods and feasting with the dead were practices which had become deeply woven into the fabric of daily life.
The exhibition examines the lives of the upper and also the lower classes. Just north of the city at Oplontis, at the lavish ‘Villa of Poppea’ (Nero’s second wife), another establishment – called ‘Villa B’ – functioned as a large emporium for food and drink. There, a ton of pomegranates have been uncovered, as well as thousands of amphorae turned upside down ready for the year’s harvest.
The Ashmolean’s Conservation Department has analysed a group of pots and pans from one of these taverns; they reveal the day-to-day workings of a Roman ‘pub’. Establishments such as these served citizens of Pompeii at all levels, but perhaps especially those whose modest homes had little space for food preparation.
The exhibition evokes something of the elaborate dining customs of wealthier Pompeians. A dining room with the frescoes from one of the city’s grandest houses (the ‘House of the Golden Bracelet’) has been recreated. It includes beautiful mosaics from triclinium floors, embossed silver dinnerware, and elaborate furnishings like the four-foot statue of Apollo made to bear a tray for favoured diners.
The kitchens, which prepared the banquets for the wealthy owners, might shock modern visitors. Slaves would tend to the hearth and prepare food using an array of vessels and utensils, which would be familiar to modern cooks. In a grand house slaves would have access to a piped water supply, but even in the richest homes, the kitchen was a small, dark and very dirty place. The location of the household latrine, often right beside the kitchen, is astonishing to our sensibilities.
Recent research and excavations of latrine deposits have, however, brought to light fascinating details about the ancient Roman diet. Amongst the finds are the jaw of a dormouse and the bones of a songbird – luxury menu choices that might have fallen foul of Roman sumptuary laws. Other carbonised remains reveal a Mediterranean diet of olives, nuts and pulses, fruit and seafood, which is still enjoyed by Campanians today.
As much as 20 per cent of Pompeii was under cultivation in kitchen gardens and small vineyards, many of which served the city’s numerous bars and restaurants. Additionally, there were some 80 farms and vineyards around the town. Pompeii produced more wine, olive oil and garum (a savoury flavouring made from fermented fish) than it could consume; the town exported many of its gourmet products across mainland Italy and beyond – even as far afield as Britain.
Ingredients like these made their way to Britannia after the invasion by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC and the conquest by Claudius in AD 43. Burnt deposits dating from the revolt of Boudica (AD 60–1) reveal the extent of culinary imports from the continent and far reaches of the empire. They include dates from the Near East, and even peppercorns from India.
Entirely new plants and even animals were brought to Britain by the Romans, ranging from cabbages to cherries, carrots to rabbits. Fish and garum were both imported from the southern Gaul and even North Africa. Olives were brought in from Italy and Spain, wine from Gaul, Italy and Germany. Cockroach eggs found in a baker’s oven in London dated to AD 65-80 also attest to the arrival of these pests in Britain for the first time; they came with shipments of grain imported by Roman merchants.
The most popular drink, however, was beer. New finds from London show a beer industry thriving only ten years after Boudica, along with records of brewers, coopers and pub landlords. The wealthiest Britons chose to follow Roman dining customs, reclining on fine furniture in dining rooms with frescoed walls and mosaic floors.
In Britain under the Romans, food came to play an important role in religion and in death too. Important finds have been made in Chester; tombstones show the deceased as reclining banqueters. One particularly fine example is the gravestone of a woman called Dinysia (named after Dionysus) who is shown relaxing on a couch with wine cup in hand as if toasting her mourners.
The dietary, wining and dining habits of the people of Pompeii show us that they enjoyed life to the fullest. Though the falling pumice, suffocating gas and incinerating pyroclastic flow of Vesuvius’s eruption prematurely ended their lives, it preserved the evidence for us to better understand them two millennia later.
Last Supper in Pompeii runs until 12 January, 2020, at The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
This article was originally published in Ancient History issue 25 and is republished here with permission.
Fresco of a glass bowl with fruit, vase and jar: via Wikipedia
Two lares pouring wine from a rhyton in a scene of sacrifice: Carole Raddato via Flickr
Fresco of a garden scene from the House of the Golden Bracelet: via Wikimedia
Mosaic of birds, fish and shellfish: Carole Raddato via Flickr
Fresco of a rabbit and figs: via Wikimedia