Vesuvius Explodes

On August 24, 79 AD (actually probably October 24, but I didn’t find that out until I was almost done writing), Pompeiians were probably going about their lives like it was any other day. They did their chores and cooked their meals. Rumblings had been coming from Vesuvius, the grumpy mountain which squats nearby. Around 1 pm, the volcanic shit hit the volcanic fan when Vesuvius blew a “high altitude column” spewing pumice and ash.

Many people took the opportunity to escape the city. Some didn’t, though I can’t imagine what more prompting one needs to evacuate than hot pumice falling onto your house. That night, Vesuvius sent worse gifts – a pyroclastic surge of hot gas, volcanic debris, and ash and temperatures of 570 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who hadn’t left, no doubt regretted it in the milliseconds during which their blood and organs vaporized.

It’s those people – the ones that stayed – that we see today in ash casts bent into rictuses of the useless gestures of protection that made up the last seconds of their lives. These figures crouch and weep in exhibits both in Pompei and museums, making Pompei famous to the world now. While Vesuvius’s violent eruption must have been rather unpleasant for a Pompeiian at the time, it has given a good glimpse into the daily lives of Romans at that time that we might not otherwise have. It preserved homes and buildings, frescoes, pubs and restaurants in ash, thus making them available for study for later generations.

One such find was a man and his (or a) dog in a small building in Regio V. The man was asleep (we hope) on a cot. The man himself isn’t that fascinating, but rather the place he’s in – a pub. The pub is a popina, a tavern, which would have sold fast food and cheap wine. One of the reasons this pub is such an interesting find is that it sheds some light on something that has been a bit mirky for historians of Rome – how the common people partied.

Whenever I am asked to imagine a Roman party (which happens more often that you’d think), I always envision the same group of nice-nosed white people in togas reclining on red velvet couches and drinking wine, eating from lavish platters of rich food, and speaking my high school Latin. Though some of this is quite clearly wrong, there’s a reason I envision this crew of drinkers. It’s what we have always been told about Roman parties – that is, only about the elite.

The elite didn’t need to go out of their homes for a good time. They had space, furniture, and facilities to have lavish parties right in their homes. What they didn’t have on hand, they could get delivered – food and drink, serving wenches and prostitutes, their friends and wives. It was ideal. But if you were a commoner, it was a different story. Many common people lived in insulae, which were apartment complexes. Most of the cells in these abodes didn’t have kitchens and so instead of cooking at home, commoners went out for dinner and drinks.

Pubs (or taverns) were everywhere. It’s estimated that there was 1 pub for every 100 inhabitants in Pompeii and it’s hypothesized that Rome was set up roughly the same. This is because Rome and Pompeii after dark would have been very dangerous, so people wouldn’t want to wander too far away from home. So they went to the ancient version of the corner bar and watched a game of baseball on the tube. We can get a pretty good idea of what life was like in a popina just by clues left at the one discovered in Pompeii and others that have been recently found in France. Frescoes in Pompeii show men sitting around small tables (not reclining on couches), drinking, playing dice games, and joking around. Frescoes and language and literature of the time suggests that these taverns would have been filled with the demimonde of Roman life – thugs, assassins, commoners, who all drank and, for some reason, snorted. The early-2nd century AD Roman poet Juvenal adds sailors, thieves, fugitive slaves, executioners and coffin-makers.

But one thing we learn about from these pub finds is ancient bar food. In the Pompeii tavern, big holes in the counter suggest that they held dolia (terracotta jugs) filled with duck bones and the remains of swine, goat, and snails. The theory is that it was for making a stock. In the France pub, where another 2100 year old Roman tavern was recently found, there were remnants of fish bones as well as wine drinking vessels, serving platters and bowls, and a charcoal burning hearth in the floor. There’s evidence that there was bread, cheese, roast chickpeas, and sausages.

Before the Romans arrived in France, the local culture was made up of a farming Celtic culture. The Romans would have proven a huge shock to the world they knew, as their arrival prompted the urbanization of the port town, the monetizing of their society (from bartering), and a culture of people who went out to eat rather than stayed home to eat. After the Romans left Britain in the 5th century AD, farming Saxons came in to grow herbs and spices and add to the fare.  

Thus began the very long history of eating out at a bar. In medieval times this would have been whatever extra the pub owner had for dinner and would sell to a drinker for extra cash. The tradition followed to colonial America where inn keepers sold seafood along the coast, pork, beef, and sandwiches for the traveller on the go.

Pubs, taverns, and inns were meant to give hospitality to those out of their home. In other words, it’s supposed to be a home away from home. Where else could you go have a drink with friends and new friends and … your local coffin maker? Maybe this is why the barkeep in Pompeii chose to spend his last moments in his bar. It was a home away from home. It has been since then.    

Comments are closed.