During last year, when we visited the British Museum’s superb blockbuster exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, I wrote about the dining habits of the volcanically destroyed Bay of Naples community and cooked a dish of Minutal Matianum, a classical version of pork and apple. This week, inspired in part by the exhibition and in part by Professor Plum’s love of the ancient Roman world, we made a trip to Naples to visit the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. On Wednesday I’ll talk about (and cook) a more modern Neapolitan culinary subject, the Pizza Margherita, but before that I’m just going to add a little more about cooking and dining in ancient Pompeii drawn from our visit.
One of the great things about visiting Pompeii and, to a lesser extent, Herculaneum (which is a much smaller, sleepier little town both now and then) is that it still feels really like an actual town. There is enough of all the streets and houses to feel like you are wandering real living streets and getting a glimpse into people’s lives. Vesuvius, the volcano towering above the city, is an ever-present reminder of its demise, but even for the ancient Romans it would have been an integral part of the landscape, along with the ocean below. Being in the city today, you can get a real sense of how this geography played into the city’s agriculture, trade and, most importantly, food in the same way that it does today.
The volcano may have proved Pompeii’s eventual destruction, but for years before that it proved a blessing for the region’s agriculture. Southern Italy is primarily made up of thin soil on rocky limestone terrain, making it hard for those early Romans to grow much. However, previous Vesuvius eruptions had gifted the Bay of Naples with an exceedingly rich soil as the volcanic tephra broke down. Because of this, the people of Pompeii were able to cultivate intensively. Many houses had vineyards as well as growing olives and various fruits, legumes and nuts within the same space.
Campanian wines don’t have much international status or reputation these days, but these volcanic soil vineyards produced a quality of wine that was popular throughout the Roman Empire. Wine was a major part of the lifestyle of people in Pompeii and Herculaneum, both rich and poor. A huge number of amphorae were found in the city’s ruins. More than that, though, the streets are filled with thermopolia (sort of Roman bars that served drinks and some snacky foods) and cauponae (more like a restaurant, with food served and even the potential for sitting down). Some parts of Pompeii, particularly on the main streets leading up to the forum, can have two or three thermopolia one after the other. Obviously competition was strong, but there was enough market for wine to keep all of these places in business.
One such example in Herculaneum even still comes with a wine list. This image is painted on the outside wall of the thermopolium. It shows the selection of different wines available, the varying coloured jugs corresponding to different types of wine, and lists the different prices, so if you couldn’t afford the blue jug, you could always opt for the red instead. It’s amazing to see something like this so well preserved (incidentally the writing beneath is an advert for a play at the local theatre – unfortunately inaccessible to anyone but researchers these days – and even lists the show’s writer).
This price list wall isn’t the only artefact that is a testament to the Pompeiians love of wine. Everywhere in the remnants of Pompeii and Herculaneum are frescoes and mosaics with scenes of Bacchus, god of booze and parties, enjoying a tipple, dressed as a bunch of grapes, or feeding wine to a panther. It’s not just interior design that survived the volcanic blast, though, but all manner of small and delicate things, even glass windows. This glass wine jar is one of the best examples of surviving glassware. In the white cameo decoration on this blue glass wine vessel, a motif of grape vines and scenes of Bacchinalian merriment show the Popeiians veneration of vino.
Alongside this elaborate decorative glassware, more practical food related artefacts have also been uncovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Less decorative and more hard wearing, these metal pots, pans and cutlery items would have been more for day to day usage. For all that there may be an artistic, aesthetic appeal to the more ornately decorative artefacts, it is in these very familiar seeming things that we can get a glimpse of a Pompeii that feels like a living city where people went about ordinary lives.
Cooking and dining at home, however, was largely the preserve of Pompeii’s wealthier classes, the equites. Naturally, most of the best preserved buildings in the city are examples of the domus, houses with rooms coming off an entrance atrium and peristyle courtyard, rather than the multi-storey insula, apartments for the plebs. The arrangement in a Roman domus allowed for both outdoor and indoor dining and, if there was anyone in Pompeii enjoying the fabled dormouse and sea urchin diet, then it would have been here. The kitchens were often tucked away at the back of the house and would have an oven in one corner. The opposite corner was often used as a toilet and rubbish bin, the Romans considering food waste and human waste much the same thing (all good fertilisers for those vineyards), meaning you’d have to use the facilitirs while people cooked around you. It can’t have been an ideal example of good food hygiene.
For the plebs, then, food was typically taken out and on the go. Indeed, according to the Pompeii guide book, a sort of early pasta was found by archaeologists in the city’s famous lupanara, the brothel. On the subject of which, the Secret Cabinet in Naples’ Archaeology Museum (where the erotic art from Pompeii and Herculaneum is kept away from children’s eyes) also contains the fresco image shown here. This scene of a mule mounting a lion was a sign for a thermopalium or taberna, apparently the mule’s position on top represents the triumph of patience. Can you imagine an equivalent British pub sign for a tavern called “The Ass Fucker”?
In style a Pompeii bar-eatery was not too dissimilar to its descendant in modern Naples (in fact there seems more similarity between the two than between a British pub and a Neapolitan bar today). Much as you see in Naples now, these thermopolia occupied the ground floor at the front of the building and opened straight onto the street where people would stand around the bar-like counter in the doorway drinking and snacking. The jars or dolia that can be seen in the pictures above embedded in the counter would have contained dried fruit and nuts (and, indeed, carbonised remains of such have still been found in them), rather than hot food, although this was also cooked and served here.
Many of the equivalent bars in the modern town are now pizzerias and the traditional brick built, wood fired ovens used to bake their pizzas have barely changed from the equivalent bakers’ ovens in ancient times. There were quite a few bakers in Pompeii, one of which even contained an entire carbonised loaf stamped with a still legible name, and when you see their ovens so intact that you could probably build a fire inside and get them going again, it’s easy to imagine them baking bread just like in the modern pizza ovens.
Pompeii’s forum, as with most Roman cities, was the heart of everything that went in there and there was a large granary right beside it to supply all of these bakeries. While large grinding stones are still visible in the bakeries, the supply of grains from this granary would also have been to private residences. The wealthy Pompeiian in his domus would likely have had the equipment to grind his own flour (or have his slaves do it for him), some of which are still visible in the remains of Herculaneum, making the bakery another business that was more frequented by plebs.
As well as the granary, Pompeii’s forum would have also been home to all kinds of trade in food and drink. Across the street, Pompeiians could visit the macellum, a produce market. Jars and amphorae containing fruit, nuts, bread and cakes were found here. Along the edge of this space were stalls selling fresh meat and fish. The spaces where fish were skinned and gutted are quite obvious as the counter has a drainage groove beneath which were found plenty of fish bones and scales.
Vesuvius’ eruption changed the shape of the coastline, pushing it further from where the Roman ruins now are. However, it is still clear to see that both Pompeii and Herculaneum were defined by their coastal location and so, as I said above, was their diet. Herculaneum, in particular, was a community of fishermen and holiday makers. When the volcano erupted it was down to the sea front that many residents headed, all hoping the fishing boats would help them make their escape. Many of the bodies of these fleeing Romans can still be seen in the area of Herculaneum that once made up the harbour.
It should come as no surprise really that another element of the modern Campanian diet that goes back to the ancient world is this love of fish. Given the abundance of fruits of the sea available along this coast it would be odd not to eat so much of it. Beyond the remains of fish bones in the market, the popularity of the seafood diet in Pompeii is evident in the nautical and marine themes to much of the city’s decorative frescoes and mosaics, whether in mythical scenes of famous ships or beautifully rendered images of lifelike aquatic creatures. The latter are perhaps the best examples of the brilliant mini tile art. The fish and squid are so appetisingly lifelike in these mosaics compared to the clearly not from-life ones of hippos and crocodiles that the artists must have been pretty familiar with them on a daily basis. If you want an insight into the Pompeii diet you need look no further than this.
Next week sees the release of trashy Hollywood disaster picture Pompeii 3D. We’ll be right at the front of the queue to see whether it reflects our impressions of life in the city pre-volcanic eruption or whether it’s just dormice from the start.