Last supper in Pompeii

The Romans’ passion for fine dining is well known – now a mouth-watering new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum shows how the production, distribution and consumption for food and wine coloured every aspect of Roman life, as its curator Paul Roberts explains


Bon viveurs interested in Roman culture are blessed by the large amount of evidence from Roman writers, who seem to have been particularly interested in food and drink – and all that this involved. Now, in Last Supper in Pompeii, a delicious exhibition about to open at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, new archaeological research on the subject, both from Italy and Britain, is presented, much of it for the first time in a public forum.

To shed light on this fundamental area, the exhibition has drawn heavily on finds from the Roman sites of Pompeii and Oplontis – both buried by Mount Vesuvius in the catastrophic eruption of AD 79. Scholars have rightly pointed out that Pompeii is not, in fact, the ‘undisturbed time capsule’ that it is often portrayed as being.

The city was ransacked immediately after the eruption and over centuries afterwards, as people sought valuables, sculpture and recyclable decorative and building materials. Buildings, rooms and assemblages of material were re-erected, recreated and even on occasion invented. In the past, records were lost, kept badly or not kept at all.

Yet despite all these problems, Pompeii remains the most important gateway to the ancient Roman world, and such a portal is even more important because Pompeii, Herculaneum and other towns were not ‘special’ in the Roman world; they became so only because they were buried by ash from the erupting volcano. Their similarities to other cities and towns means that we can use them as indicators of life on a much wider scale. This is why these places are so full of information – relevant in particular for understanding the extensive, rich and complex relationships between food, drink and society.

Statue of the god of wine, Bacchus, carrying a thyrsus (staff) with a pine cone at its tip, accompanied by his totem animal, the panther, circa AD 1–100, marble, Piacenza. H. 180cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

At the beginning of the Ashmolean exhibition, powerful objects flag up its major themes. A fine marble statue of the wine-god Bacchus underlines from the start the crucial importance of the gods to every aspect of food and drink. Only under their auspices could anything be produced, marketed, prepared and consumed.

A fresco presents the fundamental image of the exhibition: people on couches at a banquet, or in Latin the convivium, literally the ‘living together’, which such an occasion celebrates. So important was the social side of eating and drinking that the Roman philosopher Seneca could declare ‘… dinner… without a friend is like the life of the lion or a wolf’. The fresco also shows us the luxury, largely derived from Greek influence, which coloured the furnishings, room decor, tableware and even the food.

Fresco from Pompeii showing a convivium, or banquet, AD 50–79. H. 68cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

The Greeks and other cultures were important in shaping many Roman ideas. In the search for these outside influences we pass as if into a tomb; here we can see the importance of food and the customs around it in the rituals of the gods and the grave. Etruscans, from whom the Romans derived many social, religious and political customs, put into their tombs every conceivable piece of kitchen and table equipment.

On their burial chests they portrayed themselves as banqueters, dining into the afterlife. In the worship of their gods the Etruscans dedicated objects often related to feasting and drinking in sanctuaries, not only in their northern Italian homeland but at the gates of Pompeii itself. Material from the sanctuary of Fondo Iozzino is here shown in the UK for the first time.

Etruscan chest with the deceased shown on the lid as a banqueter, circa 150 BC, painted terracotta. H. 75cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

From further south, the Greek and Italic city of Paestum, come painted tomb panels, also making their first appearance in Britain: they are richly adorned with images of food and drink, vessels and even with clay models of food items. The customs of these Italic peoples, with the accompanying Greek influence, were all brought under the aegis of Rome and enriched every area of Roman life. The vineyards, fields, orchards and seas of the area around Pompeii are the next port of call, revealing how the food and drink that sustained the cities was actually produced.

Plate with models of items of food, circa 350 BC, terracotta, Contrada Vecchia di Agropoli, Tomb 11, Paestum. D. circa 40cm. Parco Archeologico di Paestum.

A superb fresco of Bacchus and Vesuvius, once part of a domestic shrine of the gods or lararium, acknowledges the role of the gods. Here we see evidence for the production of corn, olive oil, flocks of sheep and fish sauce (garum).

Vines are especially important, and new research presents the discovery at Scafati, near Pompeii, of a Roman vineyard 4.6m (15ft) below the modern ground. Careful excavation has revealed voids for the vine stems and the canes that once supported them – even traces of the hoer’s mattock. The sheer scale of the wine industry around Pompeii is shown by evidence from a food import–export emporium, the so-called Villa B from Oplontis. In this emporium, clearly an important cog in the industry of food and drink, were found thousands of amphorae ready for refilling, and tons of pomegranates (9) ready for processing.

Turning to the city, the street allows us to explore the hustle and bustle of shops and bars, and to probe the world of commerce by which the countryside’s produce came to the city. Several intriguing questions are raised. To what extent is the modern understanding of a producing countryside and a consuming city correct? Given that large areas of the city were green and under cultivation was there, in fact, considerable urban production? Who owned and/or ran the city’s many businesses? Did the ‘old’ rich resent the shops that sprang up around (and within) their houses – and if not, how did they view this expansion of commerce?

Fresco showing a man handing out bread – perhaps to celebrate an event, or as a bribe, AD 50–79. H. 69cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

The Roman writer Horace (65– 8 BC) begins one of his odes with the line ‘Nunc est Bibendum….’ (‘Now is the time for drinking…..’). Here, the poet was celebrating the death of Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen who was Rome’s sworn enemy. But little excuse was needed; drinking was core to Roman daily life, from the bar to the banquet to the altar.

Pompeii’s many bars, such a prominent feature both of the landscape and of Roman literature, were a source of food, in particular for the less wealthy – but they were also, of course, a place to drink. As part of an investigation of the tavern, the exhibition presents the results of a unique collaboration between the Ashmolean and the Parco Archeologico di Pompeii on the archaeology of an ordinary café. The project involved conserving and analysing a large group of everyday pots and pans from a tavern with a ‘wine garden’ in Pompeii. Entering the house itself we see the importance of beauty and display in the atrium, including the visible presence of the gods, worshipped at altars and shrines. Then comes the garden, heart of the Roman home – a place of beauty and greenery, sculptures, fountains and pools of cool water: the perfect spot for relaxation and summer dining.

New evidence from excavations in the gardens of Pompeii reveals exactly what the city’s inhabitants offered to the gods, from fruit to eggs, from pine-cones to chickens. These findings provide a rare opportunity to test the literary accounts (and the graphic evidence on the walls) against the actual remains. We reach the climax of the exhibition in the dining-room or triclinium – Greek for ‘the room of the three dining couches’. This space, more than any other, shows the great debt that Roman culture owed to Greece, ranging from the triclinium’s name to its decor, furnishings and the food and wine served in it.

Three fresco panels from the dining-room of the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii, are displayed in the exhibition. They feature an illusionistic garden, filled with trees, plants, birds, and Egyptian-style sculpture, which offer an evocative backdrop to the themes of the triclinium. These include interior design, music, diet, dining customs (such as reclining to dine) and beautiful tableware.

. Fresco from the triclinium of the House of the Golden Bracelet, AD 1–50. H. 278cm. Parco Archeologico di Pompeii.

Yet amidst the luxury and pleasures of the feast is the ultimate reminder of mortality – the spectre of death himself. A mosaic panel, once the centrepiece of a triclinium floor, shows a skeleton, grinning as he advances. Such an image may challenge, frighten or, strangely, comfort us – he is, after all, carrying two wine jugs. Again it is Horace who sets the scene with a vivid quotation: ‘Dum loquimur fugerit invida aetas. Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero…’ (‘While we are speaking, hateful time is flying. Seize the day and do not put your hope in the future…’)

Mosaic emblema from a dining-room showing a grinning skeleton holding two askoi (wine-jugs), Pompeii VI, AD 1–50. H. 91cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

The kitchen forms the grubby engine of the house’s elegant banqueting machine. Nothing here was ever touched (and hardly ever seen) by the owner and his/her family. Instead, the slaves, working between here and the dining areas, maintained the systems of preparation, serving and disposal with a large array of vessels and utensils, from kettles and grills to dormouse jars. A selection of carbonised food from AD 79, the largest yet shown in the UK, reveals what the Romans were eating. It also shows just how much was grown far from the point of consumption, with foods sometimes consuming thousands of food miles – a truly modern society.

The kitchens were also concerned with the disposal of waste – from tables, plates and even humans, as toilets featured in many kitchens. Analysis of material from drains in Pompeii provides an interesting picture of dining habits, including some surprises. The jaw of a dormouse and bone of a songbird, for example (both supposedly luxury items) appear in the drain of a fairly ordinary taverna.

In the last section, we see how Roman ideas on agriculture, distribution and cuisine were exported to Britannia. As in Italy, the gods feature large: Bacchus, Mercury and more exotic deities such as the Egyptian god Serapis, who appears often in Pompeii. Drawing on material not previously exhibited to the public, we explore the complex patterns of production, focusing in Britain on beer as in Italy on wine. Newly discovered wooden documents, precious finds from Roman London, are presented in a contextualised exhibition for the first time. They tell of a cooper, a brewer and a beer-seller – an industry growing up around beer – and all only five to 10 years after Boudicca had burnt London and eastern Britannia to the ground.

From drains, burnt deposits (Boudicca again) and waterlogged contents in Britannia comes a surprisingly wide range of foodstuffs. Many were imported from far across the Empire to feed both people and gods. Pine cones from the Mediterranean, tunny fish and barrels of wine from southern France, fish sauce from Spain, dates from the Near East and pepper from India all found their way to Roman Britannia.

So did a culture of dining, at least for the wealthy. Affluent Britons also ate and drank from vessels of silver, pewter and imported fine glass and pottery. Roman fashions were adopted, enabling Britons, too, to recline in comparative luxury, surrounded by beautifully frescoed walls, mosaic floors and fine furniture.

Mosaic emblema, showing marine creatures, 100 BC, Pompeii, VIII 2. H. 103cm. W. 103cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

In addition to exotic imports, a whole range of new plants and foodstuffs were imported from the continent for cultivation in Britain, from carrots and cabbages to cherries and plums, and even rabbits. We can chart the arrival of foreign pests, such as cockroaches, who laid their eggs in Londonium’s bakeries. Evidence from Britannia and Pompeii is compared and presented to the public for the first time.

Fresco showing a cockerel pecking at pomegranates, Pompeii, AD 50–79. H. 55cm. W. 55cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.
Fresco showing a rabbit nibbling figs, Pompeii, AD 50–79. H. 35cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Even in death, in far-flung Britannia, the banquet and all it represents is important. From Chester in north-west England, come tombstones showing the deceased reclining as at a banquet.

Closing this section is a gravestone of a woman called, significantly, Dinysia. Her name offers a direct link to Dionysus/Bacchus, and to customs of reclining that go back to the Etruscans and long before. And it is another woman, sadly nameless, who brings us back to the fertile land of Campania, to the rich estates of Pompeii and the awful events of AD 79. She lived and died in the shadow of the vine-covered slopes of Vesuvius, and was almost certainly part of the family that owned the agricultural processing complex Villa B at Oplontis near Pompeii.

The body of a woman from Villa B at Oplontis cast in epoxy resin. It is thought that she was in her late 30s or early 40s when she died, and may have been a member of the family that ran agricultural processing. L. 185cm. Antiquarium e area Archaeologica di Boscoreale.

Wine, fruit and other commodities were processed and exported, with shops lining the complex for smaller ventures. The lady organised her slaves and supervisors; she also offered sacrifices, to the great god Bacchus for the success of the vines, and to Mercury for her company’s success. She dined in the fine apartments above the warehouse, surrounded by beautiful frescoes, mosaics and fine silverware. Here, she must have reflected on the wealth and privilege that the land and Vesuvius had brought her – never imagining the volcano would take her business, her city and her life.

Unlike the British woman Dinysia, or the Etruscans at the start of our journey, no tombstone could mark the lady of Oplontis’s sudden, terrible death. Her name does not call to passers-by on a nearby roadside, with all the necessary recognition, respect and approximations to immortality this would bring. Nor did any rituals of food, wine and incense mark her passing. But we must imagine for her the journey’s end she would have wished: reclining with her friends and loved ones, drinking and feasting into eternity.

‘Carpe diem…’ (‘seize the day’) or as we say nowadays, ‘Eat, drink and be merry… for tomorrow we die’.

Last Supper at Pompeii is on show at the Ashmolean Museum (ashmolean.org) from 25 July 2019 until 12 January 2020. The catalogue, presented by Paul Roberts, contains essays by various scholars and is published in paperback by the Ashmolean Museum at £25. This feature is an edited extract from the introduction by Paul Roberts.