Let’s go on a pub crawl – round Pompeii!    

Come with me on a pub crawl — around Pompeii. There are some 163 pubs known so far in Pompeii, so it’s going to be quite an evening.  But first, we’d better find out what a pub is in Latin, in case we lose our way. There is quite a choice. We could go to the Taberna, or the Caupona, or the popina, or even try the Thermopolium. A learned  Swedish librarian, Tonnes Kleberg,  tried to sort them out and found there is a a problem with thermopolium, the most widely used in  modern literature, because it is only used three times in known Latin literature , and all these three usages are by Plautus, the writer of comedies in the second century BC,  so if we ask our way to the thermolium in first century AD Pompeii, we might be considered a little old-fashioned and quaint.

Map of Pompeii, showing all the pubs so far known. The Porta Stabiae, where the author has been excavating, is at the bottom centre, next door to the theatre. [All images: courtesy of Steven Ellis, unless otherwise stated]

We are going on our pub crawl with Steven Ellis, who has just written a book, The Roman Retail Revolution: the Socio-economic World of the Taberna, who suggests that taberna is the best general term for bars or shops in the Roman world. Steven Ellis is a Professor at the University of Cincinnati,  though he is essentially an ace field archaeologist, and has been excavating parts of a couple of insulae at Pompeii. These lie just inside the Stabian Gate, which is the main gate on the south side of Pompeii. And being just inside the gate, they were full of bars,  close to 20 shops in total – there was no grand house in either insula.

A typical fast food shop at Pompeii with four food containers placed in an L-shaped counter. Note to the left the entrance way to one of the fairly grand houses: even the posh houses would rent out the space either side of the gate for commercial purposes. Though it would have been convenient to have a cafe right by your front door!

But how do you identify a pub, or indeed a shop? The most obvious feature is the counter, sometimes a couple of planks between two trestles, but many were of masonry which has survived.  They were often L-shaped, one side facing the street and the other for the customers inside the shop. Some of them had ceramic containers or basins set into the counter, and often there is a hearth underneath to heat up the contents – one suspects most of these shops were more like McDonalds’s than a pub, where hot food was served up – and many of the poorer inhabitants would have lived in accommodation where there were no cooking facilities.

Food was often sold hot, and here in the foreground we can see the twin arms of the oven that heated the dolia (food container).

At night the shops were closed off by shutters, and here we can see the grooves that held the shutters firm. [Image: Andrew Selkirk]

The other way to recognise a shop was that they had open fronts which could be closed off by shutters at night. Often there is a groove in the floor to receive the shutters and sometimes there is evidence of a night door to one side so that the occupiers could venture out, and sometimes the grooves left by the night door  are also visible.

The other way to recognise a shop was that they had open fronts which could be closed off by shutters at night. Often there is a groove in the floor to receive the shutters and sometimes there is evidence of a night door to one side so that the occupiers could venture out, and sometimes the grooves left by the night door  are also visible.

So how can we classify the pubs at Pompeii? There are three things to look for. Firstly, was there a counter? Then, how many rooms? Many are just a single room, but these often have a door leading into the big house behind. It is one of the peculiarities of Roman architecture that the insulae, the blocks into which a city is divided, normally contain one or more big houses, but cutting into the big house were smaller apartments,  many of which were one room pubs or shops, and these often had a door into the big house where they probably had cooking facilities. So the third classification is whether they had cooking facilities, for this is what makes it a pub, or rather a fast food outlet, otherwise it might simply be a shop.

Many were single rooms, though more had two or three rooms and a number had four or more. Indeed, the biggest were fine restaurants, some even with a garden with several small rooms looking out onto the garden, presumably where you could take your girlfriend for a slap up meal.

The excavated area inside the Porta Stabia. The gateway is bottom right with twin walls on either side of the gate.

There are so many shops in Pompeii that one wonders how they actually made a profit. Prof Ellis notes how many of the shops set into the fabric of the large houses and he wonders whether they were let out by the owners of the big houses to their freedmen. It was quite normal in the Roman world that when your slave grows old, you free him. You  have  a duty to look after your slaves, so if you free them when they grow old, and you no longer need to look after them. Nevertheless freedmen remained under an obligation to their patrons (and vice versa), so if you give them  the lease of a fast food shop just round the corner from your front door, you could be certain of getting a good service when you wanted a snack.

At Pompeii commercial life did not really take off until the second century BC. The first thirty years of the 2nd century was a time of great boom for the Roman world generally. Following the end of the second Punic war and the final defeat of Hannibal, the Roman Empire expanded, and loot and slaves poured in. This was a great age of expansion in Pompeii too when the area inside the walls which mostly hitherto had been given over to market gardens suddenly filled up, and shops and pubs appeared everywhere.  This was the age too when the classic Roman atrium house was formalised, and what seems strange to us was that on either side of the front door, there was a shop – if you wanted to pop out for the Roman equivalent of a coffee, there was a ‘Starbucks’ just by your front door!

In the later 2nd century the pace of development slowed, but a second retail revolution took place in the Augustan era (31 BC – AD 14), which saw the rise of shops that were purely shops. Previously many shops were also workshops – the potter made his pots at the back of the shop, and sold them in the front.  This now changed.  In the area that Steven Ellis excavated inside the Stabian Gate, tanneries and potteries and fish salting factories had lined this principal entrance to the city.  At least six fish salting vats were discovered under the street fronts of the later bars, all of them in use from the 2nd century BC until they were filled in in the Augustan era, and buried beneath the newly raised floors of the shops.

In the 2nd centuiry BC, the entrance road was lined by fish-salting vats one of which csn be seen at the centre of the photo.
In the latest phase, the counters received smart tiled tops: were the tiles scavanged from the destruction caused by the earthquake in AD 62?

These retail outlets continued down to the destruction of the city. In the later stages the masonry counters were smartened up and received marble tops, but this may have been the result of the great earthquake in AD 62 which destroyed many of the grand houses so that broken marble tiles could be scavenged from lying around in the streets and reused to make posh counter tops in the shops.

The third retail revolution came after the destruction of Pompeii in AD 79. Steven Ellis has continued his pub crawl into over 100 Roman cities: the best known example being Ostia, the port of the city of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber, which became an out-of town shopping centre for Romans in search of a bargain.

Map of Steven Ellis’s pub crawl, so far. He has a long way to go to cover the whole of the empire!

It was packed full of shops, but there were not scattered higgledy piggeldy as at Pompeii, but were tightly packed together. This marks the Third Retail Revolution and the rise of retail homogenization, when the tabernae of this period are conspicuous for their common form.

Trajan’s market in Rome, on six different levels,  which would rival in size and number of shops most modern shopping centres. By the second century, the old idea of lots of small shops was becoming obsolete. [Image: © Bobhilscher | Dreamstime.com]

The turning point in Roman city architecture was the great fire of Rome in AD 64, after which Rome was built to a new plan under strict building regulations, and gradually the building regulations spread to cities throughout the Empire, so that shops no longer sprang up higgledy piggledy but were laid out in specific rows.  The best example of this is Trajan’s Market adjacent to Trajan’s Forum in Rome where close to 170 single room outlets were constructed, some 30 of which still survive from the 1920 excavations. There were  spread out over six levels, cut into the side of the Quirinal hill: it was a  shopping complex that would rival any modern retail centre.  How far they were shops or offices is debatable, indeed imperial officials were stationed here to distribute oil, wine and grain. But it is an impressive, if puzzling complex.

This is a splendid study not only of Pompeii, but also of Roman architecture as a whole. I have learnt a great deal about how Roman cities worked, and a lot about Roman history generally: this is a fascinating pub crawl around the pubs and fast food shops in Pompeii and in the whole of the Roman Empire. I will look at Pompeii with new eyes.