The Ancient Romans Loved Take-Out

Tasty Treats from the Taberna Were Top-Notch!

A Pompeiian taberna, complete with a to-go counter. Photo courtesy of Paula Lock.

The Romans loved takeout just as much as we do. But why was grab ‘n’ go grub was so popular back then?

Chopped: Ancient Rome Edition

Most people in Rome itself probably lived in apartment blocks called insulae, where they were crammed together in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. There wasn’t really enough room for people, let alone properly appointed kitchens, in the many-story buildings, which were cheaper for tenants and offered less space the higher up they went.

They lacked what modern people would deem basic necessities, like individual latrines, bathrooms, or cooking facilities. No kitchen space meant that Romans couldn’t cook at home. As a result, they had to go out and buy prepared food, either eating it at local snack bars, or tabernae, or bringing it back to the domus, or home.

So the way Roman real estate worked ended up promoting eating out at tabernae, which became urban institutions. Just a note: modern scholars can find it hard to distinguish between ancient terms for snack bars, like taberna, caupona, and popina, but they all have foodie associations. There were other kinds of tabernae, private shops or workshop spaces, but the word in modern scholarship often refers to food shops.

Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of tabernae in cities like Pompeii (118 in that city alone!), Herculaneum, and Ostia, and they’ve proven fascinating specimens, many of which were highlighted during a recent conference at New York University entitled “Roman Dining and Cuisine: What, Where, And How The Romans Dined.” 

As one of the speakers, John Donahue, noted in The Roman Community at Table During the Principate,  they “played a vital role in the economic structure of the city.” Tabernae sold both prepared food and more varied foodstuffs—it’s worth noting there were additional indoor food markets called macella; they were surrounded by taverna. There were also street hawkers, archaeological evidence of which is lacking.  

As a result of the many customers that ate on the go, tabernae became cultural institutions of a sort, places where people of many different classes - slaves, freedmen, and citizens - gathered, noshed, and chatted. What did they consume? Wine in many forms; baked goods; meat cooked lots of different ways, from sausages to stews; and lots of fruits and veggies. Oh, and there was probably some sex involved, too.

Graffiti and Gossip

Tabernae were often located on the first floors of insulae, rented out by landlords. Evidence indicates that tabernae could be linked to insulae through internal doorways—basically the equivalent of not having to leave your office or apartment building to go to Starbucks. Tabernae employees at units attached to apartment blocks probably had ties to the building’s owner; whether they were family members or were members of the nuanced Roman familia, which had an expanded definition of the word, is unknown. For those tabernae not owned by individuals, evidence exists to suggest that groups bought into snack shop chains

How can modern archaeologists tell what was a ​taberna or not? Its identifying feature was a walk-up counter facing the street, where shop owners would display the goodies for sale. You could stroll on up and grab a bite to eat, see what the daily specials were, or just chat with the cutie behind the counter. Once inside, there were big storage containers, probably filled with dried goods, and tons of graffiti! 

That graffiti has proven incredibly valuable for those trying to understand what these shops served. A wine bar menu appears to have survived, but Kristina Milnor sagely noted in Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii that these scribbles didn't appear near a taberna, but actually near a really nice private residence. But others do survive; a spot in Herculaneum featured an ancient bar tab, complete with sausages, meat cutlets, and nuts.

Personal notes were common, too: the Pompeiian bar of Prima boasted a cartoon about a love triangle between a weaver named Successus, Iris, and Severus. And one charming someone, at the Bar of Athictus, simply wrote, "I screwed the barmaid."