Now I’m hungry for snails

They’re still digging things out of Pompeii? Cool. Here’s an open food stand that’s beautifully painted and would tempt me even now:

Known as a termopolium, Latin for hot drinks counter, the shop was discovered in the archaeological park’s Regio V site, which is not yet open the public, and unveiled on Saturday.

Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.

The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.

Analysis revealed traces of pork, fish, snails and beef remaining in the cylindrical containers. What I really need to know is what spices were used and how they were prepared, and I’m not handing over a single as until I smell the food being cooked.


  1. says

    Information about ancient Roman cuisine is here. As for spices:

    Spices (species – meaning any valuable exotic commodity), in particular, offered an infinite variety of taste combinations and no fewer than 142 different types have been identified in ancient sources. They often came from Asia, and the possibilities only increased from the 1st century CE when direct sea routes were opened up to Egypt and India. These exotic spices included ginger, cloves, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom, cassia, mace, cinnamon, and, most popular of all, pepper. Tasty additives produced closer to home included basil, rosemary, sage, chive, bay, dill, fennel, thyme, and mustard.

  2. Jazzlet says

    David Utidjian @2
    There has been no evidence of dog consumption found so far according to the articles I’ve read. The murals do show some food animals, namely chicken and duck, but they also show gladiators and a nymph riding a seahorse to war (as you do), so the picture of the dog doesn’t mean it was definitely food.

    Cervantes would likely know if Romans ate dog.

  3. cartomancer says

    typo there in “thermopolium”.

    We have also discovered some more exotic food items in Pompeiian sewers – giraffe bones with evidence of butchery work for instance. It is entirely possible that giraffe was occasionally on the menu for wealthy Pompeiians and visitors.

    But yes, they’re still digging the place up. Between a quarter and a fifth of it remains unexcavated. A couple of years ago they found an inscription confirming that the eruption must have occurred later in the year than the previously expected August date, so even major things are still being found. Excavations have been proceeding rather more swiftly and in a much more orderly fashion in the last five years, since the EU put German bureaucrats in charge, rather than leaving it to the local Neapolitan Camora as before.

  4. cartomancer says

    My guess with the dog is that it’s intended as a humorous piece – it’s chained up but clearly wants to get at the chicken and duck in the next frame. That would be entirely in keeping with Roman visual humour as we know it.

  5. maireaine46 says

    From another article about this place, and one explanation of the dog:
    “A mocking inscription can be found scratched onto the frame which surrounds the painting of the dog: NICIA CINAEDE CACATOR – literally “Nicias(probably a freedman from Greece) Shameless Shitter!” This was probably left by a prankster who sought to poke fun at the owner, or by someone who worked in the Thermopolium.”

    Sometimes they leave out the naughty parts.

  6. weylguy says

    Your readers need to know that a Roman as was a common bronze coin of the time, with a value roughly equivalent to a few loaves of bread. I bought one for my son a few years ago that sports the image of the fat-necked Emperor Nero.

  7. cartomancer says

    maireane46, #6

    Translating “cinaede” as “shameless” is rather toothless I think. The word “cinaedus” (from the Greek kinaidos) overwhelmingly meant something along the lines of “sexually deviant man”, and is the closest Latin has to a word for gay men (needless to say it is a pretty insulting slur). The term has an association with the buttocks and anus in a sexual sense.

    Put together with “cacator” I’m very much getting the sense that the insult is more along the lines of “Nicias, you loose-arsed shitter!”, i.e. Nicias’s anus is so loose from all the sex he has that he’s become incontinent. It’s in the vocative case too, so it’s definitely addressed directly at Nicias.

  8. robro says

    What’s fascinating to me is that this sort of advertising hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. The images are similar to those on the stalls of modern street vendors, like at our local farmers markets.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 4 – Why would the Camorra want to control the archaeology of Pompeii? The tourist take, sure, but the actual dig, with all those fussy scientists and stuff?

    Is there a $eriou$ market for Pompeiian artifacts?

  10. deanlgold says

    There is no truth to the rumor that this is actually just the all you can stomach endless soup, salad, breadstick, and snail buffet at an early prototype Olive Garden.

  11. davidc1 says

    @4 Giraffe ,how did they fit that in the ancient Roman version of a Smeg ?
    I read somewhere they used to include Gold in their cuisine ,and what it tasted
    like took second place to how much it cost to prepare .Or something like that.

  12. cartomancer says

    Pierce R. Butler, #12,

    I’m no expert in Italian organized crime, but there is definitely a thriving black market in Roman antiquities (all kinds of ancient Mediterranean antiquities really) and I’d be surprised if the Camorra didn’t want in on it. Though I would suspect the tourism take is an easier game to cash in on, what with selling on archaeological finds being so much harder than leaning on souvenir vendors and tour guides for protection money.

  13. cartomancer says

    davidc1, #14,

    There are plenty of Roman stories about the most excessive and elaborate foods one can imagine. Usually told in order to mark out individuals as greedy, excessive, immoderate and immoral. Most of the “bad emperors” have a trail of excessive dining stories as long as the trail of sexual impropriate allegations – from feasts all themed around one colour to serving guests solid gold food and seeing if they’ll eat it to dissolving fantastically expensive pearls in wine just for the sheer extravagance of it all. There was even one case of a funeral-themed feast where guests were served food on tombstones by slave boys painted all in black and the conversation never strayed from the macabre.

    How realistic any of these stories are is open to question. Roman aristocratic culture tended to disdain greed and elaborate excess as the kind of corrupt and effeminate thing that marked terminal moral decline in wealthy folk. The feeling was generally that the Romans were once poor, frugal, hardy folk, whose success in winning themselves an empire was down to divine favour in recognition of their moral superiority. This contrasted sharply with the soft, luxury-loving and sexually immoral Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Carthaginians and anyone else who had suspiciously foreign ways. But, so the story went, when Rome brought back the wealth and people of the East as spoils in their conquests, and no longer had enemy generals snapping at their heels to keep them keen and honest, it allowed luxury and corruption to seep in and ruin its good, old-fashioned moral character. Luxurious dining (along with luxurious bathing, luxurious dress, and entertainments like the theatre) was perhaps the most obvious sign of the decay. So if a writer wanted to besmirch someone’s character, saying they ate all kinds of ridiculously expensive things was a good way of doing it.

    But it is likely that some, at least, did go in for lavish feasts of this sort. We would expect as much, since in a culture where fine dining is tarred with the brush of immoral excess, there would be some who found that kind of immoral excess appealing precisely because it was seen as taboo. From the early 2nd Century BC the Roman state enacted a series of sumptuary laws to try to limit the amount of expense people could legally lavish on meals, dress, entertaining etc. These clearly did not work, because new ones were introduced regularly throughout the next three hundred years, especially in Imperial times. A new set of sumptuary laws was an easy and cheap way for an Emperor to show some of the moral uprightness that was expected of his position.

    It was also seen as a bit gauche and tacky by more philosophical folk. The famous Dinner Party of Trimalchio in Petronius’s Satyricon sends up the use of excessive fine food by the nouveau riche as a status symbol.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 16: … terminal moral decline in wealthy folk.

    Some of those stories certainly merit recycling with a few particular modern imperial families in mind. “Let them eat peacock tongues!”

    Btw, any truth to all those juicy rumors about sunny Sybaris?

  15. outis says

    @12 and 15:
    alas, yes, antiquity robbing and smuggling are very important parts of organized crime activity in Italy.
    First, many items end up in a truly international trade, either under the counter or, for the more striking finds, adequately dressed up with false documents and paper trails, which is an industry in itself.
    Second, items are also used as collateral in every kind of shady deal, sometimes being robbed outright from museums or collectors for that purpose.
    Third, some crime bosses like to affect sophisticated lifestyles, and antiquities fit the bill. A Caravaggio masterpiece, “Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence” is still missing after being stolen in 1969: rumors abound about its present wherabouts.
    In short, this sort of thing has been one of Italy’s banes since forever.

  16. Rich Woods says

    @DanDare #20:

    Latin makes everything classy

    I don’t think many Romans would agree.

    Quod culus tibi purior salillo est,
    nec toto decies cacas in anno.

  17. John Morales says

    InitHello @1, I wish I could share your enthusiasm.

    He posted a video (“I finally made GARUM | Ancient Rome’s favorite condiment”) and he cheated every step, even after shifting the goalposts.

  18. Scott Simmons says

    Regarding the dog image: another suggested explanation I’ve seen was that it was a graphical ‘cave canem’ warning. A lot of street vendors of the times evidently kept guard dogs to keep people from grabbing the money tray or food and running. “Before you dine & dash, consider whether you can outrun my dog.”

  19. John Morales says

    [totally OT]


    Put together with “cacator” I’m very much getting the sense that the insult is more along the lines of “Nicias, you loose-arsed shitter!”, i.e. Nicias’s anus is so loose from all the sex he has that he’s become incontinent.

    Heh. Plebs and the Flabby Anus song (Flavianus).

    (British TV show, for other readers)

  20. unclefrogy says

    Max is OK though he does take the easy supper market path when it is too hard to do the whole thing.
    I don’t know what garum was actually like but I use southeast Asian (vietnam) fish sauce all the time the base of anchovy seems to be the same.
    I think the history of food and it’s preparation are as important maybe even more important then the political history certainly more interesting to me.
    uncle frogy

  21. magistramarla says

    I was so excited when I read about this! I’ve been to Pompeii and I long to go back.
    When I taught Latin, we used The Cambridge Latin Course. The main characters in the textbook lived in Pompeii.
    I was so thrilled when I was able to see it, even though I’m disabled and it was raining.
    I once attended a week-long teachers’ institute at a small college in Texas. We spoke Latin all week, and cooked meals using Roman cookbooks to cook our meals.
    Uncle Frogy – we used fish sauce to prepare our meals that week. I happen to love fish sauce, and it appalled some of my fellow teachers when I ate it from a spoon. We definitely prepared some delicious dishes from those recipes.

  22. Silentbob says

    BRIAN: Larks’ tongues. Otters’ noses. Ocelot spleens.
    REG: Got any nuts?
    BRIAN: I haven’t got any nuts. Sorry. I’ve got wrens’ livers, badgers’ spleens–
    REG: No, no, no.
    BRIAN: Otters’ noses?
    REG: I don’t want any of that Roman rubbish.
    JUDITH: Why don’t you sell proper food?
    BRIAN: Proper food?
    REG: Yeah, not those rich imperialist tit-bits.
    BRIAN: Well, don’t blame me. I didn’t ask to sell this stuff.
    REG: All right. Bag of otters’ noses, then.
    FRANCIS: Make it two.
    REG: Two.

  23. cartomancer says

    Pierce R. Butler, #17

    As for Sybaris, well, it’s very difficult to tell how realistic any of the stories told about the place are. Historically speaking its period of great wealth and potential great luxury was a short one, and very early on. Greek historians have it being founded towards the end of the Eighth Century BC and sacked and razed by its neighbours towards the end of the sixth, in about 510BC. That would have been within living memory for Herodotus at least, who does mention the place and its wealth, but Herodotus’s accounts are somewhat brief and don’t really present it as a place of luxury, excess and immorality, just great wealth and prosperity.

    Most of the historical details about its foundation, politics and relations with its neighbours come from the 1st Century BC Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who was already beginning to tell stories suspiciously reminiscent of Greek Tragedy about its hubristic pride and greed leading to its downfall. But it is in the Roman Imperial era historians that we get by far the majority of the lurid tales of extravagance, and in Athenaeus of Naucratis most of all. Sybaris was in south-east Italy, but it was a Greek city through and through. While native Greeks in the Classical age were willing to treat it with equanimity, the Roman, or Romanised Greek, take on Sybaris made it into the watchword for immoral greed and luxury it remains today. By that time it had been safely destroyed for centuries and its people dispersed and absorbed into other populations, so it could sustain any number of crude moralising stories safely with no pushback. I would be very surprised indeed if the vast majority of them were not the inventions of fevered Roman imaginations, informed heavily by the aforementioned Roman suspicion of the customs of the Greeks and need to present themselves as the moral ones in direct distinction to those other highly cultured foreigners who might otherwise make them feel inadequate. Though Greeks themselves could be just as nationalistic – one famous story has a Sybarite visit Sparta and try the local food – “black soup”, a foul mixture of pig’s blood and vinegar – then pronounce that he now knows why they are so willing to die in battle if that’s all they have to look forward to on their return. Conveniently this demeans both the Sybarites and the Spartans, who occupied opposite ends of the luxury-frugality spectrum in the Greek imagination.

    Archaeology would help a lot in revealing what the real Sybaris of the archaic period was like. Unfortunately large-scale excavations would be difficult and expensive if possible at all, since the remains of the city have long since been buried by alluvial silt from its rivers and most of the buildings are now below the water table. Also, later cities have been built on much of the site. So we can speculate, but not much more. There probably was some truth to the stories of Sybaris’s great wealth, given that it was situated on very fertile farmland and in a key location for profiting from international trade, but that’s pretty much as far as we can go.

  24. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 30: …founded towards the end of the Eighth Century BC and sacked and razed by its neighbours towards the end of the sixth…

    Hadn’t realized the Greeks had ranged that far that early. Surprising they let the Phoenicians take the site of Carthage…

    … it is in the Roman Imperial era historians that we get by far the majority of the lurid tales of extravagance…

    Aw, shucks. No doubt in 30 more centuries, whatever people remain will describe our times as being a helluva lot more fun than you and I get to experience.

    Conveniently this demeans both the Sybarites and the Spartans…

    Which reminds me of a Texas joke – did ya hear about the Aggie [an alumnus of Texas Agricultural and Mechanical Univ] who moved to Oklahoma? Raised the average IQ of both states!

    There probably was some truth to the stories of Sybaris’s great wealth, given that it was situated on very fertile farmland and in a key location for profiting from international trade…

    Which makes me wonder why another rich city didn’t arise on the same location, at least until I remember some of the stories I’ve heard (mostly from northern Italians) about southern Italians.

    Thanks for the backgrounder!

  25. davidc1 says

    @23 I was going to mention GARUM ,but the way them Romans made it sounded disgusting .
    @16, Sorry to admit that a lot of Roman History leaves me cold ,I have a few books about them ,even visited
    one of the museums at Hadrian’s wall .Only book i had managed to read is A Scandalous History of
    the Roman Emperors .
    In The Last Days Of Hitler ,Trevor -Roper mentions the Roman Writer Juvenal .Too lazy to write in what context,
    but i understand he was a satirist ,would a dimwit like me understand them ?