Daily Life: Food and dining

Food and dining

A moveable feast: Pompeian kitchens and dining

In today’s houses, the kitchen tends to be a central feature, often used for eating and gathering with friends as well as cooking. In contrast, Roman kitchens were small, poorly lit rooms, usually tucked away at the back of the house. In most of the kitchens excavated at Pompeii, the only permanent feature left is a masonry hearth with a tiled top and arched recesses at the bottom for storing fuel. Cooking was done on this open hearth, with pots set on iron tripods over burning charcoal or wood. Some houses also boasted a small oven, much like a modern woodfired pizza oven, at the corner of the bench, with a vent near the stove for the smoke to escape. The only other furnishings in the Pompeian kitchen were a basin to hold water for cooking and washing up, and sometimes supports for tables to prepare the food.

Roman kitchen implements were simple, but practical and functional. Texts of the time use the word cacabus to mean pans in general, while the fretale or sartago seems to have been a bronze or iron frying pan. The pultarius was a saucepan, and the testa or clibanus a small portable oven for roasting or baking bread. Iron choppers, knives, cleavers and spoons, as well as strainers, ladles and mortars, were used to prepare the food, which was served on a large circular platter called a discus. Portable hearths of bronze or ceramic could be used in apartments or for a summer meal in the garden, and a craticula was a special grid used for barbecues.

Roman cuisine was also decidedly simple: food of all sorts was usually boiled, smoked, fried or baked and either seasoned with fish sauce (garum) or wine reduced to a thick syrup (defrutum) and thickened with starch (amulum).

Lunch (prandium), taken at midday, was a light meal consisting of meat or fish and fruit with perhaps some wine. Guests were not usually invited to prandium. During the hot Pompeian summer, this was followed by a siesta (meridiatio). The afternoon was the time for bathing, and after the baths (which might take several hours), the Pompeians ate their main meal (cena). As in any modern town, it was always possible to eat out at an inn (taberna). The menu (tabula lusoria) was displayed outside to entice passersby, and in one well-preserved instance, offered an impressive choice of chicken, fish and ham.

Wealthy Pompeians dined in great style, and often had several dining rooms to choose from: cold-weather dining rooms faced west to take advantage of the warm afternoon sun, and warm-weather rooms faced east or north in order to remain shaded for most of the day. Many of the larger houses also had outdoor dining areas with a pergola to shade the diners and usually a fountain nearby. Diners wore brightly coloured dinner suits called cenatoria and reclined on couches. The classical Roman dining arrangement consisted of three large couches (the summus, medius and imus), each of which seated three people. The host sat at the end of the leftmost couch (imus) and the guest of honour sat at the left of the middle couch (medius). The food was served in bite-sized pieces, and diners ate from small plates placed on a ledge in front of them, using spoons or their fingers. The first course (gustatio) usually included eggs, lettuce, cheese and olives. The main course (primae mensae) consisted of fish or meat such as ham, poultry or kid. The last course (mensae secundae) was usually fruit. On special occasions, the wealthy would serve spectacular dishes like ‘Trojan Pig’, which when split open revealed a hidden filling of sausages and black pudding. Oysters were a popular addition to the menu, and an enterprising Roman, Sergius Orata, pioneered oyster farming in the Lucrine Lake in about 100 BC.

Related object
Loaf of bread
Related object
Garden painting