You may pull off the road at a fast-food restaurant or gas station during a long trip, but in ancient Roman times, taverns were the rest areas of the day. Situated 15 miles apart on the Roman road system, taverns catered to travelers in need of rest, food and drinks, as well as to local patrons seeking entertainment. From markers of social class distinctions to places of camaraderie, taverns played a crucial role in ancient Roman leisure and society.
Specialties of the House
While enjoying a beer at the local bar is a favorite American pastime, most Roman taverns served wine, the region's choice beverage. In fact, Indiana University health sciences professor Ruth Engs writes that there is little evidence that the Romans brewed at all, as the fruits and grains needed to produce beer were in short supply and more often used for preparing meals. Recently unearthed artifacts, such as wine glasses and clay vessels, also point to wine's widespread role in these establishments. Taverns also served snacks and small meals, though patrons often consumed wine without food.
The Social Class Divide
Slaves and the plebeians, or working class, comprised the bulk of the ancient taverns' clientele. Along with their roles as food and drink establishments, taverns catered to this sector of Roman culture by providing a place for socialization and entertainment like music and dancing. The seating arrangements in taverns also illustrate the economic divide between the rich and poor. In the homes of the elite, people typically reclined on couches during meals, while in taverns, the patrons sat on bar stools around small tables, according to William Smith's "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities."
The government's attempts to place restrictions on taverns exposed the political and social divide between Roman rulers and the common people. The Roman elite viewed these establishments as breeding grounds for political rebellion. Because taverns signaled a threat to their power by bringing the masses together, several Roman emperors passed legislation that forbade the selling of meat and other delicacies. In addition, allowing the lower class to enjoy these foods posed a metaphorical threat to the security of social barriers. Nonetheless, most taverns chose not to alter their menus.
Wenches or Waitresses? Women in Taverns
The role of women in Roman taverns has been discussed and debated among historians. On one hand, prostitution was a thriving trade often associated with taverns; the philosopher Cicero observed that many female employees worked as dancers, sellers of perfume and other jobs he deemed socially unacceptable. However, not all research confirms that prostitution or related professions were a woman's only option. Scholar John DeFelice asserts that some taverns provided only refreshments rather than lodging, making the relationship between Roman men and female servers centered in the hospitality trade.
- America Walks into a Bar; Christine Sismondo
- Indiana University: Do Traditional Western Drinking Practices Have Origins in Antiquity?
- Leisure in Ancient Rome; J.P. Toner
- University of Chicago: Caupona
- Rethinking Roman History; J.P. Toner
- The Hospitality Review: Potential Hazards of Investigating Roman Hospitality
- Bryn Mawr Classical Review: John DeFelice, Roman Hospitality: The Professional Women of Pompeii; John R. Clarke
- NA/AbleStock.com/Getty Images