The Thermopolium: Ancient Rome’s Fast-Food Joint:

SONY DSCPhoto by Jebulon, courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

In 200 BCE, fast-food was the norm for working class Romans. Most commoners lived in insulae; unheated apartment buildings that lacked cooking facilities. For a quick meal, the poorer Romans oft patronized the local thermopolium.

Loosely defined, “thermopolium” means a place (polium) where hot stuff is sold (thermo). In other words, a hot-food quick stop with wine. Kinda like a walk-in, open air bistro.

A the main feature of the thermopolium was a stone countertop that had pottery urns embedded into the holes along the top. The urns would contain the inexpensive and popular foods of the day: lentils, peas, a clam-and-oyster stew, fish sauce (garum), porridge, cheese, and spiced wine. And don’t forget bread with olive oil (one of my favorites!)

Many Romans would linger at the thermopolium, indulging themselves in cheap food and wine. The thermopolia thus gained an unsavory reputation among the patrician class. They regarded them as places frequented by drunkards, thugs, and prostitutes. In other words, an ancient Roman version of a lowest-common-denominator “dive bar.”

According to Smithsonian magazine,* an elegantly decorated thermopolium was recently unearthed at Pompeii, adding to the 150-odd ones already revealed.** Like modern day Americans, ancient Pompeiians apparently had fast food available at almost every corner, particularly near the intersection of major thoroughfares. But no plastic straws or styrofoam cups!



Martin Tessmer is a retired university professor and military training consultant. He is the author of the best selling Scipio Africanus Saga series, which includes Scipio Rising, The Three Generals, Scipio's Dream, Scipio Risen, Scipio Rules, and Scipio's End. The Noble Brute is the first book in his new series about Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus.

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