Modern Things Romans Would Love #3: Fast Food

The Romans fucking loved their nosh. There is no doubt about it. I always maintain that Latin derived cultures have taken from Romans three fundamentals that we could all learn from. Forgetting all squabbles, forgetting all divisions, races, religions you only need three things to live a good life – good food, good wine and good fucking. The Romans got this.

The thing is, as mentioned in an earlier entry, Romans were fucking busy. Yeah, sure, they had slaves at home making sure if they needed a good dinner in the evening it was there. There was probably always something around to breakfast, a bit of bread and some oil or something. What about when you’re on the go, though?

Say hello to the thermopolium – from the Greek meaning “a place selling something hot” – it was the Roman equivalent of fast food and they were numerous and everywhere. That said the patrician was unlikely to eat at one, much like a Maccy-Ds or a KFC today they were considered a bit low-brow.

A pale stone block with a big hole in it. This is a thermopolium.
Thermopolium at Herculaneum. Credit: Dave & Margie Hill.

If you’ve ever been to Pompeii or Herculaneum then you’ve seen them, the big concrete counters with the holes in them. Perhaps some of them still have the big earthenware pots (dolia) that the food would have been stored in. Very recently a new one was excavated at Pompeii that had frescoes on the counter showing scenes of what food they had and dogs and shit – it’s fucking awesome and I can’t wait for the world to get back to normal so I can go see it.

Some of these places were little more than street counters but some thermopolia were essentially inns and restaurants, with seating for customers and rooms. At least, that’s one theory; another theory is the rooms were actually a brothel. Or perhaps they were just housing for the slaves who would have worked as barmaids there. There is so much we still don’t know, despite so many excellent and well-preserved examples of thermopolia at Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia.

What we do know, however, is they sold food to the hungry. Many people, especially those living in the insulae – apartment blocks – would not have had kitchen access, or space to cook safely. Having somewhere they could go to eat, to drink, to meet, to just get out of the house, it was very important.

It would be interesting to know how many plebs had dates in the local thermopolium. They were the Roman equivalent of our modern fast food chains and, whilst the patrician class may have turned their noses up at them for a busy family, with a small kitchen or none at all, with little but bread in the pantry? Well going out for some meat, some fruit, some nuts at the local food place was likely a pleasure, a joy, a small piece of satiating convenience like the modern day ordering of a takeaway.

Feeling a little bloated and unsophisticated after that fast food? Why not indulge in why Romans would love our modern bipartisan politics to pretend you’re civilised?

Or, you take that cup of wine and bread and garum with you to the Amphitheatre and find out why Romans would have loved Pro-Wrestling!

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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