Were There Fast-Food Restaurants in Ancient Pompeii?

Uncover the thriving industry of fast food restaurants in ancient Pompeii, what they looked like, their clientele, and the food they served.

May 15, 2024By Jessica Venner, PhD Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology; MA Classics

ancient pompeii origins fast food


In December 2020, archaeologists working in Region V of Pompeii caught their first glimpse of a painted wall as it peaked through the layers of ash and pumice. Digging down deeper, they were astounded to find the vibrantly painted counter of a fast food restaurant, known to the Romans as a thermopolium (or thermopolia plural). Into the counter, large jars called dolia were set, and the frontage was decorated with a beautiful sea nymph riding a seahorse. This thermopolium is just one of 89 discovered in the town of Pompeii so far.


Dining Out or Eating In?

thermopolium reconstruction
Reconstruction of the thermopolium recently discovered in Region V of Pompeii, as it would have looked in 79 CE. Source: Pablo Aparicio Resco


The term thermopolium comes from the Greek θερμοπώλιον (thermopōlion), meaning “hot shop”, or literally “the place where hot things are sold”. However, despite this being the term commonly used today, more instances of the word popina are found in the ancient texts. If you were poor in ancient Rome, you would most likely not have access to a kitchen. Instead, you might be lucky enough to have a standalone brazier for cooking food or, if this was also not an option, you might instead use the local facilities.


Each person in Rome received a grain dole. From this, one could make their own porridge or bread, the latter of which could be taken to local bakeries and communal bread ovens to be baked. For those days when some extra sustenance was needed, or when workers were in a bit of a rush, the thermopolium was the place to go. Being dotted all over the city, diners did not need to go far to find a place to buy hot food to go or eat in. And while there, it was a great opportunity to catch up with friends, meet prospective new partners, flirt with servers, and gamble.


cartoon thermopolium
Artistic reconstruction of a Pompeii thermopolium. Source: Xsperienza


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Thermopolia in ancient Rome were associated with the lower class and ‘seedy’ characters. Due to the fact that you were less likely to have the facilities for cooking at home in the domus (or at least not in a diverse way), the poor often ate out of the home, while the wealthy often opted for dining in. For the middle- and upper classes, this was deemed to be safer and provided the opportunity to socialize with other members of one’s own class (by invitation). Despite this, it is likely that the upper classes did visit such establishments for an experience outside of their normal day, the Emperor Nero apparently being one such case.


The Thermopolia of Pompeii


Pompeii was a thriving town and is today considered to be a good example of an average Italian town of the early Imperial period. Being located on central trading routes in Italy, including the River Sarno and the sea, it would have had many travelers passing through its gates daily. Other non-residents might also be traveling to the town to take in the local entertainment at the two amphitheaters, or for the local market. All of them needed to eat on their journey.


pompeii amphitheater
Photograph of the Pompeiian amphitheater, built 70 BCE. Source: PompeiiSites


In response to local and non-local demand for fast food, 89 thermopolia were operating in Pompeii in 79 CE, with each often following the same layout. The front of the shop tended to be open to the street and would usually be closed with shutters at the end of the day. A counter would then be placed facing the street to attract customers and allow them to order food without having to enter the shop. Typically, dolia would be set within the counter and would hold fruit, nuts, legumes, bread, cakes, hot food, and wine (the latter being a sort of mulled wine known as calida). There was typically a seating area, too, and in some thermopolia, a garden for dining under the vines.


Inside many thermopolia in Pompeii, fresco paintings detailing the types of food and drink on offer, the customers, and even the servers have been discovered. These offer a great insight into the types of activities occurring inside these shops in antiquity. In the thermopolium from Region V mentioned above, another fresco on the counter may point towards different types of food, other than ready-to-go options, being available to buy: freshly slaughtered birds.


The Common Themes of Thermopolia

pompeii main street
Photograph of Pompeii’s main street, the Via dell’Abbondanza, 2011. Source: Wikimedia Commons


One of the most comprehensive discoveries of a thermopolium from Pompeii was uncovered in 1911. Named “di Asellina”, this thermopolium was located on the city’s busiest street, the Via dell’Abbondanza. Here, an inscription detailing the names of three serving women, Aegle, Maria, and Zmyrina, had been scratched into the painted façade, giving the property its modern name. At the time of the excavation, almost all the furnishings were found on the site, including crockery, cups, jugs, and plates, as well as bronze and glass drinking vessels.


Here the counter was painted in a bright ‘Pompeian’ red, while the top was covered in marble slabs. Once again, four jars were embedded within the counter to hold the goods for sale. As is sometimes found in other thermopolia, this shop had a small masonry oven with a lidded bronze boiler, while in a back room, 22 wine containers, known as amphorae, were discovered. These can still be seen on the site today.


Some thermopolia owners also felt it important to include a religious shrine as a form of protection in their shop. In the Thermopolium of Lucius Vetutuius Placidus, an intricately painted shrine, designed to look like a small lararium (a form of mini, indoor temple), was found at the end of the counter. It would have been directly visible to anyone entering the shop from the street through the wide, open entrance. Due to the quality of the paintings and materials in this shop, historians now consider it to be a good example of merchants and craftsmen holding a high local social status, a status typically reserved for landowners in former times.


Activities in the Thermopolium

thermopolium shrine
Painted shrine in the thermopolium of Lucius Vetutunius Placidus, Pompeii. Source: World History Encyclopedia


As has been found to be typical in Pompeii, the Thermopolium of Lucius Vetutuius Placidus is attached to a house. In some cases, as in this one, they are interconnected, while in others they simply serve as a front. Regardless of the wealth or extent of a house, a shop or similar establishment was frequently found on the front. This provided extra security for the houses located behind as they would then only be accessible from the street front by one, often heavy, door and a narrow corridor accessed from between the shops. Such establishments attracted all sorts of characters, and the frescoes (or paintings) left on the walls of some of the excavated thermopolia and inns (caupona) give some indication of the sorts of activities being carried out inside.


In the restaurant attached to an inn in Region VI of Pompeii, known as the Caupona of Salvius, a fresco shows two individuals seated on wooden stools. As a server approaches them with a jug of wine and a cup, the writing above them reads: “Hoc!”, “Non! Mia est!”, and “Qui vol, sumat! Oceane, veni! bibe!”, translated as: “The cup is mine!”, “No! It’s mine!”, and “Oceanus! Come here and drink!”


tavern life
Fresco from Region VI of Pompeii depicting customers being served wine in a thermopolium, 1st Century CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Another fresco found in the same location depicts a couple canoodling. They are wearing the cloaks typical of lower- and middle-class Romans at the time, as well as recognizable Roman sandals. To their right is written: “Nolo cum Myrtale [hoc facere]!”, which translates as “I don’t want to do this with Myrtle!” On the north wall, two gamblers sit at a table playing a game of dice. One points at the other and exclaims “Exsi!”, “I won!”, while the other retaliates with, “Non, tria duas est”, or “It’s not three, it’s two”.


Food on Offer in the Thermopolia of Pompeii

pompeian food
Examples of the types of food remains found in Pompeii’s bars. Farrell Monaco. Source: BBC


What food and drink would be on offer at a thermopolium? Due to the way in which the town was preserved in the eruption of Vesuvius, excavators have been able to uncover the remains of food in Pompeii’s thermopolia. In one recent example, the remnants of goat, pig, duck, fish, and snails in earthenware pots have been discovered, sometimes all within the same pot, potentially as some sort of stew.


Crushed beans have also been discovered in the dolia set into the counters, which may have been used to modify the taste and color of wine. Wine, almost always red, would have been served either hot or cold. The hot wine would have been heated in bronze containers with lids, much like mulled wine in European bars today, while cold wine would have been served in jugs. Before decanting into jugs and cups, wine would be stored in amphorae, many examples of which have been discovered in Pompeii’s bars.


Much like today, different prices would have been set for different quality wines. A piece of graffiti on the outside of a thermopolium in nearby Herculaneum lists the different prices for the wines on offer, sold ad cucumas, “by the pitcher”. The four different jugs of wine start at 2 asses (1 as being roughly equivalent to a dollar today) for a sextary (0.545 liter jug), up to 2 and ⅔, 3, and 4 asses. A piece of graffiti found at the entrance of the Taberna Hedones in Pompeii advertises the cost of wine inside. It reads, “Hedone says, ‘You can drink here for one as, if you give two, you will drink better; if you give four, you will drink Falernian.’” 

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By Jessica VennerPhD Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology; MA ClassicsJessica is a world-leading expert in ancient Pompeii with a special interest in urban agriculture, domestic architecture, and identity formation in the late Republican and early Imperial period. She is an Early Career Research Associate at the School of Advanced Study, University of London and holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, with a full scholarship from the AHRC-M3C Doctoral Training Partnership. She has previously held roles at the British School at Rome and the Ashmolean Museum and has over 55,000 followers on TikTok for her history channel, Life in the Past Lane.