The enjoyment of food and drink, the essence of life, was deeply ingrained in Roman society. Beyond mere nutrition, food and wine played vital roles in people’s social lives, business lives, spiritual lives, and afterlives. We have details about Roman dishes from a range of texts, such as Petronius’ Satyricon, with its account of decadent dining on dormice rolled in honey and poppy seeds and Apicius’ 1st-century AD cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, with recipes involving exotic peacocks, flamingos, and pepper, as well as more run-of-the-mill cabbage, ham, and sausages. But, crucially, there is also a bountiful offering of iconographical and archaeological evidence that shows how to wine and dine.

Homes in Pompeii were decorated with frescoes celebrating food and feasting. This AD 45-79 still-life wall panel from the House of the Chaste Lovers depicts a cockerel pecking at pomegranates, figs, and pears on a shelf. (Image: Parco Archeologico di Pompeii)

The extraordinary levels of preservation at the relatively ordinary Roman city of Pompeii and other sites in the Bay of Naples, where the eruption of Mount Vesuvius devastatingly interrupted the inhabitants as they went about their daily lives, provide remarkable insights into the production, distribution, and conspicuous consumption of food and wine. Carbonised food survives, as do a range of cooking utensils, as well as the frescoes that adorned the splendid triclinia used for banqueting or that depict favoured foodstuffs in still-life scenes, which sometimes show an edible animal, such as a rabbit or cockerel with vibrant plumage, quietly helping itself to other ingredients like figs, pomegranates, and pears.

Another Pompeiian fresco, dating from AD 40-79, shows a rabbit quietly nibbling figs. (Image: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli)

Last Supper in Pompeii, a new temporary exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, examines how food impacted on every aspect of life in ancient Rome, and where the Romans got some of their ideas from. With loans from Pompeii, the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, and Paestum, many on display outside of Italy for the first time, the densely packed exhibition traces the journey from farm to plate (or cup). The route even extends to the insalubrious destination of the latrine, which was often located in the kitchen. One fresco makes the point that you might be in need of some spiritual protection if you dare to use such facilities, as a squatting man is pictured flanked by two protective serpents, with Isis Fortuna standing guard nearby.

Liquid lunch

The sunshine of southern Italy, the fertile soil, and the close proximity of the plentiful waters of the Bay of Naples meant that Pompeii’s vineyards and fish-sauce factories produced more than the city needed and were able to export their wares across Roman Italy. It was the fish sauce garum that enabled one man, Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, to make his fortune and acquire a vast home at the western edge of Pompeii with not one, but three atria. Around the impluvium of one of the atria, Scaurus added four mosaic panels featuring sauce bottles: two of garum and two of liquamen (another fish sauce). Three of the mosaic bottles boast the businessman’s name. Interestingly, a terracotta sauce bottle (urceus) found at Moregine, near Pompeii, has a painted label with Scaurus’ name that is nearly identical to what we see in his interior design.

The waters of the Bay of Naples provided the residents of Pompeii with plenty of fish. A plethora of sea creatures are depicted in detail in a mosaic panel from the 1st century BC, uncovered in the House of the Geometric Mosaics.
(Image: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli)

Olive oil was another staple at Pompeii, and one remarkable object in the exhibition is a well-preserved glass bottle with its organic stopper in place and its contents (now solidified) still smelling strongly of the stuff. Wine too was abundant. There is plenty of evidence for viticulture including from a recently excavated vineyard at Scafati, near Pompeii, where traces of roots and stakes have been identified. Such stakes would have been used in a pergola vineyard (vitis compluviata), an arrangement that can be seen depicted on the slopes of Vesuvius in a famous fresco of Bacchus and the volcano.

The detailed fresco, which shows Bacchus with a bunch of grapes as his body pouring wine for his panther, powerfully captures the fecundity of the place, and draws attention to the relationship with the divine in Roman gastronomy. The painting was found in the lararium, or shrine to the household gods, in the slaves’ quarters of the House of the Centenary. While gods like Bacchus gave the gift of good harvest, it was in these lararia that Romans made their domestic offerings of fruit and wine to the gods.

Nunc est bibendum

A poignant strand running through the exhibition is the idea that food is not only stuff for the living, but also an integral part of the realm of the dead. Offerings of food were made to deceased relatives, a tradition we can see elsewhere in ancient Italy. Paintings from 4th-century BC tombs at Paestum show wine being poured for the deceased and funeral processions with women carrying heaps of bread, eggs, and pomegranates, and terracotta models of food were sometimes included in the burials. Wealthy Etruscans, whose customs had a particularly strong influence on the Romans, chose to be depicted as reclining banqueters, a posture that can also be seen in Romano-British tombstones from Chester. The feast was so important that people wanted to be memorialised as active participants having a good time.

Food played an important part in funerary customs in ancient Italy. This plate of terracotta votive food (including open and closed pomegranates, grapes, figs, honeycombs, cheeses, and breads) was found in a 360 BC tomb in Paestum. (Image: Parco Archeologico di Paestum)

Reflecting the sentiments expressed by the display of all this mortuary material, a monochrome mosaic of a skeleton holding two jugs of wine from the House of the Vestals at Pompeii, a city so full of life with its abundant produce when it met its abrupt end, serves as a potent reminder to eat, drink, and feast your eyes.

Further information

Last Supper in Pompeii runs at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 12 January 2020. Admission: £12.25 (£11.25 concessions)
Website: ashmolean.org/pompeii

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