I came, I saw, I ate fried dormice

What’s the connection between volcanoes and food? Archaeological discoveries (including preserved food remains from thousands of years ago!) can give us an amazing glimpse into the dining rooms of the Roman Empire. Take a look at artefacts from Pompeii and beyond to see if you’d have enjoyed some of the delicacies they were used for…

Fig.1. A Roman dinner party where the reclining guests raise toasts to each other’s health and shout drunken messages: Facite vobis suaviter (“Make yourselves comfortable”), Ego canto (“I am singing”) and Est ita valea[s] (“Go for it!”). Fresco from the House of the Triclinium in Pompeii. Painted around AD 50-79. Naples Museum, MANN 120031. (Bridgeman Education LRI4642475)

Imagine being a guest at a dinner party where roasted dormice, fried snails, fermented fish sauce, stewed eels and two-year-old tuna are offered to you as the most exquisite delicacies on the menu. The finest Falernian wine, matured for fifty years and mixed with water from a nearby spring, is carefully poured into gilded silver goblets decorated with the drunken followers of the wine god Bacchus and the tragic heroes and heroines of ancient Greece. The evening begins with slaves pouring scented water over diners’ hands from gleaming bronze vessels, the erudite conversation (tongues loosened by the Falernian wine) flows in Latin and Greek, and in the corner of the lamp-lit room musicians play flutes, cymbals and pipes to accompany the troupe of hired dancers whose graceful gestures form flickering shadows on the brightly-painted walls behind.

Where do you envisage this opulent gathering is taking place? In the last days of dry and dusty Pompeii in the summer of AD 79? In the commanding officer’s house in the military fort of Vindolanda on a bitterly cold winter’s night in northern England? Perhaps in Rome itself, in the sumptuous suburban villa of a Roman senator with lavish gardens and gushing fountains?

Archaeological finds and preserved food remains from hundreds of sites and settlements in Europe, Asia and North Africa – often supported by first-hand written accounts by ancient suppliers, craftsmen and homeowners themselves – reveal that the Roman dining experience spread throughout the provinces and territories of the empire and sometimes took hold in the remotest of locations. An upcoming exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford entitled Last Supper in Pompeii(running from 25 July 2019 to 12 January 2020) will bring together objects from Roman and pre-Roman dining rooms with new research into dietary changes in the ancient world, unearthing a thousand years of feasting and revelry. This article is illustrated by artefacts which will be on display in the exhibition, many of which have been locked away in museum storerooms since their discovery or acquisition decades, and sometimes centuries, ago.

The sheer diversity of the material suggests that no two dinner parties were the same. Regional delicacies made their way onto the menu alongside foodstuffs that had been transported from as far away as India and China, and locally-made vessels sat alongside treasured imports. The bronze serving or measuring jug shown in image 2 dates to the 5thcentury BC and is a typical product of the Etruscan people who made it, probably somewhere in northern Italy. The wine cup in image 3, which is decorated with a band of hens and fighting cocks, was found in an important and wealthy Etruscan city in central Italy called Vulci, but it was made in Athens in Greece a few decades earlier. Significant numbers of ‘Attic’ vases and drinking vessels have been found in Etruscan cemeteries suggesting that they were highly-prized possessions; so much so that they accompanied the dead to their final resting place. The importance of banqueting to the Etruscans – whose culture and traditions had a strong influence on their Roman neighbours – is reflected in the frescoes which decorated their tombs, where men and women dine together on richly-swathed couches, deep in conversation, drinking from a range of elaborately-shaped vessels.

Bronze jug with a handle attachment in the shape of a satyr’s head
Fig.2. Bronze jug with a handle attachment in the shape of a satyr’s head. Made in the 5th century BC. Ashmolean Museum, AN1971.920
Attic ‘little master’ band cup attributed to the Tleson painter
Fig.3. Attic ‘little master’ band cup attributed to the Tleson painter. Made around 545-535 BC. Ashmolean Museum, AN1964.621
Frescoes, Tomba dei Leopardi, Tomb of the Leopards, one of the Etruscan grave chambers of Monterozzi Necropolis
Fig.4. Fresco showing an Etruscan banqueting scene. The women wear the light-coloured tops and the men are bare-chested. The Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, Italy. Painted in the 5th century BC. (Alamy DH057K)
Glass cup
Fig.5. Glass cup with white speckles. Made around 50 BC–AD 50. Pompeii, SAP 13028.

The dining rooms of Pompeii were preserved in entirely different circumstances, some laying undisturbed for almost 2000 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Many of the more fortunate residents of the town were able to flee from the disaster with their most treasured (and portable) belongings – money and jewellery being the obvious choices – meaning that breakable and bulky goods were usually left behind in houses, shops and bars. The preservation of glass seems extraordinary given the immense damage inflicted on Pompeian houses by the falling volcanic ash and pumice and the subsequent and devastating pyroclastic surges but, astonishingly, a number of glass objects survive intact. The three examples shown here showcase the skill of Roman glass makers and give a sense of the impressive range of tableware options available for those who had the money and means to buy them.

Glass jug
Fig.6. Glass jug. From the House of Petronia in Pompeii. Made around AD 50-79. Pompeii, SAP 12489.
Glass rhyton
Fig.7. Glass rhyton. Made around AD 50-79. Pompeii, SAP 12493.

Each would have been used or displayed on the table during the cena (main meal) and were intended to show off the sophistication and refined taste of the homeowner. Dinner parties were a great opportunity for Romans to impress their friends and social betters and the stakes were high if the host was hoping to gain favour with an influential local politician or perhaps to be elected to office himself. The speckled cup was probably made in the Po Valley in the north of Italy and would have been an expensive purchase because of its unusual design. The jug with intricate, ribbed decoration at the base of the handle would have been used for serving and pouring wine and the rhyton (drinking horn) was a vessel whose shape went back millennia, but would mostly have been thought of by Romans as an import from the Greek world. Both objects were found together in a cupboard in the so-called ‘House of Petronia’ in Pompeii during excavations in the 1950s. The rhyton’s popularity is also seen in the frescoes which once adorned the interior walls of houses and villas, showing gods and animal-like mythological creatures holding them proudly aloft at their own wild gatherings (image 8).

Young faun reclining and lifting a rhyton depicted in the Roman fresco from the Villa Ariadne (Villa Arianna) in Stabiae, now on display in the National Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) in Naples, Campania, Italy.
Fig.8. A reclining satyr drinks from a rhyton. Fresco from the Villa di Arianna in Stabiae. Made around AD 45-69. Naples Museum, MANN 9116. (Alamy PGHEBK)

Some tableware came from even further afield. The small bowl and large serving dish in images 9 and 10 are coated in a yellow slip with red marbling, with the aim of making them resemble extremely expensive and desirable coloured marble. They were made in workshops in La Graufesenque in Southern France and exported to Pompeii some time in the 30 years before the eruption. Although archaeologists can rarely be this precise when dating objects, the large dish is stamped with a maker’s mark telling us that a man named Celadus made it (image 11). Extensive (and ongoing) studies into the pottery produced in this region – known as terra sigillataor sometimes Samian Ware – have allowed scholars to assign named potters to particular vessel types and specific workshops, meaning that we can trace their products back to them when they are found, and date them very precisely. Pots made by Celadus have been found in France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Italy, Spain, Algeria and Tunisia, and all date around the reign of the emperor Nero (the 50s and 60s AD). Crockery like this would have been used for serving food, perhaps fruit, nuts, cheese, bread or even pork sausages. Nowhere in Roman art or literature will you find reference to a tomato though. Although a staple of the Mediterranean diet today, the tomato was only introduced to Europe in the 16thcentury after Spanish conquistadors returned with it from Central and South America, making it a relatively recent addition to the European diet.

South Gaulish terra sigillata bowl in Yellow Slip Ware
Fig.9. South Gaulish terra sigillata bowl in Yellow Slip Ware, made in La Graufesenque, France. Made around AD 50-79. Found in Pompeii. Pompeii SAP 12669.
South Gaulish terra sigillata dish in Yellow Slip Ware
Fig.10. South Gaulish terra sigillata dish in Yellow Slip Ware, made in La Graufesenque, France. Made around AD 50-79. Found in Pompeii. Pompeii SAP 12668.
The maker’s mark CELADVS F, short for Celadus fecit (“Celadus made it”), from the underside of the large dish
Fig.11. The maker’s mark CELADVS F, short for Celadus fecit (“Celadus made it”), from the underside of the large dish.

Occasionally, we find pieces of tableware that were clearly not meant to be used in the actual serving of food and drink, but intended primarily for decoration and display. Even in the 1stcentury AD, the hydria (water jug) in image 12 would have been regarded as a highly-collectable antique, but archaeologists only realised this after restoration work carried out in the 1970s removed centuries of encrustation that had built up on the surface of the bronze. To their surprise, a previously-hidden Greek inscription which translates as, “I am from the Games of Argive Hera” was revealed. This means that in around 460-450 BC the hydriahad been awarded to a victorious athlete or musician at the prestigious games dedicated to the goddess Hera in Argos, and somehow made its way to Pompeii in the intervening years, most likely as looted plunder when the Romans conquered Greece in the 3rdand 2ndcenturies BC.

Bronze hydria once given as a prize at the Heraean Games in Argos in Greece
Fig.12. Bronze hydria once given as a prize at the Heraean Games in Argos in Greece, but found in the House of Julius Polybius in Pompeii. Made in the 5th century BC. Pompeii SAP 21803.

The destruction of Pompeii occurred in the first few months of the reign of the emperor Titus, whose father Vespasian was a successful military commander in the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43. In the decades that followed the conquest, once Roman domination appeared inevitable, wealthy and ambitious Britons began to adopt Roman customs, realising the advantages and prestige it would bring them. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that for up to a century before the conquest the tribal chieftains who were constantly at war with neighbouring tribes – in fact those with the most to gain from befriending the largely unbeatable Romans – considered imported ‘Roman’ goods from modern-day France and Italy to be of extremely high status and chose to be buried alongside objects mostly relating to the consumption of wine: amphorae (transportation and storage jars), silver drinking cups and serving flagons.

Four stacked, terra sigillata cups
Fig.13. Four stacked, terra sigillata cups made in Lezoux, France, which were part of the Pudding Pan Wreck. Made around AD 160-200. Ashmolean Museum

Terra sigillata or Samian Ware seems to have been as popular in Roman Britain as it was in Italy and museums storerooms and handling tables are usually filled with its distinctive orangey-red sherds. Occasionally, complete vessels survive, but these tend to come from undisturbed tombs or burial sites. The drinking cups in image 13, however, mysteriously washed onto beaches in south-east England in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies. (Look closely and you can still see the barnacles encrusted around them.) It appears that in the early 3rdcentury AD a trading ship containing a consignment of terra sigillata vessels made in central France and destined for Romano-British customers was shipwrecked off the coast of Kent, near Pudding Pan Rock. So far, around 285 cups and bowls from its cargo have washed ashore, including these 4 which are now in the Ashmolean Museum. Although each cup is of a very similar shape they have different maker’s marks stamped into their bases, telling us that they are the products of the potters Primanus, Maternus, Materianus and Severianus.

Severn Valley Ware handled tankard found in Alchester
Fig.14. Severn Valley Ware handled tankard found in Alchester. Made between AD 100-400. Ashmolean Museum, AN1929.774.

As demand for prestigious tableware increased, the potteries in central and southern France were unable to meet the needs of consumers and so entrepreneurial local craftsmen sought both to emulate the Gaulish merchandise and to produce distinctive vessel ranges of their own, at (we would imagine) a fraction of the price. This tankard was produced in the Severn Valley in the Midlands and found during excavations of Roman Alchester in the 1920s. The distinctive band of criss-cross lines is typical of Severn Valley workshops and the handle suggests that it was not used for wine but for hot drinks, which may have been welcomed by the unfortunate soldiers guarding the legionary fortress at Alchester in the depths of winter. The shape of the tankard is thought to be an ‘upgrade’ of an earlier wooden cup form used in Iron Age Britain before the Roman conquest, suggesting that the process commonly (and problematically) described as ‘Romanisation’ was not as straightforward as we might imagine. The archaeological evidence leans instead towards a more fluid, two-way interaction between the conquerors and the conquered, resulting in the creation of a hybrid, Romano-British culture.

Behind the scenes of the exhibition: Beware of unfamiliar objects lurking in museum storerooms…

In the initial research stages of Last Supper in Pompeii, on the hunt for long-neglected or forgotten objects to include in the exhibition, curators found two unusual but impressive-looking inscribed bowls in the bowels of the Ashmolean Museum’s storerooms (images 14 and 15). They were acquired by the museum in 1933 but, puzzlingly, never selected to be put on display. This type of distinctive black pottery with a glossy surface is known as ‘bucchero’ and is found in abundance in Etruscan tombs and graves. And many bucchero vessels have inscriptions scratched onto them, usually naming the owner or the person who dedicated the object to the gods. So researchers set to work in translating the inscriptions which – unusually – run around the upper side of the rim, rather than underneath it or on the base. 

Etruscan bucchero bowls with suspicious inscriptions
Fig.15. Etruscan bucchero bowls with suspicious inscriptions. Ashmolean Museum AN1933.1625 and AN1933.1626.

 A number of issues arose. First, some of the letters are written upside down. Second, although the bowls themselves date to the 6thcentury BC, the shapes used for the letters don’t correspond to the lettering found on other inscriptions from this period. Finally, the sequencing of the letters doesn’t make sense, meaning that the words are mostly untranslatable. But because the Etruscan language in all of its periods of use is not fully understood, and since some of the words were similar to known forms, photos of the bowls were sent to linguistic experts who would be able to confirm whether we might have had on our hands, perhaps, a previously unrecorded dialect of Etruscan. If this was the case, it would be a very significant find…

Alas, the experts all concluded – resoundingly – that this discovery was not the new Rosetta Stone, but two authentic Etruscan bowls with nonsense inscriptions scratched into them at a much later date. The bowls were probably ‘enhanced’ in the Victorian period when public interest in new archaeological discoveries in Italy, Greece and Egypt was on the rise and wealthy young men embarking on the Grand Tour were eager to purchase the relics of Classical civilisations for themselves, prompting a burgeoning market of fakes and forgeries.

And so the bowls have been packed safely away once again and returned to the storeroom, but now with an extra layer of history added to their story.

Dr Alison Pollard

Dr Alison Pollard, Lecturer in Classical Archaeology
I am a Classical Archaeologist who specialises in Roman art and archaeology. I grew up in Accrington, in Lancashire, which means that it pains me to write dinner, when I of course mean tea. I have studied Classics, ancient history and archaeology (with a brief foray into journalism) at the universities of St Andrews, Oxford, and Emory in the USA. I now teach classes on Greek and Roman art and archaeology at St John’s College and work in the Ashmolean Museum as Assistant Curator in the Department of Antiquities.My own research interests are sculpture (in all its forms), wallpainting and the various ways that Roman decorated their houses.