From Pompeii to Pubs: Hospitality in the Ancient World By Isabella Green
Updated: Jul 3
In May 2020, when Statista asked the British public what they miss the most during lockdown, ‘going to restaurants/pubs’ came second only to ‘seeing family/friends’. Pubs and bars have been a point of particular discussion since mid-March, when Boris Johnson advised the avoidance of such establishments, and a few days later issued them with a direct order to close their doors until further notice.
Amidst the delight at the recent news that pubs will finally be allowed to re-open, and fears that a third of establishments may have to remain closed indefinitely, it is interesting to examine the classical origins of public houses, in their differing forms, and their place and import in ancient societies.
Public houses, or taverns, were known as kapeleia to the Ancient Greeks. There is little scholarly research regarding their existence, which may be a result of the emphasis placed on the tradition of entertaining and consuming alcohol within the household (as opposed to in public), during exclusive drinking parties called symposia.
Those who were not members of this rich elite, however, had to visit a tavern, or kapeleion, in order to socialise and drink. These taverns sold wine stored in large jugs (amphorae), and customers would drink from a cup such as a kylix. Beer, on the other hand, was not served as it was believed to be the drink of barbarians. Sweet and savoury bar snacks may have also been on offer.
An amphora, which might have been used at a symposium or kapeleion
Wine needed to be watered down and therefore a kapeleion had to have reliable access to a water source like a well, which has helped archaeologists approximate their locations on city plans. Pieces of jugs, cups and mixing bowls have been found at certain sites which likewise suggest the existence of a tavern, although many people would have had these in their homes anyway.
Clare Kelly-Blazeby has suggested that the reason for the lack of scholarship on these taverns is because the Greeks are often perceived as an entirely civilised people, whereas pubs are typically associated with debauchery and prostitution. It is likely that there was not a clear line between the concept of the ‘home’ and the ‘pub’ in the Ancient Greek world. Ancient Rome
There has been significantly more research into the Roman relationship with public drinking and socialising. Private and public hospitality was important to the Romans (as it was to the Greeks), and a violation of its associated laws was an insult to the gods. Four main types of hospitality establishment have been defined for archaeological categorisation:
stabula (inns with stables)
taberna (taverns or bars)
caupona or popina (restaurants)
Today, we can see that a pub has come to encompass many of these functions, in a single establishment. Confusingly, the word taberna was often used interchangeably to refer to a ‘shop’ or a ‘tavern’. This is likely because in their original form, tabernae were places that would serve simple food and drink over the counter, like a shop. Over time, certain taverns or inns became conflated with brothels, and Roman women who worked in the hospitality industry were often assumed to be prostitutes.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD essentially fossilised the city of Pompeii, creating an archaeological site has been used to better understand the Roman hospitality tradition. The excavation of the ruins has shown that tavernae and similar institutions occupied the town in a volume comparable to modern cities, emphasising the importance of the hospitality industry in Ancient Rome. Approximately 160 properties in Pompeii have been identified as bars or restaurants, alongside numerous hotels.
Many signs labelled with one of the four characterisations of Roman hospitality establishments have been preserved at Pompeii. For instance, two inns had signs claiming that they were a hospitium, a word which could mean the relationship between a host and guest, a guest-room, or a general hospitable establishment (such as a hotel), indicating a Roman reduction in the formality of the relationship between host and customer. Likewise, the label deversorium could mean either a public guest-room, or a guest-room in a house of a wealthier Roman family. Again, the distinction between home and tavern is blurred.
A hospitality establishment labelled with a sign: HOSPTIUM SITTII
These hospitia would also serve a function as facilities for dining and socialising, with taverns and restaurants attached to them. In the same way, modern hotels often have bars and restaurants open to the general public, not just their guests. Most of the houses in Pompeii seemingly did not have the space or utilities needed for the preparation and service of food and drink, which made these establishments essential in everyday life.
If we compare our modern-day pub culture to Ancient concepts of taverns, we can find much more resonance with Roman tabernae, like those preserved ruins at Pompeii. For upper-class Greeks, their homes provided the function that a pub does today, leaving kapeleia as the territory of non-elite citizens and foreigners. As a result of this class divide, Greek taverns developed a characteristic association with debauchery. However, in Rome it is clear that there was a strong general perception of the ‘public house’ as a social, hospitable and necessary space. As such, Romans had a greater range of hospitable institutions, for a variety of uses.
Today, pubs are perceived as common ground, where different people are able to unite, socialise, and drink in an informal setting away from the home – they have left a great hole in society during lockdown. Based on archaeological evidence alone, it seems certain that the people of Pompeii felt as strongly about their pubs as the British public do today.
The Lycurgus Cup, a glass drinking-cup green and red covered with various scenes representing the death of King Lycurgus [4th century AD] - in British Museum
Statista survey, May 2020:
An interview with Dr Clare Kelly-Blazeby, regarding Ancient Greek hospitality:
A discussion by Steven Ellis on the distribution of bars at Pompeii:
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