Drinking, Whoring and Gambling: Salacious Taverns in Ancient Rome

Michael Crews


Alcohol consumption in the age of ancient Rome had many diverse connotations associated with it that were distinct and would not easily translate into modern perception. Charles Seltman, in his 1957 book, Wine in the Ancient World, explored numerous different cultural and economic spheres that involved the production, distribution, and consumption of wine, often involving the wealthy classes and associating it with dancing, music, religion, and a typically sumptuous environment.1 In Steven Saylor’s fictional book, The Venus Throw, published in 1995, the narrator, Gordianus the Finder, finds himself in a setting that contrasts starkly with that of the Roman banquet and more closely resembles the modern era bar or saloon: the Roman tavern. This latter setting spares us the pretense of religion and finery and focuses on vice and all its manifestations. This essay is an examination of the Roman tavern as a social construct, and will analyze its representation in ancient literary texts and modern analysis of archaeological sources. Over its course I will take a closer look at Steven Saylor’s depiction of the Ancient Roman tavern, explore the historiography of the subject, argue my case over what purpose the taverns served in Ancient Roman society, and finally raise some issues that may need closer study in order to better validate my argument. Saylor’s description of one such Roman tavern during the 1st century B.C.E. is vivid. As he is being led by the poet Catullus to a discreet rendezvous point to discuss the mysterious circumstances of the latest murder and its influential suspects, Gordianus remarks, “As you draw near to the ninth signpost you will see the pool of light cast by the lamp outside, welcoming those who cannot sleep, and who cannot or will not stop


Charles Seltman, Wine in the Ancient World, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1957), 181.


drinking, whoring, and gambling.”2 The Salacious Tavern is introduced thusly, and through the eyes of Gordianus we see a smoky, dimly lit building covered in vulgar graffiti, barraged by the shouts of drunken patrons and the clashing of dice, flowing with cheap but very strong wine, and divided up by folding partitions that offered only the illusion of privacy.3 Standing in front of the building Gordianus recalls a tall lamp shaped like a phallus, serving as both a source of illumination and as a crude sign for the Salacious Tavern, since the tavern lacked an official name or printed sign to distinguish itself. Catullus, reassuring Gordianus that the place is safe, submits that “the wine is wretched, the whores are lice-ridden, and the patrons are the lowest of the low…I’ve come here every night since I got back.”4 When compared to the milieu discussed by Seltman, it would be a challenge to imagine a place more dissimilar than Saylor’s Salacious Tavern. Having explored the former to a modest extent, the lure of investigating the latter has been an opportunity all too tempting. Yet considering the fact that Saylor’s book was a work of fiction, and as scholars we are interested in fact and enlightened discourse, it is now time to take a much more erudite approach to this subject to understand more about how the common Roman, in a public setting, enjoyed his wine and entertainment, and see to what extent Saylor’s descriptions were factual and how much was a product of literary license. Questions over what services were offered by these establishments, their significance within the social framework, the identities of their patrons and proprietors, and even what sights, sounds, and odors might be experienced within have been posed by historians since the beginning of classical studies. The process of reconstruction has been facilitated in the past century
2 3 4

Steven Saylor, The Venus Throw, (New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1995), 227. Saylor, The Venus Throw, 227. Saylor, The Venus Throw, 227.


by the emergence of refined archaeological methods and anthropological insight, and historians now have a clearer understanding of the role of Roman taverns than ever before. The historiography of the subject of Roman taverns owes much to two bodies of sources. First, we have the many ancient literary contributions of the Romans, including satirical works such as Petronius’s Satyricon and Juvenal’s Satire, as well as writings by moralists including Seneca the Younger’s De Vita Beata, among many others. References to taverns and other establishments of leisure and refreshment appear frequently but vaguely, allowing scholars an opportunity, though somewhat obscured, for reasons to be discussed later in this essay, to learn about some of the characteristics of these places and the activities that took place within.5 Secondly, and of much more value to modern scholars, we have physical sources in the form of ruins and small artifacts found at various sites. Many of these sites, including those found at Pompeii and Ostia, have been extremely well preserved and have offered intact furniture, fixtures and wall paintings which have been invaluable in reconstructing the ancient tavern and its role in social and economic life in ancient Rome.6 Prior to the archaeological revolution of the mid 20th century, scholars were limited to ancient literary texts which, for the most part, focused on condemning the Roman taverns and inns without much elaboration. Still, W. Firebaugh uses these sources in an enlightened way in his book The Inns of Greece and Rome, first published in 1927, in an attempt to reconstruct Roman tabernae, a term which at this time included taverns, inns, and any of the many other types of Roman venue that offered wine, food,

Tönnes Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine; Études Historiques et Philologique, (Upsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1957): 2. 6 Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, “A Pompeian Copa,” The Classical Journal 59, no. 8 (May, 1964): 337.


lodging, and entertainment.7 While it lacks the insight that later methods of research would offer, Firebaugh’s book examines a wide variety of texts ranging from the works of moralists and satirists to official edicts8 and gives a thorough, for its time, look into the world of Roman hospitality. Among scholars in the study of Roman taverns, Tönnes Kléberg has been one of the most influential and, according to O. F. Robinson, “gives the fullest discussion of the various terms and their changing meanings.”9 Published in French in 1957, the same year as Seltman’s book, Kléberg’s Hôtels, Restaurants, et Cabarets dans l’Antiquité Romaine examines the different types of Roman venues, their differences and similarities, and attempts to classify them into discreet categories. Kléberg sorts these into tabernae, or bars, popinae, cafés, cauponae, inns, and hospitiae or respectable hotels.10 Using both archeological data gathered from Pompeii and ancient literary sources (“les renseignements fournis par l’archéologie et…des textes conservés”11), Kléberg also attempts to reconstruct the type of clientele that frequented these establishments,12 the life and status of the proprietor and his employees,13 and the types of amenities offered.14 Kléberg’s survey of Pompeii includes a map of the city, detailed lists of where the different types of venues were located, and interior diagrams of two hospitiae in order to understand where and how these establishments fit into the social and urban landscape.15


W. C. Firebaugh, The Inns of Greece & Rome, and A History of Hospitality from the Dawn of Time to the Middle Ages, (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972), 131. 8 Firebaugh, The Inns of Greece & Rome, 98. 9 O.F. Robinson, Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration, (New York: Routledge, 1992), 135. 10 Robinson, Ancient Rome, 135. 11 Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 98. 12 Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 26. 13 Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 74. 14 Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 98. 15 Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 26.


Another scholar that explored the Roman tavern in the context of the urban environment was Gustav Hermansen. Like Kléberg, Hermansen attempted to classify the different types of Roman establishments based on their services and structures, although his emphasis was on the port town of Ostia and their part in this particular urban and social network. Hermansen published several works on the subject of taverns and inns, including “The Roman Inns and the Law: the Inns of Ostia” in 1974, and Ostia: Aspects of Roman City Life in 1982. In Hermansen’s 1982 book, he pays tribute to Kléberg by name16 and uses his analysis of Pompeii, and many of his methods, as a starting point for his own survey of Ostia. Like Kléberg, he refers to specific examples of tabernae but includes photographs and more detailed diagrams that include furniture and fixtures in order to illustrate their layout and function more clearly. Hermansen’s work sheds light on the important similarities and differences between taverns in different Roman cities and shows how local culture may influence the form and function of these establishments. The contributions of Kléberg and Hermansen have influenced more recent studies, even though the subject of taverns in Ancient Rome has since been approached in many varying ways. For instance, O. F. Robinson mentions their works in her book, Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration, published in 1992. Although her book does not focus exclusively on taverns, she does discuss them in the context of their place in the overall urban structure and the environment of law and administration.17 She also adheres to the naming conventions pioneered by Kléberg when discussing how they were


Gustav Hermansen, Ostia: Aspects of Roman City Life, (Willowdale, Ontario: The University of Alberta Press, 1981), 126. 17 Robinson, Ancient Rome, 135.


governed by the aediles and the magistrates,18 and when discussing the edicts passed by the emperors. J. P. Toner, in Leisure and Ancient Rome (1995), similarly refers to the works of Kléberg and Hermansen.19 Toner’s book, inspired by the endeavors of anthropologist Marc Bloch,20 takes a more anthropological approach to the topic of Roman taverns and other culturally significant structures. Toner fits taverns into the world of Roman leisure, and discusses many of the activities that may have taken place within them, such as the various forms of gambling,21 the kinds of foods served,22 and how they facilitated social bonding between guilds and members of the lower classes.23 The scholarly study of taverns and inns in ancient Rome has taken many different approaches over the years, especially in the last couple of decades. The works of Kléberg and Hermansen, as archaeological surveys, have served as foundations for further study into this topic as scholarly inquiry has begun to seek a more anthropological context for these types of topics. They will continue to be fundamental as new archaeological discoveries are made and new questions regarding inns and taverns are posed. Drawing off of the work of the above scholars, and including a few not yet mentioned, and the ancient literary sources already named, this paper will now address the dynamic role of the Roman tavern in the social context and explore how it served many important civic and social functions. These include providing accommodation for travelers, allowing members of various classes a place to bond and reinforce relations between one another by taking part in the various activities found within, and offering a
18 19 20 21 22 23

Robinson, Ancient Rome, 136. J. P. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 157. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 1. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 90. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 81. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 76.


political environment that was situated outside of the official landscape. For the purpose of simplicity, and considering the frequent overlap in the functions of these venues and their often ambiguous nomenclature, I will refer to Roman taverns in their Latin derivative, tabernae, throughout the remainder of this paper and will include the ancient Roman inn, saloon, restaurant, and brothel in its meaning. Amenities were rare and crude in the ancient world, and travelers were forced to survive in deplorable, and often dangerous, conditions. Travelers were at the mercy of the cold and the continuous lack of safe drinking water, as well as the risk of sickness and of being stranded in a foreign city.24 Tabernae served a vital purpose for the ancient traveler, and provided the means to rest, recuperate and to relieve some of the stress of journeying. Trade was vital for any economy, and so the welfare and contentment of the ancient businessman was a major concern for any empire that was intent on flourishing and satisfying its expanding needs. Other important professions required long travel, including senators, soldiers, tax collectors, freedmen and slaves of the imperial administration, and young scholars.25 Long before the advent of the restaurant and the concept of dining outside of the home became commonplace, travelers found nourishment inside of enterprises such as tabernae. The quality of food varied considerably depending on the quality of the establishment, but some of the typical offerings included cheese, prunes, nuts, pears, blackberries, grapes and cucumbers.26 Some of the more upscale tabernae also offered meat dishes such as beef, liver and onions, sausages, marmites and casseroles.27

24 25 26 27

J. P. V. D. Balsdon, Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 228. Balsdon, Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome, 224. Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 100. Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 101.


Hot water and wine were two luxuries also provided to patrons of tabernae. In addition to being sterile, hot water was considered a delectable beverage and thought to possess special hygienic properties, such as restoring bodily forces.28 When the patron was in the mood for a more potent beverage, tabernae also served wine. Wine produced in the region were common and inexpensive, although there is evidence that imported wine was served at many establishments; in Pompeii, Kléberg remarks the presence of amphorae inscribed with various regions of origin, including Greece.29 Wine was served in various ways; Kléberg discusses how wine was served neat, diluted with hot water, with cold water, and spiced.30 Hermansen offers more detail on spiced wine than Kléberg, and lists many of the ingredients as including wine, hot water, honey, ground pepper, and many others that could be added to make any of a large number of distinct beverages listed by many sources.31 Some tabernae also served beer, although this was infrequent in the Italian peninsula.32 There was, evidently, no shortage of beverage or variety of beverage for the varying palettes of the patrons. Some tabernae were incorporated into hotel complexes, or hospitiae, and offered lodging to patrons. One example of a Pompeian hospitium is the Casa delle Volte Dipinte, which included multiple floors, a central corridor on each floor, and multiple rooms, kitchens for the personal use of guests and latrines that were aligned along the corridors.33 Another Pompeian hospitium was the Hospitium Hermetis, which included all the amenities of the Casa delle Volte Dipinte as well as a manure pit,34 indicating
28 29 30 31 32 33 34

Firebaugh, The Inns of Greece & Rome, 85. Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 108. Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 110. Hermansen, Ostia, 126. Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 110. Hermansen, Ostia, 193. Hermansen, Ostia, 193.


lodging for animals. Kléberg calls this type of establishment an hospitium-stabulum,35 and many of these were quite luxurious for their time. Tabernae also provided entertainment for guests. Juvenal mentions the “all-night festivities of the tavern,”36 but he does not elaborate. Other evidence paints a clearer picture of the activities within. For example, the presence of gaming tables indicates that tabernae were one of the major locations for gambling, and many featured specific game rooms devoted to this activity.37 Patrons frequently played with dice and four-sided knuckle bones called kali,38 and bet on cock-fighting39 and on Roman athletic events.40 Music and dancing was also a common source of entertainment found within the tabernae;41 Firebaugh talks about the presence of “singing girls and flower girls” that were present to entertain guests.42 In addition, some establishments also functioned as brothels, as evidenced by ancient inscriptions, literature, and by many of the erotic frescoes found within several of them43 (in fact, it should be noted that Roman legal texts did not distinguish between taverns, inns or brothels.44). Finally, if guests did not want to participate in the more sordid activities provided, they could simply relax in one of the many luxurious gardens. Some Pompeian hotels featured gardens with painted backdrops, gurgling fountains, and space to sit or recline.45 A wide range of activities were available at ancient Roman tabernae to soothe and entertain the patron as well as
35 36

Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 35. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 90. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 90. Balsdon, Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome, 152. Balsdon, Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome, 154. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 70. Firebaugh, The Inns of Greece & Rome, 131. Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 90. Robinson, Ancient Rome, 138. Jashemski, “A Pompeian Copa,” 341.

Juvenal, Satires 8.158, translated by John Henderson, Figuring Out Roman Nobility: Juvenal’s Eighth Satire, (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997), 79.
37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45


satisfy the necessities of food, drink and shelter, and these establishments played an important part in the lives and journeys of the many travelers that roamed the Empire for a variety of reasons. Ancient Roman tabernae served important functions for not only travelers, but for the community as well. They were a locus of social interaction, a public forum for people of all classes and professions to meet in a low-key environment and to form alliances and maintain relations in a complex social landscape. Various professional groups met at tabernae, including guilds. Others met at these establishments seeking other forms of camaraderie. The activity of drinking was a foundation for friendly relationships between drinking buddies. Games and team loyalty at tabernae also played an important role in networking, and fans that supported the same teams or players formed convenient social alliances. Professional guilds met at tabernae to express their brotherly status. These groups were so closely knit that they often referred to one another as frater, or brother, and shared many things in common including property, cults, and burial places.46 Common meals were held in order to maintain the esprit de corps, and for some members the guild was their only family.47 Hermansen identifies many Ostian guild apartment structures, all of which are connected to neighboring tabernae by doorways.48 Professional fraternities lived in the same neighborhoods and frequented the same tabernae to such an extent that entire neighborhoods were named after them; this is why we see streets with names such as “Clivus Argentarius, Via inter Falcarios, Vicus Unguentarius, Frumentarius, Lorarius, lanarius, Inter Lignarios (Street of the
46 47 48

Hermansen, Ostia, 110. Hermansen, Ostia, 110. Hermansen, Ostia, 110.


Silversmiths, Sicklemakers, Salve Merchants, Grain merchants, Leather Merchants, Wool Merchants, Wood Merchants).”49 It is no small wonder that guild activity and tabernae culture are considered to be so closely linked. Other patrons frequented tabernae for much more casual social camaraderie. Drinking was a popular pastime among the Romans, and an excuse to meet and socialize. For many, the taberna was the milieu for demonstrating masculinity through arguing about sports, gambling, and competitive drinking.50 Social bonds were formed in this environment of friendly competition, as well as social hierarchies and complex networks. Toner argues that this public setting also provided opportunities to mix openly with friends “alfresco”, and tabernae were “a neutral setting for engaging in the public reproduction of social relations.”51 Juvenal’s poetic words further bring to mind the intimacy of this environment when he writes, “shared glasses, all-purpose couch just the same for all, no table kept separate for anyone.”52 Games were yet another source of networking. Fans of local teams could meet, bet, and show their support at the nearby taberna. In ancient Rome there were many forms of public games, one of the most popular being horse racing. Different parts of the city were represented by different teams and distinguished by different colors such as the blues, greens, reds, or whites.53 While this factionalized the city to a certain extent, there was a high degree of solidarity and fraternity within the factions. Not all factions were hostile to one another; Toner discusses how some were regarded in friendly terms, such as the blues and the reds or the greens and the whites.54 When not actively supporting
49 50 51 52 53 54

Hermansen, Ostia, 110. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 76. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 76.
Juvenal, Satires 8.177, translated by Henderson, Figuring Out Roman Nobility, 79.

Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 92. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 92.


their teams at the race track, these fans would frequent the tabernae to debate the outcome of upcoming races and to show their support to their fellow fans and patrons.55 In terms of social networking, the tabernae were vital parts of the community and a place for people to meet and maintain relations, professional and casual, with others in a neutral and pleasing environment. The tabernae were also an important political structure in ancient Roman society. These places attracted patrons from all classes and provided a public forum for members of lower classes who did not have any other pulpit from which to be heard. Political discussions were often held, and the relative anonymity of these environments allowed sentiments to be expressed off the public record. Some taverns catered exclusively to the upper class and were a covert meeting place for the city’s elite. Every class of Roman, to the fierce criticism of the moralists, frequented the taberna. Juvenal, castigating the morally bankrupt governor Lateranus, describes him in the setting of a tavern: “You’ll find him with some hit-man or other, reclining, in a melee of sailors – thieves – runaway slaves…hangmen and cardboard-coffin-makers.”56 With the rise of levitas, the embrace of popular culture, during the 1st century, brought about by the increased prosperity of the empire, the old-fashioned self-control of the elites had become passé and a climate of frivolity and an acceptance of the culture of the populace, including the taberna, became fashionable.57 This movement gave the lower classes more leverage in society; as the elites invaded their venues, they were exposed to lower class sentiment. Seneca was absolutely opposed to levitas, and equates pleasure to an inversion of virtue: “Pleasure is something lowly, servile, weak, and perishable, whose
55 56 57

Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 75. Juvenal, Satires 8.173, translated by Henderson, Figuring Out Roman Nobility, 79. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 78.


haunt and abode are the brothel and the tavern.”58 In addition to making the elite fat and vulnerable, tabernae had the effect of bypassing the old hierarchy and enforcing a different, and increasingly competing, morality and lifestyle which threatened the established order.59 For instance, Roman humor, which permeated the taberna culture, was a powerful tool, and political jokes that floated through society were often the product of lower class scorn.60 Toner argues that political jokes “served only to reflect the powerlessness of the tellers, without actually changing anything,”61 but the fact that emperors passed edicts outlawing anonymous jests and political lampoons62 would suggest that they felt that character assassination was a real threat. Aside from political jokes, tabernae were a center for serious political discussion. Local politics and gossip were a frequent topic63 at places such as these. Firebaugh discusses how the literati, rhetoricians, philosophers and intellectuals often made their headquarters at tabernae to gossip.64 Guilds, playing a primary role in the commerce of the city and thus holding a certain amount of political leverage, also spent a considerable amount of time in tabernae. As a public venue, the taberna would have been ideal for discussing politics away from the official landscape in order to have more candid communication with far less pretense. Roman elites had their own exclusive, and covert, forms of tabernae. Firebaugh talks at length about the ganeum, which functioned effectively as brothels for the wealthy


Seneca the Younger, De Vita Beata 7.3, translated by John W. Basore, Seneca: Moral Essays II, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 117. 59 Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 82. 60 Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 85. 61 Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 86. 62 Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 86. 63 Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 76. 64 Firebaugh, The Inns of Greece & Rome, 185.


and influential and were held under tight secrecy.65 These establishments were, according to Firebaugh, a form of “subterranean tavern, hidden away in the rocks and woods,” where noisy arguments or drunken brawls were not permitted in order to keep from betraying their location.66 Firebaugh focuses on the sexual debauchery allegedly contained within the ganea, but he also refers to a speech by Cicero, who mentions “a horrible mess of broken cups, upturned tables, sodden serving-boys sleeping off the effects of their wine, drunken flute girls, and Gaditanian dancers exhausted with drunkenness.”67 In spite of this morbid picture, it is important to remember the strong moral stance of speakers such as Cicero, and when their disapproving tone is discounted, the ganeum begins to sound like any other taberna except with more a more upscale clientele. Considering the rich patrons that frequented these locales and their penchant for confidentiality, (Firebaugh confirms that guests entered with covered heads, and that their exits were as well screened as their entrance68), information regarding what activities took place is understandably vague. Still, one can speculate, and where wealthy and influential people gather in secret, it stands to reason that political and commercial dramas are bound to unfold, secure from the eye of the public. Serving several important roles, the Roman taberna was an essential part of the urban and social structure. They existed as a haven for travelers, a center for bonding, and an auxiliary site for political discussion. While often criticized, these venues were located throughout the ancient urban landscape and were generally open to any patron that was in need or want of its services, and represented an entirely different world than the rigid one prescribed by Roman moralists and elitists.
65 66 67 68

Firebaugh, The Inns of Greece & Rome, 134. Firebaugh, The Inns of Greece & Rome, 134. Cicero, quoted by Firebaugh, The Inns of Greece & Rome, 133. Firebaugh, The Inns of Greece & Rome, 133.


This essay, in an attempt to make clear the social and civic roles of the taberna, is not without its assumptions and potential gaps in logic. This section will now confront some of these in order to allow for a more balanced approach to this topic. Some of these include the unreliability of ancient sources, a lack of pristine archaeological sources from the city of Rome, and possible flaws with the arguments of some of my modern scholars. Ancient sources on this topic are often misleading and make no pretense of being objective. Moralists have a clear agenda, and their writings indicate a desire to maintain a political status quo and a moral ideal. Toner explains, “In the moralists’ eyes the allurements of pleasure and leisure threatened the state with destruction.”69 Satirists also had an agenda, which was to make light of the depravity of the lower classes to the amusement of the upper. Petronius’s Satyricon is full of this type of humor; in one scene, the narrator describes a tavern brawl as it unfolds: The entire household crowded around, as did a number of drunken lodgers…Eumolpus, locked out as he was, was being very roughly handled by the cooks and scullions of the establishment; one aimed a spiteful of hissing-hot guts at his eyes, another grabbed a two-tined fork in the pantry and put himself on guard, but worst of all, a blear-eyed old hag, girded round with a filthy apron, and wearing wooden clogs which were not mates, dragged an immense dog on a chain, and ‘sicked’ him upon Eumolpus, but he beat off all attacks with his candlestick.70 As entertaining as this passage is, it is clear that reliability is not the author’s principal goal, and any scholar intent on drawing credibility from this passage must be able to separate truth, if there is any, from exaggeration. Unfortunately, some of the most descriptive ancient sources for Roman taverns are also those written by authors with ulterior motives. In the writing of this essay I have attempted to use these sources in a
69 70

Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, 79. Petronius, Satyricon 95, translated by W. C. Firebaugh, The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1922), 213.


limited way, although my modern sources, especially Firebaugh, have been much more liberal in forming conclusions based upon these texts. Another significant problem with the scholarship of taverns is the lack of distinctly Roman sources. Kléberg was limited to Pompeii, while Hermansen focused exclusively on Ostia. Both cities are now ruins, yet Rome continues to thrive as a living city to this day, and excavation is costly if not downright impossible in many cases. Kléberg mentions these difficulties, and laments at how, regarding the imperial capital, scholars must rely exclusively on the testimony of literary sources.71 Additionally, considering how different tabernae from Ostia were from those uncovered at Pompeii,72 one begins to see how tabernae at Rome may have differed in form and function from those found in the former cities, and an understanding of how little we know about true Roman tabernae begins to emerge. Finally, modern scholarship has its own fallacies. One criticism against the works of both Kléberg and Hermansen, by N. Purcell, claims that “both authors have an unrealistic and fastidious optimism about their subject.”73 Purcell also points out the novelty of the drinking-place culture in the 1st century B.C.E., and how it was not “an automatic and immemorial feature of town life.”74 These arguments call into question the true necessity of these establishments, and lend support for skepticism that they served any positive or significant role in Roman society. However, one must remember that cultures change and become more complex over time, a process that causes new needs to manifest and old needs to be satisfied in new ways.

71 72 73 74

Kléberg, Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine, 56. Hermansen, Ostia, 126. N. Purcell, “Wine and Wealth in Ancient Italy,” The Journal of Roman Studies 75 (1985), 14. Purcell, “Wine and Wealth in Ancient Italy,” 14.


Roman society, in the popular perception, was a rude, filthy, lascivious environment. Saylor’s book capitalizes on this perception in his portrayal of the Salacious Tavern. However, modern scholarship has illuminated to some extent the actual Roman taberna and its many functions. By modern standards it is true that these locales were dirty and offered only the most rudimentary of services, but to the ancient Romans these would have appeared in a different light. Whether a taberna such as Saylor’s ever existed is a possibility, and there is evidence that there were a wide range of tabernae that varied in quality, appearance, and the types of services offered. What is still unknown, and may always remain so, is exactly how the Romans themselves understood their tabernae and to what extent they played a role in their daily lives.


Bibliography: Ancient Sources: Juvenal. Satires. Translated, edited by John Henderson. Figuring Out Roman Nobility: Juvenal’s Eighth Satire. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997. Petronius. Satyricon. Translated by W. C. Firebaugh. The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1922. Seneca the Younger. De Vita Beata. Translated by John W. Basore. Seneca: Moral Essays II. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. Modern Sources: Balsdon, J. P. V. D. Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969. Firebaugh, W. C. The Inns of Greece & Rome, and A History of Hospitality from the Dawn of Time to the Middle Ages. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972. Hermansen, Gustav. Ostia: Aspects of Roman City Life. Willowdale, Ontario: The University of Alberta Press, 1981. Jashemski, Wilhelmina F. “A Pompeian Copa.” The Classical Journal 59, no. 8 (May, 1964): 337-349. Purcell, N. “Wine and Wealth in Ancient Italy.” The Journal of Roman Studies 75 (1985): 1-19. Robinson, O.F. Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration. New York: Routledge, 1992. Saylor, Steven. The Venus Throw. New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1995. Seltman, Charles. Wine in the Ancient World. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1957. Toner, J. P. Leisure and Ancient Rome. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995. Kléberg, Tönnes. Hotels, Restaurants et Cabarets Dans L’Antiqité Romaine; Études Historiques et Philologique. Upsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1957.