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Exploring the Ancient Past

Hotels and Hostelries

By Natasha Sheldon

The Romans had a variety of places where they went to eat out, buy snacks, drink and socialise. They even had hotels.

Eating out was part of Roman life. Cities offered a variety of different bars and eateries where patrons could buy take away snacks, eat a meal or simply have a drink. Cauponae, tabernae, popinae and thermopolii were found in the busy social and commercial areas of the city; around the forum, bathhouses and in the amphitheatre area.

 

Visitors could also use some of these establishments as a place to stay. For those that could afford, there were specialised hospitia or stabulae which where the roman equivalent of a hotel or motel.

 

Hospitia.

 

A Hospitia was a Roman hotel. Originally, they were rented rooms in private homes, hence their name which is derived from the principle of hospitia, or the hospitality owed by a Roman host to his guests.

 

As time progressed, hospitia became solely commercial, offering guests’ food, drink and lodging. Many were converted former private houses, equipped with private dining rooms, garden triclinia and formal atriums. Others were more basic and often regarded as seedy.

 

One famous hospitia in Pompeii was the House of Sallust, an old Samnite-style house converted into a hotel from a private residence.

 

Stabula.

 

Stabulae were hospitia with facilities for stabling animals as well as rooms for guests. These Roman motels were found around the entrances to towns and cities. They were recognisable by the ramped entrances that sloped onto the street to allow access to carts and pack animals.

 

Animals were accommodated in stables at the back of the premises, generally in a courtyard area that was also faced by kitchens and latrines. Guests would stay at the front of the complex although they could also be accommodated in rooms above the stables.

 

Caupona.

 

A caupona was a Roman inn. Although they also provided accommodation, they also offered food and drink to non-residential guests.

 

Cauponae were regarded as low-class establishments. Diners ate in open-plan communal areas, in booths with masonry seats or even private dining rooms where they dined around a circular table. Here, it was usual to dine upright rather than reclining as they would formally at home. The Properties of Julia Felix include cauponae with all these facilities.

 

Thermopolium.

 

A thermopolium was a small booth serving hot served hot food and drink. Selling directly to passing trade on the street, they were the Roman equivalent of take-out snack bars. A good example is the bar of Vetutius Placidus.

 

Taberna and Popinae.

 

Solely dedicated to eating and drinking in, tabernae and popinae were the types of establishment commonly found around the amphitheatre area.

 

A taberna was a Roman bar. Originally one room shops open onto the street, the term eventually applied exclusively to taverns serving simple food. They also popular drinking establishments serving wine late into the night while patrons gambled.

 

Popinae did not place so much emphasis on drinking. They were lower class restaurants offering very quick, unsophisticated eat-in meals.

 

Both tabernae and popinae were laid out in a similar way. Each had an L shaped marble counter, between 6 and 8ft long where customers were served. Food was cooked on simple braziers. Latrines were often available at the back for patrons.

 

The quality of food and drink in Roman bars and restaurants varied. The wine in some tabernae was notorious for being watered while in others, it was possible to get a reasonably priced decent wine for one Roman as or prestigious falernian for 4 as.

 

Graffiti also suggest that many tabernae , such as Asellina’s tavern served as brothels or places were casual liaisons could be had with the female bar staff.

 

Sources.

Pompeii: Archaeological Guide. Instituto Geografico de Agostini.

Dobbins, J J and Foss P W, (eds) (2007). The World of Pompeii.  Routledge: London and New York.