Burger Caesar: Archeologists Unearth Ancient Roman Fast Food Restaurant

  • The dishes might be different, but fast food as a concept is nothing new.

You might think that fast food is a purely modern phenomenon. And it’s kind of true – quick meals that you can eat on the go have been constantly growing in popularity ever since the Industrial Revolution.

But while burgers and sandwiches are undeniably modern inventions, fast food in itself isn’t. City dwellers throughout history have been partial to grabbing something from a food stall instead of cooking at home.

To illustrate this point, archeologists recently excavated what could be the world’s oldest intact fast food restaurant. This 2000-year-old food joint was found in the famous Roman city of Pompeii, which was destroyed and buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

This is no franchised restaurant, though. Instead, it is a thermopolium – literally a “hot seller” – a popular kind of food stand during the days of the Roman Empire.

Excavations in 2019 had already uncovered parts of the structure. However, the recovery of the full restaurant gives us a sneak peek into the life of Roman citizens.

“As well as being another insight into daily life at Pompeii, the possibilities for study of this thermopolium are exceptional, because for the first time an area of this type has been excavated in its entirety, and it has been possible to carry out all the analyses that today’s technology permits,” said Massimo Osanna, Interim Director General of the Archeological Park of Pompeii, in a statement.

Picture courtesy of the Archeological Park of Pompeii.

Interior Decoration

The newly excavated thermopolium was located by a small square, which also housed a cistern, a water tower, and a fountain. Sounds like a prime position to sell food to passersby.

The restaurant itself consisted of an oaken frame and a counter, on which are several large circular holes. The ancient fast food workers would have placed a pot or bowl into each hole, and kept the food hot with either coals or a fire underneath them.

What’s special about this counter, though, is that its vivid decorative painting have been preserved under all the ash. On the counter’s longer side is a picture of a Nereid – a sea nymph from Greek mythology – riding a seahorse across the waves.

On the shorter side of the counter is a picture of what the archeologists assume to be the restaurant itself. If this is true, this might be the first recorded restaurant logo or trademark – an ancient equivalent of the Golden Arches.

In addition, the counter includes depictions of ducks, roosters, and a dog on the leash. The frame surrounding the dog includes an inscription reading “NICIA CINAEDE CACATOR” – which translates from Latin into English as “Nicia’s Shameless Shitter.”

Clearly someone didn’t like the owner’s dog.

What’s on the Menu?

But it’s not just the restaurant itself that the archeologists managed to dig up. They also found bones and other fragments that reveal what kind of fare the joint served.

The restaurant didn’t have burgers on the menu, but the presence of animal parts indicates that meat was a regular part of its dishes. Coinciding with the illustrations on the counter, both duck and chicken bones were found in some of the restaurant’s containers.

In addition, the archeologists discovered bones of goats, pigs, and fish, alongside shells of land snails. Seems like Romans appreciated variety in their menus.

In one clay container – known as a dolium – the researchers found remnants of fava beans. These beans weren’t eaten, though. The remnants of wine in the dish indicate that the beans had been ground and added to the wine to alter its taste and color, according to a recipe from an ancient Roman cookbook De re Coquinaria.

Two People and a Dog

The restaurant also housed the remains of two people and a dog. But don’t worry, these ones weren’t remnants of food preparation.

It’s likely that the bones belong to unlucky victims of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption that destroyed the city. One of the people had been an old man above 50 years of age who at the time of his death was laying on a bed inside the structure. The restaurant’s owner, perhaps?

The other individual’s bones were found inside one of the dolium dishes. Archeologists suspect someone moved them, perhaps during a previous unrecorded excavation.

But what about the dog? Could this be Nicia’s dog from the counter illustration, the one with the bad pooping habits?

Unlikely, says science. The pictured dog is big and brawny, whereas the discovered bones belong to a very small dog, only nine inches tall at the shoulder.

The dog the bones came from wasn’t a puppy, though. According to the researchers, this shows that Romans were already intentionally breeding dogs into small, apartment-friendly breeds.

Fast Food for Every Meal

The complete restaurant might be the first one of its kind that has been excavated. But what it is not is unique for a Roman city.

Archeologists have discovered 80 similar restaurant all around Pompeii, although each has been more or less damaged. However, the abundance of restaurants points to one conclusion – Romans loved their fast food.

In fact, it was the only available hot food for many Roman citizens. Fuel for cooking was expensive, and unlike today, having an apartment or house with a kitchen was a luxury.

Since most people lacked the means to cook their own meals, they depended on restaurants. Archeological records show that taverns, inns, and thermopoliums like the one in Pompeii were exceedingly popular among Romans.

Doesn’t sound too different from modern times. Who would’ve thought fast food would be a millennia-old tradition?

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