When archaeologists in Pompeii discovered an almost 2,000-year-old fresco of what’s being referred to as a “proto-pizza” in June, people nearly lost their minds. While the flat piece of bread might have had meats, vegetables, or fruits on top, it was missing the defining element of a pizza: tomatoes.
The savory fruit wouldn’t make its way to Europe until the 16th century, long after Mount Vesuvius erupted and decimated the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D. Pizza as we know it wouldn’t be invented in Naples until the 18th century.
While residents of Pompeii didn’t eat pizza, archaeologists and historians have pieced together much of what they did dine on, including, umami-rich condiments, stuffed dormice, and an early ancestor of lasagna.
Those discoveries are part of what make Pompeii such a unique and important archaeological site. Although Vesuvius’ eruption is estimated to have been 100,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II, the city wasn’t burned by lava and destroyed. Instead, a giant cloud of scalding gas and ash enveloped it almost immediately, carbonizing and preserving much of the organic matter, including food, according to Alessando Russo, an archaeologist with the Pompeii Archaeological Park.
Residents of the city also had no time to evacuate and died suddenly—within 15 minutes, according to one study. Facial expressions are even visible on some of the bodies that have been unearthed. But their sudden deaths mean archaeologists have been able to learn more about their everyday tasks like cooking and eating. In 1930, for example, a perfectly preserved loaf of bread, indented with reed or string to break apart more easily, was found in an oven in Herculaneum.
“For these reasons, Pompeii is unicum [Latin for "unique"] in the world of archaeology,” Russo says.
Pompeii’s love for umami
One of Pompeii’s most popular foods was an early ancestor of another beloved food: umami. The Japanese word, referring to the rich and savory fifth taste, manifested in a fish-based sauce or condiment called garum in Pompeii.
It’s salty and a little spicy, and Pompeiians, rich and poor, put it on everything—like “ancient ketchup,” as archaeobotanist Chiara Comegna puts it. She works for Ales, a company within Italy’s Ministry of Culture dedicated to the conversation of the country’s cultural heritage.
Flavor-wise, however, garum is similar to Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce, according to the Pompeii Food and Drink Project, a coalition of historians, archaeologists, engineers, and volunteers that helped unearth and study the food of the city from 2001 until 2019.
“Imagine if your diet, particularly if you're a poor person, is just grits every day. What will you do to spice up that meal and improve the nutritional content?” says Benedict Lowe, a professor of history at the University of North Alabama, who served on the Pompeii Food and Drink Project. “You add garum. It’s spicy, it's pungent. But it's protein-rich.”
The garum produced in Pompeii was notable for its quality. To make it, people would ferment fish—often boop boop, a species of sea bream also known as bogue—in salt and sometimes other spices for as long as three months. As the flesh decomposes, the bones sink, leaving a liquid, the garum, on top.
“When [vats of garum] were excavated, you could still smell the aroma,” says Lowe, who analyzed the chemical composition of the sauce with a colleague in 2009 and discovered its similarity to umami. “I have a sample of it …. And every time I open it, it stinks the room out because the pungent aroma of this salted anchovy is so awful.”
Delicacies of Pompeii
Evidence of what Pompeiians ate has been discovered carbonized, but recipes, written on papyrus and translated by monks in the Middle Ages, also offer clues, according to Comegna. One recipe detailed what Comegna called an “ancestor of lasagna.”
“No tomatoes, just with meat and ricotta cheese, and layers of pasta,” Comegna said. “Lasagna is the modern name, although the idea is quite the same.”
Another dish—mostly a delicacy for the rich—was stuffed dormouse, a larger and meatier ancestor of modern mice. The live dormice would be placed in a glirarium, a ceramic jar with a lid and perforations that allowed them to breathe. It was typically filled with nuts so they could eat, fatten up, and then be cooked.
“According to the cookbook written by Apicius, the dormice would be stuffed with pork, pepper, pine-nuts, and fish-sauce,” Lowe said.
Despite literary evidence that the upper classes dined on flamingoes, no discoveries have verified that yet, says Lowe. (He also cautions against taking literature from the period literally because it was mostly written by senators and other members of the upper class, who had a vested interest in portraying their society in the most positive light possible.)
In 2005, researchers at the archaeological site recreated many of the recipes of ancient Pompeii and replanted some of the fruits and vegetables residents ate, like figs, olives, plums, and grapes. (Pompeiians also traded with North Africa for dates.) Visitors to the park could enjoy dishes such as savillum, a favorite dessert similar to a cheesecake or custard; peaches with honey; and prosciutto.
On top of their garum consumption, Pompeiians’ diet revolved heavily around fish. In one sewer in Herculaneum, 43 species of fish bones were found, according to Lowe. Residents also got their protein from sheep, chicken, lentils, and beans, Comegna says. Cereals, such as oats and barley, were also common.
Flavors of Pompeii
The majority of the foods in Pompeii were bland. The ancient Romans had salt in abundance, but not many other flavors, so they’d trade with India for spices like cinnabar and pepper. In fact, the Romans spent so much money on spices that Indians used Roman currency as their own for a time, Lowe says.
But only the rich could afford spices. Houses of the extremely wealthy even had saltwater ponds right next to their dining rooms, which they would stock with fish to catch right before a meal, according to Lowe. He points out that Seneca, a major stoic philosopher of the time, wrote somewhat sarcastically that a Roman wouldn’t consider a fish fresh unless they killed it on their plate.
According to Comegna, the people of Pompeii also flavored their wine—and changed its color—using fava beans. At one remarkably well-preserved “thermopolium,” a snack or wine bar, fully unearthed in 2020, fava beans were found at the bottom jugs of wine.
How—and where—Pompeiians ate
Thermopolia stalls were essentially the fast-food joints of yore. Pompeii has approximately 80 of these counters, where residents, mainly workers, would stop for a small, hot lunch or to pick up groceries for dinner, Lowe says.
In addition to wine, there’s evidence they served snails, ducks, pigs, goats and fish, in containers inlaid right into the counter.
Since no utensils have been found in Pompeii, Lowe says their meals likely consisted of finger foods. Small bites also have been more convenient since Pompeiians ate lying down on dining couches, which have been unearthed at several homes in the city. Pompeiians did have some impressive serveware though, like intricate bowls made from terracotta and colored glass pitchers.
No one ate breakfast, aside from the occasional gluttonous emperor, and lunch was typically sparse. Pompeiians, especially the wealthy, saved all their room for dinner. Women would have eaten a modest evening meal with their families. But men—especially the wealthy—held ostentatious dinner celebrations, which would start around three or four in the afternoon and sometimes last until the early hours of the morning.
“If you were trying to be morally upright, it would wrap up at dusk or early evening,” Lowe says. “You just ate and ate [for] 10 courses, and you eat until you're sick. You make yourself throw up, and then you carry on eating.”