Based on what has been unearthed since 1748, life in the Roman city of Pompeii must have been pretty good—until its inhabitants were buried alive in white-hot volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The ancient city on the Bay of Naples boasted public thermal baths, palatial villas, and brothels sporting notoriously explicit frescoes. In 2019, archeologists discovered the remains of a thermopolium, literally translated as a “hot drinks counter,” as well as evidence that even the poorer members of Pompeii society ate rather well.
Although much of Regio V, a dig site in the northern area of the Pompeii archeological park, is still closed to the public, as of August 12, 2021, visitors are able to see the thermopolium for themselves. While the remnants of roughly 80 other thermopolia are scattered throughout the site, this particular find is impressively well-preserved and offers unparalleled clues into the daily diets of ancient Romans.
A mere 40 percent of the lower-class homes and 66 percent of middle-class ones in the Vesuvian area had a hearth with which to cook, meaning the average working-class citizens relied on these establishments for sustenance. The discovery of thermopolia show how ordinary people would have fueled up on simpler meals of breads, cheeses, legumes, and jugs of wine. At the site in Regio V, earthenware cooking vessels are filled with all sorts of tantalizing clues, including remnants of snails, ducks, goats, chickens, and pigs. For visitors, the most striking elements are the detailed frescoes depicting nymphs, along with mallards, roosters, and other fowl meant for consumption.
After seeing how the plebeians lived, visitors can also peer into the lives of the upper crust at the nearby Casa del Giardino and Casa di Orione. Although the two grand villas are still under restoration, archeologists have already uncovered ornate mosaic floors and other rich details.