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Last supper at Pompeii

by Theresa Thompson, Arts Correspondent

Dinner Party (c) Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

It was just another day in the town. People were going about their business in typical Italian fashion - eating, drinking and producing food - in the lavish homes of the wealthy, in noisy street-side bars, in nearby lush vineyards and orchards. The locals were used to the rumblings of the volcano in the shadow of which they lived. But that day in late 79 CE, the lives of the people of Pompeii came to a terrifying apocalyptic end as ash from Mount Vesuvius began to rain down upon them.


The eruption of 79 CE buried Pompeii. Its inhabitants - tragically but perfectly preserved under the ash - have since that fateful day provided us with some of the most enduring images of Roman life. The ancient Roman love affair with food (and wine) is well-known. That love affair now comes under the spotlight in a major exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford that for its curator, Dr Paul Roberts, the museum’s Head of the Department of Antiquities, is the culmination of a dream held since 1976 when he first visited Pompeii with his mother. “I was bowled over,” he recalls. “Until then I’d thought of Romans as gladiators, emperors and people in my Latin books. Suddenly, here in Pompeii were real people - people like us.”


Silver cups (c) Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The exhibition begins with Bacchus. The marble statue from around 1-100 CE, which is one of the many stellar loans from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, shows the Roman god of wine, agriculture, and fertility with his staff, grapes and jug, and totem animal, the panther. The gods were everywhere in ancient Rome, they were present in everything you do, said Paul, explaining the concept of the exhibition. “We look at banqueting, how food and drink was served, prepared, sourced, distributed, what it meant, how people ate it - reclining - in good Roman society you reclined to eat - and influences.”


The exhibition shows the extent to which the Romans inherited their ‘Roman’ culinary ideas from other cultures - from the Greeks, Etruscans and other Italian peoples. Pre-Roman Italy was a patchwork quilt of populaces. Just as the empire absorbed land across the Mediterranean, so were the Romans voracious consumers of customs and traditions, successfully incorporating the practices and foodstuffs of conquered peoples.


A trio of Etruscan funerary urns in painted terracotta (c.150 BCE) shows men and women reclining - on their left side - it has been proved that this extends the stomach, aiding digestion, whereas lying on the right side impedes it. A painted panel from Paestum, originally a Greek city to the south, is decorated with images of food and drink, including offerings of artificial terracotta food like pomegranates, grapes, figs, almonds, cheeses, and focaccia bread. “Dining is not just about eating,” Paul says. “It is about power.”


A fresco wall panel from Pompeii, from the House of the Triclinium, 40-79 CE, shows a dinner party in full swing. Men and women can be seen reclining together while slaves serve them and one guest declares in Latin: “FACITIS VOBIS SUAVITER EGO CANTO” - “Get yourselves comfortable, I’m going to sing”. Another replies: “Yes, you go for it!”



Fish mosaic (c) Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Just as the triclinium or dining room (from the Greek ‘three couches’) is at the heart of the house, the heart of exhibition evokes a triclinium. Frescoes, mosaics, sculptures and silverware enhance the meal and display the host’s wealth, good taste, and power.


An imaginary ‘garden’ fresco is among the spectacular exhibits in the dining room, along with a mosaic from 100-1 BCE depicting a superbly detailed throng of fish and sea creatures. Fashioned from the tiniest tesserae, it is one of the finest to have survived from the Roman world. These and a monochrome mosaic of a skeleton are in astonishingly good condition. Even at the feast, the cheerful skeleton seems to say, nothing lasts forever, death will come - “carpe diem” - but he’s carrying two ‘askoi’ or wine jugs, so maybe things aren’t so bad.


Skeleton mosaic (c) Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

The guest enters the well-to-do home via the atrium with its shrine to the gods and the ‘garden’ which was central to the Roman home, these areas similarly decorated to impress with statuary, frescoes, and ornaments.

While the wealthy ate at banquets (convivia) in the home, the less well-off might eat at one of the numerous bars and restaurants in the narrow streets of Pompeii - tabernae, cauponae and popinae in descending order of respectability. Fast food from the high street was the only source of hot food for many. In a small display of a shop front - Aselina’s bar - a phallic lamp and good-luck wind chime (tintinnabulum), a cooking pot and stove hark back to the hustle and bustle of these shops and bars.


Carbonised remains reveal that the locals ate a Mediterranean diet such as is still eaten today - olives, nuts, pulses, seeds, fruit, and seafood. A carbonised round loaf was found in a bakery, scored ready for cutting into wedges; a dormouse jar on show is complete with a sweet little dormouse (a model!); the real creatures were reared and fattened on acorns and chestnuts in terracotta jars until ready for roasting; they were popular delicacies.


The region around Pompeii was extremely fertile as a result of volcanic activity. A marvellous fresco, once part of a domestic shrine or lararium, shows Bacchus standing on the slopes of Vesuvius - the region so fertile that even he is covered in grapes. Most of the land around Pompeii was used for viticulture. The quantities are staggering. It is estimated that at least 100 million litres of wine were produced each year.


Resin lady (c) Parco Archeologico di Pompeii

The sheer scale of the area’s food and wine industry is demonstrated in a large import-export emporium, the so-called Villa B, excavated at Oplontis just north of the city. Thousands of amphorae laid ready for refilling, and tons of pomegranates ready for processing were found. More wine, olive oil and fermented fish-sauce (garum) was produced than the town could consume and it exported its epicurean products across the Mediterranean.

The show ends, first with a selection of items from Britannia showing how within a few years of the Romans coming to Britain in 43 CE ways of life and diet were changing (though beer remained more popular than wine), and secondly, more poignantly, with the story of the ‘resin lady’ of Oplontis. Almost certainly a member of the family that owned the great emporium there, she was found with her gold and silver jewellery, a string of cheap beads clasped to her side (a keepsake, possibly), and a door key. She hoped to return home, but never did. Cast in resin, a victim of Vesuvius’s cataclysmic eruption of 79 CE, she is a tragic reminder that this exhibition is about real people.


This exhibition of 300 or more artefacts, many of which have never before left Italy, and most from Naples and Pompeii, is a brilliant, comprehensive, once-in-a-lifetime show.


Pompeii is one of the most visited historic sites on the globe and remains an archaeological miracle – and our most important portal to the ancient Roman world, said Paul. “The evocative names given to the excavations (the Villa of the Mysteries; the House of the Tragic Poet) have inspired everything from Victorian exhibitions, swords-and-sandals romances to countless scholarly works. Our fascination with the doomed people of Pompeii and their everyday lives has never waned.”


“What better connection can we make with them as ordinary people than through their food and drink?”



Last Supper in Pompeii

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Showing until: 12 January 2019


For more information CLICK HERE