From The Inns of Greece & Rome, and a history of Hospitality from the Dawn of Time to the Middle Ages, by W. C. Firebaugh, with an Introduction by Wallace Rice and Illustrations by Norman Lindsay, Chicago: Pascal Covici; 1928; pp. 157-171.




Death of Severus — Tavern signs — The gardens of Maecenus — Intemperate drinking and religious festivals — Bear steaks — Corn mills — Taverns and trap doors — Theodosius purges Rome of thieves and harlots — The splendor and wickedness of the Roman Baths.

Flavius Severus, an obscure Illyrian adventurer, was invested with the purple in A. D. 305. He was the rival of Maximinus and Maxentius, the son of the former, and after his decisive defeat he fled to Ravenna for refuge, looking forward in terror upon the gloomy prospect of captivity or death. Maxentius, to expedite matters, came to an understanding with Severus and the latter surrendered under the most solemn promises of amnesty and protection. He was conducted to Tres Tabernae by the retainers of his captor and, without the slightest regard to promises, he was held in close captivity and finally offered the choice in the manner in which he would meet the grim reaper. He followed the example set by Seneca and many others, and opened his veins.

There was also a quarter named Tres Tabernae in Rome itself, and this is the probable reason for the error in Victor the Younger, who has reported the death of Severus as having taken place in Rome, despite the evidence of Zosimus and others. Not a few of the quarters of the great city took their names from inns or taverns. The quarter known as the Vicus Ursi Pileati (The Quarter of the Bear of the Skull Cap), for example, which, according to Sextus Rufus, was found in the Esquiline, and which must have taken its name from the sign of some inn or from some street performance with a trick animal. The cap carried with it the implication of freedom, and the curious antiquarian may easily suppose 158 that the original owner of such a tavern may have been known by the name of Ursus (Bear), and that he was probably a freedman. Neither would it be difficult to conjure from such a sign a picture such as may have inspired Phaedrus the Fabulist to write his Battle Between the Rats and the Weasels. It is also of interest to note that today in the same quarter, there is an Osteria del Orso (Inn of the Bear). The curiosity of the passerby would naturally be piqued by a sign so promising, and rival establishments would scarcely remain long in ignorance of the commercial value of such a tocsin. It is therefore not improbable that other Skull Capped Bears were born in remote wards of the city, and other signs no less piquant soon made their appearance. Artemidorus mentions an inn which had a camel for a sign: could he have anticipated that this grotesquely malodorous animal would one day, come to play so important a role in the national life of the greatest of republics? The inn of Sittius at Pompeii had for a sign an elephant in the coils of a serpent, and the behemoth is led by a dwarf. At Narbonne there was an inn which had a cock (gallus gallinaceus) for an emblem, a fact that throws a little light upon the continual employment of the same expression by Petronius. Such an emblem was also used by one of the stations between Utica and Carthage. There were the Great Eagle, the Little Eagle, the Serpent, the Great Crane, the Sword, the Wheel, the Olives. Such establishments often advertised their merits (or lack of them) through the mouths of their owners and sometimes such matter appeared upon the sign, or upon a tablet which also set forth the prices demanded. In Italy the slogan was “service after the Roman fashion and standard.” One heavily patronized commercial hostelry at Lyons had Apollo and Mercury on its signboard and the inscription deserves quotation:






Mercury promises gain, Apollo health, Septumanus hospitality; whoever enters here will be the better therefor; stranger, watch where you lodge.

The fifth region of Rome, which was probably the Esquiline, was abundantly furnished with taverns because of the institutions in the vicinity: The Amphitheatrum Castrense, where the legions mustered to parade and drill and where gladiators sometimes trained themselves for their combats with man or beast, the vivarium, that huge menagerie where a number of slaves were always on duty looking after the animals destined for the games, and last of all, the praetorian camp with its perpetual garrison of well paid soldiers. The immense barracks in which the guard was quartered had been constructed under Tiberius, and they must have furnished the taverns with a steady custom which yielded the vintners a good profit. In addition to the foregoing, the gardens of Maecenas were situated on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, the loftiest site in Rome. From this lovely elevation the entire city was spread out to the view in a grand panorama. The idlers and transients in the city would necessarily visit a place so famous and their difficult climb would have made them ready and eager for refreshment in the taverns of the district, a factor which must also have weighed with the innkeeper when choosing his site.

Lastly, a short distance outside the walls, there was a temple of Bacchus. Many years later, Constantine erected on its foundations the mausoleum of his daughter Constantina, but at the time of which we are speaking, 160 the devotees of the god of drunkenness would have naturally paid their compliments to the taverns after having taken part in the ritualistic rites of the cult. With all the foregoing information before our eyes, we are probably justified in assuming that of all the fourteen regions of Rome, the fifth being most densely populated, contained the greatest number of inns, because of economic reasons furnished by the institutions grouped there.

In the earlier years of the city’s history, such curious sightseers as flocked thither from all over Italy at the seasons given over to public jollification were unable to secure quarters in the inns as there were not enough of them for the purpose. On this account it was customary to erect tents in the public spaces and in the inclosures of the temples. Dionysius of Halicarnassus tells us of an encampment of the Volscians in similar circumstances. They could find shelter only in that manner. On their return to their own country, they went into camp along the road as the inns were also scarce in the country.

But the sites around which the taverns and inns would cluster most advantageously would, of course, be those on which the temples stood, and wherever there was a temple, there was almost certain to be a number of taverns, and why not, one would ask? Did not intemperate drinking have its origin in religious festivals? According to an authority well versed in ancient lore “it was not the custom of antiquity to indulge in wine, or any other luxury to excess, except, indeed, on the occasion of some sacred festival: which is the origin of the terms ‘thoinai,’ ‘thaliai,’ and ‘methai.’ Thoinai means that men thought it right and proper to drink wine on account of the gods: thaliai they assembled and met together in honor of the gods, and the term methai is derived from the custom of using wine after having sacrificed.”1


Another reason for the close relationship which throughout antiquity subsisted between the public houses and the temples was that peculiar taste which the gods never failed to manifest in preferring for their ceremonies those parts of the sacrificial victim which were unfit for human consumption. The priests and their cronies, however, labored under no such handicap and merrily complimented Jupiter with the guts and garbage, in complaisant obedience to his orders. The meat, therefore, must be eaten, but before being eaten, it must be cooked, and an understanding and sympathetic innkeeper and his menage were of the utmost service to the clergy in attending to this part of the ritual. This arrangement was equally convenient for the priesthood and the tavern-keepers, as the one was assured of the finest joint and the other of excellent meat at a moderate price. A funeral inscription preserved by Fabretti has perpetuated the name of a freedman of Q. Critonius, who made a business of carving such animals, and of his concubine Philenia, who, in her tavern, situated on the Isla de Tiberi, next door to the temples of Jupiter, Aesculapius, and Faunus, served her patrons with the meat from the animals slaughtered for her lord and master. The term popa (a priest’s assistant), notwithstanding Forcellini’s objections, must be taken as representing in its meaning the entire relation subsisting between the clergy, the innkeeper, and the victims, and Martial and Cicero furnish many passages in substantiation of this. As for popina (an eating-house) it is impossible that it should admit an etymology other than that inherent in popa.

If the modern reader could only place entire credence in certain of the writings of Tertullian, which perhaps are but moderately tinctured with hypocritical sanctimony, the innkeepers set up shop in the vicinity of the 162 circus with more than one end in view, and not because the crowds flocking to that institution would be certain to give them much patronage. Their reason, according to the Christian father, was that thereby they would be near an excellent source of supplies and raw material. Our devout and rigorous censor of Roman morals and manners implies that the savage beasts of the arena, for all the majesty of their ferocious presence, had after all an ending no more poetic than that accorded to the common alley tom-cat, and garnished the stew-pans of the Roman cooks. What an ending! And, to the felines, at least, what a satisfactory and poetic climax! Bear steaks are by no means a modern conception: Scintilla, the mistress of Habinnas the stone mason, ate some before coming to Trimalchio’s table. It is true that she indulged herself without knowing what she was eating, and it must have been equally true that her reaction when suffering from better information would, under the circumstances, have pleased the victim best of all. These inns and taverns near the circus were scarcely more than booths or stalls, many of them being mere sheds in the vicinity of the institutions. Such also were the cenabae in which, later on, we shall see the wine merchants of the Forum Vinarium establish their headquarters. There were also the cenabulae, rustic ordinaries, located along the banks of rivers; they were generally constructed from light tiles and were covered with creeper roses. Sometimes the cenabulae were also known as tabernulae. It was in an ordinary such as this, close to the temple of Concord, that, in the year 664 A. U. C., the praetor Sempronius Asellio perished, a victim to the fury of the debtor classes, and the precedent which is as old as time. Inasmuch as the thing is exceedingly curious we shall permit Valerius Maximus to relate the occurrence. After having spoken of the period of reaction and deflation 163 which followed in the steps of the Marsic War, when property values fell and there was little money in circulation, when debtors were unable to discharge the claims of their creditors, and the situation was more dangerous than the authorities seemed to realize.

“Their animosity broke out with horrible fury against Sempronius Asellio, the praetor, for having favored the interests of the creditors. Infuriated still more by Lucius Cassius, the tribune, they fell upon the praetor when he was sacrificing in front of the temple of Concord, drove him from before the altars of the public place, ran him to cover in a little tavern, and mercilessly tore him to pieces.” (Lib. IX, 7, No. 4.)

While it was to be expected that the taverns would nestle around the great public establishments, such as the circus, temples, and barracks, they were also partial to a site near each of the two hundred corn mills where the common people came to grind the corn issued to them from the granaries. The work incident to turning the huge mill stones, which beasts of burden found it difficult to move, was exceedingly trying and fatiguing, and the citizen was naturally averse to doing more than necessary. For this reason, the mills were sometimes idle because of lack of help, and the master millers were compelled to find such remedies as the situation afforded, often sentencing culpable slaves to serve out their time at the task of turning the mill stones. As one experience was generally enough for even the hardiest sinner, other means of supplying the demand had to be devised. In this forced recruiting of labor the inns and taverns played a very important part, and were out and out accomplices of the millers. Let us cite a passage from the Historia Ecclesiastica of Socrates the Scholiast which informs us as to the expedients which were invoked and, at the same time comments upon the 164 justice of Theodosius in dealing with the conditions brought to his notice:

“Although the emperor Theodosius did not remain very long in Italy, his stay was nevertheless productive of great and solid advantages to the city of Rome, not only because of the profusion of his pardons but also through the repressing of disorders and the rooting out of their causes. One infamous custom he abolished which had been in force through a long period of years. The great establishments where formerly the bread had been made which was distributed to the people had, as the years passed, become the haunt of thieves. A number of taverns had been built adjoining the mills, and the foresight of the tavern-keepers provided a number of abandoned women to attract custom and patronage. Trap doors were installed to permit those who had come there for diversion to be taken by surprise, and by means of a certain contrivance, such unfortunates were dropped into the place where the corn was ground. There, helpless and in confinement, many slaved away their whole lives without their relatives or friends ever being able to get news of them. It so happened that a soldier belonging to the forces of Theodosius was trapped in this snare: he drew his dagger, wounded those who attempted to secure him, and made his escape. The emperor, when apprised of the situation, punished the officials of such establishments, pulled down the lurking places of the thieves and harlots, and purged Rome of that filthy infamy.”

To enable the reader to grasp the details of the picture which we are tracing of the places of public entertainment, which, by the way, were always subject to the authority of the aediles empowered to arrest trouble makers (loca aedilem metuenda), as Seneca terms them, we are compelled to give some little space and attention to the baths of Rome.


During the earlier times of the Republic, the aedile had little cause to make official entry into such establishments: he contented himself and the pubic conscience by merely seeing that they were clean and comfortable, and kept himself informed as to the character of the patrons who came there. The latter cause was relatively unimportant because of the fact that luxury had not invaded the system. The bath keeper in those times was an honest man exercising an honest calling and one of some importance to the public weal, as Rome was never swept with such epidemics as those that scourged the boorish uncleanliness of the Middle Ages. The baths and the water supply were the causes of this long immunity.

But the corruption of manners was not long in eating its way through the social fabric and involving the bathing officials. From them it penetrated to every department of the institution, and whatever it touched, it corroded. The balneator became a fornicator, a word which indicates with sufficient force and precision the disorder which had invaded the baths and the calling which the expert had come to exercise so complacently. Respect for the law of decent propriety which had ordered the separation of the sexes in these institutions had long been a dead letter, and the law itself, a grisly spectre of the past, a nemesis no longer invoked by aedile or censor, had come to be regarded by the favored classes with that amused contempt which a later generation has held to be the just reward of a too zealous paternalism of the part of the authorities: it must have produced on their minds an effect similar to that produced on our own by the faces of the older and more barbarous reformers, and when one had the misfortune to be born in an age too crude to appreciate his merits at their true worth he might well have found himself in Dennis’s shoes:


But Appius reddens at each word you speak,
And stares tremendous with a threatening eye,
Like some fierce tyrant in old tapestry.

Usage is one of the most potent factors in affecting the moral status of a community, whether for good or for evil, and prostitution ran rife through the baths soon after people began to be admitted to them in a state of complete nudity. Instead of baths, they were transformed into immense lupanars, equipped, in later times, with every aid to comfort and to sensuousness. With the arrival of night, which cast a kindly shadow upon conditions such as these, licence raised its ugly head, and a troop of women of pleasure, well skilled in every specialty and refinement in their calling, arrived at the baths, loitered in the corridors and inside the doors, and the bath attendants, on seeing them, opened the cells and extinguished the outside lights. The thermae were open day and night, and the noise and bustle about them reminded an observer of the clack and clatter of a great restaurant. Here the soft and insinuating whisper of lust was heard, and the caressing blandishments of self interest had unrestricted play. The orgies carried on here were of every kind, and while Cotytto many not have presided in person, her pupils were scarcely less abandoned than their preceptress. The curious reader is at liberty to consult Boulanger for the particulars, and the works of Guido Pancirollus for the entertainment and dancing. All the world might have forgathered here to dine, and nearly all the Roman world did. The emperors were patrons, and Caligula was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the comessationes, as well as one of the first to set the fashion by which he perfumed from head to heel, his body carefully depilated, and left reeking with the odors which exuded from his pores, for it was then the fashion to perfume the wine and thus 167 enhance physical appeal by temporarily overcoming unpleasant body odors. Some of the essences used in this manner were cold, others were in the form of vapor which was inhaled and did away for a short time with the stench of impostumated lungs in a close atmosphere. Our modern Lysistratas have much to learn in the arts of the toilette. In the times of which we speak, particular and expert slaves were assigned to the care of every orifice and every feature, and they all had special terms to designate them and no others. A Roman dandy or even a Roman lady, preparing for a comessatio, might have even taught our own society misses a little lesson in the gentle art of waiting. Some of them took hours over the toilette.

After the death of Caligula the customs of the baths took on a more sombre tone; in the times of Seneca they were less abandoned, but the philosopher remarks scathingly that although the baths were now sweet and clean, the populace was only the more foul. Under Commodus, Caracalla, and Heliogabalus, however, they reached a state of depravity and luxurious refinement to which there it no parallel. It was in the course of one of these entertainments that Caracalla delivered himself from the menace of his brother and co-ruler, Geta, as well as dispatching Sammonicus Serenus and others hostile to his power.

Fastidious men about town often arranged love trysts with the ladies, and the scene of such tender encounters was generally laid in the baths: they used them as moderns do the institutions of our times. Ovid advises lovers to meet at the baths, in his Art of Love.

A check system was in force but theft of clothing was frequent nevertheless. Catullus mentions it, and in Petronius we find a slave serving the rarest vintages to Encolpius and his friends because they had intervened 168 to rescue him from the fury of the steward whose clothing had been stolen through the carelessness of that same slave. Eumolpus philosophizes on the same subject. He had the greatest difficulty in getting possession of his meagre wardrobe and had to be completely identified before the officious bath attendant would surrender possession, although a rogue of a more sinister character got attentive service almost at once by virtue of the natural charm of his person — proof positive to Eumolpus, that it was less advantageous to polish the mind than it was to massage the body. All bath attendants were soon regarded in the eyes of the law as either prostitutes or procurers. The reason for such discrimination lay in the demands to which their calling made them heir. One of Martial’s characters was “unable to return home sober from the baths,” and Seneca has not a little to say upon the same subject. Nor have we yet reached the most distressing phase of the situation. In order that every possibility might be discounted and every taste accommodated, huge dining-rooms, called Nympheae, were maintained. Here women emancipated by marriage from the restrictions which had bound them while still under the parental roof, amused their wearied and voracious leisure by inviting all the gluttons and long nosed parasites whom previously they had hankered after in vain, probably the most striking manifestation of the utter depravity which had invaded and corrupted the entire fabric of the Roman civilization. A newly married couple, on the day after the bride had been lifted across the threshold of her husband’s door, would celebrate their nuptials in one of the magnificently sumptuous dining rooms attached to the baths, amid surroundings and schemes of interior decoration of the most graphic and elevating kind, and amid scenes of artistic nudity which we have no words to describe, although Juvenal 169 has done very well in the passage which he devotes to this subject. It was as though one were to enter an establishment in which the women, chosen for beauty, blondness, mentality, and the most exquisite and minute knowledge of all the demands to which their profession subjected them, and the most complacent skill in catering to these demands, were to entertain their guests between silken sheets of the deepest black! The practice has much to recommend it as man has been relatively blind since Lynceus, but such cannot be said of the state of mind which evolved so sensational a complex and studied with deliberation to solve it. Roman cultures was little concerned with anything but the quasi-artistic atmosphere of such ritualistic orgies, and the time had long passed since Horace wrote the little ode to the simple country maiden, Phidyle, whose modest soul had felt misgivings at the poverty of her sacrifice:


If thou to heaven thine upturned palms shall lift,
Sweet Phidyle, when glows the crescent moon
With virgin splendor, and thy simple gift
Shalt offer to thy gods and ask thy boon.

Nor scorching drought shall smite thy fruitful vine,
Nor blight attack thy harvest in the ear,
Nor shall thy flock for lack of pasture pine
When Autumn comes and chills the dying year;

Yea, Wealth’s fat victims feed in pastures lush,
Or graze in lanes of ilex or of oak
To stain the ax, amid the solemn hush,
And die beneath the consecrating stroke;

Thy little gods require not such of thee,
For Innocence hath little to atone,
And wreaths of myrtle or sweet rosemary
Are all they ask to make thy lot their own:

The rarest gift that Riches can confer,
From outraged heavens justice less commands
Than does the humblest sacrifice of her
Who brings it to the fane with spotless hands.

A very curious passage in Pancirollus describes in some detail one of these great nympheae: “Besides these basilicae, there were also at Rome eleven other edifices called nympheae, as Publius Victor informs us. They were spacious halls, made use of for nuptials, by those that had no conveniency of their own for such solemnities. And for this end (as Zonaras declares in the Life of Leo the Great) these nympheae (I suppose) were supported with pillars. They were built with kitchens, parlors, closets, and the like, wherein they laid towels and napkins, bowls and dishes, and other utensils, and were called nympheae because the Greeks called the bride a nymph. Capitolinus tells us that Gordian the emperor joined baths to his nympheae, for the ancients did frequently bathe before supper; and ’tis easy to gather as much from two laws of Theodosius and Valentinian. Suidas saith, that the water was brought to these bridal-houses from a fountain, called now, Enneacrunos, and formerly, Callirrhoe.

“These nympheae had also most stately and ample piazzas, large enough to walk in; one whereof Augustus built in the place where the house of Vedius Pollio (whose heir he was) was ruinated, and inscribed it with the name, not of Pollio, but of Livia, as Dion writes. And many others built glorious porticos.” In the 1715 English translation of this old antiquarian is the following:

These were large and capacious Fabricks, design’d for the celebration of Nuptial Solemnities, and us’d only by those who had no Houses of their own: But this is contradicted by Alciatus and Beroaldus; who think it to be a very foul Error to imagine these Nympheae to be Genial Apartments appointed for marriages.


Some take them for Baths built by Princes for the sake of Posterity; wherefore Julius Capitolinus saith, that no Works of Gordian are remaining, besides the Nympheae and Baths. So that these Nympheae seem to be Tepida Lavacra, Warm Bagnios, and used for Pleasure, but not for Health.

But where is the Absurdity, if we affirm with our author, that Gordian did only adorn his Bridal-Houses with Baths adjoining? And what Soloecism is it to say, that by these Nympheae, we understand as well Baths for Women, or Nuptial Chambers?

Some say that brides were called Nymphs, apo to nun proto phainesthai, because they now expose themselves to open View, whereas formerly they appeared covered with a Veil. Nay, the Greeks call Matrimony itself Nymphaeum, because (as ’tis thought) Religion and Piety were propagated by Nymphs to Mankind, in regard no Rite or Worship was ever perform’d without their being mentioned. The Deities that presided o’er the Waters, were call’d Naiades; and because these Naiades were Nymphs in Corpora Tendentes, therefore Sobolis propagandae causa, New-marry’d Girls were term’d Nymphs.

Black and white pen and ink drawing by Norman Lindsay, of a crouching satyr holding a horn in one hand and a two-handled vase with the other.


 1  Athenaeus, Lib. I, 61, Yonge’s translation.