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. 225-241.




The adventure of a Roman parasite — The age of gluttony — Hawkers of food everywhere — Caesar Germanicus suppresses the traffic — The wines of Italy sold by the slaves of the producers — Lucullus distributes 100,000 casks of wine — Roman rogues — Aurelian takes charge of wine markets — Dilution of wines — Women condemned for drinking during Early Republic — Barber shops as meeting places.

The baths were always in a state of turmoil and uproar, due to the limited space and the numbers congregating there. For a long time Seneca lodged in the first story of one of these establishments, and, amongst a myriad of discordant sounds, he was never able to forget the cries of the eating-house keepers and their rivals, and he has informed us with a certain touch of grim humor that their calls topped the very gamut of discord. “There are,” says mine author, “the diverse clamors of the pastry sellers, the pork butchers, the confectioners, and also the yells of all whose trade was based upon tavern patronage, and each and every one to sell his wares affected a particular tone and modulation.” These petty merchants of ancient Rome have perpetuated their calling to our own times. We see them in Naples, selling macaroni, ravioli, and other food pastes; we see them after nightfall in the British Isles, selling fried potatoes and fish, each commodity in its greasy wrapper of brown paper; but in some cases the peripatetic oven has been mounted upon wheels. One who has lived in Naples, especially in bohemian quarters in the art colony, needs only to cast a glance at the picture reproduced at the end of this chapter to see that, aside from changes in raiment, Herculaneum and Parthenope (the ancient name for Naples) differed but little from the modern city in the 226 matter of selling food stuffs. The dealer is seen, standing in front of his smoking utensil which is mounted upon a tripod; he is a macaroni vendor to the life in everything except clothing, and, were his hands tied, he, too, would be dumb.

We do not know whether the delicacies esteemed by the inhabitants of the realm of Naples were a happy importation, or were naturalized at Rome, nor do we know whether the petty dealers held their stocks in common, and sold them to the men on the street; nor do we know whether they had a guild which would have given them enough power to meet the competition of their rivals; but one thing is certain: their industry was rewarded and their patronage extensive, their wares were exhibited in every quarter of the city.

Some chose stations under the porticoes, near a pillar, and, to advertise their presence, they garlanded the column with bottles fastened to a chain. This, in impudent defiance of the tavern-keeper and his modest branch of ivy or bush. Others of greater hardihood, who were not afraid to beard their enemies even more openly, betook themselves to the Cupedinarum forum (the forum of the confectioners) and braved without blenching the fury of the greater merchants, laying hold of their customers like any Bleeker-street vendor of second-hand clothing. They ran about in the crowds before the booths of the fishmongers, butchers, sellers of sweetmeats, poultry merchants, inviting their customers to come and sample their wares, and, according to Terence, they found, in each calling, a means to advance their own interests.

Black and white pen and ink drawing by Norman Lindsay, of a three men, in togas, walking on a dark street.  One has his arm draped over another's shoulders.


There must have been cause of great rejoicing among the tavern-keepers and other retail dealers when, in the times of Martial, Caesar Germanicus, under pretext of clearing the streets of impediments to traffic, promulgated 227 a decree which gave the death blow to all peddlers who had fattened at the expense of established business. Martial has addressed an epigram to Germanicus on this occasion, and given us much information on Rome and the conditions in that city:

“The audacious shop-keepers had robbed us of the entire city, usurping even our thresholds. You, Germanicus, have ordered the narrow streets to be widened, and former paths to become roads. Now, no pillars are draped with chained bottles, nor is the praetor obliged to walk in the midst of the mud. No razor is rashly wielded in the midst of a crowd, nor are the public ways cluttered with kitchens. Barber, tavern-keeper, cook-shop and butcher-shop keep on their own thresholds. Rome exists now: formerly, it was a huge shop.” (Lib. VII, 61.)

This epigram of Martial has been taken seriously to heart by the authorities of other cities, and all have profited by the example.

One usage there was, which has become obsolete in France except in such wine producing provinces as Champagne, but which persists to this day in Italy and Greece, and that is a method of disposing of the vintage by means of a slave or servant of the proprietor, at the house of the latter, and under his supervision.

Such establishments are to be seen at both Naples and Florence, often as an important adjunct to the most impressive properties. The servant stands in his little stall and sells the wine which belongs to his master. You do not enter as though it were a tavern, but come to a wicket through which you pass your empty bottle and your money; a few moments later your bottle returns to you full. According to Savage, Leo XII was of a mind to set this fashion of wine selling in Rome because of the practises of the innkeepers, but the effort came to nothing 228 as it was bitterly opposed. The Romans under the popes were not desirous of being reminded in that manner of their republican ancestors and of those under the empire. In ancient times the bulk of the vintages of Italy was retailed in the manner which we have just described. Many such places have been uncovered at Pompeii. The booth communicated with the house of the owner and the latter exercised his authority and superintended the business carried on. The slave in charge of such a booth was called “caupo” just as was the tavern-keeper. A wealthy property holder might have several such booths on his premises, and the amount of the vintage was considered in rating him commercially for credit. In the case of the very rich landowners, inns were maintained on an elaborate scale and in places such as these the traveller could find food and lodging as well, and he was safer than in establishments not under the patrician’s control. Martial, writing to Bassus concerning the country place of a nobleman, adduces as a bit of evidence showing the prosperity of the owner, that the slave who sold wines had no leisure in which to pine away in sloth. Hence it follows that such stalls must have been highly profitable to the owner. The great proprietors rarely permitted themselves to be annoyed with all the petty details of business. It is true that Trimalchio’s coadjutor read aloud at table the various business undertakings in course of completion, and the gossip pertaining to the estates, but this was satire of the finest. Trimalchio did not even know that the Gardens of Pompeii had been purchased for his account and demanded to be kept better informed in the future, a wonderful touch of realism. Nevertheless, the great landowners did take a keen interest in property titles and heavy transactions in wines and foodstuffs, and the procurer in the Pseudolus of Plautus sends a wealthy merchant to his Hedyle to be 229 fleeced. Alciphron has several such passages to the same purpose. We are justified in suspecting that Crassus was engaged in huge deals in which wines and commodities were involved. The edict promulgated by him two years before the death of Marius, during his censorship with Lucius Julius Caesar, prohibiting thereafter the sale of wine of Amineum, one of the finest vintages of Italy, and those of Greece, at the low price of 8 asses the amphora, bears eloquent testimony of the statement made above. Whether the decree was inspired by local producers in league with the authorities, producers whose products could not compete with better merchandise at such a price, or by farsighted political expediency designed to enable the master politician to outrival the luxuries of Lucullus after his return from Asia, is not known. We do know that Lucullus distributed 100,000 casks of wine to the people when he returned to Italy; and we also know that Crassus was instrumental in having the import tax law passed, and it is axiomatic that imposts are never free from self-interest, at bottom.

Cato himself, notwithstanding his austerity, was involved in certain business transactions, but anonymously; he acted through a freedman in his dealings with the greatest rascals in Rome, and it is to be hoped that his factor was their equal in finesse.

“And of old Cato the tale is told
That often his virtue he warmed with wine.”

says Horace. More power to him, says the author. There are not lacking features of the traffic in wines and foods that convince an impartial observer that the Arbiter may have had two strings to his bow in satirizing the aediles for their collusion with the bakers. Freedmen acting in the interests of powerful patricians enjoyed a degree of immunity which left them little to fear. The 230 churlish gate-keepers (portitores) of Rome took careful precautions against inconveniencing such gentry by an over-meticulous scrutiny of garment, person, or cart, and the lure of gold quieted the uneasy suspicions of official authority. One might almost compare an inexperienced gate-keeper of old Rome with a young naval officer exercising his first commissioned authority as officer of the deck on a battleship. There the watchword is “do not molest the admiral’s domestics.” Mercury was the god of thieves and diplomats, and he had also enrolled many officials in the lists of his priesthood. The spectacle afforded by the rigid censor on the one hand and the rascally vintner on the other, each, perhaps, playing into the other’s hands, each holding a club over the other’s head, must have afforded the keenest humor to any bystander knowing all the facts. The wine sellers and oil vendors suffered alike for their pains, although the rigor of authority was directed principally against the latter, as they had less protection. Their improbity has passed into a proverb: they were hand and glove together. “They all make a compact like the oil sellers in the Velabrum.”

The aediles punished smuggling, but the cultus of Mercury also dealt with malefactors, and the penalties imposed by the latter were inflicted upon all who trafficked in flagrant and fraudulent offenses: on cabaret keeper and oil seller alike, although the latter frequently revisited their reputation for commercial malfeasance on the heads of the innkeepers. A passage in the Captivi of Plautus will enable us to judge of the punishment inflicted by the priest of Mercury upon a rogue more indurated still. It ended with a proverb which pilloried public morality, and the ends of justice were rarely reached. The practise developed the Lex Talionis to a high degree of efficiency. The punishment actually consisted of a denunciation 231 at the hands of the priest of Mercury. The tavern-keeper, a shameless adulterator, a vendor of more commodities than the vintner, was punished, therefore, because he had sinned. But the evil, the inadequateness of the penalty, remained, and our retailer finds himself purified after the ewer had been emptied over his head, even as the sinner after baptism. He was then ready to begin all over again. Ovid describes this purification in his Fasti, and quotes the prayer of the penitent during the imposition of the sentence. After having besought Mercury to pardon him for having misrepresented his wares, he begs the god to pass upon whatever he sells so he can lie again:

“Purify me of perjuries past, that the gods may not occupy themselves with my concerns if I lie but a little; vouchsafe me certain profits, and when they shall have accrued, permit me to enjoy them, and make my patrons believe my words when they buy.”

The public complained for years of the dearness of wine and its vile quality. Mercury did not punish the vintners. He found his godhead in a difficult situation. To have penalized the guilty would have resulted in a loss to his priesthood, as their emoluments would have been curtailed. Under Augustus, matters such as these were taken to the emperor, but little account was made of them. The sarcastic banter of Octavian was equal to any occasion and it is reported that he answered a thirsty plebe that Agrippa, his son-in-law, had already taken active measures to avert death from thirst in watching carefully over the spouts of the public fountains, and that consequently the complaint could not be based upon fact. Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and Domitian paid more regard to the exactions of the vintners, and under Pescennius Niger the legions voiced their complaints against being deprived of wine. “What!” says he, with biting 232 sarcasm, “you demand wine with the Nile at your feet!” The troops which were defeated by the Moors had met the situation as follows: “We have not been provided with our rations of wine; we cannot fight.” The response this time was more mordant still: “You should blush with shame, because those who have taken your measure drink only water.”

During the reign of Aurelian these complaints persisted and that prince at last made it a point of law. He decreed wine should be placed on the free list with bread, oil, meat, and pork. He ordered the vast and well wooded plains which extended to the Maritime Alps be acquired and cleared; that the hillsides might be set with vines to be cared for by numerous familia of slaves to be established in the country. The wine produced by his experiment was to be disposed of only by the public treasury, and disbursed, free of imposts, to the people. After this, it was merely a question of computing the daily rations, “facta erat ratio dochae, cuparium, navium, et operum,” remarks Vopiscus: when Aurelian listened to the wise advice of his praetorian praefect, who told him: “If we issue wine to the Roman people today, we shall be forced to serve them with geese and chickens tomorrow.” The advice was prudent, and the gratuitous distribution was thereupon suppressed. Thereafter Aurelian contented himself with selling in the porticos of the temple of the Sun such vintages as had been exempted from imposts or seized by the Roman customs officers as the result of fraud or smuggling (fiscalia vina). Although his biographer tells us nothing on the point, he doubtless sold the merchandise at prices lower than the market. When an emperor puts the government in business, the chief loser, aside from the government, would, of course, be the tavern-keeper, and the people had every reason to be content, as they 233 were thus able to purchase better wines at a lower price; and Aurelian, to indemnify them for not making free distribution of such commodities and thus putting a premium upon nonproduction, issued to them white tunics of African cloth and Egyptian linen, and, perhaps, handkerchiefs, such as had not been seen until then.

The place given over to the sale of wines, in ancient towns, in Italy and France as well, in Rome and in Lyons, was a large empty space surrounded with little buildings (cenabae), in which the merchants did business. The wine market at St. Bernard, with its little booths, each numbered and bearing on its façade the name of the merchant occupying the premise, is an ideal illustration. The forum vinarium of ancient towns differed little from this example. All that is conveyed to a Frenchman by the term “Marchè au Vin” (wine market) would have been found in the Roman forerunner of that institution of the Middle Ages, little larger than was necessary to house the press.

The wine merchants, whose corporation was reconstituted by Alexander Severus, upon what grounds we do not know, used these little cenabae as the centres from which they did their business. In them lay the origin of those shops of Italy which we now know as canove or cantine. An inscription in Gruter’s collection informs us as to their establishment in Lyons — in cenabis consistentium. In the same collection there is another further along in which mention is made of the cenabenses, the loafers around wine-shops; the inscription deals with a temple consecrated to the fortune of the emperor and the protecting genius of the vintners’ guild:

Fortunae Augustae sacrum, et genio canabensium
Sacred to the imperial fortune and to the genius of
the vintners.


The affairs transacted in these cenabae at Rome were of considerable magnitude, for there was much wine drunk in Italy, and the vintages numbered about eighty. Without taking count of the synthetic products, such as mulsum (a mixture of Falernian and honey), Italy alone produced about fifty varieties of wine. We do not include within our estimate the spiced beverages and aromatic drinks, nor those perfumed with verbena, calamus, myrrh, aloes, and the like, or even those vile mixtures such as blitum which were made on the spot by the landlord.

Some of these which we have seen flowing in torrents in the taverns, where the art of the vintner had rendered them even viler than they were before, were of a detestable quality. Their bitter taste in the mouth, the tongue thickened by their acridness, they could be freely damned even as the Greek Cineas, in observing the loftiness of the trellised vines by which they were produced, remarked: “They would do well to hang the mother of such wines as high.” Others there were, however, which differed greatly from these vile plebeian vintages; among such were the wines of Vaticani or of Nomentani, in which qualities no less rare than exquisite were inherent; tartness, highly flavored and haunting bouquets, and a tempered ardour. With Falernian every reader of Horace and Martial has been long familiar; there was also Caecubian no less generous and no less celebrated, although greater pains had to be taken with it and it had to be aged more to get the finest results; the true imperial wine of Italy, however, was the Setian, which was also a better stomachic than either of the preceding and was long the favorite at the court of Augustus and probably of Tiberius and Caligula as well. The wines of Sorrentum were long esteemed as tonics for disordered stomachs and very helpful as an aid to digestion, but which, worse luck, had 235 to age for about twenty-five years before they were at their best maturity; and lastly the sweet wines of Alba esteemed for frayed nerves. They were dry wines and were better than Falernian, and agreeable and gentle tonics for the stomach and digestion.

These were the precious wines, the vintages which required careful nursing, and which would bear not the slightest neglect from the time of picking the grapes till the moment when, gushing and foaming from the pressure of the press and turned into the huge dolia, remaining therein thirty days, stirred without intermission with rods of elm to prevent the lees from depositing on the inside; lastly drawn off to clarify and often rendered more limpid still by the aid of pigeon eggs broken into them.

Thus prepared, thus placed in the best state for preservation and keeping, they were decanted, not like inferior wines into leathern bottles and wineskins (culei), but into puncheons (cadi) of terra cotta which probably had a capacity of about six and one-half gallons; into amphorae of a like capacity, or even into little vessels (graeca testa) as Horace calls them (Lib. I, 20) which, on account of their elegant form, added on that account to the price of the wine which they contained. Such vessels were hermetically sealed with a cork which had been first dipped into boiling pitch. There was usually an inscription on the neck of the vessel which told the year of the vintage, and usage gave the name of the consul of the year in which the wine was made to the wine itself. Petronius speaks of Opiniam and Horace of wine of Manlius’s consulate, incidentally giving us at the same time the year of his own birth (Lib. III, 21). After the vessels had been carefully stoppered, the casks and amphorae especially, they were deposited carefully on end on a bed of fine sand in the cella vineria, a sort of little cellar, or in a cool shed (horreum). If they were all 236 small and of equal capacity, of an elegant and graceful form like the graeca testa for example, they were kept under guard in the hall or house, disposed in niches arranged in the walls, even as we have seen in the taverns and pimping houses in Plautus, where we were reminded that the pitch legends could sometimes serve as love letters.

In the taverns, therefore, we need feel little surprise at failing to discover such niches holding vessels such as we have spoken of; because, ordinarily, such establishments were not frequented by the classes who could afford to purchase vintages so rare and costly, but by the poorer elements who had little opportunity to taste the Setian or Caecubian wines but who, on the other hand, were habituated to the cheap concoctions and synthetic fortifications which the landlord provided. The patrician left the plebe to wallow in his own drunkenness and filth in these public houses, but for himself, his house was well furnished with everything his tastes could remind him of, and his cellar abounded with the rarest and costliest wines of Italy and the Grecian archipelago. His stock of wines was not limited to his cellars but often took up more room still and was stowed in ranks and rows even in the atrium of the house. Rank and quality in wine was carefully noted by ticket, pitch legend, and by the position in which it was placed.

One apartment in the house there was, however, where wine was interdicted. I refer to the suite occupied by the women of the establishment. There it was not only a vice to drink, it was a crime. It was always thus. Under the kings and during the first years of the republic, though Rome was gross and barbarous, the severity with which such drinking was punished and the horror with which it was regarded was more severe than under the civilized regime of the emperors. Romulus placed wives 237 who drank wine in the first rank of culpable women, along with those getting caught in adultery. In the opinion of the ancient legislator both offenses merited the same punishment. A husband who killed his wife drinking or drunk would have been absolved by Romulus. It was left to the women to have charge of the keys to the storehouse or cellar and have access to them. A young girl who placed them in her closet was condemned by parental authority to starve herself to death. It further appears that the Roman woman, according to Cato, was supposed to embrace her husband, his parents, and relatives on first seeing them each day, and this not so much in sign of love and amity as to assure them by her breath that she had not tasted wine (had the temetum in mind), for in ancient times this was the word used to convey that meaning and the later derivation temulentia had come to mean drunkenness.

The women, menaced by such severe precautions depriving them of wine, made the best of the matter and contrived to content themselves with liquors less stimulating. For instance they were permitted to take passum, a wine made from dried grapes and thin anodyne, which people used to garnish their delicacies and flavor them much as we used brandy or hard cider to fortify mince meat, or preserved fruits. Martial speaks of this beverage as also does Columella, who intimates that it is new wine copiously steeped and having its savor augmented by virtue of passing this produce through a bed of raisins which have been dried by the sun. This must have been one of the beverages which Plautus had in mind when he puts into the mouth of one of his characters the following words: “Prepare the honeyed wine (commisce mulsum); make ready the quinces and the pears, that they may warm well in the pans; throw in the cinnamon,” and so on. This must have been real pear cider as 238 that which is extracted from the same fruit in Asia Minor, according to Artemidorus and such as that made from apples, of which Plutarch speaks.

Women, in addition to these beverages so innocuous were also permitted a liquor called defrutum, which was derived from the lighter vintages, adulterated with water and reduced to a third of its original volume by long boiling.

How many of the Greek wines were interdicted we cannot say, but we suspect that the number was great, and especially did this apply to those vintages which did not arrive in Italy diluted with water in a proportion which would render them, according to belief, improper for secret libations. Notwithstanding this dilution, which proves less, as we see it, the fidelity of the Greek vineyard keepers for the ancient usage of sobriety, than that their wine merchants followed an ancient custom of cheating, they were, as we would have you see, the vintages preferred by gluttons; they were always dear, but their high cost added only to the merit of the wine. The impost (portorium) which they had to pay as luxuries, elevated the price still higher. Always, one might say, this was a contribution not excessive. It did not exceed the fortieth part of the value of the object sold; but the moderateness of the impost was not always the real reason which caused the high price to be sustained. Smuggling operations were very frequent — many a merchant, even as we have pointed out in the case of Cato, engaged in traffic of this sort with impunity; and you must know that if the contravention required courage, the Roman impost must have been rigorous.

All merchandise, and wine especially, which was imported in a province which also exported, whether by land or water, had, without exception, no privilege to evade the law.


It is true that a traveller might import merchandise for his own particular use and needs, but for more the tax was applied always without prejudice at the toll house, which as a general thing was located near one of the bridges. One was bound to declare himself at the bureau of customs the objects designated by the law. If he made a false declaration and the misrepresentation was discovered, confiscation followed.

Those who complained against the contribution were not less numerous than those who avoided it, which was the cause of the exaction, and especially when a collector of customs bestirred himself, as, for instance, Verres or Fonteius. These reclamations were not left without authority. The latter was vehemently accused, for example, of having unlawfully levied excessive contributions on wines while in command of Gaul, and it required nothing less than all the eloquence of Cicero to dissipate the grief caused by the grave charges brought against the governor. And what brought all this about? A levy of four denarii at Toulouse on each amphora, under the pretext of custom duties (portorii nomine) and of certain other smaller imposts levied by the agents of Fonteius, which seemed outrageous to the wine merchants of certain French towns. Pletorius, the principal accuser, would have it believed that this levy was but a link in a system of fraud powerfully organized, and pretended that Fonteius had not conceived in Gaul this detestable idea of levying an excessive impost on wine; that he had worked out the project in Italy, and that the plan had also its agents and ramifications in Rome. Nothing is more redoubtable, in an affair of thievery, than for one thief to accuse another. Unfortunate Fonteius! to have been placed in the position of having been accused by vintners.

We have already passed in review a goodly number of 240 gluttons; we are able likewise to say that in our painstaking visits to the inns of the environs of Rome and to the taverns of the great city which we have visited on foot, we have seen all that was vile in the Roman dregs without having entered as yet the stalls more shameless, which we shall later throw open to the light of the sun; and we shall know intimately the élite of the vagabonds, the fine flower of the ancient rascals. Some may resent a graphic picture of the scenes to follow before the close of this chapter, but we shall draw them still. It is no part of our plan to describe to the readers those places of public reunion, which people were accustomed to frequent without distinction to rank, but because of the relation they bore to hospitality, we find ourselves compelled to introduce our readers to the barber shops where the man about town, the beaux-brummels and the novelists, made their headquarters. Here luxury grew to an unprecedented height and when we reach the age of Julian, we find that emperor greatly incensed at discovering that society had so degraded itself that barbers had become an important part of the cosmos. We shall begin then with that institution of many professions, the female barber, well skilled in her trade of hair-dresser, barber, masseuse, manicure, and prostitute. In her shop gathered the slaves to homage and gossip, to sleep on the benches while waiting to conduct their infant charges, then at school, home when the master had terminated his lessons; and we shall find here plausible scoundrels working out their plans of campaign and preparing their snares even as in the cabarets, effeminate sissies such as Martial’s Priscius who dreaded wind and dust, dandies (belli) always occupied with comb and mirror (inter pectinem speculumcue occupati) as Seneca has said so spiritually.

The barber at least ought to be worthy of our observation. 241 Why, you will ask? Because he is a gossip and for that reason alone is well worthy to figure in our gallery. Have not gossip and curiosity always been considered a crime, especially on the part of barbers? Has not tittle-tattle always been the very letter and spirit of that calling? And the anecdote of the barber who demanded of an unknown customer “How shall I shave you?” received in response these words of Spartan brevity: “Without speaking.” Is this not vouched for by no less an authority than Plutarch, and is it not always as new as the latest gossip in the corner barber shop?

In connection with the barber shops, we are also bound to mention the stalls of the perfumers (nyropolia) and also those of the doctors (medicinae). There also among the Roman empirics, who did not content themselves with prescribing drugs, but who also prepared those which they sold, with their own hands. There, I repeat, in the stalls of the doctors, like those of our apothecaries, dudes, dandies, and novelists congregated. And we may also suspect that other frequenters, more sombrely intentioned, were to be found there. Did not they sell, in fact, poisons which were sometimes used as remedies, but which could bring death as well as health? “I will go to the doctor,” says a character in the “Mercator” of Plautus, “and there with poison I will buy death for myself.”

Black and white pen and ink drawing by Norman Lindsay, of a wide mouthed vase, with three feet, and the head of a swan on the brim.