Last Supper in Pompeii

Our final lecture of the 2021-22 season was delivered by the fabulous Dr Paul Roberts, Sackler Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Classics Ambassador Ruth W recaps his brilliant talk:

Last Supper in Pompeii, as well as the title of this lecture, was the name of the hugely successful and fascinating exhibition which Dr Roberts curated and displayed in 2015 in Oxford and he began this talk by explaining the thoughtful reason behind the poster for the exhibition. It depicts both Roman men and women reclining in Greek-style luxury, with little round tables instead of large banqueting tables; artworks such as these ancient frescoes help us to gain a better understanding of how the Romans dined.

Sourdough baked in AD79!

Dr Roberts spent much of his childhood washing pots – both in his mother’s restaurant and at local archaeological sites in Gloucester! – and this exposure to food and history inspired his interest in the ancient world (a special shout out to his mother for introducing him to Herculaneum and to his Latin teacher for capturing the thrill of his Roman digs at Usk and Caerleon). One highlight of Dr Roberts’ career to date came in 2013, when he impressively reconstructed the atrium area of a Roman house at the British Museum…but even this ground breaking exhibition (Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum), wasn’t the one he’d always dreamed of doing. At was at the Ashmolean in 2015 that the opportunity arose for him to bring Last Supper in Pompeii to life.

Upon entering the galleries, Bacchus, the god of wine, and the triclinium fresco, welcomed onlookers. Even in the afterlife, the Romans (heavily influenced by the Greeks and the Etruscans) believed that banqueting was to be continued with one’s ancestors and gods all having a place at the table. This can be seen by the number of amphorae and the range of eating equipment (including an early barbeque) in a single Etruscan tomb; people went there to ‘feast with the dead’ as shown by the fragments of eggshells collected from inside the tomb. As Dr Roberts captured so well, it was very Roman to think: “why exclude the dead from the greatest enjoyments of the living?”. The merged cultures of the former Greek colony Paestum and the Lucani tribe can be seen on funerary iconography showing eggs, loaves of bread, pomegranates, meat “on the hoof” and terracotta dedications of different foodstuffs. In fact, yellow “gunk” in one of the Posidonian bronze vessels was analysed by Oxford University and found to be one of the earliest honeycombs ever discovered.

Returning to Pompeii, Dr Roberts explained that the land surrounding Mount Vesuvius is extremely fertile, as shown by the miles of vineyards found buried under layers of lapilli – small volcanic stones that blanketed the region during the eruption of AD79. Dr Roberts showed how these pulverised stones rained down on Pompeii, destroying but also preserving the city. It was the following pyroclastic surges which caused the death of its people – an environmental and human disaster. However, some of the doliae (large vats to store fermenting wine) which were found at local production sites were sealed with wine inside; these vessels may hold the key to unlocking one of the mysteries of the eruption – the exact date it took place – since the wine harvest needs at least another month or two after the date which Pliny attributes to the eruption (August 24).

Fermented fish sauce, jars of olive oil and fully preserved pigs were some of the many food items found in Pompeii. A pub sign showing a Golden Phoenix is one of the few still surviving. Dr Roberts asked us to imagine Pompeii less like a classical city, but more like the landscape of modern Mumbai. Pompeian pubs and bars had cooking areas (where many ordinary people would eat their meals) and built in amphorae for hot and cold drinks. Some metal jars from some of these bars discovered in the 1950s were eventually conserved in the exhibition in the Ashmolean. Here they discovered maggots that had been eating the contents (meat or fish) which had then been fused with the vessel during the eruption! Politicians were shown on frescos discovered handing out largess of loaves to win popularity, showing food was involved in every aspect of Roman society.

Moving to domestic areas in Pompeii and the garden was central to the elite Roman home. Water was transported through hydraulic systems and plants came from nurseries on the city outskirts, categorised in the present day according to the variety of soil types found. The often-windowless kitchen had a cooking platform adjacent to a rather unsanitary toilet! Luckily, a fresco showing sacred snakes protected the members of one kitchen/en suite in Pompeii. A bronze fisherman with a fountain spout coming out of the top of his head, alongside a full three-walled fresco of a painted garden landscape, also travelled to the Ashmolean for the exhibition, a difficult undertaking for sure! Each of the 375 items in the exhibition had to be authenticated and if you wanted to fact check your dinner hosts’ silverware in Pompeii, there would be the pounds and ounces of the silver printed onto the bottom. One of the most surprising Roman delicacies Dr Roberts told us about was dormice (raised in a jar and then cooked using a portable oven), which would often be followed by a slightly more conventional “meat fest” of pork, sheep and goat.

Dr Roberts’ talk was wonderfully wide-ranging, capturing the different aspects of Roman dining and ostentation, as feasts often also included antiques, vivid frescoes, grafitti, and even phallic lamps! He also brought our knowledge of the site up to date by explaining how parts of region V have been excavated recently thanks to a specialised drainage system and how bars have been discovered with picture menus and even some leftover food like fish and snails. Interestingly, the Romans sparked something of an agricultural revolution in Britain: fish farms and a new corn supply to feed the whole Rhine army made Britain the breadbasket of the empire for a time and brought new wealth to the country.

Finally, he showed us the tomb of Curatia Dinysia found on the road to Chester which practically mirrored the Etruscan tombs previously discussed since she was shown reclined and feasting. Conversely, the unsuspecting Pompeiians were buried in a foot of lapilli every hour before the fatal, pyroclastic surge. Roberts then showed a very moving resin cast of a lady. Unlike Curatia, she is the only real person to travel from Pompeii, but she was ready to recline and feast during the after life, like the true Roman she was.

Thank you Dr Roberts for a fascinating insight into ancient Pompeian life and for reminding us that we must ‘carpe diem’ – there are links between dining and the afterlife, and felt most strikingly at Pompeii of course – with a tasty bite or two! Fermented fish sauce anyone?