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The Underworld of Bars in Roman Antiquity

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

By Márcio Monteneri, Ms. in Social History, Universidade de São Paulo

Bars were one of the hallmarks of Roman cities. In Ostia and Pompeii, as the archaeological data attest, they were numerous and were found in places of intense movement such as street corners, large avenues and near the city gates. They also occupied the facades of apartment buildings, hotels and public baths.

Bohemian spaces could be easily recognized by passersby in the urban landscape and were real hotspots of popular attraction.Some regulars of bars possibly gathered at counters and benches located right at the entrance. Others sat inside, on chairs, tables or sofas and consumed wines, meats and other products while talking. The smell of food, the sound of popular songs and the hubbub of conversations took over these environments.

In addition to meeting the population's immediate needs and pleasures, such as eating and drinking, bars were crucial for social interaction and entertainment for their customers.The presence of graffiti in these places supports this idea. On the walls of a bar located in the city of Pompeii, for example, we find records of a love affair between two men, Severus and Sucessus, by the slave innkeeper Hiris:

Sucessus textor amat coponiaes ancilla(m),

Nomine Hiredem, quae quidem illum

Non curat, sed ille rogat, illa com(m)iseretur.

Scribit riualis. Vale

Inuidiose, quia rumperes, sedare noli formonsiorem,

Et qui est homo preuessimus et bellus.

Dixi, scripsi. Amas Hiredem, quae te non curat.

Seu(erus?) Sucesso, ut su(p)ra(?)...s... Seuerus.

Severus: the weaver Successus loves the tavern slave named Hiris, who doesn't care about him, but he asks her to have pity on him. Answer, rival! Greetings.

Successus: You intervene because you are envious. Don't be funny, you flirty bad character!

Severus: I said and wrote the truth: you love Hiris, who doesn't care about you. From Severus to Successus: what I wrote is exactly what happens.

By writing a message to his opponent on the wall of a bar, Severus expected to be read and answered. From this episode, we get an idea of how bars were, in fact, places of meeting and discussion.

Although important in the everyday lives of common people, bars had a bad reputation among members of the elites, who are generally the authors of the texts that have come down to us. In Horace (65-8 BCE) the bars are described as "filthy" (Sat. 2. 4. 62) and "greasy" (Ep. 1. 14. 21), in Martial (40-104 CE) as "stuffy" ” (Mart. 1. 41. 9). In other works, they are commonly associated with debauchery, immorality, laziness and, of course, drunkenness!

In the eyes of elites, bars were frequented by despicable people. Juvenal (60-130 CE), in one of his satirical poems, portrays a high-ranking military man (legatus) in a bar in the city of Ostia “reclining beside a murderer, in the company of sailors, thieves and escaped slaves, among executioners, boat makers and the priest of Cybele, prostrated with drunkenness” (Sat. 8. 171-176).

Not only the customers, but also their practices were the target of the elitist criticisms. The historian Amianus Marcellinus, in the fourth century CE, ridiculed the “crowd of the lowest and impoverished condition” who spent nights on end in the “wine taverns” in Rome, where they had heated disputes in dice games or had long conversations about the races of cart (Amm. 14. 6. 25).

Over the centuries, Roman authorities also created laws to limit the services offered in bars and thus make them less attractive to the public. Emperor Claudius (41-54 CE) banned the sale of boiled meat and hot water, which was mixed with wine before drinking it (Dio Cass. 60. 6. 6-7). Later, Ampellius, prefect of Rome from 371-372 CE, took similar measures: he forbade these establishments from opening before 9 am, for plebs to heat the water, for ready-to-eat meat to be sold ahead of schedule, and, finally, that “honest” people were seen eating in public (Amm. Marc. 28. 4. 4).

Behind these prohibitions, it seems, there was a real fear of aristocrats about the political role of bars in the life of subaltern groups. These meeting points spread throughout the cities allowed for daily interaction, essential for people to develop horizontal ties, identify common interests and recognize themselves as part of the same group. This was frowned upon by the authorities.The contempt for bars, therefore, possibly occurred because solidarity among ordinary people was seen by the powerful as a real threat. Hence the successive attempts to extinguish these spaces or to control what was happening in them.

The emperors themselves feared the gathering of people in bars. Emperor Claudius, who saw these places as the main meeting place for the collegia, ordered the dismantling of these associations and, in order to attack the root of all evil, ordered the bars where they used to meet to be closed (Dio Cass. 60. 6. 7). Centuries later, in Late Antiquity, these spaces still aroused the distrust of Roman rulers. Gallus Caesar, in disguise and accompanied by a group of infiltrators, wandered through the bars at dusk asking people what they thought of himself, whose identity was hidden by his disguise (Amm. 14. 1. 9). Measures like these, I think, were evident political moves to contain conspiracies and riots against the authority of these emperors.

From entertainment to menace, the bars of the Roman world can tell us that politics was not the exclusive affair of a wealthy, hereditary elite, no matter how much the powerful wished to do so. Politics was not made only through institutions. For this, there were numerous other informal avenues. Politics practiced in the “underworld” of bars was one of them.

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