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Site of the 2,100-year old Roman tavern, featuring the pits of taboon ovens for bread, a huge dining section to the right, a drainage system and millstones.

Excavations Reveal that the Oldest Roman Tavern Nourished and Served Ancient Life

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A recent archaeological find in Lattes, France may provide insight into how the Romans dined 2,100 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered a structure that they believe to be a tavern, in an area that had been conquered by the Romans during that time. Lattes lies on the southern-border of France, on the Mediterranean Sea. The discovery of the tavern is an interesting one, in that this is the earliest Roman restaurant discovered to date.

Initially believed to be a bakery, USA Today reports that archaeologists now think that what they have uncovered is an ancient tavern. The archaeological findings include three indoor gristmills, and three ovens, which would have been used to bake flatbread. These findings go beyond what an individual home would require, and suggest that the site once hosted a tavern where the Romans could dine out.

The kitchen of what looks like an ancient tavern, with three reddish circles where the three ovens -- for baking flatbread and other dishes -- once stood.

The kitchen of what looks like an ancient tavern, with three reddish circles where the three ovens -- for baking flatbread and other dishes -- once stood. ( Lattes Excavations )

Benches and a charcoal-burning hearth, as well as pieces of large bowls and platters, indicate that this was no takeout counter. This was an establishment where the locals could sit and share a meal. The findings also provide some insight into the foods that would have been featured on the menu, as bones from fish, sheep, and cattle were discovered .

According to archaeologist Benjamin Luley of Gettysburg College, the most common ceramic object found at the site was cups for drinking. The archaeologists have not uncovered any coins, which leads some to believe that the tavern may have served as a private dining room. However, Luley argued that during that time people tended not to lose coins, so the absence of coins doesn’t necessarily mean that the diners were not paying for their meals.

The dining room of the ancient tavern, showing banks of pebbles where built-in benches once stood against the walls.

The dining room of the ancient tavern, showing banks of pebbles where built-in benches once stood against the walls. (Lattes excavations )

This discovery casts light on the historic background of restaurants. Restaurants are something we take for granted today, and most of us know that whenever we are in the mood for a certain type of food, we can find a restaurant that will prepare and serve that meal, and where we can dine among family, friends, and others. During ancient times, it seems as though eating and drinking would have occurred primarily in the home. 

According to foodtimeline.org, the first cafes, selling drinks and snacks, were established in 1550 AD in Constantinople. These weren’t the equivalent to today’s drive-through restaurants, where you can grab a quick cup of coffee or a snack, or even a sit-down restaurant where you eat a quick and casual dinner with friends and family. Rather, these were places for the well-educated members of society to share ideas and discoveries. 

As far as full-fledged restaurants go, foodtimeline.org provides three theories as to who started the first restaurant – Boulanger (1765), Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau in Paris (1766), and Beauvilliers (1782).  It is not surprising to hear that France was the “birthplace of what we now call a restaurant.” 

A Pompeiian taberna for eating and drinking. The faded painting over the counter pictured eggs, olives, fruit and radishes.

A Pompeiian taberna for eating and drinking. The faded painting over the counter pictured eggs, olives, fruit and radishes. ( Mac9/ CC BY 2.0 )

Luley and Gaël Piquès of Montpellier University co-authored the study on the Lattes site, highlighting the importance of this find. “Not only is the tavern the earliest of its kind in the region, it also serves as an invaluable indicator of the changing social and economic infrastructure of the settlement and its inhabitants following the Roman conquest of Mediterranean Gaul in the late second century B.C.”  

In speaking with USA Today, Luley opined as to the reason the tavern was built. Prior to the Romans’ arrival, the ancient town, called Lattara, was made up of farmers. The arrival of the Romans created a more diverse economy, and the need for places to eat outside the home. 

“If you’re not growing your own food, where are you going to eat?  The Romans, in a very practical Roman way, had a very practical solution … a tavern.”  Luley told USA Today. It has even been suggested that the tavern may have functioned more like a modern-day bar, with drinking vessels for serving wine.

A Gallo-Roman relief depicting a river boat transporting wine barrels, an invention of the Gauls that came into widespread use during the 2nd century. Above, wine is stored in the traditional amphorae, some covered in wicker.

A Gallo-Roman relief depicting a river boat transporting wine barrels, an invention of the Gauls that came into widespread use during the 2nd century. Above, wine is stored in the traditional amphorae, some covered in wicker. ( JPS68/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

This finding creates a commonality between two completely different time periods – ancient Roman times, and today. While the tavern discovered at Lattes was likely very different from modern restaurants, it was likely very similar as well, in that it was a place for people to meet while eating and drinking. Today’s social gatherings almost always include some form of food or drink, and the discovery of this tavern unearths the possibility that even in ancient times, people came together over food.    

Featured Image: Site of the 2,100-year old Roman tavern, featuring the pits of taboon ovens for bread, a huge dining section to the right, a drainage system and millstones. Source: Lattes Excavation

By MRReese

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