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Where Not to Dine in Ancient Rome

September 06, 2000|CHARLES PERRY

The idea of going out to a restaurant as a treat is quite modern. More typical, historically speaking, was the situation in ancient Greece and Rome, where you mostly ate either in somebody's home or at a public feast.

Of course, you could buy fast food on the street from cookshops or from cooks who carried portable stoves around. These itinerant cooks also wandered through theater aisles during plays, selling their sausages and honey cakes very much like coliseum vendors hawking hot dogs today.

Eating at an inn was something of a last resort--for instance, for travelers with no local friends. The Greek word for innkeeper, "kapelos," was practically synonymous with greed and dishonesty. The kapeloi were known for adulterating or falsifying wine, particularly after the first couple of drinks, when the connoisseur's fine palate was likely to be a little dulled. (In the kapeloi's defense, customers didn't have to pay for their drinks until they'd finished, and some were cheats themselves and liked to "drink and run.")

The food at the inns was proverbially bad, running at best to porridge, boiled beans and cabbage. Finicky travelers made a point of bringing their own food with them. The Roman emperor Tiberius is even said to have carted around garden plots of live melons and vegetables when he traveled.

In the later days of the Roman Empire, some low taverns shanghaied customers by luring them onto a trapdoor over a cellar. The victims weren't shipped out to sea but enslaved grinding grain. Another reason to spend your evenings at home.

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