Were There Drive-Throughs in Ancient Rome?
In July 2019, the Facebook page “Nerds Raging” shared the following Tumblr screenshot, which consists of one purported book passage about drive-through restaurants in ancient Rome and subsequent humorous commentary:
Underneath a screenshot of text describing “fast food” restaurants in Rome (some of which purportedly had curbside service), additional text reads:
GUYS. THERE WAS DRIVE-THROUGH IN ANCIENT ROME. FINDING OUT THIS ALINE IS WORTH THE COST OF MY MASTERS IN HISTORY.
Under that was a book title and author:
[From Daily Life of the Ancient Romans by David Matz]
The highlighted passage of text appeared in that book, emphasized in a larger quote below:
Alternatively, if one’s hectic daily schedule precluded time for meal preparation, eating out was always an option. The restaurant and tavern trade flourished throughout Italy, although the patronizing of such establishments was viewed with some disapproval by upper-class Romans. Some of the restaurants were of the ”fast food” variety, where a customer could eat in or purchase a meal ”to go.” Some were even designed in such a way that customers could obtain meals without leaving their wagons or entering the restaurant at all, the prototype of ”drive-through” service.
The author describes ancient Rome’s casual dining options (thermopolia, or a thermopolium) as “designed in such a way that customers could obtain meals without … entering the restaurant at all,” albeit describing food acquired from inside a wagon. Presumably, the author was primarily referencing the prevalence of informal restaurants in the Rome of the era.
Similar discussion of “fast food” in ancient Rome occurred previously, such as a 2015 post to Reddit’s r/todayilearned:
TIL that take-out restaurants existed in ancient Rome, with service counters opening onto the street to pick up food. More than 200 existed in Pompeii, and most of its homes lacked dining or kitchen areas, suggesting that cooking at home was unusual. from todayilearned
In the lengthy title of that post, the original poster said that “cooking at home” was impractical and thus unusual in Pompeii, as purportedly evidenced by the ruins of the site (which were preserved after the eruption of a Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD). Pompeii, frozen in time, has been a strong source of historical information for archeologists versus locations with continuous habitation (like Rome).
The existence of thermopolia is well-documented, although they were not likely to be much like to the fast-food landscape of today, instead serving food from stone bowls facing the street to patrons who often lacked kitchens and food storage capabilities at their homes:
When Romans didn’t feel like cooking, they could stop by their local thermopolium, a precursor to today’s fast food joints. There, deep stone bowls inlaid in L-shaped counters are believed to have held such delicacies as cheese baked with honey and herbs, savory lentil dishes and mulled wine. The ruins of Pompeii feature many well-preserved examples of thermopolia, and experts think much of the population regularly patronized them; indeed, the majority of homes in the town lacked cooking facilities. For all their convenience, thermopolia could apparently draw a rough crowd and were often the scenes of crimes. Claudius once demanded their closure, and Caligula had a man killed who dared sell food at a thermopolium during a mourning period for the emperor’s sister.
An April 2019 Smithsonian Magazine article highlighting the breadth of recovered thermopolia in Pompeii explicitly stated that the establishments didn’t have “drive-throughs,” although the piece did characterize them as somewhat similar to modern-day fast food:
Thermopolia were found throughout the Roman world, frequented by many in the empire looking for a quick lunch. While they didn’t have a drive-thru lane for chariots, they were pretty ingenious. The snack spots were usually designed as long counters with earthware jars, called dolia, embedded in them to help hot foods and drinks stay warm … Essentially, as Roman expert Stephen Dyson of the University of Buffalo tells Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News, think of them as a cross between a “Burger King and a British pub or a Spanish tapas bar.
In the broadest sense, it could be said that thermopolia provided the Big Macs of Rome (if you consider scooping honeyed fruit and lentils out of a stone basin similar to chicken nuggets), but the circulating excerpt above describes a “drive-through” for ancient Romans with wagons. That presents a question of plausibility — if many ancient citizens of Rome and Pompeii lacked kitchens and dining areas, were “wagons” all that affordable? Would thermopolia benefit from accommodating “wagons” or chariots if hardly anyone could patronize them from a vehicle?
Although the book quoted in the above-reproduced post surmised that it was possible for a “wagon” to be served by thermopolia, we were not able to locate any additional mentions in any descriptions of any recovered thermopolium. Moreover, most accounts of thermopolia note that upper-class Romans felt contemptuous towards the establishments in general, and were unlikely (but not unknown) to patronize them.
Additionally, wheeled transport was also banned inside many cities in ancient Rome, leaving the majority of people dependent on walking to get from place to place. Wheeled conveyances (such as chariots, wagons, and carts) were used to transport goods inside settled areas, but mainly traversed roads outside the cities and marketplaces. Those rudimentary vehicles were typically expensive and reserved for upper class Romans:
The streets of Rome were so narrow that wagons and carriages were not allowed upon them at hours when they were likely to be thronged with people. Through many years of the Republic, and for at least two centuries afterwards, the streets were closed to all vehicles during the first ten hours of the day, with the exception of four classes only: market wagons, which brought produce into the city by night and were allowed to leave empty the next morning, transfer wagons (plaustra) conveying material for public buildings, the carriages used by the Vestals, flamines, and rex sacrorum in their priestly functions, and the chariots driven in the pompa circensis and in triumphal processions. Similar regulations were in force in almost all Italian towns. This, in imperial times, made general the use within the walls of the lectica and its bearers.
Although the meme about drive-through fast food restaurants in ancient Rome was not entirely off the mark, it is an out-of-context screenshot from book with additional details. Rome’s well-documented “fast food” businesses, called thermopolium in the singular and thermopolia in the aggregate, are extensively documented as having supplied ancient Romans with food in lieu of home-based cooking. Thermopolia were frequented by the lower classes, but scorned by the wealthier Romans — the same Romans with easy access to wagons and other wheeled conveyances. Finally, thermopolia existed primarily in areas of high population density, the same areas in which wagons were largely banned during business hours.
It’s true that ancient Romans had access to “fast food” in a broad sense, but unlikely that many if any thermopolia boasted drive-through service. Based on historical descriptions, the “drive-through” function most likely was access to merchant carts bearing supplies and foodstuffs to stock any given thermopolium.