Fast food has existed since ancient Rome — where restaurants sold fish sauce and baked cheese and narrowly survived two emperors

Rich Romans scoffed at these fast food restaurants — but that didn't stop some from visiting.

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Rich Romans scoffed at these fast food restaurants — but that didn’t stop some from visiting.
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Porojnicu Stelian/Shutterstock, Peter Lorimer/Shutterstock

Fast food isn’t some new-fangled invention. It’s been around for centuries, albeit in different forms.

• Ancient Roman fast food joints were called “thermopolia.”

• These restaurants had a bad reputation, but they provided fast and cheap meals to the poor of ancient Rome.

Fast food has been around for quite some time.

Even ancient people hankered for a spot where they could swing by and grab a hot meal. For the ancient Romans, that’s where thermopolia came in. The word translates to “places where hot drinks are sold.”

Historian and “Food and Drink in Antiquity: A Sourcebook: Readings from the Graeco-Roman World” author John Donahue wrote that these restaurants hawked the “ancient equivalent of modern fast food.”

Most of the restaurants operated out of small rooms, fronted by large countertops. Some spots also featured small dining areas, but the primary function of the thermopolium (that’s the singular version of “thermapolia,” if you were wondering) was to sell take-out food

Many Romans didn’t have the time or means to prepare meals at home, and came to rely on these ubiquitous eateries.

Take a look at these ancient fast food joints:


The store’s countertops were embedded with jars known as “dolia.” These stored dried and cold foods that could be distributed to customers or taken out and heated up. Hot meals were served and stored in smaller pots.

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Porojnicu Stelian/Shutterstock

Source: “The World of Ancient Rome,” “Food and Drink in Antiquity: A Sourcebook: Readings from the Graeco-Roman World


Some of the fast food joints were fancier than others. BBC reported that a number of the thermopolia were found to “have decorated back rooms, which may have functioned as dining-rooms.”

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Wikimedia Commons

Source: BBC


But historian James Ermatinger wrote that most thermopolia sold food that was “prepared to be eaten on the run rather than sitting down.”

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Wikimedia Commons

Source: “The World of Ancient Rome


“A popular belief exists that family members should sit down and dine together and, if they don’t, this may represent a breakdown of the family structure, but that idea did not originate in ancient Rome,” “The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii” author Penelope Allison told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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BlackMac/Shutterstock

Source: “The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation


So what was on the menu at these spots? Lentils, meat, cheese, and a type of warmed spice wine called calida were all staples, according to Donahue.

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Peter Lorimer/Shutterstock

Source: “Food and Drink in Antiquity: A Sourcebook: Readings from the Graeco-Roman World


Fish sauce — known as garum — and nuts also may have been handy snacks to eat on the go, Ermatinger wrote. Atlas Obscura reported that the joints also sold baked cheese slathered with honey.

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john dory/Shutterstock

Source: Atlas Obscura, “The World of Ancient Rome


Thermopolia weren’t the only type of restaurant on the block, though. A taberna was a sort of shop-and-bar combination, while a popina was more of a “greasy spoon” type establishment, according to historian Carol B. Wilson.

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Alvaro German Vilela/Shutterstock

Source: “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: Pragmatics of Food Access in the Gospel of Matthew


But historian Steven J. R. Ellis pointed out that the term “thermopolia” was rarely used in original Roman sources, indicating that some of these labels may have been interchangeable.

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Wikimedia Commons

Source: “The Roman Retail Revolution: The Socio-Economic World of the Taberna


Like modern day fast food restaurants, thermopolia were everywhere. That’s clear in Pompeii, which had 150 thermopolia before the town was wiped out by a volcanic eruption, according to Atlas Obscura.

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Becks/Flickr

Source: Atlas Obscura


The sheer number of restaurants reflects a major demand for convenient eateries, especially in cities. Eating in simply wasn’t an option for most poor or apartment-dwelling Romans, who usually lacked kitchens.

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eFesenko/Shutterstock

Source “Food and Drink in Antiquity: A Sourcebook: Readings from the Graeco-Roman World,” “The World of Ancient Rome


Ermatinger wrote that wealthy Romans largely “scorned” the establishments. But that didn’t stop some rich people from dropping in for a bite to eat every once and a while, according to Wilson.

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isafmt/Flickr

Source: “The World of Ancient Rome,” “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: Pragmatics of Food Access in the Gospel of Matthew


The fast food eateries had a seedy reputation, and often served as spots where people could gamble and drink competitively, Wilson wrote.

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DHReeves/Shutterstock

Source: “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: Pragmatics of Food Access in the Gospel of Matthew


Roman playwright Plautus wrote that he often encountered thieves drinking in thermopolia “when they’ve stolen something; with their heads covered they drink hot drinks.”

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By Alvaro German Vilela/Shutterstock

Source: “The Roman Retail Revolution: The Socio-Economic World of the Taberna,” University of Chicago


The playwright also labeled thermopolia as a “gathering spot for lowly Greeks,” according to Donahue.

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Francesca Sciarra/Shutterstock

Source: “Food and Drink in Antiquity: A Sourcebook: Readings from the Graeco-Roman World


As such, the authorities sometimes took steps to stifle the restaurants. Writing on a University of Chicago blog, James Grout said that the ancient historian Dio claimed that Emperor Caligula sentenced a man to die for selling hot water — a crackdown that would have surely impacted thermopolia.

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EyeSeeMicrostock/Shutterstock

Source: University of Chicago


Grout added that, later on, Emperor Claudius “once commanded that such places be closed altogether.”

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Colin Wing/Flickr

Source: University of Chicago


Claudius also “commanded that no boiled meat or hot water should be sold; and he punished some who disobeyed in this matter,” Dio wrote. Such a measure would have devastated the restaurants.

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Alvaro German Vilela/Shutterstock

Source: University of Chicago, University of Chicago


Donahue said that the emperor’s command suggested “that anxieties about public order remained a real concern for the emperor.”

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Emperor Claudius.
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Wikimedia Commons

Source: “Food and Drink in Antiquity: A Sourcebook: Readings from the Graeco-Roman World


Despite the controversy, Ermatinger concluded that the fast food restaurants “provided the urban class an opportunity to have a quick hot meal.”

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Wikimedia Commons

Source: “The World of Ancient Rome