We associate the city of Pompeii with tragedy and ruin. The city was buried for centuries after one of the largest natural disasters to shake the Roman empire. It wasn’t until archaeologists peeled back the earthen layers to find a treasure trove from the past. One of those treasures: an establishment that closely resembled modern convenience restaurants: fast food. That’s right — even the ancients needed a break from the kitchen from time to time. Massimo Ossana, an archaeological professor from the University of Naples Federico II, recently posted a photo on Instagram of what appears to be a fresco painting on what was once known as a thermopolia.

Thermopolia roughly translates to “a place where (something) hot is sold,” aka, a snack shack. The frescoes depicting the restaurant (and a water nymph) was displayed on the establishment’s counters, where customers could go for a quick bite. Don’t get too excited though — this place is no ancient version of Mickey Dee’s. In fact, far from it. Thermopolias often carried a negative reputation, despite there being over 80 of them peppered around the buried city. According to the Smithsonian, the thermopolium was a place that gamblers, drunks, and criminals frequented.

In fact, thermopolias’ reputation was so bad that historians believe Emperor Caligula wanted to do away with them all together. Rumor has it he sentenced a man to death for selling hot water after attempting to ban the ancient snack shacks for good. But still, you gotta have those fries on the side! Despite their seedy reputation, even aristocrats stopped in for a quick bite — the same aristocrats who basically sullied the reputation of the thermopolium in the first place (is that the smell of hypocrisy? Oh, wait…it’s just a double-double).

Thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus
Thermopolium being a daytime fast-food eatery (as contrasted with more restaurant-like caupona)

Nevertheless, thermopolias were a popular place to pick up food, especially in a city with tight quarters. Not everyone could afford to eat in, especially the poorer folks living in apartment-like dwellings with no kitchens. An average ancient Roman citizen could walk up, sit at a decorated counter, and grub. Inside the counters were large holes that contained earthware jars called dolias which kept food hot and drinks warm (Smithsonian). So, what was on the menu of a thremopolia? Among the ancient Roman’s favorites: lentils, meat, cheese, and a fish sauce known as garum. They also served nuts and a warm, spiced wine called calida (Business Insider).

In a press release about the newfound eatery, archaeologists say finding these fast food establishments gave an intimate look at the day-to-day lives of Pompeii citizens. “Even if structures like these are well known at Pompeii, discovering more of them, along with objects which went hand in hand with commercial and thus daily life, continue to transmit powerful emotions that transport us to those tragic moments of the eruption, which nonetheless left us unique insights into Roman civilization,” states interim Director Alfonsina Russo. Who wouldn’t want to travel back in time to see how the ancients lived? 

Pompeii is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world. Due to the catastrophic events that led to its perfect preservation, there is no need to imagine what life was like in ancient Rome. With villas, streets, and structures in near pristine condition, the appeal of walking down the streets as the ancients did is too irresistible to pass up. It’s time travel without the science fiction (or at least as close as we can get right now). People are drawn to the past, and have a deep-seeded desire to connect with it. That’s the lure of Pompeii. Who knows — maybe someday, you’ll get the chance to stop by and get a hot drink in the city’s local (modernized) version of a thermopolia.