Ancient Roman Ovens…

This summer saw an addition to our domus: we built a small, wood-fired oven in our backyard.  Needless to say, no one turns down an invitation to dinner at our house anymore.  I’ve baked bread, roasted chicken and vegetables, baked fruit crustate and crumbles and countless pizzas–Neapolitan style, of course.

My fascination with wood-fired brick ovens began in 2002 when I first laid eyes on the remains of the big corner bakery, adjacent to the House of Pansa, in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.  The huge stone flour mills (mola asinaria) consisting of an hourglass shaped “cattilus” seated on top of a conical shaped “meta”, today stand silent.

Flour mill depiction on a sarcophagus, Vatican Museum.

In 79 AD mules would have been hitched to wooden beams that were connected to carved sockets in the narrow portion of the cattilus.  As the mules trodded around and around, grain would be dumped into the top, or hopper, of the hourglass and the processed flour came out the bottom. Contrary to what you might hear the “tour guides” in Pompeii tell their audiences, these mills were driven by mules.  The catillus, carved from a solid chunk of volcanic rock, is too heavy to effectively be turned by slave power.

Mola Asinaria – Flour Mills in Pompeii

Even more than the flour mills, I find myself drawn to the ovens. The exposed brickwork  conveys the craftsmanship and skill that went into constructing them.   Apparently, at least in the ancient Roman world, the skill of the brick-mason wasn’t as impressive to the ancients as it is to me.  These beautiful brick ovens were plastered over and painted.  Frescoes depicting gods, bakers, baked goods, mythic scenes, etc. were painted on the plaster, hiding the brickwork.

A commercial oven in Pompeii

Typically, a small shrine or “lararium” would be built into the wall near the oven,  dedicated to one or more of a variety of deities.   These bakeries were busy!  One, the bakery of N. Popidius Priscus, located on the “Vicolo Storto” contained flour mills but no service counter.  One theory is that they ran a delivery service.  The proprietor even owned a mixing machine equipped with paddles!  The bread was kneaded, formed into loaves, stamped with the baker’s mark and then launched into the oven: a large, polygonal vault with a flue in the front.  One oven in Pompeii was excavated revealing 81 loaves of bread still on the baking surface!

Fresco depicting a baker selling bread: National Museum of Archaeology in Napoli

The bakery incorporated into the “House of the Chaste Lovers”, on the main street of Pompeii (the Via dell’Abbondanza), is still being excavated.  There archaeologists have identified the remains of the mules, still in their stable area, buried during the eruption of Vesuvius.   They have also discovered evidence that the bakery was undergoing repair work, possibly due to earthquake damage: one of the cattilus’ had been used to hold plaster, the type used in patching walls in preparation for frescoing.  An engineers’ compass and small pots of paint or pigment were also found, indicating that work was being done to the frescoes in the bakery, at the time of the eruption.  The cities surrounding Vesuvius suffered severe damage during a large earthquake in 62AD.  In 79 AD, the year of the famous eruption, repairs were still being conducted.  It is also likely that earthquakes leading up to the big eruption had caused damage as well.  Anyway, the “House of the Chaste Lovers” may be finally open to the public this summer.  Ramps and raised walkways will permit visitors to explore the structure while allowing archaeologists to continue with their work.

Another oven in Pompeii

More than thirty bakeries have been identified in Pompeii.   If you look look at their distribution on a plan map of the city, you see they are typically on or very near the corner or intersection of their respective city block.  Some blocks, or “insulae”, contained multiple bakeries.  In Pompeii, one was never far from bread.  You could have it delivered.  You could buy it at the counter.  You could even grind your own flour with a domestic-size mill called a “quern”, mix/knead your dough and then take that to the bakery around the corner to have it baked–for that perfect crust.  Bread was a staple of life in the ancient Roman world.  Pizza might have even been a possibility: Virgil refers to bread as being an edible plate in his epic poem “The Aeneid”.

Carbonized bread at Boscoreale.

If you are interested in more information on the bakeries in Pompeii and Herculaneum, I would like to recommend Pompeii: The Last Day by Paul Wilkinson, and Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, as well as the following article by Professor Robert I. Curtis: Food Technology in the Ancient Urban Context.

Also, please note that it is forbidden by the Superintendent of Archaeology of Pompeii to use any of these photos for commercial gain without express written permission.

My humble wood-fired oven

This entry was posted in Rome and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Ancient Roman Ovens…

  1. Georgia says:

    This has helped me a lot with my Assignment to History :) Thank You

  2. Hi, Georgia
    Glad you found it helpful!

  3. Sarah says:

    This is fascinating. I hope to one day be able to get to visit Pompeii!!

  4. Barbara Osterman says:

    Do you know the date of the fresco showing the bakery which you posted?
    Thank you-

  5. It likely dates to near 79AD. Also, while it could be a depiction of a baker, selling bread, it may also represent a wealthy patron, doling out free bread – possibly to win favor before an election. Note the “baker” appears to be wearing a toga, not something a working-class baker would wear on the job…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>