On 27 June, the Archaeological Park of Pompeii announced that a new fresco depicting a focaccia (an Italian flatbread) had been discovered. In recent years, the site has begun excavating previously unexplored areas of the once bustling town that was buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.
In the announcement, director Gabriel Zuchtriegel described a beautifully preserved still-life fresco depicting a cup of wine next to a focaccia on a silver tray holding various fruits and what looks like moretum, a Roman herb-and-cheese spread.
As the media caught wind of the new find, one phrase quickly rose to the top of Google search rankings: “ancient Roman pizza”. But is there enough evidence to confirm that the flatbread pictured in the Pompeian fresco is an early form of the beloved Neapolitan food? The short answer is “no”, although it’s understandable why some may initially assume, after glancing at the fresco (see image below), that these flatbreads are akin to pizza.
In the Italian version of the announcement, Zuchtriegel recalls a passage of Virgil’s Aeneid, which details the placing of fruit and other foods on top of breads (sometimes referred to as “cakes” in Greek and Roman literature) that function as “tables” (mensae, in Latin):
“Aeneas, handsome Iulus, and the foremost leaders,
settled their limbs under the branches of a tall tree,
and spread a meal: they set wheat cakes for a base
under the food (as Jupiter himself inspired them)
and added wild fruits to these tables of Ceres.
When the poor fare drove them to set their teeth
into the thin discs, the rest being eaten, and to break
the fateful circles of bread boldly with hands and jaws,
not sparing the quartered cakes, Iulus, jokingly,
said no more than: ‘Ha! Are we eating the tables too?'”
As a classical archaeologist who researches and recreates the breads and pastries of ancient Rome, I immediately knew that the image depicted in the unearthed fresco was a very important discovery. For one thing, it’s the first pictorial representation of food placed atop a circular flatbread in a Roman setting, corroborating literary references, such as the Aeneid, to this practice in ancient Roman dining.
The fresco also helps to identify a flatbread depicted in a previously known Pompeii fresco, the “bread distribution” fresco from the tablinum of the Casa del Panettiere (House of the Baker), and the two bread images in tandem provide critical information regarding how this type of bread was shaped by hand, and why it took the form it did.
In the fresco from the House of the Baker, small, circular flatbreads sit atop the kiosk shelf, and a ring is impressed into the surface of the bread, creating a trough and a slightly raised rim. The trough was most likely used to keep wet foodstuffs from falling off the bread’s surface as people ate it. This trough may also be present underneath the food, inside of the rim of the flatbread depicted in the new fresco, suggesting that the two breads are likely the same type.
This unusual flatbread is also represented in another archaeological setting near Pompeii: Paestum, an ancient Greek city that was a part of the former Greek colonies once referred to as Magna Graecia. At the museum located at the site, terracotta renditions of this bread are displayed next to various foodstuffs that were consumed in the area during the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE.
With three archaeological representations of this flatbread, and one with fruit resting atop of it, it’s now easier to decipher what it might have been known as to 1st-Century Greeks and Romans.
The 2nd-Century grammarian, Athenaeus of Naucratis, wrote of a leavened Greek “cake” called nastos, a round, flat cake categorised as placoûs or placentae, the ancient Greek terms used to describe pastries made of flour, cheese, oil and honey. According to Athenaeus, these cakes were used as sacrificial offerings and he wrote that they were topped with a coulis, or fruit purée, called caryca. Italian speakers will immediately recognise the similarity of this word to the verb caricare: to fill, which is exactly what nastos was designed for: to be filled with purée.
To the ancient Romans, this coulis-topped cake was known by a different name, and it was categorised as a type of Libum, the Roman equivalent to the Greek placoûs. The name of the Roman version of nastos can be read in the same passage previously mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid in its original Latin text: instituuntque dapes et adorea liba per herbam (they place cakes of meal on the grass). Aeneas and his men then load the wheaten cakes with wild fruit. To Romans, therefore, nastos was most likely known as adoreum (plural, adorea).
In the 1st Century AD, Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote in Historia Naturalis that Romans once made offerings of adorea. According to Roman soldier and senator, Cato the Elder, the word was synonymous with “glory”. And the late 4th- and early 5th-Century grammarian, Servius, tells us that adorea cakes (ie flatbreads) are made of emmer (hulled) wheat, honey and oil and are suitable for offerings.
With this information, it’s fair to say that the fruit-topped flatbread depicted in the new fresco at Pompeii, and the ringed flatbreads depicted on the fresco from of the House of the Baker – along with the terracotta depictions at Paestum – are adorea, not pizza. Afterall, the flatbread in the new fresco is topped with and surrounded by fruit; not meat, mushrooms or vegetables.
Following the announcement of the fresco, many have attempted to discern what some of the foods and objects in the fresco are. Here are my interpretations, which are reflected in the recipe below:
On the flatbread: cheese or fruit paste; a bay leaf (with perhaps a small slice of cheese underneath); a small apricot, peach or apple; quail eggs; and slices of apricot or peach.
On the tray: two citrons, a peach, a fig, two dates and chestnuts.
On the slat below the tray: possibly a reed, used to cut or pierce the pieces of fruit. (Pliny the Elder references the use of reeds in cutting and piercing soft foods.)