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H - 127 : What did Roman Sailors do after Dark?

Updated: Mar 23

With the dying afternoon breeze, a Roman Cordita glides into the port of Myra, where several large freighters already shelter for the night. Upon arrival, the five man crew tidies up the ship, washes the deck with fresh water and stows sails and ropes. Then they check the correct storage of the cargo below and unfold the mattresses for sleeping. It is time to visit the harbour master to pay the port fee, make a small sacrifice at the local altar and pray for favourable weather. Next job is provisioning the ship with fresh water, vegetables and a few fruits. As the sun sets, work is done. The five sailors gather on deck to eat a simple meal of bread with fish sauce, a few olives, pickled veggies and fresh grapes and wash it down with wine which sadly had turned to vinegar two days earlier.

Remains of a Roman Taverna in Herculaneum with its bar and amphorae style serving pots

After so many days at sea, nobody wanted to stay on the boat. Three of the crew members were the first time in Myra. They were eager to meet sailors from other boats to exchange the latest news on ports, weather and custom fees. Nightlife as we know did not exist. After sunset, the Roman Empire was dark - pitch dark. There was no light. A few wealthy citizens could afford torches and lamps. But for most people night was a time to sleep.

Some Taverna had even banquet benches to accommodate wealthy Roman Diners

There was one exception though: the Roman Taberna. And that is where our sailors headed for. Next to the pier there was a dimly lit tavern. Two dozen oil lamps provided just enough light to see each other. The lamps burnt olive oil which was specially made for the purpose. The olives were left unpressed for two months to turn acidic. Olive oil with a high degree of acidity burns better and is less smoky than oil pressed within a day of harvest. Never tried acidic olive oil - it must taste terribly.

Leftovers and Bones from a lavish Dinner - a Taverna's Waste would have looked differently

A Roman Taverna offered many things to its customers. Guests came for making deals, exchanging information, gossiping and gambling. Cheap wine, slightly better than the vinegar on board, was on offer. You could order snacks and simple meals. Occasionally, a professional story teller visited and entertained the guests with tales of faraway lands, monsters roamting the seas and the latest hear-say from the Imperial Court. Roman Tavernas were everywhere. In Rome, there was one per 100 people. We know about them because a few survived almost intact in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Thanks to decorative paintings and mosaics, we have a pretty good idea of how they worked.

Two Guests argue with the Waitress about who should have his Wine served first

Many taverns also had guest rooms on the first floor and offered paid company - women, girls, boys. Prostitution was rampant in the Roman Empire. Always provided by slaves who had no choice. Romans and Greeks were pedophiles – not with their own children - of course - but with their "pleasure" slaves. Fascinating psychology – separating humans from slaves to be able to treat the less fortunate like sex toys. Am glad our civilization progressed and abolished slavery.

Fresco of Guest kissing a Waitress in a Taverna


With cheap wine easily available, people playing for money and prostitution abound, the tavernas were rowdy places. They attracted all sorts of shady characters and had a pretty bad reputation. After dark, streets in Roman towns were not safe. You could get attacked at any moment. Thieves hanged out in taverns to find out which visitor had money, then shadowed and robbed them when they left. The situation was so bad that several Roman Emperors made it a sport to go for a brawl after dinner - to roughen up some hooligans - as they said justifying their midnight rampages. Nero was one of these "active" Emperors. Am quite sure the Praetorian Guard actually did the beating but the Emperors got the credit.

Excessive Wine Consumption and barely dressed Slaves was a Key Hobby for Wealthy Men

Unexpectedly, I found some related evidence in Venice, also a harbour with lots of shady tavernas. In the dark street corners, thugs prayed on people coming from the taverns. To make sure that nobody could hide in a street corner, the Venetian Magistrates placed large, carved stones there. Problem solved.

Venetian Cornerstone preventing Thugs from hiding

Our five sailors did not stay for long in the taverna. They already had eaten dinner and left after a few trinkets of wine. They did not learn much from other mariners. They planned to sail with the morning wind from the mountains and had to get the boat ready for sunrise. The morning breeze was a precious thing you did not want to miss. It was time to call it a day. Other visitors stayed on - the night was still young.

For these 5 Roman Gamblers the Night had just started

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