A Roman bakery in Pompeii, and what it might have looked like.- Drawing by Andrea Tosolini.

March 12, 2024

Much is known about recipes for ancient bread from surviving texts — but not how bread was baked on a commercial scale in towns.

Pompeii helps fill this gap. It preserves many examples of commercial bakeries, complete with their own mills, ovens and labour-saving devices. The sheer number of bakeries and the scale of their production shows that buying bread in the Roman world was as common as it is today.

Baking and Bakeries in Pompeii | History and Archaeology OnlineDistribution of bread by a Roman political candidate or official, fresco from Pompeii in Naples National Archaeological Museum. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Bakeries in Pompeii

Many homes in Pompeii baked their own bread, but it seems that bakeries or pistrina were popular food outlets in the town. In Modestus’s bakery, around 80 loaves were found abandoned in an oven at the time of the eruption showing the demand for shop-bought bread was high.

Bakeries are easy to identify because of their large bread ovens. About 35 bakeries have been found in Pompeii, each supplying their local area.

Larger bakeries also had their own mills. These establishments were generally found on the town’s main streets and in the northern part of the city, close to the countryside and grain supplies.

Baking and Bakeries in Pompeii | History and Archaeology Online

Flour mills in the Bakery of Popidius Priscus, VII.2.22, Pompeii. Picture Credit: Natasha Sheldon (2007) All rights reserved.

Roman Flour Mills

Mill rooms were separate and equipped with as many as four millstones made of basalt lava, driven by donkeys to grind the grain.

Each mill consisted of a basin or meta, with an hourglass-shaped stone called a catillus on top. Grain was poured into the top of the catillus through a funnelled opening and then ground between the two stones, collecting in a tray called a lamina.

Baking and Bakeries in Pompeii | History and Archaeology Online

Carbonised loaf of bread from Pompeii. Picture Credit: Jebulon. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Wikimedia Commons

Roman Bread Making

Dough was prepared in a different area. Unusually, this was not always done by hand. In the bakery of Popidius Priscus, an industrial scale bread making machine was discovered with the dough mixed with large paddles.

Machinery was common in Roman baking. Special kneading machines existed. Dough was wound around a horizontal shaft in the bottom of a basin and then pressed between wooden slats on the basin’s sides. Only the shaping and stamping with the bakery mark was done by hand.

Baking and Bakeries in Pompeii | History and Archaeology Online

Bakery of Popidius Priscus: Bread baking oven with millstones to the right. Picture Credit: Neil Bate (2007) All rights reserved.

Roman Bakery Ovens

Baking occurred in a different room equipped with large ovens fuelled by vine wood. Each oven had a flue to vent off the smoke. Many oven rooms also had ceiling vents to help disperse the smoke.

Each loaf was inserted into the oven on a wooden paddle before baking for about half an hour. Finished goods were then stored before selling to the public. Many bakeries had a separate street entrance to transport goods, suggesting that even if they did not sell directly to the customers themselves, they did deliver.