At the Copa: Women, Clothing, and Color Codes in Roman Taverns

Sarah E. Bond
5 min readApr 8, 2021


Fresco from the Bar of Salvius, Pompeii. In it, a bar maid holds a jug in one hand and a cup in another. One customer shouts “over here!”while another says “no, it’s mine!” The exasperated barmaid replies “whoever wants it should take it. Oceanus come here and drink”. (Caption and Image by Dr. Sophie Hay and used by Permission).

On February 3, 326 CE, Constantine issued a legal clarification for Augustus’ Lex Julia de adulteriis, ruling that the wives of tavern owners (here labeled an uxor tabernarii) could be brought up on charges of adultery, but that the the barmaids working within the tavern could not be. Their lowly status as an or meant they were then legally on par with prostitutes as infames ( CTh 9.7.1).

In 336 CE, Constantine laid down another law that further clarified the leges Juliae. It established that unions between elite men and certain types of disreputable women — enslaved women and their daughters, freedwomen and their daughters, daughters of pimps or gladiators, actresses, daughters of actresses, waitresses and their daughters, and even women who sold wares — could not produce legitimate unions with elite men (and thus acquire all the privileges of status, property, and inheritance rights that came with a legal union) ( CTh. 4.6.3).

As these laws suggest, women who worked in bars were cast as lowly and commodified bodies available to be bought (and often abused). In Late Antiquity they were, ipso facto, viewed as prostitutes in the eyes of elite men and the law, as Vanderbilt historian Thomas McGinn has discussed in his article defining “T he Legal Definition of Prostitute in Late Antiquity.” But what is less clear within the elite legal evidence is how color and dress were used within the context of the Roman bar in order to signal status.

Written above the heads of this kissing couple from #Pompeii are the words spoken by the man: “I don’t want to do it with Myrtale”.Delightful fresco from the Bar of Salvius and currently in MAN Napoli (Caption and Image by Dr. Sophie Hay and used by permission).

The topic of Roman bars was on my mind because last week, the Iowa Society of the Archaeological Institute of America welcomed Steven Ellis to speak about his newest book, The Roman Retail Revolution. Although we were disappointed not to welcome Prof. Ellis in person here in Iowa City, the lecture was recorded and posted to YouTube (see below) for students, teachers, and the public to enjoy. His exploration of shops and bars in the Roman Mediterranean mapped Roman retail landscapes down to the very bar counter, while also demonstrating the necessity for comprehensive field surveys that go beyond a singular site (like Pompeii) in order to draw conclusions about Roman commerce and bars.

Following the lecture promotion and tweeting on Twitter, there were a lot of follow-up questions regarding bibliography and Roman bars, as well as discussion of the Pompeiian thermopolium discovered in Regio V. Ellis’ lecture (as well as my undergraduate career as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant) got me wondering about how we can use literature, art, and archaeology to reconstruct the life of Roman women working within these spaces; a theme that ancient historians like Ria Berg and Emily Hemelrijk have been writing upon as of late. And so today, I wanted to briefly address the work of Berg and other ancient historians on this topic and perhaps suggest some further reading for those attempting to reconstruct the colorful but often-dangerous demimonde that was Roman taverns, inns, and bars.

In Berg’s chapter “ Dress, Identity, Cultural Memory. Copa and Ancilla Cauponae in Context”, she identifies women working in Roman bars through dress and appearance. As Berg notes, “As a system of signs, the dress was a boundary marker between different social classes and ethnic groups” (2019: 204). Although the article points out there was no one way to dress as an enslaved woman, Roman comedy (and illustrations of Terence and Plautus in manuscripts from the Carolingian period) indicate Roman audiences could tell a person’s status as enslaved or high status based on the clothing they wore on stage. Berg notes, “The story of Emperor Nero positioning matrons disguised as copae (female innkeepers), inviting passers-by means of their gestures to enter ad hoc inns constructed along the travel route, suggests that there was a visual code that allowed one to recognize — and cross-dress — these two groups” (2019: 205). Here is the excerpt from Suetonius’ Life of Nero ( Nero, 27.3):

Whenever he drifted down the Tiber to Ostia, or sailed about the Gulf of Baiae, booths were set up at intervals along the banks and shores, fitted out for debauchery, while bartering matrons played the part of inn-keepers and from every hand solicited him to come ashore

Illustration of Terence’s Andria with Mysis and Ancilla, Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, ca. 825 CE (Image via the Vatican Library Online).

Ancient literature reveals not only the clothing (e.g. tunics, headbands) of Roman waitstaff, but also hints at their identities. The Pseudo-Vergilian Copa (“The Female Tavern-Keeper”) for instance, reveals many stereotypes wrapped up in its Syrian inn-keeper and protagonist who, as Berg notes, wore a Syrian mitra. As she exemplifies, Roman dominae cauponae, copae, and their waitstaff used gestures, erotic dancing, clothing, hairstyles, and even exotic music in order to create a foreign fantasy for those willing to pay. The Copa and many other literary examples from Ovid to Juvenal demonstrate how Roman bar owners preyed upon and even enhanced cultural tokenization to bring in customers.

For here are gardens, cells, and drinking cups,

With roses, flutes, guitars, and arbour cool

With shady thatch. And see! beneath a grot

Arcadian is a girl who sweetly chats…

Epitaph of the innkeeper Sentia Amarantis, 150–250 CE (Photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz) found at Mérida, Badajoz, Extremadura, Spain.

Names and references in both inscriptions and texts indicate that many of the women who worked within Roman bars and inns were enslaved and foreign. Syrians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and other eroticized foreign women were used as instruments to entice paying customers. Bars often trafficked in the “other” within a multisensory and orientalized space that commodified non-Roman bodies.

This is something I thought a lot about this week with sadness as I read Nandini Pandey’s excellent new piece on the Roman and American history of tokenization of Asian women. The very real links between tokenization and violence should not be forgotten — in Roman history and in regard to anti-Asian violence today. In reconstructing the environment of the Roman bar, it is important to pay attention to the archaeological evidence and to the literary references, but we should perhaps never forget that the colors, sounds, art, graffiti, and dice playing are much less important than addressing how these spaces were complicit in the institution of slavery and the tokenization of women. From Constantine to the caupona, women in Roman bars were placed within a quasi-caste system that kept them from marriage with certain elite groups and from enjoying the same rights as Roman matrons. A salient reminder that in reconstructing the Roman tavern, we must also confront the lives of the people who worked within it.

Unknown artist, “Allegorical mosaic of India” (4th century CE), Villa Romana di Casale, Sicily, Italy (image by Brainslav L. Slantchev via Wikimedia)

Originally published at on April 8, 2021.



Sarah E. Bond

Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa. Ancient History, Digital Humanities, and Public History For All. Thoughts are my own, y'all.