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Where Did Pubs Come From – 2,000 Year History of Public Houses

Although Monks Meadery doesn’t specifically have the word pub in the name, it’s understood that our concept is not so different from a public house, tavern, or bar. Except for the experience of trying a re-emerging alcohol for the first time, the underlying core of hospitality is no different. Today a pub, a tavern, and a bar are essentially the same thing with the only differences between them rooted in how the British adapted the Roman term taberna. 

History of PubsThe Pirates’ House in Savannah, Georgia.

Yes, like most things in our western culture our modern-day drinking establishments were no exception from Roman influence. While different alcoholic beverages have existed throughout different cultures as long as humans have been around, the creation of pubs can be traced back about 2,000 years to the Roman era. Benjamin Luley, an assistant professor of anthropology at Gettysburg College says “we don’t see taverns before the Romans.” As they went on to conquer half of Europe and Britain, their influence spread with their conquest, and taverns started popping up in conquered territories around the same time as the Romans. For example, an ancient tavern was discovered in France that dates back to 100 B.C.E. which happens to be the same time as the Roman conquest of France.  

Our concept of taverns and bars comes from the British who colonized North America, but they picked it up during the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century.  As the Roman troops arrived in 43 C.E., they made their way north the old school way, by foot. To streamline and make that process easier they built stone roads that even had drainage systems. It was along these roads that tabernae started popping up to accommodate traveling soldiers. 

Remains of Roman tabernae from which pubs originated.Remains of tabernae structures with barrel vault ceilings.

The original tabernae were Roman shops for goods and services usually taking up a street-facing room on the main floor of a private dwelling. Picture a household with a small storefront market. These were common in Rome, and as their economy grew, tabernae were built with barrel vault ceilings and even clustered into market-type structures. Yes, our modern-day malls can be credited back to the Romans too. Although it is unclear if the tabernae in Britain looked the same as in Rome, they did serve a similar function of selling food, wine, and bread. It is also unclear whether the British tabernae provided lodging for travelers or not, but it would make complete sense that they did.

The History of a Public HouseTabernae in the markets of Trajan.

Originally the only alcoholic beverage sold was wine, but eventually, the sale of British ale was also incorporated as the British already had their own well-established brewing practices. Then, due to most of the society being illiterate and the struggle of adapting a foreign word, tabernae eventually became taverns. And as the Romans left during the fall of their empire, the taverns not only stayed but grew in numbers exponentially. Someone could make a good penny selling ale and the only thing they needed was brewing knowledge (which was as necessary as being able to read today since ale was safer than water back then) and their own home.

Fun fact: traditional British ale was brewed without hops.

That’s where the name pub or public house comes from. It differentiates a public dwelling from a private one by the sale of alcohol. The brewer would hang a bush above the door to identify itself as a drinking establishment open to the public, or a pub. Soon these pubs became public meeting places for gossiping, socializing, organizing, and unwinding. And the first thing the British built when they colonized America in the 17th century, were taverns, says Christine Sismondo, the author of America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

Shoutout to Rome for our wine, bars, roads, and malls.

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