It would be tempting to think of a Roman tavern as analogous to the modern term 'bar', but that would be a considerable oversimplification. The term tabernae could cover a broad range of establishments, from what we might now call restaurants to brothels, and the services they provided would vary enormously. They were very much a social centre, where political or sporting conversation could be had in an informal environment, and were often the meeting place for guilds or those with a shared religious faith. In an age when only the wealthy possessed what we would call a kitchen, the poor would augment the simple cooking facilities that their brazier might offer by 'eating out' at a tavern, and of course some provided other services such as entertainment or prostitutes. However it is drink that generally comes to mind first when thinking of such establishments, and while Romans of all classes drank wine, taverns generally provided relatively strong wine (that is to say, little diluted by water etc.) which added to the sociability of an evening as well as provided all the related problems that every age has found with alcohol.
Our top row shows the seated customers in this set. The man sitting on the bench is drinking from a cup, and there are two men sitting on stools - the last of which is lifting something to his mouth (perhaps a large spoon?). The second figure is a woman, who is sitting on something we could not identify and, despite appearing to be playing an invisible piano, is actually placing both hands on the table.
The second row seems to represent the staff at our tavern, for it clearly starts with a serving maid followed by what we take to be the cook - very likely the wife of the proprietor - holding a large pot and a spoon. The third figure is pretty generic, but with the cloth draped over his shoulder and some sort of apron is clearly meant to be the proprietor himself, perhaps holding out his hand for payment. Finally we find that this tavern has provided a musician for the entertainment of their guests as we have a man seated on a barrel and playing some rather crude form of lyre.
The third row begins with someone singing - perhaps in concert with the musician, but perhaps not. The second figure, which we have chosen to blur around his right hand, is urinating. Now urinating is something we all do, but we are not convinced that the world needs a figure in this particular pose, although it is undeniably accurate and appropriate for the subject. In the likely absence of a dedicated latrine customers would have been expected to relieve themselves outside, or perhaps in a pot in the corner of the room – something like the pot shown at the end of this row. The final two figures look to be at the counter - the first leans nonchalantly on it, while the second is standing and holding something vague but small in his right hand.
The set is completed by the counter section plus a couple of tables. The counter has been made with a 'paved' style top, suggesting it is stone, but the walls are thin and there are two (separate) legs to support it behind, so it must be wooden. The tables of course are also wood, and they are moulded as one piece so only the 'bar' needs any assembly.
The men all wear the typical Roman tunic, with one customer also wearing a cloak fixed in unconventional style and what we take to be the proprietor wearing a short apron. Aside from the central brooch all the male clothing looks reasonable. Roman women wore long garments covering their legs, or at least all respectable Roman women dressed in this way (not until the late third century would respectable Roman women even start showing ankles in public), but of course we are not dealing with the higher levels of society here. The lower classes would often have worn a simple garment much as shown on the staff figures here, with more concern for practicality (and showing a little leg too of course) than public morals. Therefore the wife, serving girl and singer all look reasonable to us, but we pause a while longer on the seated woman. She wears some sort of long-sleeved mantle with a hood, but this bears no resemblance to any female garment of the Roman period. Outdoor protection for women was provided by a palla, or occasionally by a mantle or cloak, but these never included a hood in the modern sense, nor were they designed like this, so this is very wrong.
The style of the figures is as always pretty crude compared to the offerings from other companies. Although this is not a subject requiring fine detail on splendid uniforms, the general standard is quite unsophisticated with faces and hands sometimes being vague although there is some character in these figures, which is good. There is no flash and the legs fit onto the counter tolerably well but by no means neatly, although in our view this should have been solid in any case. The 'barman' is rather awkward and flat but otherwise the poses are not too bad.
Moralists of the day condemned the taverns for many reasons, just as some do today, but they remained popular and thrived, providing many of the lower classes with a major point of relaxation in an otherwise often hard and uncertain life. While we don't care for the quality of the sculpting, and there are a small number of accuracy issues with the costume, this set provides a rare reflection of the lives of many ordinary Romans when they were not marching in the legions risking their lives for the Empire and the ruling elite. Other aspects of the taverns - most notably gambling - could have been included here, but as well as a refreshing change from military subjects this is an interesting and pretty fair depiction of something that was an important element in the life of many ordinary citizens, and we look forward to more civilian sets of this nature in the future.