Appendix A: Roman Tablewares: some notes on definitions and terminology

Penelope Allison1 and Martin Pitts2

1. School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester. Email:
2. Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Exeter. Email:

Cite this as: Allison, P. and Pitts, M. 2018 Appendix A: Roman Tablewares: some notes on definitions and terminology, Internet Archaeology 50.

1. Introduction

These notes are not intended to be comprehensive but are to give readers some assistance with the general terminology used by archaeologists for first and second centuries CE ceramic tablewares in different parts of the Roman world. Further definitions and references are given in Appendix B. Some references to more specific terminology and abbreviations are found in the individual articles.

Most of our understanding of Roman tablewares comes from the ubiquitous red-slipped and burnished ceramic vessels, which are found around the Roman Empire and which are therefore the main focus of many of the articles in this volume. However, these are by no means the only tablewares used in the Roman world during this period. They are merely the best preserved archaeologically. We are missing the undoubtedly vast quantities of glass, wooden, silver, and even gold, tablewares that would have been used by various people throughout this world. While bronze vessels were used in cooking and as serving vessels, they were seldom used to eat and drink from (see Allison in press; and compare bronze vessels from Pompeii: Tassinari 1993). Also, while ceramic tablewares are the most important to archaeologists, these were not much talked about in Roman literature and, when they are, they are considered, somewhat derogatorily, a cheap alternative to silver tablewares (for discussion and references: Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 407-8).

2. Red-slipped and Burnished Tablewares

These tablewares, which are often stamped with their maker's name, are referred to by several names by modern scholars working in different parts of the Roman world. Many scholars, particularly those dealing with the western provinces, refer to this pottery as 'samian'. As noted by Wallace-Hadrill, 'vase Samia' was used in Roman literature to differentiate the use of cheaper ceramic tablewares from silver tablewares, and is assumed by Pliny the Elder (N.H. 35. 160-1) to refer to pottery from Italy, Spain and Asia Minor. Wallace-Hadrill notes (2008, 409) that 'samian' was used in the written sources in the second century BCE, when the predominant pottery was so-called black glazed Campanian. It is, therefore, inaccurate to use this term for red-slipped tablewares only. Nevertheless, it continues to be used for these particular wares, and especially for South Gaulish terra sigillata, as discussed below. It is also incorrect to refer to any of this slipped pottery, either black or red, as 'glazed'.

The term 'Arretina' (Arretine ware) was also used by ancient authors (e.g. Martial Ep. Book 14, 98), although it is less frequently used by modern scholars. Wallace-Hadrill convincingly argues (2008, 410) that this term was probably used for red-slipped ware, as opposed to the earlier black Campanian, after the major production centre of the former at modern Arezzo. However, potters producing vessels in other locations could also refer to their pottery as 'Arretine', including in Lyon (for references: Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 411, 417).

The term 'terra sigillata', literally translated as 'stamped clay', is the most common and the most generic for red-slipped tablewares, including those that do not bear a maker's stamp. This all-encompassing label is also used in distinguishing different regions or centres of production. For example, terra sigillata italica (Ettingler et al. 1990), or Italian terra sigillata, is used for pottery from Arezzo as well as that from important Italian centres such as in Pisa, Pozzuoli, and the Po Valley (Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 414). The second century CE pottery from the Po Valley region is also referred to as Tardo-Padana (see Leleković this volume). The term Eastern Sigillata is used for terra sigillata from Asia Minor. The earliest, Eastern Sigillata A, was a likely precursor to and model for Italian red-slipped wares (Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 412) and was probably produced in northern Syria or Cilicia (see Hayes 1985; Willet this volume).

South Gaulish sigillata essentially refers to pottery from the excavated kilns at La Graufesenque whose products were widespread throughout the western provinces in the second half of the first century CE, as well as in the Mediterranean region and beyond. It is this pottery that is most often called 'samian' by modern scholars. Terra sigillata was also produced in other parts of Gaul and referred to as East Gaulish sigillata and Central Gaulish sigillata accordingly.

Further discussion on and definition of terra sigillata can be found on the Potsherd: Atlas of Roman Pottery site (, which focuses on Britain and the western provinces.

3. Terra sigillata Predecessors

As noted above, the predecessor to red-slipped Italian terra sigillata is a black-slipped and burnished pottery. This is referred to as black-glazed, or black-gloss, Campanian ware, although it is not actually glazed, and there were also important production centres in Etruria, Rome and also Sicily, as well as in Campania (Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 409; Di Giuseppe 2012). This was the predominant tableware fabric in the Mediterranean from the fourth century until the middle of the first century BCE (see articles in this volume by Luley and Banducci et al.. For a discussion on the means by which terra sigillata became constituted as a standardised and homogeneous product, see Van Oyen (2016, 33-58).

4. Terra sigillata Imitations and Successors

Besides the main types of terra sigillata, which have a fairly wide distribution around the Roman world, there are many variations that are often considered local imitations (see Willis this volume), which are not so widely exported. Some examples of these are black Pannonian slipped ware (Pannonische Glanztonware), which would appear to have been produced mainly in southern Pannonia from the second half of the first century to the second century CE (see Leleković this volume) and Sagalassos red-slipped ware, produced at Sagalassos from the Augustan period (see Poblome 1999; Willet this volume).

There are also a number of red-slipped and burnished Roman tablewares that can be considered to be successors to these first- and second-century terra sigillata fabrics. The most widespread is African Red Slipware, which was produced mainly in Tunisia from the mid-first until the seventh century but was the most widely distributed terra sigillata during the third to the fifth centuries CE.

5. Other Tablewares

Gallo-Belgic ware is an umbrella term used to describe a broad repertoire of pottery produced in Gallia Belgica and its adjoining regions, with a wide circulation in north-west Europe, c. 25 BCE to 85 CE (Deru 1996; Pitts 2017). The most common Gallo-Belgic fabrics are orange-red terra rubra, fired in oxidising conditions approaching those of the production of terra sigillata, which it imitates in appearance, and black terra nigra, fired in a reducing atmosphere used in the production of pre-Roman black-gloss wares. Many Gallo-Belgic vessels are clearly derived directly from equivalent terra sigillata forms, but a roughly equivalent number of types appear to have north-western European origins or, indeed, are innovations of the period and the fusion of styles broadly associated with temperate and Mediterranean Europe.

So-called 'pareti sottile' or thin-walled (Wallace-Hadrill 2008, 409) pottery was likely to have been used as tableware (see e.g. Moevs 1973; Brulet et al. 2010, 300-10). This pottery was unslipped and occurred mainly as cups, vases, and beakers. It was predominantly made in Italy but found throughout the Roman world. In the north-western provinces it has a largely pre-Claudian distribution, which is closely focused on military bases, before seemingly being replaced by Lyon ware in pottery repertoires (at the same time as Italian style terra sigillata is replaced by south Gaulish terra sigillata).

Lyon ware is the name given to a standardised range of finewares with distinctive fabric, surface and decoration that circulated in north-west Europe in the mid- to late first century CE (Willis 2003). In continental literature, it is grouped under the heading of céramique engobée (colour coated fabrics), alongside equivalent productions from La Graufesenque, Lezoux, Argonne, Trier, Cologne and Xanten (Brulet et al. 2010, 311-38). In the north-west provinces, the distribution of Lyon ware is not so widespread but tends to correlate closely with military establishments and related centres such as colonia.

So-called Pompeian Red Ware consisted mainly of open dishes and plates that are slipped on the upper surface and heat resistant. It was likely to have been used both for cooking and for serving food, if not also used for eating from (see Allison 1999, 68-70; 2009, 21-22). However, the name 'Pompeian Red ware' is a misnomer, based on its prominence at that site (see Scatozza Höricht 1988). This ware was produced in other parts of the Empire, such as southern Gaul, so cannot be assumed to be of Italian origin in all instances (e.g. Brulet et al. 2010, 378).

6. Latin Names for Tableware Shapes

Most Roman pottery scholars refer to tableware forms according to the various typologies (e.g. Dragendorff, Conspectus etc. – see Appendix B) and modern shape names (e.g. cup, tazza, bowl, Schüssel etc.). A number of scholars have attempted to ascribe ancient vessel names to these forms, and thereby assign functions to them. In their Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines (1969), Charles Daremberg and Edmond Saglio proposed many Latin, and Greek, names for particular vessel shapes, based on textual and pictorial evidence. Werner Hilgers (1969) used a combination of textual sources, inscriptions, graffiti (including from La Graufesenque) and visual representations to apply Latin labels to known vessel forms (e.g. acetabulum, catillus, paropsis etc.) more convincingly. Hilger's nomenclature has been widely used among Roman pottery scholars (see e.g. Dananai and Deru this volume), although these terms and their assumed functions are by no means widely accepted (e.g. Dannell 2006) and have been an important discussion point for this network (see e.g. Dannell this volume).

7. Concluding Comments

Throughout this volume, and in the volume title, we have referred to vessels used in the Roman world for eating and drinking as 'tablewares'; an equivalent term in common usage might be 'finewares'. However, it is worth commenting that tablewares is rather a strange term in a world that was largely devoid of tables in the modern sense. We do have pictorial evidence that very small, often round and semi-circular, tables were indeed used to eat and drink from while reclining, particularly in earlier and later periods (see e.g. Dunbabin 2003, 46, plates I-III; Hudson 2010, figs 2-3). There is little evidence for tables themselves during the early Empire, and these rare examples are again small and unlikely to have held more than a few vessels for a limited number of diners (see Dunbabin 2003, 62 and fig. 18).

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Martial Epigrammata Perseus Digital Library

Pliny Natural History Bil Thayer, LacusCurtius


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