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What is the history of the fisheries in the Mediterranean and Black Sea?

Here are answers to a major question by the HMAP leader of the Black Sea project Tonnes Bekker-Nielsen:

This floor mosaic from Pompeii (first century AD) shows some of the many species of fish and other marine animals found in the sea around Italy – and on the tables of Roman gourmands.


Did the Romans eat fish?
Yes, Romans ate fish, a food that was highly valued by Roman gastronomes. But given the difficulty of transporting and preserving fish in the Mediterranean climate, unless you were fortunate enough to be living near the coast, fresh sea fish would rarely be found on your table.
Only the wealthy minority of the population could afford to eat fresh fish on a regular basis. To supplement the unpredictable supply of sea fish in the market, fish were also raised in private fish-ponds – a hobby for the Roman elite – and in commercial fisheries.

Sea fish, once caught, could be kept alive in well-boxes or fishponds, or preserved by salting and pickling (there is, so far, little evidence that the Romans smoked fish). Salt-fish could be transported to inland markets but like its fresh counterpart, it was an expensive delicacy for the tables of the well-to-do.

Roman bots
During construction work for Rome's new airport in 1959, five Roman boats were found and excavated. Among them was a small fishing boat, easily recognizable by the built-in well-box for keeping live fish.

In the De re coquinaria of Apicius – the only cookbook that has come down to us from antiquity – fish play a major part, but then Apicius was writing for an upper-class clientele, and his recipes do not reflect the diet of an average Roman. As fuel was expensive and many dwellings had no cooking facilities, a hot meal was often obtained from the cookshop on the corner: typically stew or soup based on vegetables and legumes, and bread or porridge to go with it.

The fish product most likely to be found in the average Roman kitchen or cookshop was garum, a sauce made from fermented fish and similar to the sauce known as umami or nuac, which is very popular throughout East Asia today. Garum was used to give flavour to stews, soups and many other dishes; it could also be eaten as a relish on bread.

Fish sauce was produced by fermenting whole fish (including the guts and entrails) in large vats for an extended period. The liquid was then drawn off, strained, and “bottled” in amphorae. The resulting product was known generically as garum. Liquamen, (h)allec and muria are other words for fish sauce; the best quality sauce was known as flos gari or simply flos.

Anchovies, hamsi and mackerel were among the fish species most often fermented to make sauce, but any fish could be used. Because the mix of fish going into the vats reflected the composition of local catches, there were important differences between garum from different production sites – important, at least, to Roman connoisseurs – and sauce from certain producers was highly prized (and priced). Like modern premier cru wine, high quality fish sauce was bottled in labelled containers, transported over long distances and sold at high prices. The house of a garum wholesaler, Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, has been excavated in Pompeii.

Roman fishermen
A Roman fisherman at work: mosaic of the first or second century AD, now in the church of S. Maria in Trastevere, Rome.

Because garum production requires a large input of fish, fish-processing installations are concentrated along migration routes and straits. Large groups of Roman fish salting cisterns have been excavated on the Atlantic seabord of Portugal and Morocco, along the strait of Gibraltar, the Golfe du Lion and the Sicilian Channel; in the Black Sea, there were industrial-scale fish salteries in Chersonesos (near modern Sevastopol) and along the strait of Kerch.

Unlike fresh and salted fish, garum was consumed by a wide segment of the Empire's population. While we have no reliable figures for per capita consumption of fish sauce, the consumption of olive oil provides a useful yardstick for comparison. Judging from the remains of amphorae from Roman sites in the west (Bo Ejstrud in Bekker-Nielsen (ed.) 2005. Download the book for free) about three times as much olive oil (by volume) as fish sauce was consumed. Since oil had a number of non-culinary uses (lighting, ointment etc.) the amount of garum used in cooking must have been fairly close to the amount of olive oil, and garum will have been as ubiquitous in a Roman kitchen as tomato ketchup in an American household today.

The conclusion is that in so far as fishing for human consumption had an impact on fish stocks in the Roman period, fishing to supply the fish-processing industry is far more likely to have had any significant effect on the ecosystem than fishing for the tables of the wealthy minority.
by Tønnes Bekker Nielsen

Read more about Roman fishing on:

Two recipes from the De re coquinaria of Apicius:
Sauce for sardines
[Mix] pepper, lovage, dried mint, cooked onions, honey, vinegar and olive oil; pour over [the sardines] and sprinkle with sliced hard-boiled eggs. (9.10.4)
Sauce for baked young tuna
[Mix] pepper, lovage, oregano, coriander leaves, onion, raisins, sweet wine, vinegar, fish stock, wine and olive oil. Cook. If you wish, add honey.
This sauce may also be served with boiled fish. (10.11.10)