The Romans by Sam Willis

The Romans by Sam Willis

Author:Sam Willis
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Atlantic Books


So popular were fish and fish-eating among the wealthy that authors including some of the greatest names in Roman literature – Oppian, Lucretius, Pliny, Athenaeus and Ovid among them – began to write about fish. Pliny noted that, up until his time, no fewer than eighteen authors had written treatises on fish. Books on fish were a notable and curious literary characteristic of the early empire – luxuries in themselves, written to entertain their knowledgeable and wealthy fish-loving readers.

The authors focused not only on descriptions of fish but also advice on how to catch them and which were the best for eating. A fine example comes from the writings of the well-travelled writer Apuleius (c.124–c.170 CE). Writing for the elite fish-connoisseur, his knowledge of the subject was based on ancient wisdom originally gathered for a Macedonian, or possibly Epirote, court:

How superior to all is the sea weasel [moray] of Clipea, the ‘mice’ are at Aenos, the rough oysters are fullest at Abydos. The scallop is of Mytilene, and the ‘pig’ of Ambracia near Charadrum. The sea bream at Brundisium is good; take it, if it is large. Know that the best little boar-fish [grunt fish] is prime at Tarentum; you should buy the elops at Surrenti and the glaucus near Cumae. What? Have I passed up the parrotfish, nearly the brain of supreme Jupiter (It is caught in the country of Nestor and is big and good), and the black-tail, the ‘thrush’, the blackbird and the sea ghost. Octopus of Corcyra, the fat skull-fish, the purple fish, the murriculi, the murex and also the sea urchins are sweet.

Such solid advice was mixed with fantastical tales of sea creatures. Pliny in particular, who had commanded a Roman fleet and spent much time at sea, enjoyed a good maritime story, even if there was a rational explanation. He devoted two entire books (numbers 9 and 32) of his 10-volume, 37-book Naturalis Historia to the subject of marine animals, including a description of a ‘polyp’ with such extended limbs that it could not pass through the Straits of Gibraltar, and another of a fish of such size that people used its jawbones for doorways and its bones for roof beams. He subsequently revealed, rather whimsically, that the ‘polyp’ was an alga and the enormous fish a whale.


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