After a week of Dominic Cummings and Dominic Goings ( I really am sorry for that), I wanted to take a look at a different scaly life-form and bring to you something a little out of the ordinary from the ancient Roman world, but equally something that is not only weirdly interesting, but available today if you dare to make it. As a bonus, keep reading on for a special feature of “What Your Maccies Order Says About You: Ancient History Edition”, where I’ll match your McDonald’s order to a figure from the ancient world.
Fish and Chips are a staple in the British take-away scene and are enjoyed by thousands upon thousands up and down our coasts every month, especially in peak British summer time. For many coastal families their reliance on fish is their livelihood and their lives can be dramatically affected by several variables ranging from climate change and polluted waters to a pandemic. In many ways, these British families who are dependent on good fish stock are similar to those ancient Roman families who were involved in the same business. In this post I will tell you about a little town on the Tunisian coast which revealed the scale of fishy business in the Roman Empire (I’m not so sorry about that one).
Neapolis, meaning “New City”, was the name given to a seaside town in Tunisia which was occupied by wealthy Romans during the many years of the Roman Empire. There are several towns named in this way so it can get a little confusing! A port town, it was reliant on the trading of fish-based products, and was rich in one Roman delicacy in particular – garum. Recent discoveries within the city suggested business on an industrial scale (no pun intended, honestly) with several large containers built in the town – see the image below.
To you these, as they initially did to me, may look like poorly constructed pits and you also may be wondering how these stones have any relationship with fish. Well, here’s how the stone constructions housed the most sought after product ever made in the Roman world.
Garum, as I have already referred to, was the holy grail of this seaside community and was heavily traded across the empire. I can hear you still wondering as to what garum might be so, if you don’t already know, here it goes – fermented fish juices. Yes, that is right, the coastal towns of the Roman Empire were propped up by fish guts. Fishermen would place the guts of anchovies, mackerel and tuna inside the giant containers you have seen above and leave them to absorb the heat of the Mediterranean sun for a few months. On doing so, the “juices” flowed out of the dead fish and into a small reservoir below the two main tanks, and that ladies and gentleman, became the final product. This was happening in places all over the empire, including the popular tourist site Pompeii. Coastal regions of the empire would be able to thrive off of the production of garum and many of the Romans selling and consuming this item became incredibly wealthy.
If you wish to learn more about Neapolis and garum in more detail then click play on the video below from Smithsonian Channel on YouTube.
The fishy sauce was a hit with Romans for almost everything, and was eventually used for purposes other than eating. Roman author, Pliny the Elder, wrote this in his work Natural History:
“Allex (garum sediment) however itself is of some use in healing. For allex both cures itch in sheep, being poured into an incision in the skin, and is a good antidote for the bites of dog or sea draco; it is applied on pieces of lint. By garum too are fresh burns healed, if it is poured over them without mentioning garum. It is also good for dog-bites…”Pliny the Elder, Natural History Book XXXI.
So if you find yourself victim to a bite from a dog or “sea dragon” or have an “itchy sheep”, then ferment some fish in a container, and rub the juicy sediment over the bite – or sheep – for the perfect remedy to the ailment – it really is so simple!
It must be said that this delightful product was mainly used within a Roman kitchen and was better suited for consumption rather than its function as a medicinal miracle. Maybe, just maybe, this product sounds appealing to you and you fancy trying it. Well don’t fret, I have a sourced an ancient cook book – yes they exist – from classical chef Apicius. Although Apicius’ name is given to the collection, it most likely was not the product of his writings as there has been no way to link him. In this, the author lists some appetising recipes from ancient Rome that you may just want to try at your next socially distanced BBQ!
Here’s the recipe for some lovely Pheasant Dumplings:
“DUMPLINGS OF PHEASANT – ISICIA PLENA
[Lightly roast choice] FRESH PHEASANTS [cut them into dice and mix these with a] STIFF FORCEMEAT MADE OF THE FAT AND THE TRIMMINGS OF THE PHEASANT, SEASON WITH PEPPER, BROTH AND REDUCED WINE, SHAPE INTO CROQUETTES OR SPOON DUMPLINGS, AND POACH IN HYDROGARUM [water seasoned with garum, or even plain salt water].”On the Art of Cooking – Apicius, translated by Joseph Vehling.
This extract has been taken from a translation by Joseph Vehling which can be found here – https://www.gutenberg.org/files/29728/29728-h/29728-h.htm#bki_chi . This link includes a host of Roman dishes some with and some without garum.
If anyone who does read this attempts to make dumplings of any sort with a fermented fish paste please do send me a picture of the final product – contact details are available under the “Contact” tab on my homepage!
Okay so with food on the brain, now is the time to see which figure from the ancient world you associate with the most, based entirely on your order from McDonald’s. I have only included a few so if you have your own ideas I’d love to hear them – @ClassicsLew on Twitter.
Big Mac – Ah, the King of the Maccies Menu. You aren’t knocking this one off of top spot and rightly so. No one can challenge you and even if they try, you wipe the floor with them. You resemble Achilles. You may throw a tantrum every now and then, but you will ultimately defeat the competition.
Big Tasty with Bacon – A contender for top spot with the Big Mac for sure, but not quite as good, somehow. You are Hector, rival to Achilles. If you do not know the story of Achilles vs. Hector then not to worry. Just know that although Hector is pretty much as strong as Achilles, he cannot overcome plot armour in The Iliad and therefore is killed by the Greek hero. In this story, Big Mac vs Big Tasty, the outcome is tragically the same.
Wrap of the Day – You’re a minimalist, easy going and do not care what other people tend to think about your food choices or your appearance for that matter. Due to this, you are Diogenes. Diogenes was a man who saw that, as humans, we did not need to lead materialistic lives and, for that reason, he lived in a barrel. I will probably write more about this lad in a future post, but if you want to learn more in the meantime, click here.
Any Customised Item – Really, you’re that person? Urgh. You are the man or woman who frequently holds up the group. Whilst they are waiting patiently to tuck in, some poor sod is frantically customising your unnecessary creation because you can’t decide what you want in your burger. For this, you are Alcibiades. For context, he couldn’t make up his mind as to which side he was on during the Peloponnesian War. Instead of picking just the Spartans, Athenians or the Persians, he picked ALL three when it suited him best. Clever? Cunning? No, just damn right annoying.
Chicken Nugs – A party goer. The type of person who loves a night out, and enjoys the binging of these golden delights afterwards. There’s a high chance that your hard partying could get you injured or even killed. You, then, are Alexander the Great. Excessive drinking is fun and for the most part, has been injury free, but eventually you will fall foul to the drink and die as you have lived – drunk!
Fillet O’ Fish – If you pick this then I probably do not know you. This is mainly because I try to not associate myself with those that pick this monstrosity. You are not one person from the ancient world, but many. You are the rich, senatorial class of Imperial Rome and you enjoy sampling the Roman delicacy – garum.