How a Fish Bankrupted the Roman Aristocracy: a tale of a culinary craze in classical society

Dr Garrett Ryan, “How a Fish Bankrupted the Roman Aristocracy” (Told In Stone, 27 November 2021)

In this instalment in his Told In Stones series which explores culture and society in Classical Greece and Rome, historian Dr Garrett Ryan investigates fine dining amongst the aristocratic elites in Rome and the craze for red mullet that seized them during early imperial times. Ryan first describes the diet of ordinary Romans which was heavy on carbohydrates (in the form of bread or porridge), legumes and fruit, and cheese, and light on animal protein. Wealthy Romans on the other hand could afford a vast range of foods and especially meats: shellfish, snails, all kinds of poultry and game birds, and red meats … including the notorious predilection for stuffed dormice. Such foods were usually served at evening banquets consisting of several courses ending in desserts of fruit, nuts and honey. The Roman elites were especially fond of delicacies that modern Western palates would find odd or downright unpalatable, such as parts of the internal plumbing of sows or the working parts of songbirds. Many of these foods were doused in a sauce called garum, made from the fermented intestines of fish and used in ways similar to how fish sauce is currently used in Southeast Asian cuisines.

Pride of place in his talk is given to red mullet (actually two species of small fish) which was eaten both for its supposed aphrodisiac and (paradoxically) contraceptive properties. The high demand for red mullet among Roman elites coupled with the difficulty of domesticating the creature and farming it drove prices for the fish to such levels that a banquet featuring a dozen large mullets could rival a small villa in cost. Overfishing would have driven up prices for red mullet even further, fuelling the craze. The obsession with red mullet and the status attached to it, with all the signals of power and hierarchy attached to being able to host banquets featuring the fish in a number of dishes, apparently lasted some 200 years before fading away.

While the talk is very entertaining and funny, and as usual is illustrated with stunning visuals, it actually says nothing about how the demand for the fish “bankrupted” the Roman elites – if anything, the Roman elites were already bankrupt, thanks to the fixed power structures of Roman society in which the elites lived in a world parallel with, and dependent on, the rest of Roman society while having very little to do with it – or how this craze and similar crazes were symptoms reflecting the nature of a layer of society far removed and insulated from the concerns and stresses that belaboured ordinary Romans. If there is a silver lining in this particular cloud, it may be that the Roman elites were such a small class of people that their greed, traumatic though it may have been for the populations of the two red mullet species in the seas around the Italian peninsula, did not have a huge impact on a society in which the rudiments of the modern financial economy that would make speculative bubbles based on the demand for and supply of red mullet or tulips possible did not yet exist.