Classics Roman Fishing and Aquaculture
Annalisa Marzano
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0397


In the Roman world marine, lacustrine, and riverine fisheries were exploited; in some cases, these fisheries could make a substantial contribution to local economies (see, e.g., Gades, mod. Cádiz in Spain, and its important production of salted fish and fish sauces, which were traded extra-regionally). In the past, fishing in the classical world of Greece and Rome has been regarded as a relatively marginal activity attracting relatively little scholarly interest. This has changed with the availability of ever-growing archaeological data for fish processing, which offer good indirect evidence for large-scale fishing activity. The abundant archaeological evidence attesting the production of salted fish and fish sauces (the salting workshops or cetariae, with typical batteries of masonry vats) and the interregional trade of these products (as attested by the durable containers used to transport them, the amphorae) has led to the recognition of the importance of large-scale fishing activity in the ancient world, across the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Atlantic façade. This, in turn, has prompted an interest in ancient fisheries and fishing techniques. Archaeozoological studies of fish bones found in association with Roman salting vats and in containers for processed fish, together with various scientific analyses of organic residues, have been adding important data which integrate the selective nature of the information found in literary sources, revealing what fisheries were targeted and the variety of processed fish products available to ancient consumers. Aquaculture, particularly for freshwater fish, was common in classical Antiquity and often complementary to agriculture. Latin literary texts have several references to elite Romans engaging in marine fish farming at their luxury villas, and agricultural treatises such as Columella’s de re rustica include sections advising on how to practice aquaculture on villa estates. This picture of elite involvement in marine aquaculture is corroborated by the archaeological evidence for large and elaborate fishponds (Lat. Piscinae) found in maritime villas, particularly along Italy’s Tyrrhenian coast. Roman marine aquaculture has been understood as a part of the notorious competitive display of the Roman elite, but more recently the financial valence of this branch of pastio villatica has been acknowledged.

General Works

On the subject of ancient fishing and aquaculture, a few general works exist, all dating from after the year 2000. Sahrhage 2002 offers a general, synthetic overview on the use of marine resources in the Roman Empire. The Black Sea region, especially the Crimea, was a major producer and exporter of preserved fish in classical Antiquity, both smoked and salted. This region and its fish-processing industry are examined in Bekker-Nielsen 2005, but the chapters in the volume also discuss important themes more generally (e.g., the chapter on “sources for the production and trade of Greek and Roman processed fish”) or the archaeological evidence for fish processing from other regions. Bekker-Nielsen and Gertwagen 2016 offers stimulating discussion, from an eco-historical perspective, of how humans have used the resources of the sea over the centuries. For a holistic treatment of the exploitation of marine resources in the Roman era and its economic importance, an excellent study is Marzano 2013, which also discusses the various archaeological, documentary, literary, and legal sources relevant to the study of this topic. Mylona and Nicholson 2018 includes chapters discussing fish and its cultural context, fish processing, and its logistical and social organization. For the study of fish remains, and for the discussion of important methodological issues, a practical introduction and guide to identification is Wheeler and Jones 1989, a manual designed for archaeozoologists and archaeologists.

  • Bekker-Nielsen, Tønnes, ed. 2005. Ancient fishing and fish processing in the Black Sea region. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus Univ. Press.

    The book, the output of a symposium held at the University of Southern Denmark, comprises nine chapters. Despite its title, only four chapters focus on the Black Sea; others discuss more general themes, such as the literary and archaeological evidence for the role of fish in the Greek and Roman diet and the productivity of ancient fishing. The papers on the Black Sea present important archaeological evidence for fish processing, which at the time of publication was still little known in the West due to the intellectual isolation of the region during the Soviet era.

  • Bekker-Nielsen, Tønnes, and Ruth Gertwagen, eds. 2016. The inland seas: Towards an ecohistory of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner.

    This edited volume gathers eighteen chapters representing a wide range of scientific disciplines (e.g., zooarchaeology, geoarchaeology, archaeology, history). It addresses the question of how humans have interacted with the Mediterranean and the Black Sea ecosystems, offering a diachronic perspective that spans from prehistory to the twentieth century. Central questions discussed in the book are how humans have exploited marine resources and what consequences this has had for life in the sea.

  • Marzano, Annalisa. 2013. Harvesting the sea: The exploitation of marine resources in the Roman Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199675623.001.0001

    Drawing on archaeological, literary, and documentary evidence, the book explores various aspects related to the exploitation of marine resources in Antiquity: large-scale fishing and fish-salting, salt production, the manufacture of purple dye, and fish and oyster farming. It includes a chapter on the legal status of the sea in Roman law and access to fisheries.

  • Mylona, Dimitra, and Rebecca Nicholson, eds. 2018. The bountiful sea: Fish processing and consumption in Mediterranean Antiquity. Proceedings of the international conference held at Oxford, 6–8 September 2017. Journal of Maritime Archaeology Special Issue, 13.3. New York: Springer.

    The volume features contributions by ancient historians, archaeologists, marine biologists, and historians of food. The chapters address three broad themes: fish and fish products in their cultural context; archaeological evidence for fish processing in the western and eastern Mediterranean; and the logistical and social organization of production of salted fish and salt.

  • Sahrhage, Dietrich. 2002. Die Schätze Neptuns: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Fischerei im Römischen Reich. Frankfurt: Lang.

    A synthetic and general overview on the use of marine resource in the Roman era. It comprises short discussions of the fish targeted, the equipment used, fish-salting activity, and aquaculture.

  • Wheeler, Alwyne, and Andrew K. G. Jones. 1989. Fishes. Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A practical introduction to the study of fish remains from archaeological sites, with guidelines for the identification of the remains. Besides classification, fish anatomy, and the biology of fishes, it discusses the problems of recovery and taphonomy, as well as the potential and limitation of using fish remains in archaeological interpretation.

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