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The fermented fish sauce that the Romans called garum derived from garos (garon), a small but otherwise unknown species of fish originally used by the Greeks from about the fifth-century BC to make a savory condiment of the same name (Pliny, Natural History, XXXI.xliii.93; Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XX.iii.19). Athenaeus makes the first references to garos in lost plays by Cratinus and Sophocles, but he says no more of the pickled fish than it was brined in salt and considered smelly, even rotten (Deipnosophists, II.67C). Roman reticence may be due to an early aversion against imported fish and foreign foods. Caran, a goddess of traditional values, is said to have rejected fish at her festival, which "still swam unharmed by the people of that age" (Ovid, Fasti, VI.169).
Incongruously, the earliest description of how garum was produced comes at the end of the Astronomica (V.667-681), a treatise on astrology written by the Latin poet Manilius sometime about AD 20–30. There, he relates how fishermen processed their catch of tuna, cutting up the fish, flavoring the choicest part of the blood with salt so as to impart "a relish to the palate" (viz., garum or haemation) and blending the viscera and the other pieces of the decaying carcass to provide "a condiment of general use" (allex). Shoals of smaller fish also were netted and fermented in large terracotta vats, where "their inward parts melt and issue forth as a stream of decomposition" (liquamen).
Half a century later, Pliny writes in an excursus that "in innumerable seasonings it is the taste of salt that predominates, and it is looked for when we eat garum" (XXXI.xliii.87-88), its salty flavor anticipated in the foods it seasoned. "Consisting of the guts of fish and the other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse; these are soaked in salt, so that garum is really liquor from the putrefaction of these matters" (XXXI.xliii.93). The bony sediment that remained behind, after the liquid had risen and been drawn off, "the dregs, neither whole nor strained," was allex, which in Pliny's time had itself became a luxury (XXXI.xliv.95) and used as a fish paste.
What Manilius had called "a stream of decomposition" and Pliny, the "liquor from the putrefaction of these matters" later came to be known as liquamen, so called, says Isidore, because the small fish liquefy in the pickling brine (XX.3.20). Eventually a generic term for all such fish sauces, it also was regarded as a condiment in its own right, particularly after the first century AD, when it first is mentioned by Columella, who admonishes the beekeeper before approaching the hive to abstain from salted fish (salsamenta) and "all the liquids [liquamina] which accompany them" (On Agriculture, IX.14.3). His, too, is the only description (albeit indirectly) for making salted fish, implying that the process for salting pork (laying down alternate layers of meat and salt) was the same for fish, which was preserved in its own brine (XII.55.4).
The most complete description of how garum actually was made is recorded by the Geoponica, a tenth-century AD Byzantine compilation of earlier works on agriculture and farming, parts of which may derive from a sixth-century treatise. There, at the very end of the book, are several recipes for the preparation of fish sauces (XX.46). One involves the entrails of small fish such as mullets, sprats, smelts, or anchovies being put into a vessel and salted. The mixture, frequently stirred, was allowed to ferment and macerate in the sun, after which the liquamen was drawn off and strained. The feculent residue left at the bottom of the vat was used to make allex (allec, Greek hallec, hallex).
Here, garos is filtered through a tightly-woven basket but the percolated liquid itself then is called liquamen. There is the same conflation of terms in Pliny, who says that "garum is really liquor." In fact, as other authors make more clear, garum was made from the blood and viscera of fish, primarily mackerel. Indeed, says Pliny, mackerel, entering the Mediterranean from the Atlantic was used only for making garum (XXXI.xliii.94). Soaked in salt, the concoction was allowed to settle and separate, the liquor that rose to the top was liquamen; what was left behind, allex. The thin, watery brine drawn out of the fish by the salt was muria—or, in the words of Isidore, "the taste of the sea" (XX.iii.20), as were the unfermented fish preserved in it.
Another recipe was to use picarel (or anchovy, scad, or mackerel if none were available), add two sextarii of salt for every modius of fish (a ratio of 1:8 or 12.5%), and leave the mixture in the sun for two or three months in an uncovered earthenware pot, stirring occasionally. A quantity of old wine could be added, but there is no mention that the liquid and solids were used separately. A quicker means of preparation simply was to boil fish in strong brine (salty enough that an egg would float), add some oregano and sapa (grape syrup) if desired, and strain until clear. (Galen says that oregano moderates the taste of an oily, watery fish such as gray mullet, On the Properties of Foodstuffs, III.24.) The best garum, however, was made from the viscera of tuna, together with the blood, juices, and gills (but no flesh) that was salted and allowed to ferment for no more than two months. This particular type of garos was called haemation ("bloody").
There is one other description of how garum was prepared. Although attributed to Gargilius Martialis, a writer on horticulture and medicine who lived in the early third century AD, the relevant section in Medicina ex holeribus et pomis ("Medicines from fruits and vegetables") likely was a later medieval addition, as several of the spices, such as cloves and cinnamon, were not used in Greek and Roman recipes. Oily fish such as salmon and herring (which themselves are not Mediterranean species), shad and sardines were sealed in a jar with a large quantity of dried herbs and salt for seven days. Wine was added to the liquamen, as well as more herbs and honey, and the resulting oenogarum reduced over a fire and strained until clear.
Although once made from garos, says Pliny, garum from scomber (mackerel), produced at the fisheries of New Carthage (Cartegena) in southern Spain, now was popular (XXXI.xliv.94). Here, says Strabo, "as well as at the places near by, the fish-salting industry is large," especially on the nearby island of Heracles, "which they call Scombraria, from the scomber-fish caught there, from which the best fish-sauce is prepared" (The Geography, III.4.6). This garum sociorum ("garum of the allies," from socius, "associate, partner") was so highly valued that two congii of this "exquisite liquor" (about a quarter of an amphora or 6.75 quarts) sold for a thousand sesterces (Pliny, XXXI.xliv.94)—or four thousand sesterces per amphora, more than three years' pay for a Roman legionary.
Writing several years later, Martial agrees. Book XIII of his epigrams, titled Xenia in Greek ("hospitality"), describes the gifts given to guests at the December festival of Saturnalia, the couplets serving as accompanying tags. One "expensive present" was the freshest garum sociorum made of "the first blood of a mackerel still breathing its last" (102). Another label is more biting: muria made instead from tuna, a more plentiful and therefore presumably less exclusive fish. "Had I been mackerel, I should not have been sent to you"—but presented to someone more important (103).
Martial may speak of "noble garum" (XIII.82) but, when disparaging someone, it is "putrid garum" (VI.93), the opposite of perfume (VII.94). He sarcastically commends the lover who can maintain any ardor for a girl who has devoured half a dozen helpings of the stuff (six cyathi or about half a pint) and is content with only a platter of allex (XI.27)—or the character who dismisses such delicacies as mullet and thrush but then devours capers and onions "afloat in putrid fish sauce [allex]" (III.77).
A partiality for Spanish fish sauce may be because Martial was born in Hispania Citerior, but Seneca, who was born in Córdoba (Baetica), is contemptuous even of the best garum sociorum. "What? Do you not think that the so-called 'Sauce from the Provinces,' the costly extract of poisonous fish, burns up the stomach with its salted putrefaction," the belchings of those who consume it disgusted with themselves when they exhale the fumes the next day (Letters to Lucilius, XCV.25). Athenaeus would seem to agree, at least about the fish, observing that "Spanish mackerel is rather purgative and pungent and has poorer flavour, but is filling" (III.120F).
In the late second-century AD, Artemidorus wrote the Onirocritica, a defense of dreams and their prophetic significance. They have the capacity to divine the future—not just recall the past, as critics such as Aristotle had contended (e.g., On Dreams, I, cited by Cicero, On Divination, II.62.128). He makes a distinction, however, between dreams that foretell the future and those that are not predictive. "Of the bodily dreams, some are observed because of a deficiency and others because of an excess" (I.1). And so, for the dreamer "To drink fish-sauce signifies decay. For fish-sauce is nothing more than putrefaction" (I.66).
Malodorous though it was, garum was not the product of putrefied fish. Rather, it was the natural result of fermentation, whereby salt and enzymes break down organic substances into simpler compounds. Decomposition occurs, not by bacterial or microbial action, but by the active proteolytic enzymes (proteases) that naturally occur in the digestive tract of the fish, which likely is why the viscera were included in its preparation. Stimulated by exposure to the sun, enzyme hydrolysis (autolysis) dissolves the protein, a process hastened by the fish being packed in salt, which draws water out of the tissue by osmosis, producing a briny pickle that, in turn, inhibits oxidation and spoilage.
In the freshest garum (Martial's "mackerel still breathing its last"), whatever bacteria might be introduced occurred between catching and processing the fish,—which is why, in Manilius, the fishermen salted their catch right on the shore. For this reason, too, most salting facilities were located along the coast of the Mediterranean, especially near the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar), though which schools of migrating tuna pass from the Atlantic (Oppian, Halieutica, III.620) and then to the Black Sea (Pliny, IX.xviii.47). Production, too, tended to be situated at the mouth of rivers, which provided fresh water for cleaning and brining, and near a ready supply of salt, either from mines or marshes.
Writing in the first century BC, Horace is the first to mention Spanish garum (Satires, II.8.46; muria, II.8.53), and it was Spain that dominated the processed fish market, with processing sites situated all along the southern coast and near the migratory routes and spawning grounds of tuna, mackerel, mullet, and eels. Uniquely, at Baelo Claudia (Strabo, III.1.8) in the Roman province of Baetica on the southern coast, there was a salting facility within the town, itself. A later regulation in the Hexabiblos of Constantine Harmenopoulos (1345) actually restricted the construction of new garum facilities less than three stades (a third of a mile) from a town or village, so offensive was the odor (II.4.22).
The largest installation in the western Mediterranean, however, was located at Lixus, on the Atlantic coast of Mauretania (Morocco) "and not unimportant, either, is the fish-salting industry that is carried on, not only from this country, but also from the rest of the seaboard outside the Pillars; and the product is not inferior to that of the Pontus" (Strabo, III.2.6). Indeed, the Black Sea (Euxine) was another prominent area for the production of garum "For that gulf is the sweetest of all the sea, watered as it is by infinite rivers of abundant water; and it has soft and sandy bays; therein are goodly feeding grounds and waveless shores and caverned rocks and silty clefts and shady headlands and all that fish most love" (Oppian, I.595ff; Pliny, IX.xix.49).
Aelian tells the charming story of the tuna's migration into the Euxine. Quoting a fragment of Aeschylus, it was believed that the tuna could see best only with its right eye and so kept near shore as it migrated (On Animals, IX.42). They also were startled, relates Pliny, by an underwater rock in the Bosporus strait joining the Sea of Marmora and the Black Sea (and thereby dividing Europe from Asia). Frightened by its whiteness, the tuna migrated to the opposite shore, toward Byzantium (Istanbul), which is why the promontory there is named the Golden Horn (IX.xx.50-51; Athenaeus, VII.301E).
Pompeii, too, was famous for its garum (Pliny, XXXI.xliv.95), and one of its wealthier inhabitants was Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, a freedman and purveyor of fine fish sauces. Satisfaction with that success can be seen in the atrium of his house. At each corner of the impluvium (a pool to collect rainwater) was a mosaic depicting a pitcher (urceus) for pouring these sauces. Just like the painted inscription (titulus pictus) on commercial amphorae in terracotta, the contents of each is identified in small black tiles. Dating to about AD 23–35, the one above (which has been restored) reads G F SCO SCAURI EX OFFI NA SCAU RI and abbreviates "flower of garum, made of mackerel, a product of Scaurus, from the shop of Scaurus." The other three read LIQUA FLOS ("flower of liquamen"), G F SCOM SCAURI ("flower of garum, made of mackerel, a product of Scaurus"), and LIQUAMEN OPTIMUM EX OFFICI A SCAURI ("best liquamen, from the shop of Scaurus"). Such amphorae were found even in modest homes, the exclusivity of the product determined by whether it was made only from the blood of the fish and from what type.
And yet a tariff of AD 202 lists the duty on an amphora of garum as one sesterce. If a tax of 2.5% on Spanish exports is accepted as correct (one as on an amphora of wine, which Columella values as at least fifteen sesterces, III.3.10), this equates to a value of forty sesterces. The price edict of Diocletian (AD 301), prompted when inflation was particularly high throughout the empire, separated fish sauce into liquamen primum, which had a price ceiling of sixteen denarii for one sextarius (a sixth of a congius), and twelve denarii for liquamen secundum, the second quality (III.6-7). This is equivalent to about 3,072 sesterces for an amphora of the best sauce, which, discounting for the high inflation that the edict was attempting to control, actually is comparable to that of honey or must, and likely was affordable to many.
Garum often was mixed with water (hydrogarum), wine (oenogarum), vinegar (oxygarum), and honey (mellogarum), as can be seen in recipes from Apicius, who thought that mullets killed in a garum made from their own kind, and fish paste made from their livers to be particularly desirable (Pliny, IX.xxx.66). Galen, too, remarks on how "gourmets have marveled at red-mullet liver on account of its tastiness" (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, III.26).
Not only did garum season fish, but it was used in nearly 350 of the recipes in De Re Coquinaria of Apicius (where, invariably, it is called liquamen, which may have become the standard term by this time), its salty taste flavoring meat, fowl, and vegetables (and if the food is too salty, as with ocean fish, then honey should be added, IV.2.25). Its most prominent use was in oenogarum, a mixture of wine, liquamen, pepper, and occasionally other spices and herbs. Olive oil commonly was added, and one imagines the sauce to be much like a vinaigrette, likely mixed at the table.
Fish sauces also were used as an unguent in healing, both for humans and animals (Pliny, XXXI.xliv.96ff). Allex was said to cure scabies in sheep and also was a good antidote for the bite of a dog (or sea dragon). Garum heals burns, although the patient should not know that it is being used, and is especially efficacious for ulcers and the bites of crocodiles. And the astringency of muria was thought useful for dysentery and sciatica. It was prescribed as a laxative (Celsus, On Medicine, II.29) and also used to treat animals, a congius being poured into the nostrils of an afflicted mare, for example, to purge it of phlegm (no doubt!) or a sextarius (one-sixth of a congius) in the left nostril of a mule to treat spavin (Columella, VI.34.2, VI.38.2). Dioscorides, a younger contemporary of Pliny, writes that it repressed gangrene and healed dog bites, both repressed and encouraged ulcers of the bowels, and sometimes even was given as a suppository (De Materia Medica, II.34). Galen repeatedly recommends garos (often added to wine, oil, or vinegar) to move the bowels and treat diarrhea (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, I.42). The veterinary authors Pelagonius and Vegetius, writing in the fourth century AD and copying remedies from earlier sources, also recommend treatments using garum and liquamen.
Writing in the second century AD, Galen was an older contemporary of Athenaeus who attributed to Hippocrates (if not to Aristotle) the cosmological notion that the elements of the universe (earth, air, fire, water) corresponded both to four fundamental qualities (cold, hot, dry, wet) and the fluid humors of the body itself (black bile, blood, yellow bile, phlegm, respectively). Black bile was thought to be cold and dry; blood, hot and moist; yellow bile, hot and dry; and phlegm, cold and moist. So, too, were there four resulting personality types or temperaments: melancholic, sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic—all in fluctuating balance and the admixture affected, in a broad sense, by diet. In humoral medicine, Galen's "thinning" diet was so named because of its effect on the humors of the body, especially the thick and phlegmatic. "Any food which irritates and bites the senses is obviously sharp and endowed with the ability to cut through the thickness of the humours....thinning them by virtue of some sharp, cutting facility" (On the Thinning Diet, I). Vegetables, for example, that have a sharp, biting, hot taste or smell will have this cutting, thinning effect. Those that tend to be bland and excessively moist, should be enlivened with vinegar; indeed, "Those which are best eaten raw are mixed with fishpaste [garum]" (III).
In choosing foods "between what are thinning and what are thickening; or warming and cooling; or drying and moistening....it is not the consumption of what is like them that is valuable, but of what is the opposite" (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, III.41), So salted fish (because of its drying astringency) and garum (because of its added piquancy), which often were enhanced by vinegar or wine, counterbalanced a phlegmatic humor, which is moist and cold. One student, too poor to eat anything but vegetables (often raw) for the four years he studied in Alexandria, seasoned his lupins and beans with garos, sometimes adding oil, wine, and vinegar. In all this time, Galen asserts, he remained healthy and his body no worse for the diet (I.25). (Athenaeus, too, discusses the merits of serving fish with a blend of vinegar and oil or an oil pickle, IX.385Aff.)
One of the last to comment on fish sauces is Ausonius, who writes from Bordeaux in about AD 390 to thank his favorite pupil for "some Barcelona sauce called muria." He remarks that "the most learned of the ancients, even while disdaining to use Greek terms, have no Latin name by which to call garum. But by whatever name that 'Liquor of the Allies' is called, 'I'll flood my plate: this juice, too little used by our forefathers, must overflow the spoon'" (Epistles, XVIII.25).
A cautionary reminder of the importance of primary sources, even in translation. An article on current practice in the manufacturing of fish sauce products introduces the discussion with a paragraph on ancient techniques..
"After a 9-month fermentation period, garum was obtained from the clear brown liquid drained from the fermentation tank and the unhydrolyzed tissue in the fermentation tank was used to produce fish paste, which was a stronger and thicker sauce. Garos, a fish sauce produced in Greece, was made from the liver of Scomber colias."
The Geoponica says two to three months and, in another recipe, for no more than two months. Garos, the fish originally used by the Greeks, is not known, although "Today the most popular garum is made from the scomber" (Pliny, XXXI.xliii.93). Indeed, as Ausonius remarks, there was not even a Latin name for garum. And, though Apicius was fond of a fish paste made from the liver of mullets (Pliny, IX.xxx.66), as was allex (XXXI.xliv.95), garum generally was made from the viscera.
References: Pliny: Natural History (1938-) translated by H. Rackham et al. (Loeb Classical Library); Seneca: Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales (1917) translated by Richard M. Gummere (Loeb Classical Library); Manilius: Astronomica (1977) translated by G. P. Goold (Loeb Classical Library); Ausonius (1921) translated by Hugh G. Evelyn White (Loeb Classical Library); Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella: On Agriculture (1941-) translated by Harrison Boyd Ash and by E. S. Forster and Edward H. Heffner (Loeb Classical Library); Oppian, Colluthus and Tryphiodorus (1928) translated by A. W. Mair (Loeb Classical Library); Celsus: On Medicine (1935) translated by W. G. Spencer (Loeb Classical Library); Galen: On the Properties of Foodstuffs (2003) translated by Owen Powell; "On the Thinning Diet," in Galen: Selected Works (1997) translated by P. N. Singer (World's Classics); Geoponika: Agricultural Pursuits (1806) translated by Thomas Owen; Apicius: A Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text Apicius (2006) by Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger; Ausonius (1921) translated by Hugh G. Evelyn White (Loeb Classical Library); Artemidorus' Oneirocritica (2012) translated by Daniel E. Harris-McCoy; Ovid's Fasti (1931) translated by James George Frazer (Loeb Classical Library); Dioscorides: De Materia Medica (2000) translated by Anne Osbaldeston. The veterinary tract of Pelagonius has not been translated into English, although there is an eighteenth-century translation of Vegetius Renatus' Mulomedicina.
"In Defense of Garum" (1983) by Robert I. Curtis, The Classical Journal, 78, 232-240; Garum and Salsamenta: Production and Commerce in Materia Medica (1991) by Robert I. Curtis; "Roman Fish Sauces" (1963) by Thomas H. Corcoran, The Classical Journal, 58, 204-210; Oppian: Halieutica (1928) translated by A. W. Mair (Loeb Classical Library); "A Personalized Floor Mosaic from Pompeii" (1984) by Robert I. Curtis, American Journal of Archaeology, 88, 557-566; "Fish Sauce Products and Manufacturing: A Review" (2001) by K. Lopetcharat, Yeung J. Choi, Jae W. Park, and Mark A. Daeschel, Food Reviews International, 17(1), 65-88; The Story of Garum (2021) by Sally Grainger; "Garum, Liquamen and Muria: A New Approach to the Problem of Definition" (2014) by Sally Grainger, in Fish & Ships: Production et Commerce des Salsamenta Durant L'Antquité, edited by Emmanuel Botte, pp. 37- 45; "A Personalized Floor Mosaic from Pompeii" (1984) by Robert I. Curtis, American Journal of Archaeology, 88(4), 557-566.
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