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Garum

Garum derives from garos (also garon), the fish originally used by the Greeks in about the fifth-century BC to make a sauce of the same name (Athenaeus, II.67c; Pliny, XXXI.93ff; Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XX.3.19-20). The sediment that remained behind, after the liquid had been drawn off, was allec (also allex and hallex), which was used as a fish paste or savory. The brine, itself—the water drawn out of the fish by the salt (in the words of Isidore, "the taste of the sea")—was called muria, as were the fish (tuna, for example) preserved in it (Martial, XIII.103). Liquamen (so called, says Isidore, because the small fish liquefy in the pickling brine) tended to be a generic term for all such fish sauces and seemingly was considered a fish sauce in its own right, particularly after the first century AD, when it first is mentioned by Columella (IX.14.3). Liquamen is not found in earlier Latin literature and, in Greek, the word exists only in the Geoponica, a tenth-century AD Byzantine compilation containing parts of a sixth-century work on agriculture and farming.

Incongruously, the earliest description of how garum was produced comes at the end of the Astronomica, a treatise on astrology written by Manilius in the first century AD. 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" (garum; here it seems that the blood alone was used) and using the viscera and the other pieces of the decaying carcass to provide "a condiment of general use" (allec). Smaller fish, which usually would be discarded, were fermented in dolia, where "their inward parts melt and issue forth as a stream of decomposition" (liquamen) (V.667-681). Here, it would seem that garum and liquamen were produced differently. Pliny, however, describes garum as "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" (Natural History, XXXI.93). As can be seen, it is not always clear whether garum was made from the blood of the fish, the blood and viscera, or the flesh, itself—or even the exact process.

The most detailed description of garum is from the Geoponica (XX.46). The preparation involves adding a quantity of salt (two sextarii to one modius, 1:8, this is the only recipe to provide a ratio) to the entrails of small fish, such as mullets, sprats, or anchovies. The mixture then was allowed to ferment or macerate in the sun for several months, the liquamen drawn off and strained and used as a condiment or seasoning, the feculent remainder made into allec. (Frustratingly, the composition of garum begins with a description of how liquamen is made: garum is said to strain into the basket, but then the percolated liquid is also called liquamen.) A quicker means of preparation simply was to boil a fish in strong brine, add some origanum (oregano) and possibly some sapa, and strain until clear. (Galen says that oregano moderates the taste of an oily, watery fish such as the gray mullet, III.24.) The best garum, however, was made from the viscera of tuna, together with the blood, juices, and gills, salted and allowed to ferment for two months. This concoction was called haimation ("bloody"). Wine, herbs, and spices also could be added.

Seneca 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" (Epistles, XCV.25), the belchings of those who consume it disgusting themselves with the smell the next day. And Martial sarcastically commends someone who can maintain any ardor for a girl who has devoured six helpings of the stuff (Epigrams, XI.27). Yet, the same authors who so disparage garum as expensive, foul smelling, and putrefied also praise it. For Pliny, it is a "kind of choice liquor" (XXXI.93), its salty flavor anticipated in the foods it seasoned (XXXI.88); for Martial, it is "noble garum" (XIII.82) and garum sociorum, "lordly garum" (XIII.102). When disparaging someone, it is "putrid garum" (e.g., VI.93).

But, malodorous though it was, garum was not the product of putrefied fish. Rather, it was the 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. 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 the oxidation and spoilage which begin as soon as the fish is caught.

In the freshest garum (Martial's "mackerel still breathing its last," XIII.102), whatever bacteria might be introduced occurs between catching and processing the fish. For this reason, most salting facilities were located very near the sea. (In Manilius, the fishermen salted their catch right on the shore). Large installations and salting vats (cetariae) have been found along the Iberian coast, centering especially around the Strait of Gibraltar, though which schools of migrating tuna and pass from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean (Oppian, Halieutica, III.620; Pliny, IX.47). Production 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. There were large installations in Lusitania (Portugal) at Caetobriga (Troia) on the estuary of the River Sado and along the Algarve on the southern coast, as well as at Baelo Claudia in the Roman province of Baetica (Andalucia), a site that is unique in having its salting facility within the town, itself. A 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).

Pompeii, too, was famous for its garum (Pliny, XXXI.95), where the mosaic in the atrium of one wealthy producer actually represents in each corner the one-handled vessel (urceus) used to contain fish sauce, each one inscribed in stone with its contents, just like the painted inscription (titulus pictus) of the original clay jars. They read G F SCO(M), LIQUA FLOS, and LIQUAMEN OPTIMUM, the inscriptions so common that they could be abbreviated, for example, G(ari) F(los) SCO(mbri) "flower of garum, from mackerel." Even though this fish sauce was considered the most expensive, it also was the most commonly labeled, amphora of which were found even in modest homes. Whether made only from the blood of the fish and from what type no doubt would determine the exclusivity of the product.

The largest installation in the western Mediterranean 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.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; also Pliny, IX.50; Athenaeus, VII.301e).

Horace, in the first century BC, is the first to mention Spanish garum (Satires, II.8.46; muria occurs in II.4.65), and it was Spain that dominated the processed fish market. One of the last to comment is Ausonius, who, writing from Bordeaux c390 AD to thank his favorite pupil for "some Barcelona sauce called muria," 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' [liquor iste sociorum] is called, 'I'll flood my plate: this juice, too little used by our forefathers, must overflow the spoon'" (Epistles, XXV; here, the condiment initially is called muria, then a distinction seems to be made between garum and liquamen). This most renown concoction was garum sociorum ("of the allies," from socius, "associate, partner"), named after the fisheries of New Carthage (Cartegena) in southern Spain, where it was manufactured. Here, says Strabo, "as well as 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" (III.4.6). This is the product praised by Martial, who devotes an entire epigram to it, the best grade being made there from fresh mackerel (scomber) (Epistles, XIII.102). Indeed, says Pliny, mackerel is used only for garum (XXXI.94).

Pliny reports that two congii (about 1.5 gallons) of garum sold for one thousand sesterces (or about four thousand sesterces per amphora). "Scarcely any other liquid except unguents has come to be more highly valued, bringing fame even to the nations that make it" (XXXI.94). And yet a tariff of AD 202 lists the duty on an amphora of garum as one sestertius. 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) separated fish sauce into liquamen primum, which had a price ceiling of sixteen denarii for one sextarius, and twelve denarii for liquamen secundum, the second quality (III.7). This is equivalent to about 3072 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 affordable to many.

Still, Martial says that garum is "an expensive present" (XI.102) and that muria made from tuna is inferior to that of mackerel, which would be a gift only for someone important, presumably because tuna was more plentiful and therefore less exclusive (XIII.103). Such partiality for Spanish fish sauce may be because Martial was born in Hispania Citerior, but Seneca, who was born in Córdoba (Baetica), is not so impressed. Given its price, garum often was mixed with water (hydrogarum), wine (oenogarum, a standard sauce), 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.66). Galen, too, remarks on how "gourmets have marveled at red-mullet liver on account of its tastiness, but some people hold that it is wrong to eat it on its own, and they make what is called garelaion in a container which contains a small amount of wine in which they macerate the organ, so that everything derived from the liver and the previously prepared liquids becomes one fluid that is uniform to the senses. In this they dip the flesh of the red mullet and eat it" (III.26).

Not only did garum season fish, but it was used in nearly three hundred and fifty 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.96ff). Allec 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, 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). 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.


This detail is from a mosaic found in the Villa Arianna and now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.


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, from which these lines are taken.

"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.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.66), as was allec (XXXI.95), garum, in general, was made from the viscera.


References: Pliny: Natural History (1938-) translated by H. Rackham et al. (Loeb Classical Library); Seneca: Epistles (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; 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.

"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 veterinary tract of Pelagonius has not been translated into English, although there is an eighteenth-century translation of Vegetius Renatus' Mulomedicina.

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