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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Weekly
Vol. 42, No. 12 (Mar. 7, 1949), pp186‑188.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p186  The Roman Craze for Surmullets

Greek τρίγλη and Latin mullus were the basic names of two members of the family of Mullidae, the red or plain surmullet, Mullus barbatus L., and the striped or common surmullet, Mullus surmuletus L.​1 In the classical era these two species were generally not differentiated, and even today in both Greece and Italy they are often designated by a single name. The word surmullet does not mean a 'super-mullet,' as one might suspect, but a 'red mullet'. The sur‑ is from Old French sor‑ 'reddish,' the source of English 'sorrel'. The red surmullet is more deeply colored, more common in the Mediterranean, and smaller than the striped surmullet, although not superior to it in delicacy of flavor. The surmullet, sometimes called simply red mullet, should not be confused with the mullet proper, Mugil sp., often called gray mullet by way of distinction. The latter is a drab fish held in no great esteem in the classical period.

The Greeks were never aroused to a pitch of feverish enthusiasm by the surmullet. It is true that Cratinus,​2 a poet of the Old Comedy, comments that the mere act of eating one marked a man as an epicure; but Archestratus,​3 a noted gourmet, displays none of his wonted fervor in discussion of the surmullet, merely calling attention to the best locales and seasons. Equally significant is the fact that Athenaeus​4 in the section which he devotes to the surmullet culls most of his citations from technical authors and gives no indication that the fish enjoyed any special reputation. Xenocrates,​5 speaking as a physician, acknowledged that it was a highly esteemed fish, but did not concede it any unusual dietetic excellence. Other Greek writers refer to it with similar restraint.6

The surmullet is mentioned in Latin literature as early as Plautus,​a but is not heard of again for a long time. Throughout this early period it was undoubtedly playing a minor role as a food fish, but without exciting any unusual furore. But toward the end of the republican period wealthy men at Rome began to evince keen interest in large surmullets, and competitive bidding for these rare specimens sent the prices soaring to almost incredible heights.

As Pliny​7 correctly observes, the surmullet seldom runs over two pounds in weight, and heavier ones found a ready market. Horace​8 comments on the fondness of the rich for three-pound surmullets as typical of their folly, and Martial implies that the supercilious epicure would disdain one weighing any less,​9 and speaks of even a two-pounder as expensive.​10 Martial​11 also mentions a four-pound specimen that sold for 1,200 sesterces (about $48.00) and was served as the cenae caput; Seneca​12 tells of one weighing four and a‑half pounds that brought 5,000 sesterces (about $200.00), and Juvenal​13 claims that one six-pounder was sold for 6,000 sesterces (about $240.00).​14 These weights run suspiciously high for surmullets. During the reign of Caligula, Asinius Celer paid for a surmullet a price reported by Tertullian​15 as 6,000 sesterces, by Macrobius​16 as 7,000, and by Pliny​17 as 8,000. These figures may be exaggerated, and there is reason to suspect Suetonius,​18 especially when he says that 30,000 sesterces were paid for three specimens in the time of Tiberius; but there is little reason to doubt that these large specimens brought fancy prices. The surmullet is still a relatively expensive fish in the Italian markets, but the price is not abnormally high.

But size was not the only factor that made a surmullet desirable, although the other conditions apply principally to a large one. Those that frequented muddy waters were held in low esteem,​19 as were those caught close to the shore.​20 But those taken around rocks were highly regarded.21

The demand for exceptionally large surmullets naturally inspired attempts to raise them in pools for the market, but efforts to make them  p187 grow beyond normal size were unsuccessful,​22 which no doubt was a bitter blow to speculators who counted on a heavy profit. Even as early as the period of Cicero​23 surmullets were kept in pools by the wealthy, but apparently as pets rather than as a market venture, a common practice of the rich in that era;​b but Columella​24 says that it was difficult to maintain this fish in pools in any number since it was delicate and did not readily adapt itself to artificial conditions.

The basis of the craze for large surmullets that flared up toward the end of the republic was certainly not superiority of flavor, for the flesh was actually considered less tender and digestible than that of smaller ones.​25 Nor was it, as Steier​26 avers, morbid interest in the shifting play of colors when the fish died, for both large and small surmullets had this characteristic. It could not have been the delicate flavor of the liver, for Apicius appears to have been the first to make use of this,​27 and the craze antedates his period. This seems rather to have been a pure manifestation of luxury, with rarity alone serving as the criterion of value, and quality a negligible factor.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the dying surmullet often provided diversion for guests at Roman dinner parties. Like many other fishes, it adapts its coloration to its environment, but its colors are exceptionally brilliant, and when it dies from lack of oxygen, there is a shifting kaleidoscopic play of color, gradually fading, that is fascinating to watch. Thus Pliny​28 recounts information received from the princes of gastronomy that the surmullet, while dying, assumes a variety of colors and a succession of shades, and that the hue of the red scales, growing paler and paler, gradually changes, especially if the fish is enclosed in a glass vessel when observed. He no more than suggests that this was a popular dinner entertainment, but Seneca​29 scornfully describes it as a common practice: 'A surmullet, even if it is perfectly fresh, is little esteemed until it is allowed to die before the eye of your guest. They are carried about enclosed in glass vessels, and their coloration is watched as they die, shifting as they struggle in the throes of death in varied shades and hues.' A little later he says: 'There is nothing, you say, more beautiful than the colors of a dying surmullet; as it struggles and breathes forth its life, it is first red, and then gradually turns pale; and then as it hovers between life and death, it assumes an uncertain hue.'

The craze for large surmullets gradually subsided, and by the period of Galen toward the end of the second century A.D. they were no longer commanding such enormous prices. What is more significant, the motive for buying the larger specimens had changed. Galen​30 says that even in his day the surmullet was renowned as surpassing all other foods in savor. The preference for large specimens, however, perplexed him, since they were less tender and digestible than small ones, and he therefore asked a person who had bought some at a high price what made them so desirable. The man replied that he had paid the exorbitant sum first because of the liver and second because of the head. In this connection, it is interesting to note that today the liver is generally regarded as the most savory morsel in the surmullet, and until recently many considered the head second to it in flavor. But Galen thought both the liver and the head were much overrated, not only in flavor but in dietetic value. The fact that Heliogabalus is alleged to have served whole dishes filled with nothing but the barbels of surmullets​31 sheds little light on the standing of the fish in his time, for his gastronomic inspirations tended to be of a paranoiac nature. Macrobius,​32 about 380 A.D., speaks of the craze as passé, and says specifically that people no longer paid any such insane prices for the fish. Ausonius,​33 in about the same period, implies that it was no longer the king of table delicacies, for he speaks of the perch as the deliciae mensarum.

As we have seen, this extraordinary fad raged all through the first and the early part of the second century A.D., nourished by eagerness on the part of the bumptious parvenus to achieve social distinction, if only by having bought a bigger fish than anyone else. It is as though today some economic royalist bruited it about that  p188 in his aquarium he had the largest fantail goldfish in existence, and other financial nabobs set out to prove him wrong, the ensuing competitive bidding driving the price of phenomenally large specimens to stratospheric heights.

Alfred C. Andrews

Miami University
Miami, Florida

The Author's Notes:

1 Harper's Latin Dictionary defines mullus as 'the red mullet, barbel'. The barbel is a cyprinoid freshwater fish, Barbus vulgaris, unrelated to the mullet.

2 Apud Athen. 7.305B.

3 Ib. 7.320A; 7.325E.

4 7.324C‑325F.

5 Alim. aquat. 3, 15.

6 Nausicrates and Sophron apud Athen. loc. cit.

7 N. H. 9.64.

8 Sat. 2.2.33 ff.

9 10.37.8.

10 3.45.5; 11.50.9. Cf. 2.43.11 and 14.97, where gold-inlaid dishes are used for such surmullets.

11 10.31.

12 Epist. 95.

13 4.15.

14 The sesterce is here reckoned at 4c.

Thayer's Note: A reminder that this paper was written in 1949, when it cost 3c to mail a domestic letter in the United States. Adjusting for inflation according to the Consumer Price Index, that "4c" would be about "36c" in 2009 (that postage stamp, impacted by the ghastly double-whammy of government and labor unions, has of course risen more, and is at 42c) — and the dollar figures given in the paper would now be $432, $1800, and $2160 respectively.

15 De pall. 5.

16 Sat. 3.16.9.

17 N. H. 9.67.

18 Tib. 34.

19 Cf. Pliny, N. H. 9.65.

20 Cf. Pliny, loc. cit.; Xenocr. alim. aquat. 15.

21 Cf. Pliny, loc. cit.

22 Cf. Pliny, N. H. 9.64.

23 Att. 2.1.7; cf. Mart. 10.30.24.

24 8.17.7; cf. Isid. orig. 12.6.25.

25 Cf. Galen, Alim. fac. 3.27.

26 Pauly-Wissowa-Kroll, Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft XVI, 496‑503.

27 Cf. Pliny, N. H. 9.66.

28 Loc. cit.

29 Nat. quaes. 3.17.2; 3.18.1, 4.

30 Alim. fac. 3.27.

31 Hist. aug. Heliog. 20.6 ff.

Thayer's Note: "barbels" is a bit odd; the Latin word there is exta, adequately translated in the linked edition by "viscera". Properly exta are the major internal organs, such as the heart and liver.

32 Sat. 3.16.9.

33 Mos. 117.

Thayer's Notes:

a The author has no footnote here, and I suspect for a good reason: I've been unable to find any form of mullus anywhere in Plautus.

b In the case of the orator Hortensius (Varro, R. R. III.17.5 ff.), it's hard to say what exactly was going on. My guess is that he started by keeping surmullets for his dinner table, then got attached to them.

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Page updated: 8 Jul 09