BMCR 2015.10.02

Harvesting the Sea: The Exploitation of Maritime Resources in the Roman Mediterranean. Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy

, Harvesting the Sea: The Exploitation of Maritime Resources in the Roman Mediterranean. Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. xvi, 365. ISBN 9780199675623. $150.00.


Annalisa Marzano offers a very full and broad overview of recent research into the Roman economic exploitation of maritime resources. Her work is admirable for its thorough integration of literary, epigraphic, iconographic, archaeological, as well as legal evidence. Marzano’s thorough knowledge, and careful use, of comparative evidence from Medieval and Modern Europe is of great value in interpreting the ancient sources (p. 1-3 and passim) and assessing their credibility (p. 9). Faunal remains are the one potential source that Marzano does not exploit as fully as she might, however, and carbon isotope studies of human bone samples are also worthy of consideration. The latter can distinguish maritime and terrestrial sources of protein in the diet, and several studies have already been published suggesting higher levels of maritime seafood consumption among Romans than is common in medieval or many modern populations.1 Throughout, Marzano makes significant advances over the interpretations current in the archaeological and technical literature, which is very fully surveyed in the footnotes and an excellent bibliography. Predictably, the book is particularly strong on those aspects of her subject which have been the subject of greater scholarly interest in the past, most notably Roman fishing techniques (chapters 1 and 2); maritime aquaculture (chapter 7); and oyster and shellfish farming (pp. 179-89), ably vindicating her contention2 that Roman fish farming was economically rational and potentially very profitable, as well as convincingly refuting Gallant’s controversial claims for the minimal importance of fish and seafood in the Roman diet and economy (pp. 6-8 and passim).

One of the most striking and welcome features of this book is its breadth. Going beyond fishing, fish farming, and the fish salting industry (chapter 3), dramatized with an excellent breakdown of some well-preserved industrial-scale fish-salting plants’ capacities, already the focus of a noteworthy recent synthesis by Andrew Wilson,3 Marzano examines otherwise neglected maritime resources such as salt pans and sea-salt production (chapter 4); the use of murex for dye and occasionally as shellfish for consumption, with an impressive discussion quantifying murex production (chapter 5); and oysters and other shellfish (chapter 6). She even provides detailed discussion of such minor ‘fruits of the sea’ as sponges, coral, sea-silk and pearls. Chapter 8, on the law of the sea, is particularly original and welcome, exploiting legal sources largely neglected by previous researchers, and shows off Marzano’s confidence in working with original sources and scholarly literature over a very broad chronological and disciplinary range.

Finally, Marzano offers an illuminating analysis of demand, prices and distribution (chapter 9), important issues rarely addressed in previous discussions. She lays out some of the factors most likely to drive the demand and price for fish, making especially good use of Diocletian’s price edict (see pp. 289-91). Marzano offers some very sound observations on the relative price of fish in the edict, comparing them to other commodities like eggs or garum; these data suggest a relatively high cost, although it would be arguably be more appropriate and helpful to compare the cost of fish to that of meat and wild game. This exercise shows that prices for the top grades of fresh-water fish and several grades of marine fish were competitive with those for pork and even beef, although the highest quality fresh marine rock fish was significantly more expensive, comparable to certain game birds. Her discussion of regulations for the sale of fish at Ephesus, and a related rescript of Hadrian, casts significant light on the question by demonstrating the civic authorities’ concern to control price-gouging and make fish more affordable for a broad public. There is also an up-to-date discussion of the methods used to transport live fish by both land and sea, with references to the Fiumicino boat, the Grado wreck, and other examples, both literary and archaeological, with a valuable challenge to Gallant’s contention that modern methods of freezing or refrigeration were essential to the effective distribution of large quantities of fish.4 Here again, Marzano makes outstanding use of comparative evidence, noting the high mortality rate for fish transported in Indonesian boats designed, as in the Fiumicino boat, to circulate fresh water through an internal fish tank, and citing Defoe on the transportation of fish to London by road, as well as the transport of eels to markets in Naples and Genoa in floating tanks pulled by ships.

Marzano supplements the text with two appendices and quite a few illustrations. She updates Higginbotham’s detailed typological study of Roman maritime fishponds from 1997 with her own appendix II, surveying maritime fish ponds identified on the basis of archaeological remains, from Italy (63); Croatia (8); Slovenia (3); France (4); Spain (6); Tunisia (6); Libya (4); Egypt (4); Greece (6); Turkey (2); Cyprus (1); Lebanon (1); Israel (14). The list is not exhaustive, but should help stimulate archaeologists to focus more attention on exploring and identifying fish farming and salting facilities.

Although Marzano’s study is too rich and original to exhaust all her important contributions in a brief review, some of the more noteworthy come from the chapters on fishing and fish farming (chapters 1 and 2). Her treatment of fishing discusses its role in art and literature, ancient fishing gear, and the social background and organization of fishermen and fishing, an important topic rarely from an economic point of view. She argues for a close association of fishermen with fishmongers, on the basis of a detailed discussion of largely epigraphic evidence, and strengthens her argument for the substantial wealth of the fish trade by highlighting an important inscription regarding C. Julius Maron, curator perpetuus of the collegium propolarum (fishmongers or propolae piscium), who left a legacy of 20,000 HS. Marzano suggests that if this bequest were 10% of his estate, he qualified as a Decurion (pp. 40-1).

Marzano’s discussion of large scale fishing (chapter 2) includes discussion of fish traps, weirs, and the techniques of fishing and fish farming in coastal lagoons, tuna fishing, an innovative account of the cost of fishing equipment, and a discussion of geographic mobility and the transfer of technology between different regions of the Roman empire (pp. 85-88). While Marzano’s treatment of fishing provides a great deal of information on technique, grounded in a solid knowledge of modern fishing practice, it is not as full or comprehensive as Dieter Sahrhage’s definitive study,5 which is not cited in the bibliography and should be consulted, particularly for methods and gear.

The account of oyster farming techniques is excellent, with full references and discussion of Orata’s famous oyster farming at Baiae, a carefully nuanced analysis of a range of recent archaeological finds of oysters preserved in situ, and of the relevance and applicability of modern methods in reconstructing Roman techniques. In discussing the labour requirements of oyster farming (pp. 184-5), she notes that although only four to six workers were employed in the oyster culture at Fusaro lake in 1892, they were able to harvest almost 7 million oysters. In another instance, Marzano points out that the Roman archaeological evidence for the culture of oysters on tegula can be better understood using modern ethnographic evidence, noting that six female workers tasked with removing baby oysters from tiles were able to clear 650 tiles and gather approximately 8,000 per day.

One of the strongest chapters of the book is Marzano’s analysis of Roman fish farming (chapter 7), a very well studied subject, the economic value of which she has very ably defended in her study of Roman villas,6 as well as a ground-breaking and convincing recent article, co-written with the modern aquaculture expert Giulio Brizzi.7 Marzano breaks up the discussion into accounts of extensive aquaculture, and a brief overview of intensive marine aquaculture, with a good basic typology and detailed descriptions and technical specifications of marine fish ponds, many constructed in the sea using the sophisticated new Roman technology of hydraulic concrete.8

Marzano lays out the similarities between Pliny’s description of lagoon aquaculture and Italian vallicoltura very convincingly, and models the possible productivity of the Roman practices using comparative evidence from the vallicoltura practiced in medieval and modern Venetian lagoons, which typically produced yields of ca. 75-130 kg/ha, but with higher yields of up to 250 kg/ha possible with careful management (p. 200). Her note (p. 205) that between 1894 and 1901, around 10 million juvenile fish were sold at Burano market, specifically for intensifying lagoon aquaculture production, with up to 20-25 million juveniles introduced into the valli of Venetian lagoons each year by the late 19 th century is particularly revealing for Roman practice.

The analysis of intensive mariculture emphasizes the economic rationality of the significant infrastructure and elaborate experimentation invested by the leading pioneers of Roman mariculture. Moreover, it is well grounded in a clear understanding of modern fish-farming principles, as well as a thorough familiarity with the archaeological evidence and earlier studies of the typology of Roman maritime fishponds, such as that of Higginbotham. For example, Marzano emphasizes that oxygen capacity is one of the critical limiting factors in the productivity of fish farming, and explains Columella’s clear awareness of the problem and some of the practical methods typically employed to address it. She explains how the injection of fresh water, often mechanically aerated, in marine fish tanks helped to maximize their oxygen content and therefore their stocking capacity. The Romans’ awareness of these techniques is confirmed by the analysis of a number of archaeological remains where we have evidence for mechanical devices to ensure the aeration of water, for example, a channel with rocks all along its course to bring in oxygenated fresh water into the connected fishpond. Marzano argues persuasively for the continued importance of maritime fish farming in the Roman world well into the empire and even late antiquity and beyond, noting that Torre Astura seems to have remained active as a maritime fish pond into the 13 th century (pp. 224-5).

This is an outstanding overview of the importance of maritime resources in the Roman economy, and will appeal to scholars, graduate and undergraduate students and general readers interested in the Greco-Roman economy, fishing, fish farming, shellfish culture, salt production, and garum and salsamenta.


1. See, for example, A. Keenleyside, H. Schwarcz, L. Stirling, N. Ben Lazreg, “Stable isotopic evidence for diet in a Roman and Late Roman population from Leptiminus, Tunisia,” Journal of Archaeological Science 36 (2009): 51–63.

2. See A. Marzano, G. Brizzi, “Costly Display or Economic Investment? A Quantitative Approach to the Study of Marine Aquaculture,” JRA 22 (2009): 215-30.

3. A. I. Wilson, “Fishy Business: Roman Exploitation of Marine Resources,” JRA 19 (2007): 525-37.

4. Of course, our ancient sources, although rarely detailed on the subject, do attest to the use of a number of simple methods of refrigeration using ice and snow, and many modern fishermen from the 19 th century through the present day, will use shaved ice as the prime method for refrigerating freshly caught fish in its transport to the consumer, a method easily accessible to the ancients as well.

5. D. Sahrhage, Die Schätze Neptuns: eine Kulturgeschichte der Fischerei im römischen Reich. (Frankfurt am Main, 2002).

6. A. Marzano, Roman Villas in Central Italy: A Social and Economic Study. (Leiden and Boston, 2009).

7. Cited in note 2, above.

8. For the fullest and most recent study of the use of Roman hydraulic concrete, with scientific analysis of its use in harbour moles and fish tanks, see C.J. Brandon, R.L. Hohlfelder, M.D. Jackson, J.P. Oleson, Building for Eternity: The History and Technology of Roman Concrete Engineering in the Sea, ed. J.P. Oleson, (Oxford: Oxbow Press, 2014).