Thursday, January 08, 2004

Eels in Roman Gardens

I am presently reading Pompeii by Robert Harris and was intrigued by his references to the fish farm activities of the novel’s villain. I was particularly surprised to read about the cultivation of moray eels. I always thought of moray eels as a deepwater species. I found this wonderful extensive article on Roman aquaculture by Kirk Johnson including specific information about their cultivation of eels:

"I expect that many of the people who visit Pompeii imagine that the pools in Pompeiian gardens were stocked with goldfish. Actually, goldfish are native to China and the Chinese seem to have domesticated the goldfish about a thousand years ago, so you shouldn't picture them in Pompeii's pools.
Goldfish (Carassius auratus) are members of the carp family and are closely related to common carp (Cyprinus carpio). Ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with common carp, so I was surprised that James Higginbotham didn't mention carp in his book Piscinae. Brightly colored Japanese koi are really just common carp which have been selectively bred. Common carp often produce brightly colored mutants; you would think that the ancient Romans would have noticed this characteristic and bred brightly colored carp, but this doesn't seem to be the case.
Professor Higgenbotham was focusing on the fish with ancient Roman authors mention in connection with Italian fishponds, and carp were not among them.
I expect that many of you will be surprised to learn that the fish which ancient Roman authors mention most often as being kept in fishponds are eels."

"Eels were a popular food among wealthy Romans, but a number of Romans seem to have really loved their pet eels. The orator Quintus Hortensius was very was very fond of the eels which he kept in the fishpond of his villa, he is reported to have wept when one of his eels died. Antonia (the daughter of Marc Antony and mother of the Emperor Claudius) is said to have fastened earrings to the pectoral fins of her favorite eel. This was probably a moray or conger eel, since they are the only eels which have pectoral fins that earrings could be attached to.

According to Pliny the Elder, L. Licinus Murena "invented" the fishpond early in the first century B.C.E. I am not sure what he meant by that, since the ancient Egyptians had been raising fish in ponds for centuries. Marcus Terentius Varro (116 - 27 BCE) said that Murena got his cognomen (meaning eel) because of his fondness for eels, but he doesn’t seem to have specialized in the raising of eels. Pliny the Elder said that it was C. Hirrius who first used fishponds solely for the raising of eels.

"Wealthy Romans were often accused of loving their fish more than they did their servants. Varro tells us that Quintus Hortensius "was no less disturbed over his sick fish than he was over his ailing slaves. And so he was less careful to see that a sick slave did not drink cold water than that his fish should have fresh water to drink". Vedius Pollio was a very extreme example of this attitude. According to Seneca the Younger (c.4 BCE - c.65 CE), Vedius Pollio would fatten his murenae on human blood, and order those slaves who had for some reason incurred his displeasure to be thrown into his fishpond. He may have actually done this; Pliny the Elder and Tertullian repeat the same story."

Kirk Johnson has also written interesting articles on

Pompeiian Yard Art

Venus in Pompeiian Gardens

Gardens of Nudes –How statues were displayed in the gardens of Imperial Rome

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