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Harvesting the Sea: The Exploitation of Marine Resources in the Roman Mediterranean

Harvesting the Sea: The Exploitation of Marine Resources in the Roman Mediterranean

By Annalisa Marzano (Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy). Pp. xvi + 365, figs. 46. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013. $150. ISBN 978-0-19-967562-3 (cloth).

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Ancient exploitation of natural marine resources, particularly during the Roman period, continues to fascinate. Recent publications have resulted from scholarly conferences or museum exhibitions that constitute collections of articles focusing on broad themes, such as the Tampa Museum of Art’s Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult and Daily Life (S.D. Pevnick, ed. [Tampa, Fla. 2014]), or on one particular aspect or another, such as fish processing (L. Lagostena, D. Bernal, and A. Arevalo, eds., Cetariae 2005: Salsas y salazones de pescado en occidente durante la antiqüedad [Cadiz 2007]) or the technological aspects of fishing gear (T. Bekker-Nielsen and D. Bernal Casasola, eds., Ancient Nets and Fishing Gear  [Cadiz 2010]). What has been lacking is a unifying study that presents a general overview of the topic and places the subject in the context of the Roman economy. Marzano’s new book fills that void admirably.

Marzano’s stated purpose is to show the economic importance of large-scale fishing and related activities, primarily in the period between the first and third centuries C.E., and to explore the social status and organizational structure of those engaged in these pursuits. She includes within the rubric “marine” not only the open sea but also coastal lakes and lagoons. Her text consists of nine chapters divided into two unequal parts. The first six chapters treat marine resources per se: fish, both fresh and processed, salt, murex and purple dye, sponges, pearls, coral, and oysters. The final three chapters look at the legal and economic side of marine exploitation and include discussions of aquaculture, fishing in Roman law, and the demand, prices, and distribution of fish and fishery products.

Marzano opens with a discussion of fishing in art and literature and notes a change in its representation between the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Motifs shift from the solitary, leisurely fisherman within an idyllic context to scenes where fishing is the central theme set amid a sea teeming with fish. Realistic scenes in second- and third-century C.E. mosaics show various fishing methods, ranging from the use of static wicker traps and weirs to representations of professional fishermen actively employing rods, tridents, harpoons, and casting nets or working with seines from boats, often cooperatively with other fishermen. To Marzano, this shift reflects the increased role fishing assumed in Roman life during the Imperial period. The rest of the book attempts to describe and to quantify that increase as far as the literary, archaeological, and epigraphic sources allow. Noting the continuity in fishing techniques in the Mediterranean from antiquity to World War II, Marzano judiciously draws on ethnographic evidence either to validate the ancient sources or, where they are silent, to propose reasoned scenarios. 

The following three chapters look at large-scale fishing, especially with traps in coastal lagoons and for tuna (2), fish-salting installations (3), and marine-salt production to support fish processing (4). These chapters, contrary to minimalist views of the role of fishing in the ancient world, argue for a robust Roman exploitation of marine resources characterized by technological innovation, large-scale use of open sea and lagoonal fishing using a variety of techniques, and a sophisticated organization to catch, process, and market fishery products. Citing ethnographic evidence, Marzano argues that even lagoonal fishing with weirs during the Roman period had the potential to yield large numbers of fish. She marshals literary and epigraphic evidence, particularly from the eastern Mediterranean, to show that the scale and expense of tuna fishing fostered cooperation among fishermen to form collegia, often necessitated pooling of resources among related occupations, and at times attracted capital investment to form business partnerships. She notes that both urban and nonurban fish salteries, well represented in the archaeological record at locations favorable for catching migratory pelagic fish, could operate year round, processing fish in season or other meats at other times.

Chapters 5 and 6 treat the exploitation of various mollusks and other “fruits of the sea,” such as sponges and coral, and argue that Roman exploitation of murex and oysters was particularly intensive. Marzano naturally emphasizes the value of murex for manufacturing purple dye, a process that requires huge numbers of individual murices, but she also notes that crushed murex shells added to mortar gave it additional strength. This illustrates a particularly interesting aspect of Marzano’s book, her discussions of various ways that marine exploitation impacted other parts of the Roman economy. In addition to salt producers and potters, who produced amphoras to transport fishery products long distances, fishing boats and wooden structures used in oyster farming required woodworkers, nets needed hemp growers, and anchors and net weights required metalworkers.

The final three chapters look at marine exploitation in Roman social, legal, and economic life.  Intensive aquaculture practiced in man-made ponds built along coastal areas near major urban centers were expensive to build and costly to maintain. Requiring a skilled workforce, a strong organization for transporting live fish, and huge capital investment, these ponds catered to the wealthy and functioned as a business with potentially huge profits. Technological innovation, such as the use of freshwater channels to oxygenate saltwater ponds, increased fish capacity well beyond satisfying local needs. Marzano’s discussion of marine exploitation in Roman law provides an excellent summary of a complicated subject. She shows that the state, though deriving income from taxes on fishery products, did not interfere with the right to fish. In one interesting example, the conflict between rights of villa owners to erect fishponds offshore and the right of fishermen to fish the same waters, she concludes that Roman law favored the fishermen. While covering in some detail fishing in Roman law, the author could have said more concerning the legal position of fish salteries.

Marzano’s book demonstrates the prominent role large-scale fishing and fishery by-products played in Roman social and economic life. She provides an extensive bibliography and helpful index. Translations for all foreign language quotations, both ancient and modern, render the book accessible to a wide audience. Lacking is a map of the Mediterranean showing the most important places discussed. The text has remarkably few typographical errors; the 46 figures are well chosen and of good to excellent quality. 

Robert I. Curtis
Department of Classics
University of Georgia

Book Review of Harvesting the Sea: The Exploitation of Marine Resources in the Roman Mediterranean, by Annalisa Marzano

Reviewed by Robert I. Curtis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1191.Curtis

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