Remains of garum production in Pompeii prove the popularity and profitability of this fish sauce in the ancient world.
Garum was arguably the Roman’s favorite condiment. Made from rotted, fermented fish guts, it was a type of fish sauce produced across the empire to meet wide demand.
Ancient sources describe the different types of garum and how it was made. The written sources are complemented by evidence from Pompeii. The archaeological evidence show what types of garum were particularly popular. They also demonstrate that garum manufacture was a lucrative trade.
How Garum Was Made.
The basic method of making garum was to ferment fish guts steeped in salt, in large terracotta pots called urcei. There were a number of variations on this process. Most commonly, the salted fish were left to mature in the sun before being placed in a woven basket in the urcei. The mixture was then pressed.
While most garum was made professionally in workshops, it was possible to make the sauce at home by boiling the fish in concentrated brine.
Mackerel was the most popular fish type used in garum production, although recipes also record anchovies and tuna being used. Various herbs and spices could be added to vary the flavour, as could wine or vinegar.
Types of Roman Fish Sauce.
Garum was the generic term for fish sauce but there were various different types of varying quality. Liquamen was the term applied to liquid fish sauce which was produced after sieving the fermented garum. This was sold as a quality product. The remains were a poor quality by product sold called hallex.
These unprocessed dregs were initially sold as a cheaper version of fish sauce. But by the late first century AD, hallex was being produced as a product in itself. It was most commonly made from small anchovies although a luxury version was produced from sea urchins, anemones or mullet livers.
The highest grade garum was known as haimation and was made from tuna, rather than the standard mackerel based garum which was most commonly produced in Pompeii.
Aulus Umbricius Scarus.
Pompeii was a major centre for the production and distribution of garum. It was a profitable business with the best quality sauce selling for 1000 sesterces per 12 pints.
Inscriptions on urcei have been used to identify the dominant producer of fish sauce in Pompeii. His name was Aulus Umbricius Scarus. Over 50 containers bearing his name have been found in inns and kitchens around Pompeii and at the agricultural villas at Boscoreale. Thirty percent of the fish sauce containers in Campania also came from his workshops, indicating the scale and size of his business.
The evidence suggests that Scarus owned and ran a number of different workshops across the town. His business concerns were so large that he delegated the responsibility of running his workshops to many of his freedmen and in one case, a freedwoman, Umbricia Fortunata.
Scarus rated the quality of his product highly, with jars containing his garum declaring it the ‘finest fish sauce’ or ‘finest mackerel sauce’.
Scarus’s house in Pompeii has been identified by a mosaic around the impluvium in the atrium which depicts four black and white urcei bearing Scarus’s promotional descriptions. The house itself was impressive. It was built overlooking the sea and amongst its luxuries was a private bath suite. It is a testament to the wealth Scarus acquired from making the Roman’s favourite condiment.
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Dobbins, J J and Foss, P W (eds) (2008). The World of Pompeii . Routledge: London and new York
Faas, P, (2003). Around the Roman Table. Macmillan: London