Since the ancient Greeks and Romans lived close to the Mediterranean Sea and other bodies of water, both fish and shellfish were important in their lives. They had learned early in their history to fish from land and from boats, activities depicted on wall paintings on the island of Crete and in Roman mosaics. Fish and shellfish provided a significant part of their diet. Although most fish and shellfish were caught in local waters, both the Greeks and Romans obtained preserved fish from as far away as the Black Sea.
The Mediterranean Sea has fewer fish and fewer different kinds of fish than larger oceans. The water of the Mediterranean, especially the eastern part, is saltier than that of the oceans, limiting the kinds of ocean fish that can survive there. In addition, since the waters of the Mediterranean contain relatively little plankton*, the sea cannot support as many fish as can other bodies of water.
Still, many kinds of fish and other creatures do live in the Mediterranean, and the ancient peoples of the region knew them well. The Greeks and Romans ate sharks, rays, tuna, swordfish, mackerel, flounder, and sole, as well as several species of small bony fish, such as sardines and anchovies. Shellfish from the sea, such as shrimp, crabs, lobsters, oysters, and clams, were also eaten. People caught eels, catfish, carp, perch, and trout from freshwater lakes and streams.
Fresh fish was commonly eaten in coastal fishing villages, but fish was also shipped fresh to urban markets in Athens and Rome. Since this was expensive, most people ate preserved fish, which could be shipped and stored for long periods of time. Fish could be pickled in vinegar and spices, and fish guts were made into a relish, called opson in Greek and garum by the Romans. This sauce became a popular addition to meals throughout the Mediterranean. Making garum was a major industry in the Roman city of Pompeii and in Roman settlements on the southern coast of Spain. Fish could also be dried in the sun or salted. Some areas on the Mediterranean or Black Sea coast had shallow basins where sea water evaporated into the air, leaving deposits of salt behind. Salt pans, as these areas were called, became centers for curing fish.
* plankton organisms and plants floating or drifting in freshwater or saltwater that are eaten by most fish
The fish and shellfish found in the Mediterranean Sea and its surrounding waters played a significant role in the diet of ancient Greeks and Romans. Seafood—ranging from shark and octopus to crabs and mussels—could be baked, fried, boiled, or grilled.
The Romans developed the science of pisciculture, or fish farming. They enclosed natural lagoons, turning them into ponds for raising fish. Romans also raised both saltwater and freshwater fish in artificial ponds. Even in cities, Roman families maintained their own fishponds as part of their gardens. These ponds were practical as well as decorative. In addition to the pleasure of watching the fish, people were able to enjoy eating fresh fish on a regular basis.
The ancient Greeks and Romans ate fish cooked in a variety of ways, including boiled, fried, grilled, or baked in an oven. Some ancient writings include descriptions of favorite seafood dishes. One Roman author provided recipes for cooked mussels, stuffed octopus, and a lavish dish that contained mussels, oysters, jellyfish, dates, olive oil, celery, spices, and a fish sauce. (See also Food and Drink.)