Introduction to a Confusing Terminology

There is a dilemma at the heart of the study of the Roman fish sauce trade. The meaning of the Greek and Latin words used to name the fish sauces is still a contested issue. I seem to recall Robert Curtis once saying that distinguishing fish sauce terminology is like pinning jelly to the wall, but pinning allec to the wall would seem more appropriate. It would be helpful for practitioners in the fields of archaeology, economic history and zooarchaeology to be in agreement about what we mean when we use the terms garum and liquamen, but currently there is much confusion and contradiction between modern scholars and ancient commentators. It is also not readily recognised that the ancients themselves were less than clear as to the exact meaning of the terms that they used, and this confusion has informed and exacerbated our own.

The current approach to the definition of garum and liquamen is based on the idea of a single ancient fish sauce that is derived, in the first instance, from the description of fish sauce in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (Pliny HN 31.93ff). We understand from HN and other sources that this fish sauce was called garos in Greek and this was later transliterated into garum in Latin and even later changed again into liquamen. The later term for fish sauce: liquamen is not defined satisfactorily in an early Roman context and is always considered obscure by modern scholars (Curtis 2016: 175). Curtis considered it a second and subsequent washing of the residue of the primary product i.e. garum when it was different from this, though he does acknowledge that this is a guess based on the apparent coherence of the terms. In the later empire, liquamen appears to have functioned in exactly the same way as garum, i.e. generic usage in a later Latin context (Curtis 1991: 13, 2009: 713). This does seem to be an over simplified approach to the problems we face in understanding garum and it might be worth considering whether the two names always represented two distinct sauces. Quite how many forms of fish sauce existed is a controversial issue. Are we dealing with one essential substance and numerous subtypes or were there multiple recognised varieties that we cannot attribute to the surviving names? Currently we are unable to answer these questions.

The single sauce with three names (garos/garum/liquamen) is first identified by Etienne and Mayet (2002: 50). They compared the evidence from texts and inscriptions and saw that liquamen is not used at all in texts in the early period (late Republic to ca. mid 3rd century AD) and garum is rare in late texts (i.e. after ca. 3rd century AD), particularly in Apicius where the liquamen fish sauce completely dominates the recipes, although garum is not absent from this text. In inscriptional evidence, garum is found on the Zarai tax tariff (AD 202, CIL VIII 4508) from the Roman Berber town in Numidia but is not found on Diocletian’s price edict (AD 301). This inscription was installed throughout the empire, and on it we find liquamen is equivalent to garos in the Greek versions that survived and garum per se is absent (Darmon 1964; Lauffer 1971: 3.6–7). From these citations it is understood that sometime in the mid to late 3rd century the Latin terms were switched, while the Greek remains the same, though why is never really addressed. The early elite consumption texts of Martial and Horace appear to use garum exclusively with no mention of liquamen at all, and many early medicinal and agricultural texts similarly seem to demonstrate that liquamen is unknown in the late Republic and early empire. It will become clear that Greek garos and Latin liquamen became, in later didactic text, the standard terms for a common fish sauce while the Latin garum, often with descriptive adjective, is typically applied to blood/viscera fish sauces in consumption texts. Liquamen is clearly a separate and distinct and popular sauce alongside garum in the mid 1st century AD in Pompeii and the wider Roman empire, as demonstrated by the tituli picti evidence (Curtis 1991: 195).Footnote 1 The question remains, why the discrepancy?

It is in fact impossible to date precisely the individual snippets of practical knowledge such as recipes contained in didactic texts with any accuracy and as a result the neat separation of garum as the early term and liquamen as the later one, does not always work.Footnote 2 The Apicius recipe book is assumed to be from the 4th century but a significant number of recipes can be placed in earlier centuries including the 1st (Grocock and Grainger 2006: 15). There is a very simple explanation for the complete absence of the term liquamen in early texts as we will see, while the alleged absence of garum in the later period is simpler to deal with as it is not absent at all. It is rare undoubtedly; it is found without ambiguity in one Apician recipe and in one other which is less secure (Apicius 7.13.1, Excerpta 29). There are also regular occurrences of both garum and liquamen in late Imperial and Byzantine medicinal and veterinary texts where the use of both terms suggests that there has been a continuity of meaning: garum and liquamen represented the same two separate sauces that they referred to in Pompeii.Footnote 3 When one views the evidence from a purely practical and empirical perspective it can be demonstrated that there were just two basic types which correspond to the two names that we have. The two sub-types allec and muria are only somewhat less problematic and space constraints limit discussion to the two main terms: garum and liquamen.

The ‘single sauce hypothesis’ is founded on the elite Romano-centric literary perspective that we see from ‘consumption texts’ where the only term we find used is garum.Footnote 4 In contrast, in the didactic texts there does not appear to be a generic term for fish sauce at all. The two terms in question are used with precision on amphorae and the same precision is apparent in the recipes with only rare anomalies which are dealt with here as they appear in the review of the texts in question. Using garum as a generic term for fish sauce is fine in a discussion of fish sauce generally but it is inadequate for a detailed analysis of these commodities. The complexity of the debate is outlined in Table 1 where the various potential definitions of the two terms in the current debate are outlined.

Table 1 A table of the proposed different ways in which fish sauce is named by date and by literary and inscriptional source in this paper

In what follows, some of the key texts that have been used to define fish sauce are re-evaluated in light of the need to distinguish and separate them out into the distinct types and sub-types.

Fish Sauce: The Basics

There are two key texts preserving recipes for fish sauce. The most reliable evidence for the manufacture of these sauces is found, not in Latin sources, but in a 10th century Byzantine Greek agricultural manual, the Geoponica (Dalby 2011). Despite its medieval date, it actually preserves Greek material from much earlier in the Roman period and is therefore a valuable source. It is clear that, if these fish sauces were not Greek in origin, their use was at least spread by Greek cooks through their recipes. The definitions in the Geoponica are coherent and are not contradicted by any other didactic text. There are four separate methods to make various types of fish sauce.

The making of garaFootnote 5. The so-called liquamen is made thus. Fish entrails are put in a container and salted; and little fish, especially sand-smelt or small red mullet or mendole or anchovy, or any small enough, are all similarly salted; and left to pickle in the sun, stirring frequently. When the heat has pickled them, the garos is got from them thus: a deep close-woven basket is inserted into the centre of the vessel containing these fish, and the garos flows into the basket. This, then, is how the liquamen is obtained by filtering through the basket; the residue makes alix. (Geoponica 20.46; Dalby 2011).

The text goes on to describe a similar method but with no extra viscera, where small and larger fish, that we can assume were cut open, are used and the method of making garos is described whereby whole fish are boiled in brine. This is mirrored in a recipe from the obscure Brevorum of Ps Rufius Festus (Curtis 1991: 192; Eadie 1967) which is considered a Medieval gloss, as is the other recipe source, found in two of the manuscripts attributed to Gargilius Martialis’ Medicinae ex holeribus et pomis (Ps Gargilius 62; Rose 1875: 209) where a similar fermented sauce made in an enclosed vessel with many herbs is described (Maire 2002; Curtis 1984). The definition from Isidore of Seville’s 6th century encyclopaedia recalls these recipes: ‘liquamen is so called because little fish dissolved during salting produce the liquid of that name’ (20.3.19ff). That this dissolved liquamen sauce could also be made from much larger fish such as mackerel (Scomber sp.) is clear from the tituli picti where occasionally liquamen scombri flos occurs.Footnote 6 However the bone residues of fish sauce that are found throughout the Mediterranean at production and consumption sites are dominated by the small fish species such as sardine and anchovy (Engraulidae, Clupeidae) and it is these that are used for the mass produced liquamen (Desse-Berset and Desse 2000).

It is apparent from the first three instructions in the Geoponica and from the Gargilius technique that a sauce derived from whole dissolved small fish, whether with extra viscera or not, can be made by three methods: fermentation of the small fish (5–20 cm) with extra viscera and salt in bulk, open to the sun; fermentation of fish in an enclosed vessel, cut in pieces if large; making a sauce by boiling fish in brine. The result is the same. In my experiments to make fish sauces, all these methods have resulted in sauces of a similar nature, once the bones were removed: a light or darker brown clear liquid containing very small particles of the fish paste residue floating in it (Grainger 2016).Footnote 7

Later sources state that the term garos had a generic meaning in Greek for any salty liquid, even one extracted from meat, and in Latin a liquamen derived from salting and fermenting pears is found in Palladius.Footnote 8 We can see from this and from the Geoponica that a generic usage indicating a salty liquid seasoning works with garos and liquamen. The question is does it also work with garum? I would suggest not!

A very different fish sauce results from the fourth instruction in the Geoponica which constitutes the second type of sauce thus:

A rather high quality garos called haimation is made thus: Take tunny entrails with gills fluid and blood, sprinkle with sufficient salt, leave in a vessel for two months at the most; then pierce the jar and the garos called haimation flows out (26–29).

This blood/viscera sauce is a dark and rich and packs a powerful punch. It is iron rich and having made such a sauce I can confirm that it is very different in taste to any of the whole fish sauces. This is largely due to the blood which we learn has to be harvested while the fish is freshly killed otherwise the blood coagulates and is unobtainable (Van Neer and Parker 2008). Garos haimation is certainly sufficiently different from a whole fish sauce to justify the need for a clear distinction in the terminology essential in the manufacturing process and in terms of trade. The distinctiveness is also apparent when we see how these sauces were used (see below). This second type of sauce is also described as a garon melan (black) in Greek and variously rendered in Latin as garum/garum sociorum or nigrum (black). We do not find the word haimation (bloody) transliterated in Latin sources, it is not known on tituli picti and it is quite rare, with one known reference in Egyptian papyri.Footnote 9 The identification of the sauce known as garum sociorum is greatly disputed (Leon 2001: 176). It is not generally accepted that it is the same as the haimation sauce and it may represent another product although, as we shall see, the ancient writers identified a sauce made with blood with the label sociorum.

There is by no means universal agreement on this basic issue of the two types of sauce being distinguished in this way. The three different production methods, noted above, are viewed as producing distinct sauces, while there is a failure in current literature to recognise the distinctiveness of the blood viscera sauce (Lowe 2017: 309; Botte 2009: 19). The blood viscera garum is recognised as special and high quality but it is rare to see an acknowledgment that it is sufficiently different to have required its own terminology, in production and in trade (as expressed on tituli picti). In the Geoponica we see that liquamen is only used to designate the whole-small-fish sauce and is never seen to indicate the blood viscera sauce in any ancient context, which clearly demonstrates that liquamen does not function as a generic term in relation to this issue. One must always bear in mind that if these terms were used generally in all contexts it would have been impossible to distinguish one product from another. There are other approaches that stress the potential diversity in fish sauce such as the one proposed by Bernal-Casasola (2009), who has identified mixed sauces containing meat, fish and shell fish in amphora residues.Footnote 10 Bernal-Casasola also recognises a ‘garum effect bias’ in current research that is restricting our perception of fish sauce diversity, while I would counter that the potential diversity of fish sauces stems from the creativity of the cook when handling fish sauce before consumption rather than the manufacture of the essential substance (Bernal-Casasola 2016).

In a poem by Manilius which describes scenes of fishing and fish sauce manufacture we can see that the ancients saw these sauces in terms of two basic types. The poem is immensely complex and space restraints prevent a detailed analysis (see Lowe this volume). The catch is initially tuna but these are butchered and cut up and their blood stains the sea (line 666). We then change almost seamlessly to a different scene indicated by tum quoque (then again). This change in scene has not been noted before but is of fundamental importance as I think it also means a change of fish species.

when the catch is brought ashore whole (it therefore cannot be tuna?) and a second slaughter is done to the slain: they are cut into pieces and from the one body different purposes are allotted. One type (i.e. sauce) is better with its juices removed another with them retained. (Manilius Astro. 5. 664–72).

Other interpretations have been given,Footnote 11 but I see this as a clear reference to the manufacture of the two types of better quality fish sauce from mackerel (Scomber sp.), one using the juices separately (garum), the other using whole fish including the juices (liquamen). In another change of scene signified by aut cum (676 alternatively when), Manilius describes a sauce derived from crowds of little fish dissolving into what we can assuredly call a more commonplace liquamen (Astro. 5.680).

In the Geoponica garos and liquamen are completely interchangeable terms. Diocletian’s price edict carries the same fundamental information: liquamen is rendered in Greek as garos. The late Roman medical text On Chronic Diseases by Caelius Aurelianus is often quoted to assert that ‘garum is commonly called liquamen’ (2.3.70), but this work is described by Caelius as a direct translation from the Greek of a work by Soranus in the 2nd century AD (Drabkin 1950). The scarcity of the term garum in Caelius’ time (late 4th/5th century) would suggest that he may not have had knowledge of this separate product. He would logically transliterate garos into garum, unaware that they did not always mean the same thing. There is no reference to a Latin garum in any of these three important sources, and the question has always been: if this is all about Roman fish sauce, where is the garum?

The answer is essentially very simple and is concerned with when and how the blood viscera fish sauce was invented and introduced onto the Roman market, and more importantly how long it stayed popular and commercially viable. For there was a time before it arrived and a time when it became less popular, which we need to recognise, if the later scarcity of the term, and in fact the product itself, is to be understood properly.

The remaining evidence for the ‘other’ blood viscera sauce is obscure. It appears on amphora tituli picti alongside liquamen and in elite consumption satire but when and how it came into being is unknown. Pliny the Elder tells a story of an invented garum dated very cautiously to the first part of the 1st century AD. We are told of Apicius’s death occurring prior to AD 42/43 by Seneca (Sen Ad helv. 10.8-9; Costa 1994) but we have no other dating evidence.

Marcus Apicius… thought it especially desirable for mullets to be killed in a garum sociorum – for this thing also has procured a designation (Pliny HN 9.66.4).

This appears to be our earliest textual reference to a sociorum sauce. The excerpt generates a number of questions. Was Apicius responsible for inventing the very idea of a blood viscera sauce or was it already being made and he suggested using mullet and only coined the term sociorum for this fish? Garum was later made from the otherwise unused parts of mackerel and tuna, and tuna would appear to be particularly suitable providing the highest ratio of waste volume per fish. Was the very concept of garum entirely a gourmet led innovation? The impetus for this kind of culinary innovation may have come directly from the elite gourmet community as it clearly becomes very fashionable to use this kind of bloody sauce. How was the idea conceived? Logic would suggest that a manufacturer triggered the process given that it is made from the apparently inedible elements of fish which would otherwise be discarded or buried. Should we consider Apicius’s killing of the mullet just a form of cooking and does that mean garum sociorum was a legitimate cooking medium? These will probably remain unanswered questions.

The use of the obscure term sociorum in this Apicius quote, which is generally rendered as ‘of our allies’ was originally assumed, from a reference in Pliny (HN 31.94), to be linked with trading associations. Leon (2001: 176) has suggested that it is a general term to designate all Spanish fish sauces; but this is another example of the tendency of modern scholarship to see all these terms as generic. It is better interpreted as a very specific name for a very specific sauce, i.e. a mullet blood viscera garum and in this case it is used to cook/kill ‘their fellows’, in other words more mullet. Sociorum is subsequently used by Martial and Seneca to designate a sauce derived not from mullet but from mackerel and its blood (Martial Sat. 2.102; Sen Ad helv. 10.8-9). In this view the Latin term garum was eventually retained and/or appropriated by the elite and the merchants selling these products to designate blood viscera sauces generally; that means one made from the waste products of multiple species as well as specifically mackerel, mullet or tuna. This unusual situation effectively forced the manufacturers of garos to coin a word to designate the primary product in order to separate garum/garos and distinguish it in trade. What also seems apparent is that there was great diversity and specialisation in relation to the species utilised to make these sauces but not, I would argue, over their principle nature.

Once this distinction is recognised it allows us to clarify many puzzling issues but it also raises many questions. The very fact of so many complex contemporaneous garum and liquamen tituli picti on urceii from Pompeii only make sense if they represent distinctive products rather than one being a by-product of the other. However, we must ask how the change in meaning was managed, on the ground, among the traders and merchants. Were there tituli picti designating a garum before the switch in meaning? The dating of tituli picti is not accurate enough to pinpoint the change. These questions must remain unanswered but do require consideration.

A rare bilingual titulus pictus from an amphora from Masada and associated with King Herod the Great has caused many interpretative problems but may shed a little light on this issue. It reads “garum,” two unknown symbols, followed by Bασιλέω(ς). With a putative genitive ending it is said to mean ‘garum of (or for) the king’ but why is it bilingual, and why is it not written as garon or haimation…? I suspect that this label indicated that the content was a blood/viscera sauce not an ordinary garos and the use of the Latin signified this. Herod the Great lived in Rome for some time during the early 40s BC and may have acquired a love of this new sauce. This may explain why this sauce was identified using the new fashionable Latin usage i.e. garum (Berdowski 2008: 116). Herod was dead by about 4-1 BC and so if this interpretation is correct it may be the earliest evidence for the ‘other’ garum in the Late Republic (Cotton et al. 1996).

There is also an increasing body of evidence from papyri for the use of the term garos in Egypt. A flask of garou haimatitou—bloody garos—appears on a fragmentary receipt from the 4th century AD (see note 8). The vast majority of references (57) are to garos alone with occasional references to leukos meaning ‘clear’ or ‘bright’ and in one instance this is listed with another bottle described as simply melanos—black. That garos could be either dark in colour or in contrast paler is apparent from modern experiments and must surely refer to the two types of sauce that were available at the time, i.e. ca. 4th century Egypt, one dark and one light in colour.Footnote 12

In elite Roman consumption texts, garum occurs largely on its own but it is also described as luxuriosa (expensive, Martial Epi. 13.102) as well as arcanum (secret, mysterious, Martial Epi. 7.27.8), yet also nobile (renowned, Martial Epi. 13.82.2). Pliny and Martial also use the term sociorum (Pliny HN 31.93-94; Martial Epi. 13.102). Seneca talks of this ‘so-called garum sociorum, the costly extract of poisonous fish, (which) burns up the stomach with its salted putrefaction?’ and refers back to the cooking/killing of the mullet in the garum sauce (Sen Ep. 95.25; NQ 3.17.2-3). Martial says of his garum sociorum that it is specifically ‘made from the blood of a still breathing mackerel’ (Martial Epi. 13.102) linking the fine blood/viscera sauce with this term at least in the minds of elite consumers.

The perceived absence of the term liquamen in early Latin texts can now be better understood. Fish sauce was originally a singular essential substance: a small-whole dissolved fish sauce and it is perfectly understandable that late Republican and even Augustan writers should transliterate garos into garum as they perceived this product in this way. The blood viscera sauce was invented some time at the end of the Republic but it was much later when this new garum became integrated into culinary use and recorded in culinary, medicinal and veterinary texts where it would be visible to us. The switch in usage was gradual, being consumer-led, and created much confusion which can be seen in the way garum is depicted and utilised in early 1st century consumption texts. We do not see liquamen meaning a specific fish sauce referred to in any kind of text, other than Apicius, until very much later in the empire with Palladius in the 4th century (Palladius Opus Agri. 3.25.12).Footnote 13 The collections of colloquia, daily conversations to aid learning of Greek and Latin, loosely dated from the 2nd to the 5th centuries AD, contain many references to garos which are translated in Latin by liquamen. These texts give information about daily tasks associated with Roman life and we can see how ancient peoples engaged with fish sauce each time they ate. Garum and or an alternative to garos is conspicuous by its absence (Dickey 2012).Footnote 14 These texts reveal that a blood viscera sauce did not figure in daily eating any more.

Garum and Liquamen in Use

The two fish sauces were, in practise, used in very distinct ways. What is most apparent is that blood/viscera garum had a limited role in the kitchen during the cooking process. It is discussed in elite consumption literature, but it is very difficult to determine precisely how it was used. There are hints that garum was a table sauce that was poured on to food; its black glossy appearance will have made it particularly visible to elite consumers. Garos/liquamen on the other hand appears to have been used predominantly in the kitchen and it is therefore quite understandable that the elite failed to recognise its existence as they never saw it in use. It functioned both as a general salt seasoning in cooking and as an ingredient in the oenogaros/um compound dressings that were served as dips and also poured over cooked meat, fish and prepared dishes.Footnote 15 What is most apparent from Apicius is that blood/viscera garum was never used as a basic cooking liquor despite the suggestion that Apicius wanted to cook/kill his mullet in it: it was too rich, too dark, too intense, and too expensive! That these sauces played different culinary roles is made apparent from the Manilius poem: the sauce that is made from the ‘juices removed’ i.e. the blood/viscera sauce, ‘balances taste in the mouth’ which certainly suggest this ‘balance’ of taste occurs during the eating process at table. The product that is made from the ‘juices retained’ i.e. a whole-fish sauce, is described as a ‘liquor for food’ (5.675), indicating a cooking ingredient.

All fish sauces add salt flavour but they also contribute that elusive and highly desirable umami; a meaty-cheesy-fishy complexity which is the taste of the amino acid L-glutamate. This forms during fermentation and preservation of fish and also cheese and meat. It is experienced as a combination of the four basic tastes of salt, sweet, sour and bitter and it is essential in any definition of deliciousness.Footnote 16 That garos served primarily as a liquid seasoning is clear from the story in Athenaeus of Philoxenus (early 4th century BC), who is said to have entered other people’s homes with oil, garos, wine and vinegar so that he could correct the seasoning of the household cook (Ath 1.6a). When and how it first entered Roman cuisine is lost to us as there is no garos or garum in either Cato (150 BC) or Plautus (fl. 210–180 BC), although we must assume that such a product was available as allec: the residue of fish sauce, mentioned in both texts, is considered a commonplace item, offered to slaves and served as a dip with vegetables and with ham to the Plautan protagonists (Cato Agr. 58; Persa 1.III.107; frag. Aulularia V.1 840).

We have an early snapshot of fish sauce in Roman cuisine at the end of the Republic from Horace’s satires published 35–33 BC. The gourmet Nasidienus serves a banquet in which allec is an appetiser (Hor Sat. 2.8.9) but the interest he shows in the compound sauces he is serving to his guests which we know were called oenogaros/um is very telling. His sauce contained garo de sucis piscis hiberi, ‘garum from the juices of a Spanish fish’, along with oil vinegar and wine (Hor Sat. 11. 8. 42–53). I had long assumed that this ‘juice’ was blood and viscera and that this was therefore a very early reference to a blood viscera garum but now I think that this is in error. Leon (2001: 175) has suggested that we should expect sociorum indicative of elite garum here but this product had not yet become fashionable and may not have been even invented. There are certainly no firmly datable tituli picti for garum in the Republican period: they are all from the early Empire. Elsewhere in Horace’s Satires he suggests that muria, salted fish brine, was a desirable sauce to blend with oil and wine and this has been noted to be out of keeping with later fashion as muria was considered lower status. Using muria recalls earlier Hellenistic cuisine and it was the Spanish and Sicilian salted tuna trade in the 3rd–1st century BC that provided this sauce. Muria is also associated with the 4th century BC gastronomic tastes of Archestratus on Sicily (Wilkins and Hill 2011). This suggest that the culinary culture of Horace’s poetry looks back to Hellenistic practices and that his garum is actually still an early Greek garos, later named liquamen, and not the blood viscera sauce. Therefore, we cannot be sure which sauce is being referred to when we see garum in consumption texts and this is probably true for all periods.

The compound sauce that Horace is describing is an oenogarum, a blend of wine or vinegar or both, oil and fish sauce, sometimes with various herbs and spices. The term is a transliterated Greek word not a translation so in effect every reference to oenogarum in Apicius is not a reference to a blood/viscera garum but to a liquamen. Such mentions are very common in Apicius and Galen as well, but we do not know the origin of the product. We cannot categorically say they were a Greek culinary invention though the term is undoubtedly Greek. It is very likely that the techniques of using fish sauce and incorporating it into a Mediterranean cuisine was well advanced before it arrived in Rome. These sauces were predominantly used as a dressing for vegetables but also for meat and fish.Footnote 17 Galen consistently recommends these light, simple dressings for vegetables in his dietary advice, each time using garos to mean the whole-small-fish sauce, while only on one occasion does he refer to a black garos which is used to make a remedy called an oxyporium.Footnote 18

We can see the same usage of garos in recipes from Celsus, who is writing in the early 1st century AD. Celsus used the Latinized form garum but in a context suggesting the primary fish sauce i.e. liquamen used as a simple vegetable dressing holus ex oleo garove estur, ‘vegetables eaten with oil and garum,’ and in Apicius we find the same formulaFootnote 19 (Celsus Med. 2.25). The Greek and Latin Colloquia (phrasebooks), which are 1st–4th century in date also just refer to oil and garos combinations as the normal dressing (Dickey 2012: note 20). Pliny’s references to fish sauce demonstrate that he largely regards garum as a garos too. It is used in a dressing of oil and wine for parsnips (HN 20.34.4); in a dressing of oil, wine, honey for opsonia (meat pieces, HN 27.136.6); and for snails served with wine (HN 30.44.4). The later recipes in Galen and Apicius for simple dressing of oil, wine and fish sauce are reminiscent of the type of compound sauces that we find in Celsus and Pliny. Columella has one recipe for an oxyporium—digestive remedy, which is diluted with garum and vinegar (Rust. 12.4.13) and this recipe is mirrored in Apicius using liquamen and vinegar (Apicius 1.34). It is not absolutely certain that Columella is advocating a whole fish sauce here, however by the time that Galen is writing (AD 160) the only reference to black garum in his work appears to suggest that it has become a legitimate ingredient in these particular medicinal compounds. In subsequent medicinal texts, where liquamen has become the primary fish sauce we see that garum exists as a separate product and becomes more frequently utilised. We can now understand the rarity of black garum in 1st century didactic texts: as it was simply too new a product to be incorporated into this kind of literature.

To sum up, it would seem possible that these compound oenogarum dressings could not have been originally made with a black garum: it did not appear to exist when these sauces were introduced into Roman culture. I would suggest they were developed in the Hellenistic era and that garum sociorum was not part of the Greek cuisine that came to Rome. It became a fashionable sauce only under Roman influence some time during the late Republic/early Empire. In previously published work I have interpreted Horace’s Satire 2.8 as indicating that black garum was used in these oenogarum dressings, but if it is a garos, i.e. whole-fish sauce, then the sole possible instance that garum sociorum was used in these compound dressings disappears. In fact, it becomes very difficult to work out just how it was used, even when its presence is attested.

So where is the real garum in Apicius? It is definitely present in just one recipe:

‘fungis farneis: elixir calidi exsiccati in garo, piper accipiuntur, ita ut piper cum liquamine teres’ Ash-tree fungi: boil and serve while hot and dry with garum and pepper so long as you pound the pepper with liquamen (Apicius 7.13.1)

The recipe is perplexing but a pepper mash occurs elsewhere and the idea of pouring the glossy black garum on to the mushroom at/or during service is not without culinary logic. The concept of using a table sauce to pour onto food just before service or at the table is a familiar culinary practice in modern cuisine using dark soy sauce. The dark ishiri squid viscera sauce unique to Japanese cooking is also used in a similar way as a seasoning to finish a dish.Footnote 20

When garum is nobile it is poured onto oysters (Martial Epi. 13.82). By nobile I am assuming expensive and inferring sociorum i.e. a blood/viscera sauce. We see that a garum sauce is poured on to cooked food in the well-known letter by Ausonius from the early 3rd century AD (Aus Epis. 25.21). This is a highly complex text which deals with the very issue of fish sauce nomenclature and deserves a more detailed treatment than is possible here. The gift he has received, however, is almost certainly a garum sociorum, i.e. a blood viscera sauce, given he uses that term in relation to it (the gift) and entirely ignores the possibility of naming the sauce he has received as a liquamen, even though this term is apparently current usage in the 3rd century AD. It cannot therefore be a small-whole-fish sauce that he has received and the only other option is a blood/viscera garum. He also rejects the term muria which is a far more complex issue, and as we are not discussing this sauce here, the argument as to what muria was in this context must remain for future debate.Footnote 21 It is quite clear in this letter that Ausonius expects to be able to pour the sauce on to his patina (frittata) himself. In Petronius’ Satiricon a garum piperatum (pepper sauce) is contrived to pour down from a small bottle on to fish at the banquet (Petr Sat. 36.3.2). This garum might have been a black garum; the details are somewhat ambiguous. This is all the direct evidence we have for black garum in culinary use in the 1st century. Given how popular it seems to be in Pompeii, on the basis of archaeological finds, mostly tituli picti, it is certainly strange that we are so much in the dark over its uses. One may postulate that garum sauce was available in bars and dining clubs for the consumer to pour or dribble onto their food in what was a conspicuous act of consumption. This issue would be greatly enhanced by further studies into the relative volume of the vessels associated with garum and liquamen, known as urceii. These small one handled table top jugs were used to sell fish sauces in Pompeii. A recent study of 146 vessels with no tituli, found that 95 (66%) had capacity of between 1.9 and 3.4 litres, although the capacity ranges from under 2 litres and a maximum of 7 litres (Cappelletto et al. 2013). Unfortunately, the survival of labels on urceii, as on amphora, is unpredictable, which means that an estimation of the relative volume of each vessel and the sauce it held in each context is impossible.Footnote 22

Later medicinal and veterinary remedies refer to black garum but there is little to find within these obscure texts that would illuminate aspects of its culinary use any further. What does seem clear, however, from these later medical texts is that black garum had become established as a medicinal ingredient and its use at table and its culinary role had diminished. The mere fact that it does not appear on Diocletian’s price edict (4th century AD) demonstrates that it had little economic value. This is why we find relatively little reference to it in the late Empire, why Ausonius was so pleased to receive his bottle and why so many authors were confused.


It is clear that black garum was pre-eminent at the tables of the elite in Roman satire of the 1st century AD and it appears it was hugely popular on the streets of Pompeii. However, it is now necessary to recognise that the essential substance that dominated the Roman fish sauce trade may not have been a garum but a liquamen type of sauce. The consequences of this are profound for the study of archaeological fish remains related to fish processing, of amphora and of tituli picti. It is very probable that there will be very different processors involved in the manufacture of each sauce, as is demonstrated by Manilus’s poem: what species were utilised, how they were butchered, the size and shape of the processing vats/containers (cetaria/dolia), the volume of product in each batch, duration of fermentation, harvesting techniques, and the amphora chosen to store and transport the product in and how the shape and function of these vessels was influenced by the texture and consistency of the finished sauce. Further research is required to clarify these issues. One key point to stress is the need to be specific in how we use the terminology. Garum no longer serves as an all-purpose generic term.

A Note on Sources

For the Latin and Greek texts used in this paper the following publications have been followed: Apicius: Grocock and Grainger 2006; Athenaeus: Gulick 1928; Aurelianus Caelius: Drabkin 1950; Ausonius: Green 1999; Galen: Kuhn 1821–33; Gargilius Martialis: Maire 2002; Geoponica: Dalby 2011; Horace: Fairclough 2005; Isidore of Saville: Barney 2006; Manilius Goold 1977; Martial: Shackleton-Bailey 2006; Pelagonius Fischer 1980; Pliny: Jones 1989; Seneca: Costa 1994; Vegetius Renatus: Lommatzsch 1903. The papyri cited in this article were sourced at (accessed 11/2018).