Historical excursus on the aquarium hobby, Part 2 – Ancient Greece to Ancient Rome

By Natasha Khardina

Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) was the first author to mention a vivarium, a fishpond, that stood in the home of the noble Lucinus Muraena – a rich man whose name is now commemorated in the scientific name for moray eel Muraena muraena, – towards the end of the second century BC.

And yet we must not forget the Greeks. No less a person than Aristotle about 384-322 BC mentioned fishes in his works, in particular Historia animalium, and described 116 species. Inter alias, he tells of the marine electric ray Torpedo marmorata, feared on account of its 50 volt electric discharge, while the Roman physician Scribonius Largus mentions it was also kept in ponds as its discharge could be used to treat migraine and post-operational pains.

Torpedo marmorata. ©BAP

Aristotle who dedicated over one third of his work to Nature, referred therein a succession of Greek thinkers interested in Nature some 300 years before his own time, citing as the first the Ionian philosopher Thales who founded the Milesian school of natural philosophy and about 600 BC stated “…that everything began with water, and everything may be composed of water today” (Patricia O’Grady). Now, our fishes definitely originated in water – just as all other life forms trace their origin to that element. And Thales realised it some 2500 years before Darwin.

Philosopher Thales of Miletus.

Romans have had more mercantilist approach. They applied a combination of the technical expertise from the fields of biology, hydraulics and architecture, keeping fishes in natural coves and inlets near the sea, that were “constructed at great cost”, “kept at great cost”2 and belonged to the rich. The artificial concrete containers for freshwater instead were kept inland apparently by people with lower socioeconomic status. The freshwater ponds were easier to build what allowed the construction of more sophisticated chains of ponds connected by channel or openings, with vertical slots and separate enclosures, to keep different fish species or to segregate the predacious adult from younger specimens. The water to the fishponds was provided through the aqueducts (Hugginbotham 1997).

The artificial concrete containers – piscinae in Ancient Rome.

The earliest constructions built in Italy for the raising of fish were fed by freshwater. Later, in the last century of the Republic, the Romans began to build fishponds on the seaside using the seawater as their principal water source. These seaside enclosures were more elaborate and costly than their inland forebears. In the consequence seaside piscinae were generally held to be considered the prerogative of the wealthy strata of society, while ponds fed by freshwater became associated with poorer individuals.

Many of the piscinae could be enjoyed from much intimate surroundings while situated in dining areas and reception rooms with the look at the garden with a fishpond. The connection had not only aesthetical but also gastronomic purposes as the fresh fish and eels from piscinae made and impressive addition to private meals among friends and honoured guests.

Garum factory.

Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) was the first author to mention a vivarium, a fishpond, that stood in the home of the noble Lucinus Muraena – a rich man whose name is now commemorated in the scientific name for moray eel Muraena muraena, – towards the end of the second century BC.

Moreover, according to Pliny’s book, Marcus Trentius around 116-27 BC owned two piscinae in Casinum. In his didactic work De re rustica he differentiates between two types of fishpond, the dulces (freshwater) ponds used by country folk to temporarily house fishes before taking them to market, and the salsae (saltwater) or maritimae (marine) ponds which wealthy nobles installed for show and ostentation (Varro ca. 37 BC). For them the red mullet Mullus surmuletus was a delicacy and the joy of eating it greatly enhanced if the fish were brought to the table alive, so that the flickering iridescence and colour changes of the dying fish could be appreciated before it was eaten. A particularly fine specimen could cost as much as a cow.

Red Mullet.

The real status symbol, however, was the moray. Gaius Hirrius built a special pond for them and declined to present a single specimen to Julius Caesar, which led to a frightful row. Although he is said to have loaned Caesar 6000 moray eels for his huge banquet (Pliny 77-79 AD). Romans bedecked their pet morays with jewels and the author Martial described eels responding to their masters’ voices (Banister 1977).

The murrey in the ancient Rome.

The caught fish were transported short distances in nets, trailing in the water. For long distances Romans used the first known fish tanks constructed of lead and wood – tanks in the present-day aquarium sense. Athenaeus of Naucratis, a Greek historian who lived circa 200 AD, described such a ship built by Archimedes at the behest of the tyrant Hiero II, which had such a live tank called navis vivaria built into the bow. Similar construction was unearthed near what was the entrance to the Claudian harbor during the construction of the airport at Fiumicino in 1958-1959 (Klee 2005).

Vivarium

It should be noted that Europe-wide long-distance transportation of fishes was first documented in the 6th century AD. Cassiodorus (490-585) wrote how live carp were sent from the Danube to Ravenna in Italy. Alive, because everything had to be absolutely fresh for the table of Theodoric, King of the Goths: “…and from the Danube come carp and from the Rhine herring. To provide a variety of flavours, it is necessary to have that many fish from many countries. A king’s reign should be such as to indicate that he possesses everything” (Balon 1995).

The Romans were also the ones who experimented also with serious piscicultural techniques by transferring the fertilised eggs of desirable advantageous species to waters they were needed (Banister 1977, Balon 1995). Glass making was known to the Romans, which produced many fine bottles and containers. However, there is no record of the Romans maintaining life fish in glass vessels.

To be continued…

Bibliography:

Balon Eugene K., The domestication of carp, Toronto, Life Sciences Miscellaneous Publications 1974, p. 5, in “Archive” 2019.

Banister Keith E., Aquarial Fish, New York, Crescent Books 1977.

Banister Keith E., Campbell Andrew C., The Encyclopaedia of Aquatic Life, New York, Checkmark Books 1985.

Higginbotham James, Piscinae – Artificial Fishponds in Italy, Chapel Hill and London, University of North Carolina Press.

Klee Albert J., The Toy Fish: A History of the Aquarium Hobby in America: The First One-Hundred Years, Revised & enlarged edition, Pascoag, Finley Aquatic Books 2003.

O’Grady Patricia, Thales of Miletus, in “Encyclopedia of Phylosophy”.

Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundicus), Natural History, Vol. III: Books 8-11.

Varro Marcus Terentius, De Re Rustica, LIB. III Chapter 5, ca. 37 BC, Loeb Classical Library edition 1934, p. 455, the English transl. by W. D. Hooper and H. B. Ash, in “Loeb Classical Library”.