Something fishy

Neapolis: the New City, was founded by the Phoenicians after Carthage. This was a coastal city, the remains of which can be found in what is now Nabeul, on Cap Bon.


During the Roman Civil Wars, Neapolis sided with Julius Caesar and was subsequently rewarded with the status of colonia, along with all the rights that this afforded its citizens. The city, Colonia Julia Neapolis became a prosperous port with its own guild of navicularii (shipowners), and its maritime position and related trades are clear in the remains visible today. Of particular note, and what I was there to see, were the remains of the city’s garum factories.


Picture the scene.


The fishing boats moor up and unload their catch. The Roman equivalent of fish girls (or boys) set to work gutting and filleting fishes for salting. What happens to the offcuts? The heads, guts, eyeballs? They all get mushed up together in large tanks and left to ferment for a month or so. Then the liquid is skimmed of the top, creating garum, the fish sauce beloved of Romans. This was the condiment of choice. They used it on everything, savoury and sweet, as a seasoning, as a sauce. The nearest modern equivalent might be something like Thai fish sauce. Another Roman fish sauce, liquamen, was made from small whole  fish, left to ferment in vats in the same way*. Roman Worcester Sauce perhaps. The sediment, sludge, bits and tiny fish bones which settled out of the garum or liquamen, was called allec (or alec / alica) and was used  as food or as a flavouring for poorer people and slaves.

This recipe was recorded by the Roman writer Apicius in the 1st century CE, and utilises garum in the sauce:

Ostrich Ragoût

In struthione elixo: piper, mentam, cuminum assume, apii semen, dactylos vel caryotas, mel, acetum, passum, liquamen, et oleum modice et in caccabo facies ut bulliat. Amulo obligas, et sic partes struthionis in lance perfundis, ete desuper piper aspargis. Si autem in condituram coquere volueris, alicam addis.

For boiled ostrich: pepper, mint, roast cumin, celery seed, dates or Jericho dates, honey, vinegar, passum, garum, a little oil. Put these in the pot and bring to the boil. Bind with amulum (a roux made with fine meal), pour over the pieces of ostrich in a serving dish and sprinkle with pepper. If you wish to cook the ostrich in the sauce, add alica. (Apicius, 212)**.

Well. That’s dinner sorted then***.

On my visit I was met by the, now, familiar phrase “fermé à cause de la grève”****. However, all was not lost. The site fronts directly onto the beach, so I walked round to see if any of it was visible from the other side of the fence and…

Oh frabjous day!


So ok,  it’s not ideal. I am outside the fence and all those garum vats are inside, but it’s a damn sight better than merely “fermé à cause de la grève“.

You can see the foundations of a villa with a mosaic floor, and part of the garum production factory.

And here are the tanks into which the fishy bits were placed to ferment.



As I was walking along the fence-line, actually on the beach, strewn around my feet were numerous sherds of pottery, a mixture of ancient and modern.

P1250584 P1250582

Amongst them was what looked suspiciously like the base of an amphora.


Perhaps this held the garum which was actually being produced right here. But then some clumsy slave went and dropped it.

I did also manage to get into the museum very, very briefly. Good thing too. Look at these lovelies.

*There is ongoing debate about the exact methods for making the various fish sauces. Sally Grainger, an expert on ancient cookery, wrote a piece on this here:


***this is actually not my dinner sorted. I don’t eat meat or fish.

**** “closed because of the strike”


2 thoughts on “Something fishy

  1. Pingback: Barca Below | moose and hobbes

  2. Pingback: The Kingdom of the West: The fruits of the earth and the sea. | moose and hobbes

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