Source materials for fishing in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages
By Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen
Paper delivered at HMAP-Mediterranean Workshop, Barcelona, 20-23 September 2004
Introduction: When Poul Holm first mentioned the idea of extending the timescale of the HMAP project all the way back to antiquity, my immediate reaction was that it sounded pretty hopeless. It is a well-established truism that in ancient history, there are few quantitative data and even fewer time series. For the same reason, ancient economic history as a discipline tends to focus on patterns of behaviour, socio-economic questions and so forth, rather than on economy in the “hard” sense, and has for the last thirty years been dominated by the so-called “primitivist” paradigm. On closer reflection, the idea did not seem so absurd after all. While the sources that we have for fishing in the medieval, early modern and modern periods are much better, they are not first-hand data. No one has actually counted the fish in the world’s oceans. What HMAP strives to establish is reliable information on a) marine animal populations and b) the impact of human activity, i.e. harvesting of marine animal populations, but in practice the evidence for a) is indirect and largely derived from b).
Once we accept that applying indirect evidence is legitimate and necessary, it may be possible to make some meaningful statements about ancient and early medieval fish stocks. Instead of searching for ancient parallels to the fishery statistics, tithe-books and tax records of the early modern periods – a waste of time, since such records are not preserved and probably never existed – we should look at all possible approaches to the problem and all possible sources.
One reason that medieval and more recent fishing is fairly well documented is that fishing was subject to taxes and tithes. Unfortunately from our viewpoint (but not from that of the fishermen) there seems to have been no systematic taxation of sea fishing in the Roman Empire, nor, which is perhaps more surprising, in the Byzantine Empire. The fiscal administration of Byzantium was detailed and intricate, in one word, Byzantine; but sea fish was one of the few resources that did not come within its scope.
While quantitative data are lacking, in qualitative terms the sources at our disposal can tell us a good deal about ancient fish stocks in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. First, species. What species were present? The data pertaining to this question are in fact quite detailed. One needs only to consult one of the two standard handbooks on the subject, d’Arcy Thompson’s Glossary of Greek Fishes or Strömberg’s Griechische Fischnamen to appreciate the range and detail of ancient fish nomenclature, reflecting the detailed knowledge of ancient fishermen and the vast number of references to fish and fishing that are scattered throughout classical literature.