The Red Mullet: Ancient Rome's Top Delicacy

The passion of the Romans about the red mullet fish, drove them to pay fortunes to have them on their table.

The Red Mullet: Ancient Rome's Top Delicacy
Ancient Roman mosaics in the Art Institute of Chicago. Credits: Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

In the discussion about about Roman culinary delights, the Red Mullet - Mullus barbatus, occupies a position of honor. This red fish, known for its sweet flesh and bright, shimmering scales, became a symbol of gastronomic luxury in ancient Rome, appreciated by emperors and philosophers alike.

The Romans cherished red mullets so much that they bred them in domestic ponds and trained the fish to come to the surface when a bell rang or upon their owner's call. Quintus Hortensius, a noted Roman orator and senator, preferred to buy his mullets from Puteoli rather than use those from his own ponds at Baculo.

Varro noted his extreme care for these fish, stating, "He took more pains to keep his mullets from getting hungry than he did for his mules...It would be easier to borrow his mules and carriage than to take a mullet from his fishpond."

Historical Significance

The Red Mullet's journey from the sea to the sumptuous tables of Rome is a story steeped in both culinary tradition and social symbolism. Ancient texts, including writings by Pliny the Elder and the gastronomic scholar Apicius, highlight the fish's esteemed status. These sources reveal not only recipes but also the cultural weight carried by the red mullet in public feasts and private dinners.

The red mullet, a small bottom-feeder, was admired by the Romans more than the Greeks, with notable figures like Archestratus pinpointing the best locations to find them. Cicero described the wealthy Romans' practice of hand-feeding these fish in their ponds, although Columella noted their intolerance for captivity. Pliny observed that these fish, identifiable by their distinct double beard, rarely grew beyond two pounds in captivity.

The fascination with larger mullets escalated their value significantly in Rome, leading to absurd prices, as recounted by Horace, Martial, and others. Remarkably, during Caligula's reign, a red mullet could cost up to eight thousand sesterces. Tiberius once considered regulating these prices due to such extravagance, as documented by Suetonius.

A red mullet on a plate ready to be cooked for a Roman banquet.
A red mullet on a plate ready to be cooked for a Roman banquet. Illustration: Midjourney

When Tiberius saw three mullets sell for thirty thousand sesterces, he suggested implementing price controls at the fish market. This act of extravagance may have influenced his sumptuary laws (Suetonius Tib.24). Martial humorously noted the high value placed on red mullets, describing guests who would sneak leftovers home in a napkin: "...when this has been concealed in a greasy napkin, it's handed to your boy to be taken home...If you have any shame, put the dinner back! I didn’t invite you for dinner tomorrow, Caecilianus" (Epigrams II:37).

He also mentioned that the price was beyond what an average person could afford, making it unattainable for many.

Pliny noted that the finest-tasting mullets were ocean-caught, likening their flavor to oysters. These fish struggle in captivity, as Columella described them as exceptionally delicate and rarely surviving such conditions.

Known as 'shoe mullet' due to their colour reminiscent of the red shoes of Roman patricians, they generally weighed no more than two pounds. Martial humorously mentioned that the cost of an average-sized mullet could be so high that it warranted serving on a gold dish, recounting a tale where a man sold a slave for twelve hundred sesterces to buy one.

At Roman dinner parties, the dying surmullet provided a unique spectacle. The fish, known for its vibrant colors, displayed a shifting kaleidoscope of hues as it died from lack of oxygen—a process described by Pliny as enhanced when observed in a glass vessel. This phenomenon, where the fish’s red scales gradually pale, was a form of entertainment, though Seneca critiqued it as a morbid fascination, noting that guests valued watching the surmullet’s colourful demise, encapsulated in glass, as it struggled for life.

To ensure peak freshness, Seneca, Pliny, and Martial note that such mullets were presented at the table under glass, captivating guests with both their unique presentation and their changing colours.

There is nothing, you say, 'more beautiful than a dying mullet.' In the very struggle of its failing breath of life, first a red, then a pale tint suffuses it, and its scales change hue, and between life and death there is a graduation of color into subtle shades.

Seneca, Natural Questions (III.18.1,4)

Culinary Delights

Roman chefs, most famously Apicius, devised complex recipes to enhance the natural flavors of the Red Mullet. These included elaborate preparations with herbs, spices, and sauces like garum—a fermented fish sauce that was a staple in Roman cooking. The fish was often cooked whole to display its impressive appearance at feasts, symbolizing the host's wealth and the dish's exquisiteness.

Pliny notes that Apicius,  recommended that red mullet is most delicious when it is immersed in a sauce made from its own blood, highlighting his expertise in culinary practices.

Economic Impact and Social Status

The demand for Red Mullet among the Roman elite drove its price astronomically high, making it one of the most expensive seafoods of the era. This pricing reflected not just the taste but also the status conferred upon those who could afford such delicacies. At times, the cost of a single, large red mullet could equal the annual earnings of an average Roman, highlighting the stark disparities in wealth and social class.

A single red mullet would have cost the customer a few times the yearly salary of the average citizen. Supplying enough red mullet for a banquet of one’s fellow elites would have cost the host enough to purchase a small villa.

You sold a slave to buy a costly mullet for your dinner, Calliodorus…

– Martial, Epigrams X, XXXI.

Apicius Handschrift New York Academy of Medicine
This is a picture from the Apicius handwriting (circa. C.E.900) of the Fulda monastery in Germany, which was acquired in C.E.1929 (H.E.11,929) by the New York Academy of Medicine. Credits: Bonho1962 • CC BY-SA 3.0.

In his "Epistles," Seneca recounts a notable incident involving a large mullet presented to Emperor Tiberius, which weighed four and a half pounds. Tiberius, intrigued, offered the mullet for sale at the market, remarking, “I shall be taken entirely by surprise, my friends, if either Apicius or P. Octavius does not buy that mullet.” Ultimately, Octavius won the bid, paying five thousand sesterces, and notably, he secured a fish even the renowned gourmand Apicius couldn’t acquire.

Galen, the physician to gladiators, expressed confusion over the preference for larger red mullets, noting, “Prized by men as superior to the rest in flavor…Very many people buy the largest red mullet, which is not as tasty as the smaller ones, nor as easily digested.” He found the flesh of larger mullets dry, hard, and slightly bitter, although it preserved well when pickled. Galen also remarked that the liver and head were particularly flavorful and commonly used in the well-known fish sauce, garum.

The Fish that Fueled an Economy

The lucrative trade of Red Mullet contributed significantly to the Roman economy. Fishermen sought the prized catch in the waters of the Mediterranean, while traders and merchants facilitated its transport and sale across the empire. This trade not only boosted local economies but also fostered an early form of aquaculture, with fish farms emerging to meet the ever-growing demand.

A freshly caught red mullet, ready for the Roman chef to prepare it
A freshly caught red mullet, ready for the Roman chef to prepare it. Illustration: Midjourney

Pliny noted that surmullets typically did not exceed two pounds, but larger ones were highly sought after. Horace criticized the wealthy's preference for three-pound surmullets as folly, while Martial pointed out that even a two-pound surmullet was deemed expensive, and a four-pound fish could sell for 1,200 sesterces (about $48).

Seneca mentioned a four-and-a-half-pound surmullet that sold for 5,000 sesterces (about $200), and Juvenal described a six-pound surmullet that fetched 6,000 sesterces (about $240). Despite potential exaggerations in these figures, larger surmullets were clearly prized, with their value influenced by their habitat—those caught around rocks were especially valued.

Juvenal noted that a mullet once sold for six thousand sesterces, valuing it higher than the fisherman himself. Pliny also commented on the high price of mullets, equating their worth to their weight in silver, with a thousand sesterces per pound considered reasonable for such a luxury. Titus Annius Milo, though exiled to Marseille in 52 B.C., took comfort in the availability of delicious red mullet there.

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For those who want to know more about the fish that the Roman elite adored, we hope you’ll enjoy this video:

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