The Story of Garum

Sally Grainger. The Story of Garum: Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish in the Ancient World. Routledge: London, 2021. 9781138284074; 9781315269825.

Reviewed by Christopher Stedman Parmenter, University of Pennsylvania,

Commodities bring the world together.1 This is the principle that undergirds commodity biography, the transnational study of how the production, transport, and consumption of material goods link (in the words of Sidney Mintz) “people unknown to one another . . . through space and time.”2 Commodity biography pairs two modes of inquiry that have fascinated the humanities since the 1970s: first, the intertwined histories of capital and global trade,3 and second, the “social history of things” that was pioneered in early-twentieth-century anthropology but flowered in its later decades.4 Commodity histories are appealing for pretty obvious reasons. Lay audiences devour them (Paper! Salt! Uranium!), perhaps out of what Frank Trentmann calls the “whiggish triumphalism”5 for global capitalism that has dominated the genre since Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World (New York: Walker and Co., 1997). Needless to say, academic historians are a bit more critical: just because products connect does not mean they unite.6 Even the briefest reflection on the biography of your average smartphone—from the rare earth minerals extracted in Central Africa to the pollution created by electronics disposal in South Asia—underscores the hierarchies created along the commodity chain. Heads, consumers win; tails, the workers lose.

Sally Grainger’s The Story of Garum is the latest entry into the study of commodities in the ancient world. The book is divided into twelve chapters, organized by evidence, topic, or approach. Grainger’s ample on-the-ground, experimental research ranks among the highlights of the book. (Grainger, an authority on Roman cooking, has an encyclopedic knowledge of how it tasted to be Roman.7) On the other hand, Grainger’s research questions are rather narrowly constructed and can be disorganized. She requires much more prior knowledge from the reader than seems fair for a book at times aimed at a lay audience. But though the book does not live up to its claims, it is a valuable compendium of all things fish sauce in antiquity.

Grainger’s introduction begins with the reflection that fish sauce (garos in Greek, liquamen in Latin, and garum when Latin transliterates Greek) has not received the scholarly treatment it is owed, given its ubiquity in Roman life.8 Grainger rightly dismisses the theory9 that fish sauce was simply an acquired taste meant to meter access to the elite; fish sauce came in various grades, was eaten by everyone, and was a component of an ancient diet rich in tastes that have disappeared from “the bland and feeble flavours of the west” (3). (One might question who Grainger considers “western,” “northern European,” or “north American”—among others, she has a lot of respect for Scandinavian cuisine.) Grainger couches her thesis with some questionable rhetoric; witness p. 2, where she contrasts “complex” fish sauce with such “uncomplicated products” in Mediterranean history as wine or oil.10 Grainger rounds out the introduction by proposing a “radical rethink” (9) of the role played by fish sauce in ancient Mediterranean societies, uniting a wide range of epigraphic, papyrological, ceramic, and zooarchaeological evidence. To Grainger, much of the uncertainty about fish sauce in today’s scholarship stems from the confused manner that ancient literary sources—for whom fish sauce was simply a regular part of life—describe its uses and manufacture. (Other scholars of ancient commodities can attest to ancient authors’ confusion on basic questions, such as where a product comes from or how it was made).11

We begin in Chapters 1–5 with a survey of literary evidence. Starting with another questionable generalization (“classicists have not shown a great deal of interest in the minutiae of consumption practices,” 13), Grainger argues that literary depictions of food culture offer crucial, and more importantly, reliable information about what Greeks and Romans ate. Grainger’s discussion can be circuitous here, and she misses some key bibliography that would surely temper her confidence.12 But on the other hand, she draws on some fascinating primary sources that very few scholars of antiquity will be familiar with at all, using them to fact-check unreliable (but canonical) discussions in Pliny the Elder (HN 31.93–94) and Isidore of Seville (Etym. 20.3.19–20) (18–32). Grainger’s main interest lies in piecing together the truth from ancient literary descriptions, and from these she discerns four varieties of Greco-Roman fish sauce (43): garos/liquamen (generic term for liquified fish sauce), allec (comprising undissolved fish residue), garum sociorum/haimation (fish sauce comprised of blood and viscera of fish), and muria (brine from long-term storage of salted fish).

Typologies, of course, can be dangerous things, and in her chronological survey of fish sauce in Greek and Latin literature in Chapter 2, she finds it at times difficult to trace when and where certain varieties evolved (55). Grainger supplements her literary history with several archaeological interludes, arguing that the period of the Roman Civil Wars represented a turning point in the consumption of fish sauces across the Mediterranean (62–70). This argument is underdeveloped, and the archaeological evidence seems poorly contextualized; she might, for instance, have pointed to some recent work on the nature of economic growth in the early empire, particularly in the west.13 But when we arrive at Chapter 3, we have reached Grainger’s area of expertise. This focuses on cooking with fish sauce, teasing out meaning from the recipes of Marcus Gravius Apicius and Gargilius Martialis only available to a competent chef. Grainger emphasizes the affinities between food and medicine in antiquity, and the role that fish sauce played as both.

Documentary evidence begins to play a larger role in Chapters 4–5. Grainger begins by locating the reader in Roman Egypt, arguing that the increased visibility of fish sauce both archaeologically and in documents from the third century CE on was a mark of the increased integration of Egypt with Mediterranean foodways (94).14 (Her engagement with this material seems limited to citing Hans-Joachim Drexhage’s work on Roman prices.15) She does not do much to distinguish this trend from the countervailing claim made a few pages later that fish sauce becomes rather less important in the later empire (101). Grainger finds some interesting backing for her typology of fish sauce in Ausonius (Ep. 21), not cited up to this point. She points to a likely transformation in fish sauce recipes in Late Antiquity in response to the church’s prohibition on consuming blood (108). The chronological coverage abruptly stops in the seventh century and skips to the French Renaissance at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 6 reviews the archaeological literature on fish sauce production in the western Mediterranean. Grainger notes a basic incongruity, common in the study of ancient commodities, between the enormous volume of archaeological evidence for fish sauce and paucity of references in written sources (115). Grainger’s review can be a little hard to follow: in places, paragraphs run for multiple pages. She runs up against the continual problem of scholars who disagree with her ex novo typology of fish sauces (e.g., 123).

The most interesting material in The Story of Garum comes in Chapters 7–9. As she has shown with her work on Apicius, experimental archaeology is one of Grainger’s strengths. Chapter 7 engages in a lengthy comparison of Greek and Roman fish sauces with the cuisine of east and southeast Asia. Chapter 8 moves on to consider modern attempts to recreate ancient fish sauces. It is the high point of the book.16 Grainger begins by looking at the recipe from a Byzantine text known as the Geoponica (150), which she had first discussed in Chapter 1. Her experiment was helpfully illustrated with photographs which—as a former fish dock worker during a hot Virginia summer—I found very persuasive. I was particularly intrigued by her evidence for a claim made at the beginning of the book that properly fermented fish sauce would not smell disgusting (158). Grainger is fully committed to the outcome of her experiments; she reports that her recipe for garos/liquamen is delightful on toast (161). Chapter 9 rounds out this section of the book with a survey of ancient western Mediterranean fishing practices, based on a synthesis of ancient literary sources with contemporary scientific literature.

Chapters 10–12 return to the archaeological data. These chapters once again present a survey of fish sauce production in the western Mediterranean, with Chapter 9 focusing on manufactories, Chapter 10 on the use of fish bones to reconstruct fishing practices, and Chapter 12 on amphorae. (Her coverage of other areas, for instance, the Black Sea, is very limited.17) These chapters logically should have been near the beginning of the monograph, where they would have supported her argument (in Chapter 2) that fish sauce transforms from a regional taste to a pan-Mediterranean delicacy during the period of the Roman Civil Wars. They might also have gone in the middle, where Chapter 6 sits. I particularly find it puzzling that Grainger’s chapter on transport amphorae would be her last, given that amphorae constitute the bulk of evidence for ancient fish sauce consumption. (She had even cited ceramics on p. 2 as the centerpiece of her argument.) Grainger reminds us that she is no expert on amphorae (241), which seems an odd thing to do before publishing a very technical chapter on them.

The Story of Garum ends up being too much and never enough. Grainger marshals an impressive sweep of evidence over a historical period of 1,500 years. The book comes with a very comprehensive index, which will make it a useful reference in the future. But treatment is inconsistent to the level of frustrating, with chapters poorly organized and duplicative, frequent and distracting typos, and in many spots key literature is missing. (Where are Horden and Purcell? Broodbank?) Grainger tries to preempt this critique (e.g., on p. 8: “my contribution to this topic is proudly unconventional in that it tries not to use the inaccessible conventions of much of academia”), but this does not really get to the heart of the matter. She uses far too many academic conventions, and writes far too densely—and the book costs far too much—to reach a lay reader.

At any rate, narratives do not simply exist. They exist to answer questions. Why should I care about Roman fish sauce? Grainger never really answers. A proper commodity biography would try to answer questions like these: How did this ubiquitous Mediterranean commodity become ubiquitous? What was it like to work in this trade? How did the trade in fish sauce provide structure—or not—to new forms of social hierarchy? And how might fish sauce register wider phenomena, for instance, the rise and fall of Mediterranean connectivity? The Story of Garum left me hungry for more, since the answers could not be found here.18

This review must end with an unfortunate sidenote. Taylor and Francis is no longer in the practice of sending physical review copies, meaning that I am unable to verify whether this volume is actually worth the $160 it costs in the United States. From a reviewer’s perspective, book reviews are a service. Writing a book review is labor performed by a scholar to advertise a product created by an international corporation, in this case one that raked in £933.1 million profit in pre-pandemic 2019. Traditionally, a review copy was how publishers compensated scholars. Taylor and Francis would only make The Story of Garum available for review as an e-book using their proprietary software platform designed to exert control over the reader, for instance banning printing and not dividing the text into pages. Hours spent on a train squinting at un-enlargeable text against a white screen made eye-strain a significant part of my experience reading The Story of Garum. This is a tremendous disservice to Sally Grainger, and I will not be reviewing books from this publisher again.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–12)
1. Fish sauce in classical literature (13–43)
2. Fish sauce in the consumption literature: a literary and archaeological chronology (44-80)
3. Fish sauce in culinary, medical and veterinary sources (81–93)
4. Fish sauce from Papyri in Greek speaking Egypt (94–100)
5. Fish sauce in the late Roman, Byzantine and medieval world (101–14)
6. Fish sauce from an Archaeological perspective (115–30)
7. Fermented fish sauce in Southeast Asia (131–45)
8. Modern fish sauce experiments (146–70)
9. Fishing in the Mediterranean (171–83)


[1] My thanks to the reviewers at Rhea Classical Reviews as well as my officemate, Harry Eli Kashdan.

[2] S. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1986), xxiv.

[3] T. Hopkins and I. Wallerstein, “Patterns of development of the modern world system,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 1.2 (1977): 11–145.

[4] A. Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[5] F. Trentmann, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers (New York: Harper Collins, 2016).

[6] E.g., the very different take on cod in R. Grafe, Distant Tyranny: Markets, Power, and Backwardness in Spain, 1650–1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[7] C. Grocock and S. Grainger, Apicius: A Critical Edition (New York: Prospect Books, 2020); A. Dalby and S. Grainger, The Classical Cookbook (Malibu: Getty Publications, 2012); S. Grainger, Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today (New York: Prospect Books, 2006).

[8] Here I use the term “fish sauce” in blanket fashion. On technical nomenclature, see S. Grainger, “Garumand Liquamen: What’s in a Name?,” Journal of Maritime Archaeology 13 (2018): 247–61, at 251, table 1.

[9] C. Feldman, “Roman Taste,” Food, Culture & Society 8.1 (2005): 7–30.

[10] On the contrary: see C. E. Pratt, Oil, Wine, and the Cultural Economy of Ancient Greece: From the Bronze Age to the Archaic Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021); A. Bevan, “Mediterranean Containerization,” Current Anthropology 55.4 (2014): 387–414; D. Wengrow, “Prehistories of Commodity Branding,” Current Anthropology 49.1 (2008): 7–34; more generally, C. Broodbank, The Making of the Middle Sea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), P. Horden and N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study in Mediterranean History (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000).

[11] A. J. Shortland, P. Degryse, M. Walton, M. Geer, V. Lauwers, and L. Salou, “The Evaporitic Deposits of Lake Fazda (Wadi Natrun, Egypt) and Their Use in Roman Glass Production,” Archeometry 53.5 (2011): 916–29.

[12] James Davidson, Courtesans and Fish Cakes (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998) is a conspicuous absence; see also M. Dietler, Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

[13] J. R. McConnell et al., “Lead Pollution Recorded in Greenland Ice Indicates European Emissions Tracked Plagues, Wars, and Imperial Expansion during Antiquity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. 115.22 (2018): 5726–31; D. Pavlyshyn, I. Johnstone, and R. Saller, “Lead Pollution and the Roman Economy,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 33 (2020): 354–64.

[14] This process appears to have started much earlier than the Roman period; see, e.g., A. Villing, “‘Drab Bowls’ for Apollo: The Mortaria of Naukratis and Exchange in the Archaic Eastern Mediterranean,” in Naukratis: Greek Diversity in Egypt, ed. A. Villing and U. Schlotzhauer (London: British Museum, 2006), 31–46.

[15] Hans-Joachim Drexhage, Preise, Mieten/Pachten, Kosten und Löhne im römischen Ägypten bis zum Regierungsantritt Diokletians (St.-Katherinen: Scripta Mercuriae, 1991).

[16] This chapter expands on Grainger’s 2012 article, “What’s in an Experiment? Roman Fish Sauce: An Experiment in Archaeology,” Experimental Archaeology 2012.1.

[17] She might have cited J. M. Højte, “The Archaeological Evidence for Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region,” in Ancient Fishing and Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region, ed. T. Bekker-Nielsen (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2005), 133–60; E. Lytle, “Chaerephilus & Sons: Vertical Integration, Classical Athens, and the Black Sea Fish Trade,” Ancient Society 46 (2016): 1–26.

[18] The better and more comprehensive treatment remains A. Marzano, Harvesting the Sea: The Exploitation of Marine Resources in the Roman Mediterranean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

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