– Martial, Epigrams X, XXXI.
Ancient Romans were so fond of red mullet that they were bred in domestic ponds. Conscientiously attended by their caretakers, the fish were trained to surface at the ringing of a bell, or when summoned by their owner. Roman orator and senate leader, Quintus Hortensius, had fishponds at Baculo. But rather than eat his own mullets, he would buy them from nearby Puteoli. Of this, the scholar Varro recorded: “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.”
Pliny wrote that the best tasting mullets were caught in the ocean, and compared their flavor to oysters. These small, bottom feeding fish do not do well in confinement. Agricultural writer, Columella, said: “Since it is a very delicate kind of fish and most intolerant of captivity, only one or two out of many thousands can on rare occasions endure confinement.”
Romans also called it ‘shoe mullet’, as their color was similar to the red shoes worn by patricians. Typically, the fish did not weigh more than 2-pounds. Martial wrote that even an average sized mullet was so pricey that it justified being served on a gold inlay dish. He recounts the satirical story of a man who sold his slave for twelve hundred sesterces, then used the cash to purchase a mullet.
In his Epistles, Seneca wrote: “A mullet of monstrous size was presented to the Emperor Tiberius. They say it weighed four and one half pounds.” Tiberius put it up for sale at the fish-market, then remarked: “I shall be taken entirely by surprise, my friends, if either Apicius or P. Octavius does not buy that mullet.” Octavius won the bid and paid five thousand sesterces, thus acquiring a great reputation among his friends. He could brag that he purchased a fish from the Emperor; a mullet even the famous gourmand, Apicius, had not been able to buy (see First Century Life: Apicius).
The gladiatorial physician, Galen, was perplexed by this preference for the larger fish, writing: “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 described the flesh as dry, hard, and slightly bitter, adding that it pickled quite well. The liver and head had a particularly fine taste, and was a popular ingredient in the ubiquitous fish sauce, garum.
Juvanel speaks of a mullet selling for six thousand sesterces, noting that it had greater worth than the fisherman himself. Indeed, Pliny wrote that a mullet’s value was equivalent to its weight in silver. A thousand sesterces per pound became acceptable for this extravagant delicacy. In 52 B.C., the statesman, Titus Annius Milo, did not regret having been exiled to Marseille; as long as the delicious red mullet would be available to him.
When three mullets sold for thirty thousand sesterces, Tiberius proposed regulating the fish-market prices. This display of excessiveness may have led to Tiberius’ sumptuary laws (Suetonius Tib.24). Martial wrote that red mullet was so coveted, guests wrapped their leftover fish in a napkin and took it home: “…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 observed that it was beyond the purchasing ability of an average income, and was completely out of reach for those who married.
During the course of expiring, the mullet went through stages of color change. Seneca describes the process: “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, Pliny and Martial record that in order to insure its absolute freshness, the dying mullet was brought to the dinner table under glass. As intended, both the ostentatious presentation and color morphing greatly awed the dinner guests.
Poet and satirist Horace berated the foolish host who was impressed with the appearance of a three-pound mullet, yet in order to serve his guests, had to cut it into small pieces. (Satires, II.2.33ff).
“In Spain, mullet are so plentiful that you may throw back any that weigh less than 3-pounds.” Martial, Epigram XXX, XXXVII.
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Excerpt from Ancient Minutus