What did the Romans do for us? Well, apart from the aqueduct, sanitation, roads, medicine, education and of course wine. Great sketch by those masters of comedy, Monty Python, but it does illustrate just how easily we do forget what the Romans have done for us. They were masters of industry, with highly developed organisational skills. They ran an empire which at its height, stretched from the border of Scotland and England to the border of Iraq and Iran, and to the south it extended in to North Africa. All this with only wooden ships and leather sandals!
They say that an army marches on its stomach and any NAAFI manager will tell you that if the HP sauce runs out there will be war. At its height the Roman army numbered around 30 legions each made up of 5,000 men plus engineers, doctors, civilian administrators, craftsmen as well as private entrepreneurs who followed and supplied the great army, this group of people included retailers and artesans, musicians and entertainers and of course, the obligatory ladies of the night. In essence, a lot of people to keep happy and there were two things which made the most important members of this group, the Roman soldiers, very happy indeed. One was the aforementioned ladies of the night and the second was a strange little product called garum.
Garum was a fish sauce, used by the Romans much like we use HP sauce. It was not invented by the Romans, the Greeks got there first, but it certainly made its mark on history during the Roman period. It was a pungent sauce, also sometimes called liguamen, made by macerating oily fish and fish guts with salt, which stopped the decaying process. Any kind of fish could be used such as anchovy, mackerel, tuna, sardines or sprats. Sometimes herbs were added such as fennel, coriander, mint, oregano or dill. The mix was then fermented in the dry warm air for one to three months, in stone vats. As the fermentation progressed, a close texture woven basked was placed on the mixture, as the fish disintegrated, the liquid which came out of the mash would flow in to the basket and could then be taken off. The sauce was high in protein and amino acids. A whole garum industry grew up making this concoction and shipping it to the four corners of the Roman Empire. The best garum was considered to come from Southern Spain and was called garum sociorum or “garum of the allies”. The smell this fermentation process created was pretty bad and garum factories were relegated to the outskirts of most Roman towns.
Like soya sauce, garum was used as a umami flavouring but its uses were not only limited to food. It was also recommended for all sorts of ailments from freckles to dysentery. The sauce came in several grades to fit all social classes and purses. For instance, once the garum had been removed, the pulp called allec was used by the poor to flavour their porridge or farinata. According to Diocletian, the best quality fish sauce was liquamen primum, then coming in second was liquamen secundum and of course, garum could always be substituted by salt in a recipe. That said, garum appears in several of the recipes featured in the Roman cookbook Apicius and not only in the savoury dishes but also in some of the sweet ones. The Romans recommended that when mixed with wine, oenogarum (a popular Byzantine sauce), vinegar, black pepper, and oil, garum enhances the flavour of a wide variety of dishes, including boiled veal and steamed mussels. You must try that next time you are stuck for a meal idea!!
One of the main garum production sites was at Claudia Baleo, lying along the beach at Bolonia, just north of Tarifa in the Costa de la Luz. This incredibly well preserved site lies just off the N340/E5. On leaving the main road, you wend your way uphill to begin with then come round a corner to be confronted by the most fabulous view of the valley falling away downhill to the seashore, slightly to the right, you can just pick out the incredibly well preserved remains of Claudia Baleo and as you get closer, many are apt to ask what those funny dug out stone things are right on the shore line – of course, they were the fermentation vats at the garum factory. The site has a museum but to be honest, it does not do the place justice and you would probably be better to hot foot it through the museum and out to the site which will not disappoint.
Claudio Baleo was occupied from around the end of 200BC and was particularly prosperous during the time of the Emperor Claudius, 41 – 45AD, indeed it was doing so well that he gave it the title of municipium, but by the 6th century the city was abandoned.
Why would the Romans abandon such a beautiful site which housed a large number of people and supplied one of life´s staple foods? It would appear that the decline coincided with seismic activity in the area and while the area is not particularly known for such activity, it has now been established, following 6 field surveys, that two earthquakes did take place. The use of extensive ground penetrating radar, amongst the ruins to detect archeoseismologic damage, indicate that there were two earthquakes within the Roman period. The first in 40 – 60AD and the second in 260 – 280AD, although this latter date differs to previous studies which put the second earthquake around 350 – 395AD. The damage they caused is evident when you look at the Isis Temple for instance and the data indicates a SW/NE directed compression due to ground shaking. The survey also concentrated on landslide and liquefaction processes, both common to earthquakes and evident in the area of the city. It is thought that the earthquakes were the result of a local event rather than a knock on effect of remote seismic activity.
Not only was the city beset by natural disaster, it was attacked by pirates both Celtic and Barbary. Piracy is not something you generally consider during the Roman period but it was a very real risk and Julius Caesar was personally a victim, having been kidnapped by Cilician pirates in 75BC and held for 38 days. They demanded 20 talents of gold but this was raised to 50 talents when Caesar became insulted and complained at the mediocre sum being asked for his safe return. The fine was paid and he was released but his sense of humour obviously failed him, as he then hunted down the pirates and crucified them.
In general, barring the earthquakes and pirates, life in Claudia Baleo was good, the city had 3 aqueducts supplying it with fresh water, a sewerage system, a circular protective wall with main gate, an industrial area, administrative buildings, stores, a market, Roman baths, a theatre, and various temples dedicated to Isis, Minerva, Juno and Jupiter.