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Lupus Tiberinus - A Fish Worthy of an Emperor

Updated: Jan 28

The sturgeon's lifejourney is intimately connected with European history. Where the first riverine civilizations emerged, people found the sturgeon. The history of the most influential of them all, the Roman Empire, starts when Aeneas, protector of the Trojan people, enters the Tiber mouth after long wanderings on the Mediterranean Sea. But long before the Trojans, the sturgeon had settled in this lush river. When Rome began to expand after its founding in 753 B.C.E., its citizens began to fish and catalog the river's species.


The current binominal name of the twenty-eight-sized sturgeon family Acipenseridae originates in the Latin word for sturgeon: acipenser. Before the Romans, Greek natural historians identified the sturgeon as helops, a large, dark, bony-tissued fish found mainly in Northern cold rivers (Carney, 1967). They did not yet differentiate between the sub-species, however. Many online sources suggest that the Tiber sturgeon was nicknamed after the caretaker of Rome's founders: Lupus Tiberinus, the wolf of the Tiber. However, Campbell (1945) suggests this nickname more likely refers to the pike. The similarity of the pike's sharp teeth to a wolf's canines seems to me to support Campbell's conclusion, especially as adult sturgeons use toothless mouths to suck in prey as a whole. On the other hand, the greyish tone and the fierce gaze of the sturgeon are more akin to wolves.


Nonetheless, it is clear that the sturgeon was a much-coveted delicacy served to Roman nobility. Its serving brought an aura of godliness and spirituality to the diners, which included Scipio Aemilinius, well-known for defeating and destroying Carthage once and for all (Feldman & Jones, 2020). The Romans continued the Greek method of roasting the sturgeon's body and eating its caviar separately. There seems to have been a variety in food culture for different types of sturgeon. From the natural historian Georges Cuvier we learn that sterlet  (Acipenser ruthenus), a small sturgeon species that is found in rivers surrounding the Black Sea, and the only sturgeon species left in the Middle and Upper Danube, was served with a bouquet of flowers and accompanied by trumpets.


The popularity of the sturgeon declined in the latter stage of the Republican period, only to re-emerge as ''a fish worthy of an emperor'' (Marzano, 2018). The sturgeon even became a subject of Rome's contemporary writers. In his criticism of Epicurus' hedonistic answer to loss, Cicero writes about the luxurious fish: ''If you see someone dear to you prostrated by grief, would you offer him a sturgeon rather than a treatise of Socrates?'' (Cic. Tusc. Disp. 3.43-44, as cited in Morgan, 2018). A century later, Pliny the Elder writes (IX.27): ''Among the ancients, the acipenser was esteemed the most noble fish of all; it is the only one that has the scales turned towards the head, and in a contrary direction to that in which it swims. At the present day, however, it is held in no esteem, which I am the more surprised at, it being so very rarely found. Some writers call this fish the elops.''


Yet, the interest in sturgeon extended far beyond Rome and beyond the upper classes. For hundreds of years, the Danube formed the border of the Roman Empire - the Danubian Limes. Romanian Professor Nicolae Bacalbasa-Dobrovici discovered with his team that the locations of the Roman forts along the river correspond with regions where the sturgeon is most abundant (Thorpe, 2014, p. 5). In the former Greek colony Histria where the Lower Danube meets the Black Sea, the rare European sturgeon (Acipenser sturio) was caught, salted, and exported to Rome for consumption (Bacalbasa-Dobrovici, 1997). The European sturgeon has now gone extinct in the Danube river basin and almost in entire Europe.


When the Roman Empire fell, medieval nobility continued feasting on the sturgeon (Hoffman, 2005). All across Europe, humans also began managing rivers and fishing more intensely. One method that surely led to the migratory sturgeons' demise was the installation of fish traps across the entire breadth of the river in the spawning season. In medieval Rome, a fish market emerged in the ruins of Porticus Octaviae, close to the Tiber. As always, the administrators of Rome wanted their cut. They implemented a rule that the part of the fish beyond the pectoral fin, basically the head, should be given over. The plaque below, currently in a staircase of Musei Capitolini, shows this line and states the message clearly to fishmongers, coupled with the message ''Don't commit fraud and don't excuse yourself for ignorance.'' The administrators used the heads for making soup.



The use of the sturgeon's head in soup-making is further supported by a painting of a peculiar Roman painter known only by the nickname Maestro dei Giocatori - Master of the Gamblers. This painter was active in the early 17th century and adopted a carravesque painting style. The below painting is privately held in an Italian collection (Sotheby's, 2020).



In the chapel adjacent to the Porticus Octaviae, the only other public imagery of a sturgeon (known to me) is found. On the marble floor of the Oratory of Sant'Andrea dei Pescivendoli, built in 1689 in honor of the fisherman Saint Andrew, you can find the coats of arms of the University of Fishmongers which displays two geese, a deer and a sturgeon. It is unknown when the sturgeon finally vanished from the Tiber. Since the order of the administrators was in effect until the end of the 18th century, we might deduce that no adult fish larger than the plaque were caught anymore, which would equate to extinction.


Sources:


Bacalbaşa-Dobrovici, N. (1997). Endangered migratory sturgeons of the lower Danube River and its delta. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 48(1–4), 201–207. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1007343611333


Campbell, A. Y. (1945). Pike and eel: Juvenal 5, 103–6. The Classical Quarterly, 39(1-2), 46-48.


Carney, T. F. (1967). The" Helops": A Case-Study of the Transmission of a Piece of Scientific Knowledge by the Scholarship of Antiquity. Phoenix, 21(3), 202-220. https://doi.org/10.2307/1086746


Cuvier, G. (1828-1849). Histoire naturelle des poissons. Paris: Chez F. G. Levrault. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.7339


Feldman, C., & Jones, P. (2020). Simplicity and performance in Roman agrarian foods. Handbook of Eating and Drinking: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, 93-109.


Hoffmann, R. C. (2005). A brief history of aquatic resource use in medieval Europe. Helgoland Marine Research, 59(1), 22–30. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10152-004-0203-5


Marzano, A. (2018). Fish and Fishing in the Roman World. Journal of Maritime Archaeology, 13(3), 437–447. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11457-018-9195-1


Morgan, H. (2018). Music, Spectacle and Society in Ancient Rome [Doctoral dissertation, University of Oxford]. University of Oxford Research Archive.


Pliny P. Bostock J. Riley H. T. & Mayhoff K. F. T. (2006). The natural history. Perseus Digital Library. Retrieved December 15 2023 from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Plin.Nat.toc.


Sotheby's. (2020). Old Masters Day Sale - Lot 121: Master of the Gamblers ('Maestro dei Giocatori'). Retrieved December 16 2023 from https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2020/old-master-paintings-day-sale/a-kitchen-interior-with-a-sturgeon-a-turtle-and


Thorpe, N. (2014). The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest. Yale University Press.


*Further sources in Latin for research on Tiber sturgeon in: Hoffmann, R. C. (1996). Economic Development and Aquatic Ecosystems in Medieval Europe. The American Historical Review, 101(3), 631. https://doi.org/10.2307/2169418

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