As reported by Pliny the Elder1, who lived in the middle of the 1st century CE, one of the most eaten fish among the ancient Romans was the red mullet. As he himself points out, the fish has a “double beard” (mullus barbatus) and is not suitable for breeding, and the best specimens can be found in open waters.
The Romans distinguished another type of mullet – mullussurmuletus– which was larger. Barwenidae, as a species of fish, has different colours of scales and are found in the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the Atlantic. According to the ancients, the name of the fish – Mullus– was supposed to come from the shoes worn by Roman patricians, which were distinguished by a strong red colour (mulli), which also marks the fish.
The price for mullet in the time of Caligula was reportedly enormous and, for example, Consul Asinius Celer paid eight thousand sesterces for it. For comparison – Diocletian’s edict from 301 CE set the maximum price for 1 sextarius (about half a litre) of good-quality mature wine for 24 denarii, or 96 sesterces2. Suetonius reports that Tiberius even planned to regulate the price of mullet, as there was a transaction of 30,000 sesterces for 3 of this fish3. Suetonius also gives an interesting story from the island of Capri, where the emperor stayed:
A few days after he reached Capreae and was by himself, a fisherman appeared unexpectedly and offered him a huge mullet; whereupon in his alarm that the man had clambered up to him from the back of the island over rough and pathless rocks, he had the poor fellow’s face scrubbed with the fish. And because in the midst of his torture the man thanked his stars that he had not given the emperor an enormous crab that he had caught, Tiberius had his face torn with the crab also. He punished a soldier of the praetorian guard with death for having stolen a peacock from his preserves. When the litter in which he was making a trip was stopped by brambles, he had the man who went ahead to clear the way, a centurion of the first cohorts, stretched out on the ground and flogged half to death.
– Suetonius, Tiberius, 60
As it turns out, the mullet was primarily an extravagant luxury at all kinds of feasts.
Of course, fish was also valued for its taste, as mentioned by Galen4. The taste of the fish was said to resemble an oyster. According to Pliny, some people have seen the fish take different colours before it dies; finally, the red scale turns white. The famous Roman culinary master Apicius reportedly had an excellent recipe for mullet sauce – the so-called garum.