Ancient Jewish Fish Sauce?

When I visit museums, I always keep an eye out for ancient Jewish and Christian artifacts. I recently (may have) encountered one that I had overlooked on previous visits to the British Museum. The museum holds a coarse ware jar with a flat bottom that is said to have come from Pozzuoli in the Bay of Naples. The jar was one of many artifacts bequeathed to the museum in 1856 by Sir William Temple (1788-1856). It is assigned a date in the first or second century CE. This type of jar was used to hold garum, a fermented fish sauce that was a staple of the Roman diet.

Garum jar, British Museum 1856,1226.337; image source: Brent Nongbri, 2023

What makes this particular jar interesting is the dipinto, or inked label, which reads G̣Α̣RCAST

Garum jar, British Museum 1856,1226.337; image source: Brent Nongbri, 2023

The didactic tag at the museum states the following:

“The painted inscription says it contained garum, a popular fermented fish sauce, and a vital part of Roman cuisine. The inscription on the bottle GARCAST shows it was garum castimoniarum (kosher), for the Jewish market.”

The resolution of the abbreviation GARCAST to garum castimoniarum depends on a reference in Pliny the Elder (Natural History 31.44), but the meaning of this passage is unclear, and the manuscript evidence for this passage looks pretty messy. The Loeb edition prints the following text and translation (along with the accompanying notes below). The larger context is a discussion of garum, and the immediate context is the use of allec (or alec or allex) a sedimentary byproduct of garum that was also consumed by Romans:

aliud vero . . .2 castimoniarum superstitioni etiam sacrisque Iudaeis dicatum, quod fit e piscibus squama carentibus.But another kind <of garum>b is devoted to superstitious sex-abstinence and Jewish rites, and is made from fish without scales.
2 ad codd.: est Mayhoff: post ad lacunam indicat Detlefsen.bAs allex is feminine, and aliud neuter, it seems best to suppose that there is a lacuna here, but Pliny may be thinking of garum, to which he has just reverted.

It is clear that there is something unusual here–either about the text or about Pliny’s facts or about the Jews being described. The biggest curiosity is the notion that a particularly Jewish food would contain pisces squamis carentes–fish that lack scales. This idea seems to conflict with the rule in Leviticus 11:9-11, which expressly forbids the consumption of aquatic creatures that lack scales (in the Vulgate version: quicquid autem pinnulas et squamas non habet). So, we would seem to have a reference to a group of Jews with a different set of food rules, or an example of Pliny being confused, or a corrupt text. I suspect that it may be a textual problem. The earliest surviving evidence for this passage seems to be ninth century manuscripts. BnF Latin 6795 gives us the Loeb text (but with the ad before castimoniarum):

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France Latin 6795, folio 331 recto; image source: Gallica

Ricc 488 is similar, though with some erasures and corrections, which result in the end of the passage reading quam a caren tibus:

Florence, Biblioteca Riccardiana 488, folio 141 verso; image source: Biblioteca Riccardiana

Though I have not seen images of them, Leiden LIP 7 (apparently not digitized) and Leiden VLF 061 (digitized but behind a steep paywall) are reported to read squamamaceretnentib, which again suggests some confusion in the text in this passage. The Budé edition is more aggressive than the Loeb in resolving the problematic text, printing squama <non> carentibus (fish not lacking scales), though this makes little sense given that in the next sentence Pliny goes on to enumerate aquatic animals without scales!

Whatever the exact meaning of Pliny’s passage may be, there are other examples of the label GARCAST vel sim. on jars from Pompeii. I see at least CIL IV 2569 (published as and said to come from the temple of Mercury–presumably the temple of Genius Augusti) and CIL IV Supp. 5662 (published as CAR CɅST / SCOMBRI/////FORTUNATI). Also possibly CIL IV Supp. 5660 (published as ///////VM CɅST) and 5661 (published as gɅR CɅST / aB VMBRICIɅ FORTUNATA). The other terms represented in these dipinti deal either with the type of fish used (scomber = mackerel) or the specific producer (Umbricia Fortunata is attested on other garum jars; hers was a family associated with fish products).

It is debatable whether these labelled jars held garum produced specifically for Jews, or even were made in a particular way that did not violate Jewish food prohibitions. There is, however, related evidence that suggests that special garum for Jews did exist in Roman antiquity, namely the presence of garum (and allec) jars at sites known to have Jewish inhabitants, namely Masada. During excavation there, a jar (apparently of the Herodian era) with a garum label was found. More telling perhaps is the discovery of a pot fragment with the remains of many small fish bones (inv. 7039-1047). The analysts of these bones reached the following conclusion:

“It seems to us significant that the residue of fish bones left at the bottom of Inv. 7039-1047 belonged to two kinds of fish only, namely herring and anchovy, both of which are kosher fish. This could be interpreted as a sign that the allec at the bottom of this jar was meant to be kosher.” (Cotton, Lernau, and Goren, p. 237)

A fish sauce made from just two species (both with scales) seems like solid evidence for the existence of garum and allec that met the dietary concerns of at least some Jews. Whether such products are to be identified with garum castum (or whatever Pliny meant by castimonia) seems to me to be an open question.

There is a decent bibliography on the questions addressed here. Some of the key sources are below:

  • Thomas H. Corcoran, “Pliny’s garum castimoniarum,” Classical Bulletin 34.6 (1958), 69.
  • Hannah Cotton, Omri Lernau and Yuval Goren, “Fish Sauces from Herodian Masada,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 9 (1996), 223-238.
  • T. J. Leary, “Jews, Fish, Food Laws, and the Elder Pliny,” Acta Classica 37 (1994), 111-114.
  • Susan Weingarten, “Fish and Fish Products in Late Antique Palestine and Babylonia in their Social and Geographical Contexts: Archaeology and Talmudic Literature,” Journal of Maritime Archaeology 13 (2018), 235-245.

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