Ketchup of the Roman World

Object 56: A History of Charterhouse in 100 Objects 

Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, based on artefacts in the British Museum and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as a series of 15 minute talks, captured the imagination of many people. The History of Charterhouse in 100 Objects is based on a similar concept, exploring the artefacts remaining in our Museum store. Object 56 has been added to the collection by James Day (G14).

This object is an interestingly shaped terracotta amphora, probably originating from Rome or one of the provinces. Its narrow body and thin neck suggest that it might have been used by the Romans as a container for garum.

Garum was a fermented fish sauce used extensively by the Romans as a condiment and flavour-enhancer for a wide variety of dishes. Its exact origins are unclear, but the Romans were certainly not the first to appreciate it. There is evidence that points towards its usage by the Greeks as far back as the 5th Century BC: indeed, the word garum derives from the Greek word γάρος, the name of the fish used in the production of a similar sauce.

Garum essentially consisted of fish intestines blended with salt, with the resulting mixture left to ferment over a period of time. There are many accounts throughout ancient literature that describe its preparation; Pliny the Elder provides one such explanation:

‘Consisting of the guts of fish and the other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse; these are soaked in salt, so that garum is really liquor from the putrefaction of these matters.’ (Pliny, Natural Histories XXXI.93)

What is perhaps most interesting about garum was its divisive reputation, rather like marmite today – that is, you either loved it or hated it!

Pliny labels it as a ‘choice liquor’ (Natural histories XXXI.93), with its umami-like flavour appreciated in all manner of dishes (XXXI.88).

Seneca, however, is disdainful of garum, describing it as:

‘….the costly extract of poisonous fish that burns up the stomach with its salted putrefaction…. the belching of those who consume it disgusting themselves with the smell the next day.’ (Epistles, XCV.25)

There are also those who seem to be in two minds about garum. Martial, on the one hand, ‘thirsts for the noble sauce’ (Epigrams XIII.72), remarking: ‘receive this proud sauce…an expensive gift’ (XIII.102). However, he then mockingly praises someone who is able to sustain affection for a lover who has devoured six helpings of the sauce (XI.27).

Despite all this, garum was clearly an important element of Roman cuisine: it was produced in vast quantities in Rome and the provinces, especially in Pompeii. The finest garum was imported from Spain, and was known as garum sociorum, or ‘garum of the allies’.

In fact, the legacy of garum still lives on. Whilst the recipe and production methods have changed, fermented fish sauce is still used extensively today. Worcestershire sauce, for example, is primarily comprised of fermented anchovies (along with other ingredients), and nước mắm, known to us as fish sauce, is a staple seasoning in East and Southeast Asian cuisine. Moreover, in recent years, garum has seen a resurgence of popularity - just search online and you will find countless articles and videos of people trying to make it.

Why not try it yourself?