Ancient Roman Art Plays a Role in Marine Ecology

One of the most popular Mediterranean fish is the dusky grouper.  It is considered a prized catch.  Unfortunately, the population of Mediterranean groupers has been on the decline ever since the modern age, it seems.  Overfishing is a constant threat in the Mediterranean Sea, and this species of fish is among the most endangered.

In a surprising discovery, two researchers from the University of Salento have discovered that the dusky grouper is a prominent part of Ancient Roman art.  By looking to this art, they have been able to learn more about the role played by this fish in Rome, centuries ago.  In the Roman artwork, the dusky grouper was portrayed as a giant fish, while today it is a smaller catch.  Additionally, the grouper was fished for in ancient times “at the water’s surface,” but today it is a deepwater fish.  On one hand, either the Roman art is completely inaccurate, or modern overfishing has not only reduced the number of dusky groupers, but has also prevented them from reaching full size and forced them deeper in the water.  However, it is not remotely scientific to draw conclusions about the modern environment from centuries-old mosaics that often existed for the purpose of exaggerating or greatly simplifying the features of animals and humans.  If researchers hypothesized that fish were larger in Roman times, it would make better sense to look for fish bones in archaeological digs or study journals of Roman fishermen.  That way, this topic could be studied in a more scientific, methodical way.  There is, however, some harder evidence to suggest that the fish used to be larger, as Roman authors did write about the strength of groupers.

There are now a few areas in the Mediterranean where grouper fishing is prohibited, and in those areas, the fish appear to be recovering.  Regardless of the reliability of ancient mosaics, that is good news.


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One Response to Ancient Roman Art Plays a Role in Marine Ecology

  1. kafleming says:

    This post makes me wonder if ecologists have learned anything from other ancient works of art — such as studying bison populations in Europe as a result of cave paintings at Lascaux or Chauvet. It’s interesting to think that art history can spur scientific research, such as the soil research done at a villa from Ancient Rome in order to learn what kinds of plants were usually grown in their atrium gardens.

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