In a bit of archeological irony, an ancient city whose name means “New City” has been discovered off the coast of Tunisia, confirming stories that it had been mostly submerged by a 4th century tsunami. The discovery also validated records that this city was the center for making and marketing a famous fish-based fermented condiment.
“This discovery has allowed us to establish with certainty that Neapolis was a major center for the manufacture of garum and salt fish, probably the largest center in the Roman world. Probably the notables of Neapolis owed their fortune to garum.”
Mounir Fantar is the head of a Tunisian-Italian archaeological mission that has been working since 2010 to identify the underwater ruins off the coast of Nabeul in Tunisia. This summer, divers found the streets and monuments of a 20 hectare area of the city. Most interesting to historians was the discovery of 100 tanks of garum, a product described in the writings of Pliny the Elder as a liquid fermented from fish intestines (anchovies, sprats, sardines, mackerel or tuna) and salt to give a savory taste to the apparently awful cuisines of the time that need a dowsing of fish intestines to be palatable.
Garum was an ingredient in many dishes described in the Roman cookbook Apicrus and came in a variety of qualities to suit all classes and pocketbooks of the times. Its production figured into the economies of a number of cities in Italy (containers of garum were found in the ruins of Pompeii), Gaul, Spain, Greece and, on the other side of the Mediterranean, Carthage and one of its main cities, Neapolis.
How did Neaoplis get lost and why wasn’t it found until now? The original settlement was founded in the 9th century BCE by the Phoenicians but came into its own as a trade port established by the Greeks in the 5th century BCE. “New City” was a common name used by the Greeks – it’s also the root of Naples. Due to various wars, it changed hands from Greek to Carthaginian, Roman and eventually Tunisian rule, where its name was changed to Nabuel. According to historical records, Nabuel was hit by a tsunami on July 21, 365 AD, that destroyed some of the city and submerged the rest. The wave also destroyed part of Alexandria in Egypt the Greek island of Crete.
The discovery also proved that Neapolis had been partly submerged by a tsunami on July 21 in 365 AD that badly damaged Alexandria in Egypt and the Greek island of Crete. After the tsunami, a new version of the ‘new city’ was built on top of what was left and the original Neaoplis was largely forgotten. Despite its importance to the garum trade, it was rarely mentioned in Roman historical writings because it was on the enemy side (Carthage) in the Third Punic War.
Will the rediscovery of the lost city of Neapolis create a movement to resurrect garum as a condiment? Let’s hope so. Have you tasted fast food lately?