In the times of Classical Antiquity, fish was a major food source for the Greeks and Romans. Numerous references to its consumption are found in Greek and Latin literature, and it represents a recurrent iconographic theme in floor mosaics, wall frescoes, vessels and jewellery.
Smoked or preserved in salt, the most common types of fish – such as sardines and anchovies, as well as the least valuable parts of tuna fish – were the main accompaniment to bread for the least well-off classes of the city and coastal populace. It is significant in this regard that the term opson, which originally denoted any kind of food eaten with bread, came to refer to fish itself; indeed, the modern Greek term for fish derives directly from it. Fresh fish and the most prized varieties, in contrast, were the preserve of the wealthier classes. These included the famed eels of Lake Copais: indeed, the ancient Greeks were equally fond of freshwater fish as of saltwater fish, and had a taste for shellfish, molluscs, seafood, octopus, cuttlefish and squid.
In ancient Rome, levels of consumption were so high and constant that catches could never completely keep up with demand. In addition to building basins to keep fish alive after they were caught, the Romans bred the choicest varieties in vivaria, enabling wealthy patrons to offer them to their clientes and sodales during prestigious or formal banquets. Garum, the most widely used condiment in Roman cuisine, was obtained by crushing and fermenting various species of fish.
Fishing implements used by the ancients included hooks, mainly in copper, which were tied to lines made with animal hairs or plant fibres, and lead weights to take them down below the surface, various types of nets and cork floats, woven wicker baskets, fishing spears and tridents and lights for night fishing.
Fish in ancient literature is often mentioned by poets and prose writers. However, it should be stressed that no clear distinction was made between fish, cetacean species, marine reptiles and other representatives of aquatic wildlife.