In the ancient historical period, fishery was virtually the most important natural source of income for the Greek states. And the city of Byzantium prospered due to the income obtained by fishery. While Byzantium citizens supplied fish mainly from the Bosporus, they also obtained fish from the adjacent lakes (Derkos and Daskylitis) and probably from the rivers. Fishery in Byzantium was such an important sector that in his Politics Aristotle mentions the fishermen among the social figures of Byzantium when referring to the social classes. Byzantium, according to Strabon is said to be in the third rank in fishery. A first and second century writer Dio Chrysostom indicates that Byzantium citizens benefited as far as possible from the geographical position on the Bosporus and its fish-rich sea and that they even did not need to make an extra effort to reach the fish. A second century writer Athenaeus in his work Deipnosohistai names Byzantium as “the tuna metropolis” or “the homeland of the tuna”. Again, in the same work it is indicated that in the country of Byzantium, citizens who eat their food very salty and with garlic, have plenty of fish. Intensive fishing carried out in Byzantium brought with it a fishery industry. Byzantium also monopolized the salt production. Tarikhos, i.e. salt fish production necessitated a large quantity of salt. We learn from Pseudo-Aristotle that in the midst of the fifth century B.C. the state took hold of the salt trade monopoly, which was very important for fishing and salted fish production.

Tuna, acorn and mackerel were among the most frequent fish in Bosporus. These are all migrating fish. Chub mackerel, swordfish, dolphin, sturgeon and the parrotfish were also among the fish referred in ancient resources in relation to Byzantium or Bosporus. Besides, we can say that fish such as bluefish, bass, gray mullet, saurel, growler, goat fish and even anchovy, which are endemic in Bosporus today, were in the fish repertory of Ancient Byzantium. Furthermore, crustaceans such as the crab, shrimp and lobster and molluscs such as octopus, squid, calamari and mussel were probably among the edible marine species hunted in the Bosporus and the offshore waters of Byzantium. However, although there are passages referring to these marine animals in ancient resources, any direct reference relating these to Byzantium cannot be found.

Dionysius of Byzantium (and Petrus Gyllius citing him later on) gives the names of several fish-rich coasts and bays, which were among the territories of Byzantium. These are Neos Bolos, Bolos, Parabolos, Fidalia and the Gynaikos Limen, Farmakos/Farmakias (today’s Tarabya), Bathykolopos (today’s Büyükdere) and Khalkeia. Likewise, there were also fish-rich bays near and in the Golden Horn such as Kykla, the Melias Bay, Kepos/Hepsasieion, Ingenidas, Peraikos and the Sapra Thalassa at the end of the Golden Horn. Moreover, Dionysius indicates that Ostreodes (near Tophane) took its name from its endemic oysters.

Karekin Deveciyan, who worked as fish market director in the Ottoman state in the early twentieth century, gives detailed information about the fish species of Bosphorus in those times. Deveciyan writes that the Black Sea was a rich nutritional source for the migrating fish species (tuna, acorn, mackerel, etc.), that for this reason those species that lived in the Mediterranean, Aegean of Marmara Sea (Propontis) in winters migrated to the Black Sea (Pontos Eukseinos) in summers for nutiritional reasons and that towards winter while some migrated to the Marmara Sea via the Istanbul Strait, i.e. Bosphorus, some others migrated to the Aegean and Mediterrenean Seas (katavaşya). Furthermore, Deveciyan indicates that the fish species which first migrated to the Bosphorus in autumn when the cold North winds began to blow shaking up the waters of the Black Sea was the acorn; then the tuna followed it, and that the mackerel formed the last migration wave into the Marmara Sea in the end of November to return to the Black Sea in the early spring followed by the tuna in the return path. This information given by Deveciyan was also well known by the ancient writers. Below the fish species and their by-products provided from the Bosphorus (and the offshore waters of Byzantion) and exported by the Byzantion citizens will be discussed in the light of the information given by the ancient writers.

It is possible to obtain some information about the method of fishing from the ancient resources and the depictions in the mosaics. In the light of this information, it can well be said that the citizens of Byzantium used fishing rod, spear, leister (trident), creel (fish pot) and fishnet. These equipment were used both from the shore and the boats (for offshore fishing). In the antique age, especially during the reign of the Roman Empire, seas and shores were in the category of res communis (i.e. legally belonging not to the state but open to public use). While in the works of ancient writers there cannot be found any information as to the fishing of tuna and acorn which have quite a high economic value along the shores of Byzantion, they must have been hunted by the fishermen of Byzantium in the Straits on their migration path from the Mediterreanean Sea to the Black Sea by large fishing rods, spears and nets, and offered for consumption in the form of conserved food. By the way, from a later historical record (a pillar belonging to the late tenth century in Khalkhedon), we learn that Lucas (d. 979) wished good luck to the fishermen by sanctifying their fishnets. Since Khalkedon and Byzantion were cities on each side of the Bosphorus, it is natural that the fishermen of Byzantion needed the benediction of Lucas. The fishermen sanctified by Lucas gave 10% of the fish they caught to him (apodekatosis). In earlier periods, we can say that Poseidon had the same function as Lucas. It is also noteworthy that fishermen took a vow in the Artemis Diktynna Temple in the Khelai Bay, having believed that the goddess was the protector of their fishnets.

It is known that in the Antique Age the fish caught were sold in fish markets (macellum in Latin). However, there is no data as to the exact location of such fish markets in Byzantium. For later periods, we know that fish markets were situated at or near harbours. Therefore, even if we can claim that fish are sold in Byzantium on counters set in the markets near harbours (e.g. near the Neorion Harbour in Eminönü), it is impossible to say anything about the exact location of a larger fish market (macellum). Socrates of Constantinopolis who lived in the first half of the fifth century AD. indicates in his Historia Ecclesiastica during the reign of the Great Constantinos, i.e. in the first half of the fourth century AD there was a macellum at the backside of Constantinus Forum and the stoa, but as we have said, its exact location has not been detected yet. Taking continuity into consideration, macellum can be assumed as nearer to agora in earlier centuries as well. Furthermore, it is known that there were several macellums in Constantinopolis by the fifth century AD.

Although Aristotle ranks the fishermen among the social classes of the city of Byzantium, we do not have any information about fishermen guilds of the Byzantium of classical and Hellenistic periods. Yet, we learn from the inscriptions that there was a fishermen guild in the Roman period. Several extant inscriptions witness that Dionysus mysteries were sanctified in Byzantium. One of these inscriptions, dated in the period of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) was dedicated to Dionysius Parabolos, and those who dedicated it to him were the followers of Dionysius Parabolos, who were called thiasos. Parabolos, is an epithet of Dionysus. Bolos has meanings of “fishnet,” “fishing place” or “fishermen’s place”. L. Robert claims that parabolos may refer to a place citing the Anaplous of Dionysius of Byzantium. Hence it is understood that the followers and sanctifiers of Dionysius with the epithet parabolos were mainly the fishermen of Byzantium. Again in another inscription dated in the period of Adrian bears the word Dionysobolitai on it, which refers to “the followers of Dionysus in the fishing area.” Both inscriptions witness the presence of a fishermen guild in the ancient city. Financial difficulties on one side and the necessity of teamwork in the challenging labour of fishing must have necessitated the presence of such a fishermen guild.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.

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