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Reflections on Aquarium Hobby History Research

By Albert J. Klee, Ph.D. 

In Bernd Brunner’s “The Ocean at Home,” we find the following paragraph:  

“These fish were kept in opaque tanks, often made of marble, in front of the house. The first fish to enter the interior of a house in imperial Rome was the sea barbel, a much cherished and expensive breed. Allegedly, they were kept in small tanks underneath the cushions of the guest beds. Around 50 AD, panes of glass were brought to Rome, Herculanaeum, and Pompeii, to replace one wall of the marble tanks; now it was possible to actually see the hustle and bustle of the fish without having to guess their schematic movements from above.” 

Because this statement has now been included in Wikipedia (re-phrased as: “Introduction of glass panes around the year 50 AD allowed Romans to replace one wall of marble tanks, improving their view of the fish.”), it is now widely quoted in various versions on the Internet. If true, this would mark the Romans as the inventor of the flat-sided aquarium, not the British centuries later. 

As Allan Nevins puts it in his “The Gateway to History,” “Mankind dearly loves a good story, and dearly loves to believe it true. Before any tale can greatly please the hearer thereof, it must have some degree of verisimilitude; it must conquer part of our faith.” Nevins illustrates this with the story of H. L. Mencken who, early in his career, wrote an article on the bathtub in which he asserted with plausible historical detail that it had been invented in the 1840’s, that Millard Fillmore had been the first to install one in the White House, that the medical profession and the public long regarded it with deep suspicion, and that laws had been passed against the perilous contraption by Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. 

Mencken was astonished that his witty composition was accepted by most readers at face value. He was still more astonished to find newspapers and magazines copying these “facts” in ever-widening circles as they cropped up year after year in the most dignified of periodicals. As Nevins puts it, “This naiveté of humankind has its humorous side. But to Historians, it is not quite so amusing.” 

Although Brunner copied this material from Herrmann Mostar’s “Die Arche Mostar (“Mostar’s Ark”), the fault lies mainly with Brunner as he did not validate Mostar’s statement and simply assumed that what he wrote was true. It should have been clear to Brunner that the assertion was unsubstantiated as Mostar provided no in-text references for any of his statements re the Romans save for one by Conrad Gesner and another by Seneca, both dealing only with the custom of wealthy Romans observing the colors in the death throes of the mullet. Mostar did not provide a bibliography, either. Brunner deserves some credit, however, for replacing Mostar’s “They put a small tank for them under the cushions of the guest bed…” with “Allegedly, they were kept in small tanks underneath the cushions of the guest beds.” Even Brunner was not going to buy that myth. 

Mostar (1901- 1973), for those not familiar with the name, was a German writer, poet, columnist and, at times, a narrator, playwright and comedian. He also became Germany’s most famous critical court reporter. This particular book deals with animals that have lived together with man, including dogs, cats, cocks, hens, doves, songbirds and fish, but also with the quite undesirable such as flies, spiders, bugs, lice, fleas and rats.  

Although Mostar asserts that the Romans kept fish in marble aquaria containing glass panes, one in theory cannot disprove it, since one cannot prove a negative, i.e., that the Romans did not do so. In the same manner, if I make the statement that I saw two Tyrannosaurus rex copulating in my backyard, there is no way that anyone can disprove it. With regard to such statements we must insist that the assertor provides some evidence that can be assessed by those who are compos mentis and who respond with raised eyebrows to reports like little green men traveling through outer space to annoy earthlings with bright lights.  

More seriously, such assessors must also have an understanding of how men in other eras lived and behaved. If one is writing about the first century AD, one relies upon (1) the authors of the time and (2) later authors who have done research of this time period and whose work is generally considered of the highest scholarship. For the first I have read the ten Roman authors in the bibliography and for the second the two modern-day authors listed below them.

Ludwig Heinrich Friedländer (1824 - 1909), by the way, was a philologist and historian noted for his comprehensive survey of Roman social and cultural history. His masterpiece was the “Darstellungen aus des Sittengeschichte Roms” (“Representations from Roman Cultural History”), a detailed and vivid portrait of the social life, customs, art and manners of the first two centuries of the Roman Empire. The work remains one of the most complete surveys of Roman life and society. It was translated into many languages, including English under the title, “Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire.”

In point of fact, none of the authors I cite who lived at the time mentioned aquaria with glass sides. If such existed they would most likely have been owned by Romans of wealth and these authors wrote thousands upon thousands of words about this stratum of Roman society. If such tanks had existed, surely at least one of them would have mentioned it. It would have been too good to pass up! Furthermore, neither Higginbotham nor Friedländer uncovered the existence of such aquaria either.

We can also examine the archeological evidence and here also one cannot prove a negative since we cannot state that some future excavation might not unearth a slew of such aquaria (or even a spaceship containing mummified bodies of a greenish hue). Nonetheless, the recent excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which have provided the most detailed information to date of how the Romans of the day lived, have not unearthed any remains of aquaria with glass sides.

 According to Higginbotham, Pompeii supplies the most accessible and best-documented group of piscinae built within an urban and, specifically, a domestic setting (the explanatory notes have been supplied by the author):

“The garden pond could be enjoyed and appreciated from different points of vantage, both public and private. The locations of many ponds within Pompeian houses permit the general or remote glimpse suitable for the casual acquaintance or client. Apertures or windows in the atrium and, specifically, in the tablinum (Note: A tablinum is the main room in a Roman house, later used as the formal reception or living room and study or office by the head of the household.) allowed a more public audience to see the pond. Many of these same piscinae and others could be enjoyed from much more intimate surroundings. The location of dining areas and reception rooms around the garden often took into account the location of the fishpond. Triclinia (Note: Triclinia are formal dining rooms in a Roman building.), set within rooms or shaded by pergolas afforded selected visitors or guests front-row seats to the splendors of the gardens and their ponds. At Pompeii, over twenty examples of piscinae are situated in close proximity to dining facilities with approximately an equal number located where they can be seen easily from reception rooms and garden exedrae (Note: An exedrae was a semi-circular recess or plinth  sometimes set into a building's façade.). The connection between ponds and dining areas is not solely aesthetic but has a gastronomic component as well. Fish or eels fresh from the piscina would make an impressive addition to private meals among friends and honored guests.”

 None of the fish receptacles discussed here by Higginbotham, however, are located within buildings and none have glass sides.

 Actually, the only known Roman fish tanks - tanks in the present-day aquarium sense - are associated with transporting fish for long distances, fishmonger shops and kitchens. Athenaeus of Naucratis, a Greek historian circa 200 AD, describes a ship built by Archimedes at the behest of the tyrant Hiero II, which had a live tank built into the bow and was constructed of lead and wood. During the construction of the airport at Fiumicino in 1958-59, a boat with a live tank (navis vivaria) built with wooden boards and coated with lead was unearthed near what was the entrance to the Claudian harbor. The presence of holding tanks at some fishmonger’s shops have been found in the market of Ostia and also at private houses in or near the kitchens. None of these, however, are made of marble or constructed with glass sides.

 Mostar made other statements that are questionable, to say the least. In the following, Mostar is referring to eels, carp and bream: “Well, all these fish live in water basins that were made from the most precious marble. However, they were still housed outside of the home; the eel had already made it to the fountain.”

 Higginbotham, however, states that seaside fishponds were either excavated in rock or constructed of concrete. Inland ponds were usually built of concrete walls with masonry facings. The earliest fishponds built with a datable building method employed concrete faced with opus incertum. Opus incertum was an ancient Roman construction technique, using irregular shaped and random placed uncut stones or fist-sized tuff blocks inserted in a core of Roman concrete called opus caementicium. The opus incertum used in these fishponds appears to date to the last years of the second century BC or, more probably, the early years of the first century BC. Opus reticulatum was a construction technique using small pyramid shaped blocks of tufa set in a core of opus caementicium. The tufa blocks cover the surface, with the pointed end into the cement, so the square bases form a diagonal pattern that resembles a net, hence the name.

 Mostar also claimed that, with the arrival of aquaria with glass sides, guests could now also see the mullets breeding during their demise (“Und nun erblickten die Damen und ihre Kavaliere die Seebarben beim Liebesspiel…”), a patently ridiculous claim.

 Because of erroneous statements such as these and because he provides no references for his assertion that the Romans had glass-sided aquaria, Mostar cannot be taken seriously and, by extension, neither can Brunner in this instance. For an assertion having this degree of consequence to aquarium hobby history, whoever wrote the Wikipedia piece should have done the required research, refuted the assertion out of hand or, better still, not mentioned it at all.


 1. First Century Roman Authors:

Athenaeus, “The Dipnosophists or Banquet of the Learned of Athenaeus,” translated by C.D. Yonge, volume I, Henry G. Bohn, Convent Garden, 1854.

Cicero: “Letters to Atticus,” Evelyn S. Shuckburgh, 4 vol., George Bell and Sons, London, 1899.

Columella: “On Agriculture,” translated by Harrison Boyd Ash and by E. S. Forster and Edward H. Heffner (Loeb Classical Library), 1941.

Horace, “Satires,” translated by A.S. Kline, Book II: Satire II, 2005.

Juvenal, “The Sixteen Satires of Juvanal,” translated by S.H. Jeyes, IV.15ff., James Thornton, Oxford, 1885.

Petronius, “The Satyricon,” translated by Alfred R. Allison, Chapter VI, Panurge Press, New York, 1930.

Martial, “Epigrams,” translated by Walter C. A. Ker, 2 vol., William Heinemann, London, 1920.

Pliny the Elder, “The Natural History of Pliny,” translated by John Bostock and H. T. Riley, Henry G. Bohn, London, IX.67, 1857.

Pliny the Younger, “Letters of Pliny,” translated by William Melmoth, revised by F. C. T. Bosanquet, Project Gutenberg, 2001.

Seneca, “Physical Science in the Time of Nero, being a translation of the Quaestiones Naturales of Seneca,” translated by John Clarke, Macmillan and Co., London, 368 pp., 1910.

Petronius, “The Satyricon,” translated by Alfred R. Allison, Chapter VI, Panurge Press, New York, 1930.


2. Modern Day Authors:

Higginbotham, James, “Piscinae – Artificial Fishponds in Italy, 284 pp., University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Friedländer, Ludwig: “
Roman life and manners under the early Empire,” translation by Leonard A. Magnus, volumes 1-4, Arno Press, New York, 1979.


3. Additional References:

Bernd Brunner, “The Ocean at Home,” Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 143 pp, 2005.

Mostar, Herrmann, “Die Archer Mostar,” Henry Goverts Verlag, Stuttgart, 256 pp., 1959.

Nevins, Allan, “The Gateway to History,” pp. 440, Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1962.


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