Underwater archaeologists off the coast of Nabeul in northeastern Tunisia at the site of the ancient Roman city of Neapolis.

Sunk by a Tsunami, Underwater Archaeologists Finally Find the Ruins of the Roman City Neapolis

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After almost a decade of searching, the ruins of the city of Neapolis have finally been located. Based on their finds so far, researchers have confirmed that a tsunami hit the area in the 4th century AD. They have also decided the city likely held a monopoly over a fermented Roman delicacy.

Phys.org reports the vast Roman ruins were discovered off the coast of Nabeul, in northeast Tunisia. The submerged city stretches over 20 hectares (almost 50 acres). As some of Neapolis’ ruins remain aboveground, underwater archaeologists have been searching the region for the last seven years in hope of finding the underwater counterpart. Favorable weather allowed them to finally attain that goal this summer.

Based on underwater prospecting carried out at the site, the researchers have asserted Neapolis was partially submerged by a tsunami on July 21 in 365 AD, a natural disaster that also damaged Alexandria in Egypt and Greece’s island of Crete. This confirms an account recorded by the Roman soldier and historian Ammien Marcellin.

According to the Independent, Neapolis does not show up in many other records because it sided with Carthage over Rome during the Third Punic War in 149–146 BC.

The researchers have discovered monuments, streets, and about 100 tanks that were used in the production of a fermented fish condiment known as garum.

Mounir Fantar, the head of a Tunisian-Italian archaeological mission said: “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.”

Vistor Labate described some details on Roman cuisine during the Empire era for Ancient Origins:

“[A]s Rome expanded and became more prosperous, food became more diverse. Romans became acquainted with the foods and cooking methods of the provinces […] The cena, which initially consisted of only one course, developed into two courses during the Republic: a main course and a dessert served with fruit or seafood. By the end of the Republic, it evolved into a three-course meal: the appetizer (gustatio), the main course (primae mensae) and the dessert (secundae mensae).”

‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture.

‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture. ( Public Domain )

But Labate writes that not everyone could eat that way, social class definitely played a role in the foods available to an individual:

“[R]egular Romans could not afford to eat meat and expensive exotic foods from the provinces. They often ate the porridge made of emmer, salt, fat and water (the puls) with bread sprayed with a little bit of salt. Richer Romans ate the same porridge but added chopped vegetables, meat, cheese and various herbs to it. Bread was a staple food in ancient Rome which was often eaten with honey, olives, cheese or egg, noting that Romans also dipped their bread in wine.”

‘Still life with glass bowl of fruit and vases’ by a Pompeian painter in 70 AD, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy.

Still life with glass bowl of fruit and vases’ by a Pompeian painter in 70 AD, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy. ( Public Domain )

And if you are curious to know more about that fish paste, Pompeii Food and Drink describes it (and provides):

“It was made by the crushing and fermentation in brine of the intestines of fish such as tuna, eel, anchovies, and mackerel. Because the production of garum created such an unpleasant smell, its fermentation was relegated to the outskirts of cities. The finished product was quite mild and subtle, and was mixed with wine, vinegar, pepper, oil, or water to enhance the flavor of many dishes. Garum is similar to fish sauce used today in Thai and Vietnamese cooking.”

Maybe garum would be a delicacy for some modern palates too?

Top Image: Underwater archaeologists off the coast of Nabeul in northeastern Tunisia at the site of the ancient Roman city of Neapolis. Source: Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari

By Alicia McDermott

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