Ancient Roman Christians liked eating fish

April 11th, 2009 - 3:19 pm ICT by ANI  

London, April 11 (ANI): A recent research on bones from the Roman catacombs has suggested that in ancient Rome, Christians preferred to eat a lot of fish, which indicates that the eating habits of Rome’s early Christians were more complex than has traditionally been assumed.

According to a report in the Times, the research was conducted by Leonard Rutgers and his colleagues in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Their work was based on analysis of 22 skeletons found in the Catacombs of St Callixtus on the Appian Way, an area utilized in the 3rd to 5th centuries AD.

The Roman catacombs together hold an estimated half million tombs, and that of St Callixtus is one of the largest complexes of interlinking underground caverns, where the more noticeable graves were simple shelf graves called loculi and a series of monumental burial chambers called cubicula.

Half of the sample of fish bones was taken from loculi, half from cubicula burials.

Bone preservation was poor, making sexing and ageing difficult, although one person was definitely very old, between 82 and 85 at death, while another was a breast-fed baby of around 2.

Collagen, the organic portion of bone, was taken mostly from toe bones, in a few cases from fingers or limb bones. It was analysed for its carbon and nitrogen stable-isotope content: these elements are good indicators of diet.

Most samples had more or less the same isotopic levels, “confirming that the people buried in the Liberian region of the catacomb formed a single population and suggesting that, by and large, these people had access to the same kind of food resources,” the research team reported.

Comparing the catacomb results with those from other sites in Italy and in the western Mediterranean, the higher nitrogen and lower carbon figures indicate the consumption of freshwater fish.

The contribution of such fish to the diet of the early Christians in Rome ranges from 18 to 43 per cent, averaging at around 30 per cent.

Although this is surprisingly high, fish were still a supplement to an otherwise terrestrial diet, likely to have included sheep, goat and cow meat as well as cereals, fruit and vegetables.

According to the researchers, “While distancing themselves from Jewish food taboos and generally avoiding meat derived from pagan sacrifices, the early Christians are normally hypothesised to have eaten the same food as their non-Christian Roman contemporaries.”

“Within the larger context of what is currently known about Roman dietary habits, the inclusion of freshwater fish therefore comes as unexpected and raises questions about the social origins of Christianity as well,” they added. (ANI)

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