Close Encounters of the Fishy Kind; or Oppian’s Maritime World

Krystyna Bartol

Inaccessible areas of the globe have always fascinated humans, whether children, teenagers or adults. It is no wonder, then, that the depths of the ocean continue to spark the imagination of young and old alike. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1870) is the best-known example of this phenomenon.

Frontispiece of the French edition of Verne’s book (Hetzel, Paris, 1871), illustrated by Alphonse de Neuville and Édouard Riou.

Polish primary-school graduates certainly remember the charming  rhymed story by Jan Brzechwa, Mr Lens on the Ocean Floor (Pan Soczewka na dnie oceanu), about a crazy cameraman who explores underwater territories in a fancy probe capsule – together with a dog named Calasanctius that can brew coffee (!): he watches sea creatures, fights with them and accidentally allies himself with an octopus.

The cover of Jan Brzechwa’s Mr Lens on the Ocean Floor, illustrated by Jan Marcin Szancer (Nasza Księgarnia, Warsaw, 1962).

According to some sources, Jules Verne is the second most-translated author in the world (ranking between Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare); it is reasonable to assume that his novel on Captain Nemo’s undersea escapades contributed to this result.

The ancient world also had an author who composed a hugely popular literary work about the inhabitants of underwater regions and people’s encounters with them. He was Oppian (Ὀππιανός), a Greek-writing poet from Cilicia in Asia Minor who lived in the 2nd century AD during the reign of the emperors Marcus Aurelius (161–80) and Commodus (180–92).

The historical subregions of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

His poem entitled Halieutica (Ἁλιευτικά, which literally means Fishing Matters), consists of 3,606 hexametric lines, comprising five books. Even during the poet’s lifetime it won him recognition, and fame.

A story circulated among the ancients that Oppian, wrote the Halieutica on the island of Melite while staying with his father, who was then in exile: Oppian’s purported father, the philosopher Agesilaus, is alleged to have refused to join local dignitaries in meeting the emperor Marcus Aurelius during an official imperial visit to his hometown, because this would, in his view, have been unworthy of a philosopher. This angered the emperor, or so the story goes, and resulted in the philosopher’s exile.

When he travelled to Rome, and an opportunity arose to recite the Halieutica in public, Oppian (the story continues) delighted the emperor with his artful poetry. It must be remembered here that Marcus Aurelius loved literature, had refined tastes, and was no mean writer himself, being the author of the Stoic reflections entitled Notes to Oneself (Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν), popularly known as the Meditations. The emperor was so impressed by the poem that he was said to have paid its author the munificent fee of 3,606 aurei (gold coins) – one aureus for each line of the poem. This is one explanation for why Oppian’s work began to be referred to as the golden verses  (χρύσεα ἔπη).

Aureus portraying Marcus Aurelius and the conquer of Armenia (AD 164): on the basis of such coins it is easy to calculate how many kilograms of gold Oppian received from the emperor.

Writers no less than readers were captivated with the way Oppian talked about the world of underwater creatures, An example is the poem about land animals (and about hunting them), Cynegetica (lit. Hunting Matters), which was written by a poet who lived a generation later than Oppian, but imitated Oppian’s writing technique so closely that his own name was forgotten; today we call him Pseudo-Oppian. The Halieutica must have been eagerly read through the centuries: more than 70 manuscripts survive, mainly from the Byzantine period. The learned Italian Baroque poet Giambattista Marino (1569–1625) referred to Oppian in his poem The Gallery (La Galeria, 1620) as a singing fisherman (pescator canoro),and included him among the greatest Greek poets – Homer, Pindar, Anacreon, Theocritus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes.

The Poet and the King, Harry Pyle, 1904: illustration for “In Necessity’s Mortar” by James Branch Cabell (Harper’s Monthly, Oct. 1904, 706.)

In the first book of Halieutica, Oppian vividly describes the habitats and habits of various sea creatures, including not only fish but also crustaceans, molluscs and even dolphins and seals. He calls them footless (νέποδες), i.e. having fins, not feet, for mobility, saying:

Infinite and beyond ken are the tribes that move and swim in the depth of the sea, and none could name them certainly; for no man hath reached the limit of the sea… we must make our reckoning by our human wits. (Hal. 1.80–2, 92)[1]

In Book Two, he continues this description, vividly illustrating the principle that prevails throughout the undersea world, namely that the strong devour the weak. We read:

Among fishes neither justice is of any account nor is there any mercy nor love; for all the fish that swim are bitter foes to one another. The stronger ever devours the weaker; this against that swims fraught with doom and one for another furnishes food. (Hal. 2.43-7)

The Lod Mosaic, c.300 AD (Lod Mosaic Center, Lod, Israel).

In Book Three, Oppian enumerates the qualities of a good fisherman, along with various methods of fishing, but devotes the greatest space to a particular trait possessed by both sea creatures and fishermen: cunning. Cunning plays a central role in their mutual struggle: the fishermen want to outwit the sea creatures and capture them; they, in turn, employ their cunning to avoid being captured:

Fishes, it seems, not only against one another employ cunning wit and deceitful craft but often also they deceive even the wise fishermen themselves and escape from the might of hooks and from the belly of the trawl when already caught in them, and outrun the wits of men. (Hal. 3. 92–5)

Book Four vividly portraits the sea creatures’ amorous behaviour as well as their gluttony, both of which vices lead fisherman and fish alike to doom:

Other fishes doth tender love make for fishermen the spoil of their chase and fatal mating they find and fatal their passion, hastening their own ruin through desire. (Hal. 4.1–4)

Sea creatures mosaic from Pompeii (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

Book Five principally features a wonderful description of sea monsters and how to hunt them:

And the huge Sea-monsters that are bred in the habitations of Poseidon are, I declare, no whit meaner than the ravening children of the land, but both in strength and size the dauntless terrors of the sea excel… Often also they stray and come nigh the beach where the water is deep inshore: and there one may attack them. (Hal. 5.20–4 and 60–1)

Each individual book begins and ends with passages praising the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus, who jointly rules the Roman Empire from AD 176 till 180. We can therefore easily date this work. 

Oppian’s work draws on the Greco-Roman tradition of hexametric didactic poetry that goes back to Hesiod, the Greek poet of the archaic era. The purpose of his poem is not merely to impart ichthyological, malacological or crustacean knowledge. Oppian’s knowledge of maritime subjects, gleaned from books rather than from his own experience,[2] is an attractive Trojan horse to help him convey teachings of a different nature, namely moral teachings. It also provides him with suitable material for displaying his artistry.

Fishermen at sea, J.M.W. Turner, 1796 (Tate Britain, London).

From the first line, the reader has the impression that the poet, although ostensibly discussing sea creatures, is showing us purely human behaviour, and human motives for action. The poet anthropomorphises nature: this artistic device is popular in literature of the imperial period. By constantly emphasising the similarity of the emotions gripping the inhabitants of the two worlds, he presents an emotional universe that has its marine (fish) and terrestrial (human) sides: fish passion, fish hatred, fishy maternal concern, the joy of fishy success and the sadness of fishes’ defeat are as intense and moving as human love, hostility, parental feelings, pleasures and despair.

Although Oppian purposefully equates the inhabitants of the deep and humans in terms of the emotions they feel, he nevertheless comes to a surprising conclusion that calls into question this carefully-drawn parallelism. Emotional similarity does not imply similarity in the impact that emotional experience has on the lives of the inhabitants of these two worlds. While the battles, cunning contrivances and other actions of sea creatures result from natural reactions, repeated instinctively over and over again in a struggle for survival, the same situations form a sequence of experiences for humans that, under the influence of rational thinking, contributes to the conscious refinement of various skills, and makes people masters in some fields. In this way, speaking about what unites sea creatures and humans draws Oppian’s attention to what divides them.

The whale beached, Esalas van de Velde, 1617 (New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts, USA).

It might be said that the poet returns in his work to an ancient discussion on the relationship between nature and culture, and acknowledges the superiority of the latter. The world of culture is obviously embodied here by the fishermen who, using their innate qualities, improve in their art through the exercise of reason, and are thus able to win battles against sea creatures that are, like children, unable to make use of their experience. The fishermen overcome the sea creatures despite contending with the great adversities of nature, as the poet wonderfully depicts by comparing the hardships of fishermen with those of hunters and fowlers:

Over the unknown sea they sail with daring heart, and they have beheld the unseen deeps and by their arts have mapped out the measures of the sea, men more than human. The mountain-bred Boar and the Bear the hunter sees, and, when he confronts him watches him openly, whether to shoot him afar or slay him at close quarters. Both beast and man fight securely on the land, and the hounds go with the hunter as guides to mark the quarry… To them winter brings no great fear, nor summer brings burning heat; for hunters have many shelters – shady thickets and cliffs, and caves in the rock self-rooted…. Pleasure more than sweat attends the hunt. And those who prepare destruction for birds, easy for them too and visible is their prey… But for the toilsome fishermen their labours are uncertain, and unstable as a dream is the hope that flatters their hearts. For not upon the moveless land do they labour, but always they have to encounter the chill and wildly ranging water, which even to behold from the land brings terror and to essay it only with the eyes. In tiny barks they wander obsequious to the stormy winds, their minds ever on the surging waves; always they scan the dark clouds and ever tremble at the blackening tract of sea; no shelter have they from the raging winds nor any defence against the rain nor bulwark against summer heat. Moreover, they shudder at the terrors awful to behold of the grim sea, even the Sea-monsters which encounter them when they traverse the secret places of the deep. No hounds guide the fisher on their seaward path… nor do they see where the fish will encounter them and come within range of capture; for not by one path does the fish travel. In feeble hairs and bent hooks of bronze and in reeds and nets the fisher have their strength. (Hal. 1.9–55)

Fishermen, Villa of the Nile Mosaic, Leptis Magna (Tripoli National Museum, Libya).

The fishermen’s struggles with sea creatures resemble  sporting competitions. In light of Oppian’s poem, this struggle thus seems to satisfy the natural and permanent tendency of men to compete, to strive constantly to show their superiority over other creatures. Oppian seems to be saying to his readers: victory grants fame, and the more formidable and threatening the opponent, the greater the joy of defeating him, and the more enduring the fame of the victor. His ideal audience will have in mind the descriptions of the great Homeric battles fought by heroes on the Trojan plain precisely for the sake of fame, and also during epic sea voyages, when they had to fight against the adversities of fate. The fisherman’s victorious fish-human agōn (contest), as shown in the Halieutica (which belongs to the genre of didactic epic), is an act that gives him hope for future fame (kleos, κλέος) – a professional prominence that will last a long time and immortalise his name.

Oppian thus rhetorically transforms, in accordance with the literary fashion of his time, the heroic ethos perpetuated among the Greeks by the Iliad and the Odyssey, transferring it to a completely new context. The heroisation of fishermen, who had hitherto been portrayed in Greek literature as rather common, and even unreliable or insincere people, certainly did not appear to Oppian’s contemporary readership as a trivialisation of a great traditional Homeric theme, but rather as an expression of admiration for the great heroic epic, as a proof of epic’s power to generate something completely and delightfully new.

A fisherman from the Warsaw area, Jean-Pierre Norblin, 1817; how much effort was required to catch this fish! He’s a real hero, isn’t he?

Oppian’s poem praises the brave and sensible man who overcomes his fear of threatening nature. Man is a being who towers above other creatures, and thus must be closest to the gods. The anthropomorphisation of fish serves to glorify man and the human mind, showing his perseverance and determination to achieve his goals. The Halieutica elevates man to the status of a perfect being who, by the will of the gods, perpetuates the divine order with his reason, and contributes to the realisation of divine plans.

In his philosophically-oriented poem, Oppian continually emphasises the aesthetic qualities of his tale of fish and fishermen. He wants to please the reader with his manner of presenting the topic. The poet’s aestheticising attitude is most evident in the dedication at the beginning of Book Four to the Emperor and his son:

O Antoninus and thy son of noble heart, graciously give ear and take pleasure in these delights of the sea wherewith the kindly Muses have furnished forth my mind and have crowned me with the gift divine of song and given me to mix a sweet draught for your ears and for your mind. (Hal. 4.4–8)

Since ancient times, the adjective sweet (γλυκύς) has been used in connection with poetry to describe its qualities of artistic excellence and charm that have a pleasant effect on the recipient, like sweet honey pleasing the palate of the gourmet. In Imperial times, the term sweetness (γλυκύτης) appears in rhetorical treatises, and defines the way in which the subject-matter is presented in a poetic work by means of stylistic devices.

The goldfish, Paul Klee, 1925 (Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany).

Oppian is a master of style. The reader submits admiringly to the dynamic narrative with which the poet conducts his quasi-scientific discourse. He/she follows the constant change of tone and mood, finding in the elegant gallop of catalogues, enumerations, comparisons, repetitions, mythical digressions, concretisations and generalisations the unique texture of Oppian’s story. Anton Maria Salvini, a highly successful Italian translator of Oppian’s Halieutica (1728), in the dedicatory note addressed to Prince Eugene of Savoy, aptly characterised his style as:

florid and smooth, yet dense and firm. There is some fuzziness and rawness in the poem, but after a bit of effort you come out onto a beautiful plain where – so to speak – the poetic steeds rejoice. So let the reader not be afraid.

So let us not be afraid. Let’s read Oppian! If Salvini’s recommendation seems too exalted to us, let us rely on the simple and concise assessment expressed by the unforgettable Neil Hopkinson on the Halietuica:the most accomplished and attractive didactic poem to survive from the Imperial period.[3]

Krystyna Bartol is Professor at the Institute of Classical Studies, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań; she writes on Greek poetry, especially lyric, and Greek Imperial prose. She is the author of the first Polish translation of the Halieutica (2020), and has written for Antigone on Ancient Greek attitudes to music, the wonders of Athenaeus and Greek elegy. She fights fish only on the plate.

Further Reading

The Halieutica was translated into English in 1928 by A.W. Mair: Oppian, Colluthus, and Tryphiodorus (Loeb Classical Library, Heinemann, London/Cambridge, MA, 2nd ed., 1958). Emily Kneebone’s monograph, Oppian’s Halieutica. Charting a Didactic Epic (Cambridge UP, 2020) is at least as interesting as the poem itself. It learnedly examines the literary texture and cultural relevance of the Halieutica. A.R. Bartley’s Stories from the Mountains, Stories from the Sea: The Digressions and Similes of Oppian’s Halieutica and the Cynegetica (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 2003) discusses Oppian’s style in detail, alongside its relation in this respect to the epic tradition. 


1 All passages from Oppian’s work quoted here are from the Loeb translation of A.W. Mair.
2 T. Bekker-Nielsen wittily quips that Oppian’s poem on sea-fishing smells of the desk, not of the deck; see Bekker-Nielsen, “Fish in the Ancient Economy,” in K. Ascani, V. Gabrielsen, K. Kvist, & A.H. Rasmussen (eds.), Ancient History Matters. Studies Presented to Jens Erik Skydsgaard on his Seventieth Birthday (L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome, 2002) 30.
3 N. Hopkinson, Greek Poetry of the Imperial Period. An Anthology (Cambridge UP, 1994) 185.