One can hardly overstate the profound significance of the seas for the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean. For the Greeks situated in the insulated enclaves of Attica and the Peloponnese, the Aegean provided a lifeline to the myriad cultures on their periphery. A source of bountiful resources and inestimable wealth, the Mediterranean beckoned the Greeks to establish trade routes and colonies far beyond their rocky shores, proliferating Hellenic civilization in the West.
In homage to Poseidon—the fearsome overlord of the oceans—Hellenic peoples created devotional icons expressing their gratitude for the abundant gifts of the ocean. This remarkable sculpture of a fish originates between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC, a period when the Roman Republic emerged as a major world power. Crafted in terracotta, the ancient artist has produced a stunning network of scales with a glossy, golden finish that echo the intricacy and detail of life. Nearly a foot wide, this charming sculpture survives as an enduring testament to the importance of the sea in the popular culture of Hellenic civilization, and continued earnestly in Mediterranean cuisine.
The ancient Greeks, like their modern descendants, were great sailors and fisherman. Clearly, whoever created this extraordinary work, was intimately acquainted with marine life. Perhaps this handsome fish memorialized a prized catch—the ancient equivalent of a taxidermic trophy. As with so many treasures from the ancient world, original function is a matter of conjecture and for many artifacts we simply do not—nor likely ever will—understand their purpose. As a symbol, the fish has meant many things to many people. For the Christians, the fish represents an effervescent life force, a symbol of the spiritual world that lies beneath the world of appearances. Ancient peoples often associated fish with birds, as both creatures could astraddle the partition between heaven and earth. With the ability to produce an extraordinary quantity of eggs, fish also came to represent fecundity and cyclic regeneration. Across all cultures and epochs, the relationship between man and animal—civilization and nature—has been expressed in the most glorious works of human creation, like this endearing fish. It is a universal theme, an eternal condition as pertinent for the human race today, as for our ancestors eons ago.