0077 (pre): Pliny’s Fish Thief

Pliny the Elder [23-79 CE] was the Roman author of the thirty-eight volume Natural History -- published around 77 CE -- which makes him author of one of the best preserved historic records of ancient times. His voluminous set contains not only intriguing and useful notes on Roman culture and belief of the time, but also studies of the different cultures and places around the world that Rome was then exploring (and likely capturing). The Natural History, however, is also the source for a number of truly strange stories.

        For instance, Pliny recorded that in the ancient town of Carteia, which was once located near the Strait of Gibraltar in Spain, there was a problem with someone stealing fish from the pickling tubs fishermen were processing their catches in. The keepers of the tubs, discovering the thefts, put palisades in place (walls made up of vertical logs) to keep their fish in the tubs; but the troublesome thief kept taking fish, presumably using a tree to climb over the palisades.

        Next the keepers employed guard dogs, which caught the crook in the act of stealing the fish one night and surrounded it. But when the keepers came to see what the noise was about, they were not prepared for the sight they met!

        Pliny states that the thief was a 'polypus' -- which is either a squid or an octopus -- of a gigantic size! It was covered in dried brine and exhaled a hideous and foul breath; the guard dogs were put off by the smell, making it difficult to get them to attack. The beast lashed the dogs and the keepers with its tentacles and clubbed them with its thickest limbs, making the fight fearful to say the least. At last, and with great difficulty, the odious creature was dispatched with the aid of a number of three-pronged fish spears.

        The 'head' of this creature alone was said to be equivalent in size to a cask of fifteen aphorae (equivalent to 135 gallons of fluid), and could hardly be encircled by a man with both arms. The tentacles were upwards of thirty feet long, covered with knots -- "like those upon a club" -- and the suckers were said to be as large as an urn with equally large teeth (which implies a squid, as they have a tooth in each sucker). The body was carefully preserved as a curiosity, and weighed seven hundred pounds. Pliny noted that the author of this account stated that other squids and octopai of an equal size were known to occasionally wash ashore, and that these animals did not live beyond two years.

        Many modern experts on the topic of giant squids will enthusiastically note that Pliny's Natural History contains one of the earliest mentions of these animals in history; but they don't tell people the rest of the story! Rather than claiming that a 700-pound squid came ashore to steal salted fish, climb a tree, and fight a pack of dogs, they simply assert that Pliny using said creature as the villain in the story shows a more general knowledge that giant squids existed... but I'd still advise protecting your salted fish if you live near the Strait of Gibraltar.

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