Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

AS dot.com frenzy rages throughout world markets, learned commentators refer to the South Sea Bubble of 1720, when the South Sea Company tried to do a deal with Parliament to pay off the national debt; or to tulip-mania in Holland in the 1630s, the Dutch being mainly responsible for the early varieties of the plant introduced into Europe in 1572. In the first century BC the Romans came up with their own version of this particular madness: fishponds.

The Natural History of Pliny the Elder (who was killed investigating Vesuvius in AD 79) contains the details. The frenzy developed in Baiae (whence 'bay'), just north of Naples, where all the Roman great and good had holiday villas (Cicero, at one time or other, possessed ten villas scattered across Italy). There, one Sergius Orata made his first fortune from inventing baths with underfloor heating, which every smart villa just had to have, and his second from devising the first oyster ponds, which he declared produced far better oysters than anywhere else. Licinius Murena (`Eel') then invented ponds for other kinds of fish, and the craze was on.

The millionaire Lucullus had a channel driven through a mountain in Naples, at far greater cost than the construction of his villa, in order to admit seawater into his ponds. …

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