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September 21, 2007

The Old Fisherman

An ancient artifact reveals another contribution of the Roman Empire to the world.


This gilded silver platter provides insight into the methods and equipment employed by anglers long ago.

I traveled by truck from Maine to Los Angeles - an old fisherman going to meet a much older one - finally riding an elevated tramway along the precipitous edge of a Santa Monica mountain. I don't like heights, preferring sea level, and was hit by vertigo as I peered down at the highway below. Finally, I arrived at pilgrimage's end - the lofty stone halls of the Getty Center, a museum holding some of the finest pieces of early Greek and Roman art.

Built from the same travertine used to construct Rome's Coliseum, the Getty Center seemed appropriate to my quest. Walking up the stairway leading to the West Pavilion was much like entering the hallowed archives of ancient Rome's Temple of Peace, the first of all museums as built by Emperor Vespasian in A.D. 71.

The object of my travels was a platter depicting an amazing invention. I suppose if you were a Roman you'd refer to the invention as a torqus. But the fact is, we don't know what it was actually named. For lack of a better English term, we'll call it a "fishing reel," a handy little item first used in the 6th century.

In China, reels were recorded in the late 12th century, when paintings show them in use. The open-framed oriental model was made from wicker, the angler's finger poking through spokes to wind in the line. For the better part of angling history, the Chinese reel was considered the oldest.

Then, the J. Paul Getty Museum purchased an extremely interesting plate with relief decoration, measuring two feet in diameter and presumably found in either the Aegean or Black Sea. Its motif is taken from Hellenistic art. The silver dish was used as a serving platter for fish, gilded and titled, "Plate Showing an Old Fisherman."

Tucked under the fisherman's arm, the rod holds a reel affixed just above the grip, probably fashioned from hardwood and built with a center pin similar to a French model of the 1700s, the only real difference being 12 incredibly long centuries.

The torqus appears to be side-mounted, as later Chinese and French models were. Being simple and turned from wood, I suppose the salt water "Good Luck" model - as built by Newark, New Jersey's August Meisselbach in the early 1900s - also fits this category. Most likely the center pin of the Roman device extended through the lower portion of the rod shaft, similar to early British "spike reels."

Old Piscator sits upon a bench, intent at removing his hook or fly from a scarus (wrasse). His rod is cane, a species of harundo, indicated by nodes spaced a foot apart. Two baskets are depicted, each containing flatfish, squid, and Mediterranean lobsters among the cornucopia.

The Old Fisherman
Even in ancient times, angling success was helped along by a gold reel.

The reel itself is small in comparison to the fisherman's hand. This leads me to think it was built from a very common nautical item - a sheave, a wooden "wheel in a block," as Noah Webster's dictionary phrased it. It's exactly the correct size, and certainly a sea angler would be familiar with maritime sailing tackle.

If a broken block was indeed the basis for this invention, the angler may have drilled a hole to one side of the sheave, tapped a short chunk of dowel into it for a handle, poked a bronze spike through the bearing hole, slid two washers up the spike and nailed his wheel to the fishing rod. Building time? Fifteen minutes.

That's what I'd do!

Strengthening my hypothesis, the names "winch" and "wheel" were used by fishing authors Izaak Walton and Thomas Barker some 1200 years later. And the original pedigree may have survived if we heed Colonel Thomas Williamson's The Complete Angler's Vade Mecum, published in 1808. In it, Williamson describes a "flat wheel, used in some parts of France, of turned wood ... deeply grooved around its circumference, like a pulley."

To find a reel used in Late Antiquity is shocking news, blowing away our notion of the European winch as a 17th century British invention. In a sense it's the last spike in the coffin of Anglophilia - in the history of angling, the days of Rome were greater than those of late Renaissance England.

Putting this gadget in perspective, the English people had yet to arrive. During this reel's lifetime, their ancestors were a bunch of axe-wielding Saxons and Northmen. Perhaps most important, this reel was a salt water invention, visible proof that marine angling reached a high art in our far distant past.