One of the hosts, Ian, made reference to Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, saying that he was very fond of asparagus. Augustus, it is said, used to tell people when he wanted something done fast that it should be “quicker than cooking asparagus,” and was so enamoured with the vegetable that he commissioned an entire fleet of ships to seek out the best sources of asparagus in the world for supplying the city of Rome. My eyebrows, dear reader, assumed a posture of heightened readiness.
I will stress, before going on, that I intend here to cast no shade on Ian, who is lovely and has even helped me with research on a previous occasion. If you google “asparagus fleet” there are so many websites that mention it – dozens, certainly; it even made it onto the official QI Twitter account – that if that’s all you’re going on, it looks pretty legit. Unfortunately for me, it’s not all I’m going on, thanks to my secret double life as a PhD student in classical studies.
I had never heard of Augustus having any particularly strong feelings about asparagus one way or another, and certainly never heard of any such thing as an “asparagus fleet.” But, frankly, I haven’t read all of classical literature and I don’t remember all of what I have read, so rather than dismiss it out of hand, I was willing to go looking for a source. It sounded to me like something that might have come from Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars – and, mirabile dictu, I found the “quicker than cooking asparagus” line quicker than… well, cooking asparagus. It’s in his Life of Augustus (ch. 85), which mentions that Augustus had several odd catchphrases – Suetonius also claims that, when advising someone to be patient, Augustus would say “let us be content with Cato” (presumably referring to the famous hardiness of Cato the Elder), and when he suspected that someone who owed him money was never going to pay, he would say “they will pay on the Greek Kalends” (the Kalends is the first day of the month in the Roman calendar – which Greeks did not use; there is no such thing as the Greek Kalends). Suetonius also talks here about Augustus’ spelling and handwriting, so it seems like he must be saying all this on the basis of archived letters that he was able to examine.
All well and good, but no mention of the asparagus fleet. The thing about the asparagus fleet is that it doesn’t seem like an absolutely wild thing to say; Augustus did revolutionise Rome’s food supply by adding Egypt to the empire and expanding the grain fleets that supplied the urban poor of the city of Rome with cheap or free wheat, and apparently he did kinda have a thing for asparagus. So I kept looking; I sifted through pages of google search results; I went to JSTOR and searched for classics articles that mentioned asparagus. I learned, from my good bro Pliny the Elder, that there was a folk belief that you could grow asparagus by grinding up rams’ horns and planting them in soil, and that Augustus’ successor Tiberius reported the existence of a variety of wild asparagus in Germany (Natural History 19.42). There are several academic articles that mention asparagus as one of the products of Roman Italy’s vegetable gardens, I think largely on the basis of Pliny’s testimony. But that makes it all even stranger; Pliny says multiple times that asparagus was grown in Ravenna, and Cato the Elder (Agriculture ch. 161), writing in the second century BC, long before Augustus’ time, gives detailed instructions for planting asparagus. It clearly wasn’t an exotic vegetable to the Romans; nor was it something they would have needed in the kind of vast quantities that they needed wheat (necessitating a dedicated grain fleet).
And the google search results just kept getting weirder. The Post and Courier openly admits that “the asparagus fleet doesn’t exist in scholarly literature, but the tale makes sense from a connoisseurship standpoint” (i.e. “we know it’s probably bull$#!t, but the idea is just too cute not to spread the bull$#!t anyway”), while the Irish Times somehow seems to have gotten the idea that the “fleet” was – and these are their exact words – a CHAIN OF SUPER-FAST CHARIOTS. Chariots are not fµ¢£ing freight cars, they’re tactical combat platforms in the Bronze Age and racing vehicles or prestige personal transport in the Roman period; no-one fµ¢£ing ships vegetables by chariot relay.
Anyway, some of you will have already guessed the punchline here: I am fairly confident that most or all of these online sources that mention an “asparagus fleet” are drawing from Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article on asparagus, at time of writing, says “Emperor Augustus created the “Asparagus Fleet” for hauling the vegetable, and coined the expression “faster than cooking asparagus” for quick action.” [EDIT: as of April 9th 2022, the asparagus fleet is no longer mentioned in this article, courtesy of a Wikipedian who goes by Etryn. I am tempted to assume that this noble soul read my follow-up post on the asparagus fleet mystery, posted on April 6th. The last version of the Wikipedia page that did include the fleet can be found here.] The article gives three citations at the end of this sentence. One is the correct primary reference to Suetonius for the “cooking asparagus” catchphrase. Another is an archived page from a Dutch gardening website; I can’t read Dutch, but on the basis of Google Translate, it seems like this page doesn’t mention the asparagus fleet and is being cited as the source for some other points earlier in the same paragraph (some of which may also be bull$#!t, but to be honest I had some pretty serious tunnel vision on the asparagus fleet thing by this point). The third citation is to a 2010 asparagus-themed issue of the journal of the European and African branch of the International Wine and Food Society. Pages 6 and 7 are a feature on the history and biology of asparagus by one Pam Brunning, the journal’s editor. This is a magazine article. It is not a scholarly publication and I don’t think Brunning meant it to be. There is no bibliography and no mention of the primary sources for any of the information it contains. I would certainly not accept it as a source for an undergraduate’s essay.
But you know what the worst part is?
Brunning’s article doesn’t even say what Wikipedia says it does.
Wikipedia, again, says “Emperor Augustus created the “Asparagus Fleet” for hauling the vegetable.” The relevant quote from Brunning’s piece in Food & Wine issue 103, page 6, is “Pliny, Julius Caesar and Augustus were so enamoured of it that they kept special boats, known as the ‘Asparagus Fleet’ for its transport.” For one thing, even if we just believe Brunning completely uncritically, the asparagus fleet would have existed in Caesar’s time and therefore would predate the reign of Augustus, so the Wikipedia article hasn’t even read its own source correctly. For another, more important thing… that is clearly a sentence that no-one who knows anything about the Roman world would write. Attributing a major economic policy to “Pliny, Julius Caesar and Augustus” (in that order, no less) is just baffling, bordering on incomprehensible, because Pliny the Elder is a pretty stark odd-one-out in that group: he was not an emperor; he was not a contemporary of Caesar or Augustus; he was an admiral but I don’t think we have any evidence that he was ever responsible for the logistics of Rome’s food supply. And if we read that sentence (“so enamoured”) as meaning that the asparagus fleet was something Caesar and Augustus created to satisfy their own idiosyncratic appetite for asparagus, it’s even more bizarre to suggest that Pliny, decades after Augustus’ death, would have command of the same fleet.
Basically, what I’m saying is that the Wikipedia article isn’t just guilty of repeating a surprising and unsourced but ultimately plausible claim. It’s guilty of taking an obviously nonsense claim made by one insane woman writing asparagus propaganda and laundering that bull$#!t into something comparatively reasonable, paired with a real correctly sourced fact that makes the whole thing seem more legitimate. And now it’s just accepted fact in the fµ¢£ing ASPARAGUS FANDOM that Augustus had a dedicated asparagus fleet!
Brunning’s article was written in 2010, and the citation to it seems to have been added to Wikipedia’s asparagus article in August 2011. I have yet to find any other source mentioning the asparagus fleet that predates the addition of the factoid to Wikipedia. I suspect this may not be the end of the trail – I doubt Brunning just made up the asparagus fleet for a laugh; I think she must have read something in a book that somehow gave her that idea, and if anyone ever comes across an older source that might answer that riddle for me (or, hell, even real evidence of something that a reasonable person might call an “asparagus fleet”), I’d be interested to hear about it. For our current purposes, though, the Wikipedia article and its citation to Brunning seem to be the ur-source for the asparagus fleet, and I am 95% satisfied that it is complete bull$#!t.
Which is a shame. Because, as I do try to tell people, Wikipedia’s generally quite good, or at the very least better than most of the other stuff that turns up on the first page of a google search. The source for this claim may have been bull$#!t, but at least Wikipedia has a paper trail that you can follow if you choose to. None of the other websites that repeat the “asparagus fleet” factoid – including multiple newspapers – give any indication of where they got it from. For me, the takeaway to this should not be that there are “reliable sources” and “unreliable sources” and we need to learn which is which. The Wikipedia editor who cited Brunning probably figured that she was “reliable” because her article was in a published journal of a large international society, which for some purposes is probably a decent rule of thumb. There are no “reliable sources.” There are sources we understand – whose creation and purpose are transparent to us – and sources we don’t. Wikipedia, for all its flaws, is at least transparent, but it’s important to understand its texture. Most of the people who’ve made contributions and revisions to the Wikipedia article on asparagus are probably interested in cuisine, gardening and botany, and have read books on those topics, not naval logistics in the Roman Empire. For Wikipedia contributors who are classicists, the asparagus article is probably low on their fact-checking list; I might be the first classicist who’s ever looked closely at it. The article is talking outside of the probable areas of expertise of the people who would have produced it – which means it is vulnerable to making mistakes that the Wikipedia article on, say, Augustus himself probably wouldn’t. Be aware of these processes, and watch your sources carefully.