Eels Tomorrow, but Sprats Today
- Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson
HarperCollins, 372 pp, £25.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 00 255591 3
‘He made money by selling his country; he went around spending it on prostitutes and fish.’ So Demosthenes vilified a political opponent, as publicly corrupt and privately depraved. James Davidson’s concern is with those ancient appetites: food, drink and sex in classical Athens. At one level, he provides a guided tour from bordello to Billingsgate; at another, an essay on the politics of consumption.
Social historians of antiquity face unenviable choices. Attitude is primary. Is the past another country, or just another county, distinguished only by a regional accent and a local speciality in pork pies? What makes a society? Is it the basic human appetites, or their cultural epiphenomena? Athenian society looks oddly familiar: barmen gave short measure, tarts knitted between clients, fishmongers threw water on yesterday’s stock. Yet how can you enter into a culture which had no weekends and no refrigerators? Moreover, attitude needs data to work on, and data are hard to come by. Something can be supplied from general stock. The Greek world is a third world; if you want to know (say) about its infant mortality, UN statistics may supply a model. The Greek world is a Mediterranean world, and in many respects (nutrition, transport) the world of Philip II of Macedon will have borne a strong likeness to the world of Philip II of Spain; since Braudel had more material, he may serve as a guide to problems and even to answers. Beyond that, the compiler of Athenian Social Trends has to build from chance and fragmentary materials – the mute record of archaeology, the coded images of vase painting, the formal and occasional voice of stone inscriptions, and – above all – passing hints in what little survives of Greek literature.
Literature, however, often disappoints the sober historian; it suffers from rhetoric, ignorance and imagination. We hear most about Athenian consumers from notably unreliable sources – comedy and oratory. In more innocent times, analysts proceeded like slimmers: they tried to scrape off the mayonnaise of style, to reveal the plump pink prawns of fact. Easier said than done; style is a turn of mind, not just of phrase. More recently, historians of antiquity have taken to citing texts, Foucault fashion, as pieces of attitude rather than gobbets of reality. James Davidson follows this lead. Images don’t get much of a look in; it is the texts that he deploys, most elegantly, to illustrate the discourse of self-indulgence.
Even then there are questions of typicality. Were the Athenians really obsessed with fish? We think so, because so much of this literature survives only in quotation, and in quotation by the great philologist of food, Athenaios. At his fantasy High Table, scholarly gourmets eat dinner and discuss food as it had appeared in the classics of Greek literature (all written five hundred years earlier). For this orgy of metagastronomy, originally in six fat volumes, Athenaios read at least a thousand comedies; and it’s to him that we owe most of the surviving fragments of Archestratos’ Nice Things to Eat, a foodie’s guide to the Mediterranean in the metre and manner of Homer (‘Sing, Muse, of the dinners, many and various’). Yet, however thick and fast the fish float by, they represent perhaps only ten lines in a thousand, which would have left plenty of room for other concerns. How would British society look, if its historians focused on an anthology of literary references to cod and caviare?
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 19 No. 20 · 16 October 1997
I feel I must take issue in the strongest possible terms with Peter Parsons’s view (LRB, 18 September) that the Greek obsession with fish is a mirage created by the peculiar obsessions of the anthologist Athenaeus writing at the beginning of the third century CE: ‘How would British society look if its historians focused on an anthology of literary references to cod and caviare?’ The implication that Athenaeus was concerned only with seafood or that he had a fishy agenda is simply false. His work concerns all the pleasures of the flesh and indeed he devotes a little space to the merits of sow’s womb and smoked pig’s knuckles.
My book was mainly devoted to explaining the role of fish (and wine and sex) in Greek discourse, thinking that the phenomenon itself was too obvious to elaborate in detail. After many years of denial I had the impression that classicists were finally facing up to the truth. It is no good trying to blame it all on Athenaeus. It is time to put fish back at the heart of the study of Greek culture.
In fact, my argument did not depend on counting the references to fish in surviving fragments. The point is that when characters in comedy talk of banquets or shopping or cuisine in general they end up talking almost exclusively of fish. It is not that fish looms so large in Greek comedy, it is that fish dominates the category of gourmandise. The idea that Athenaeus has carefully filleted these fragments, taking out most of the extra-marine items and leaving a little offal to disguise his propagandistic project is much too paranoid. Moreover many of these fishy chefs are characters in the comedies and it is clear that fishy shopping expeditions and preparations for these fishy banquets must have played a part in the plot of many plays.
Secondly, a love of fish is commonly used to attack prominent figures. Demosthenes’ attack on Philocrates for betraying Athens to Philip in order to indulge his love of poissonerie is paralleled by similar attacks on Hyperides and Cleon. In the spring of 421 BCE all three of the comedies in competition at the festival of Dionysus attacked Aeschylus’ nephew Melanthius for his devotion to fish. Athenaeus does not in fact quote any of them, but one, Aristophanes’ Peace, happens to survive. It describes Melanthius and his brother as ‘skate-hunting harpies, fish doom’. A contemporary, Archippus, wrote a play in which the chorus of fish offered to come to terms with humanity and to abstain from the flesh of those lost at sea, so long as Melanthius was handed over to them in chains.
My third justification for noting an apparent Greek obsession with fish is the intensity of the language used to describe them and the jokes which suggest the most passionate desire. Eels are commonly described as goddesses or beautiful maidens. A ‘boar-fish’ is described as the ‘flower of nectar’. The splendours of the fish-stall are utter torture – ‘but if one of them smiled at me, I would pay all that the fishmonger asked of me.’ Thieves, tax-dodgers and traitors cannot resist spending their ill-gotten gains on tuna-steaks and eels even if it means giving themselves away. When the market bell rings, a lyre-player loses his entire audience but one. He thanks him for putting art above seafood. The man immediately runs off. It turns out that he was simply a little deaf. There are numerous such passages in hundreds of ancient authors whose main concern is not with food at all.
Finally, there is what we might call the metadiscourse of fish, which amply confirms the impression of fish-madness. Plutarch tells us that fish is described as ‘the dish’ because it has triumphed over all others at the table and the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus complains that modern Greeks are only interested in discussing which fish is best at which time of year. Fish moreover is a key theme in Greek self-definition, distinguishing the decadent present from the meaty heroic past, the civilised city-dweller from the fishphobic peasant and the fish-loving Greek from the fish-worshipping Syrian and Egyptian. Most bizarre of all were those numerous savages at the ends of the earth who held up a mirror to Greek habits, eating nothing but raw dried fish which they ground into flour to make fish bread and fish-cakes or fodder for their animals.
A modern anthologist of cod and caviare would have a job matching that lot.
University of Warwick