Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens 
by James Davidson.
HarperCollins, 372 pp., £25, June 1997, 0 00 255591 3
Show More
Show More

‘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?

Nonetheless, fish did loom large: it was the gourmet food, and therefore the social indicator. Literary critics found it extraordinary that the heroes of the Iliad lived on kebabs, though they were camped near the rich fishing grounds of the Dardanelles. Only the rich can afford eels: if you see a poor man buying them (says a character in the comedy writer Alexis), take him off to jail, this must be the man who mugged you. That has good ecological reasons. Gluts (of herring or cod) belong to the North; the Mediterranean, apart from migrating tuna and anchovies, yields poorly. Fishing is chancy and seasonal, transport slow and expensive. Pickled fish will last, and the scatter of empties all over the Greek and Roman world is a tribute to the pickle factories and their networks. But fresh fish spoils; you go to market now, and buy expensively.

There was another, and less seasonal, market in sex. Athenian society functioned by arranged marriages; husbands seeking diversion had to look outside. ‘The careful seclusion of respectable women,’ writes Davidson, ‘ceded a huge territory of feminine intimacy to the hetaera.’ Adultery was dangerous, liable to end in murder or a heavy fine or a good radishing. That left boys for romance, prostitutes for relief, mistresses for both. Davidson rightly emphasises that this was basically a heterosexual society (one must not see everything through Socrates’ pink spectacles), which sustained a wide variety of tarts, geishas and courtesans, all the way from the grandes horizontales, who snubbed kings and lived on presents, to the working girls (Greek has the same expression) who put out in the cemetery for cash – bent forward, three obols; leaning back, six obols; jockey position, special rate.

Serious sex, like serious fish, costs money; and it’s here that private passions take a public role. Classical Athens was democratic in constitution and egalitarian in rhetoric. Its leaders depended on the good will of the citizen assembly; a host of minor jobs were filled by lot from a voters’ register. The democracy had been achieved by radical revolution, the displacement of the populist dictators of the later sixth century, and of the aristocratic republic which preceded and followed them. Even a century later, the democracy felt itself threatened; paranoia came easily to the surface, with a cry of ‘tyranny’ or ‘oligarchy’. There was an obvious enemy within, a group with the leisure and resources and self-interest to undermine the new republic: the rich. That was not an unchanging group. Inherited wealth could be dissipated by pleasure, or destroyed by war; new wealth could be created, as the orator Lysias’ father made a fortune in armaments. It may even be true that Greeks tended to regard material prosperity as a matter of luck. Nonetheless, it was hard having money when the poor ruled the roost. In the aristocratic tradition, a display of wealth confirmed prestige, and conferred duties only in the sense of noblesse oblige; in the democracy, it might also confirm prestige (Alcibiades, the playboy statesman that the people loved to death, ran three teams in the Olympic chariot-race of 412 BC) – or invite expropriation. There was a balance between the politics of glamour and the politics of envy.

J.K. Galbraith observes that the conspicuous consumption of the Vanderbilt era had become much more discreet by the Thirties. ‘Purely ostentatious outlays, especially on dwellings, yachts and females, were believed likely to incite the masses to violence ... It was much wiser to take on the protective coloration of the useful citizen, the industrial statesman, or even the average guy.’ Athenian millionaires enjoyed compulsory usefulness. The ancient world had no idea of progressive taxation; but the Athenians compensated by imposing on the well-to-do expensive duties to the state. When substantial citizens came to court, they took care to advertise that they had done their bit, and more: paying the crews of warships, subsidising dramatic and musical festivals. At the same time, they could gain more credit by voluntary philanthropy, ransoming prisoners, supporting widows and orphans. Even so, the rhetoric reveals the tensions.

It has been much debated whether Athens suffered a class war. In one sense, the answer is a trivial yes: the citizens were assigned to ranks (in part military ranks) in line with their economic standing, and it is the lowest class (thetes, those who rowed the triremes) who form the backbone of the democracy against the perceived oligarchic tendencies of the better-off. But the means of production and distribution are more slippery; Davidson argues that there were parallel economies, not a single economic hierarchy, and that reduced the frustrations of dependence. Be that as it may, we can perceive at least a skirmish of lifestyles, of snobberies and anti-snobberies. Aristophanes paints a paradigm fantasy in Wasps. The little fella, whose income and enjoyment came from sitting on the citizen jury at twopence a day, gets transformed into a socialite and joins the ton for another aristocratic inheritance, the formal dinner party (symposion). What is he to wear? Thick Persian weave instead of his thin cloak, red Spartan boots instead of standard shoes. How shall he recline at table? ‘Like an athlete, pour yourself fluidly onto the couch’ – and then ‘praise the bronzes, look at the ceiling, admire the tapestries.’ The rich, that is, practise exclusive rituals in expensive houses wearing imported fashions – and not just imported, but named from the two national enemies. Meantime the poor are down at the pub, getting short measure from the barmaid.

Thus the consuming passions of the rich are a threat as well as a scandal. By their fish are they known: ‘He acts undemocratically, gulping down fish like that,’ says a gourmet who finds the market bare; ‘If someone buys perch, and doesn’t buy sprats,’ complains the aristo in Aristophanes, ‘the sprat-seller nearby immediately says: “This fellow seems to buy his fish with a view to Tyranny.” ’ Davidson makes brilliant use of Aiskhines’ speech Against Timarchos, which depicts with relish a political enemy so bankrupted by his pleasures that he must now prostitute himself. ‘His father left him a large property, which he has eaten up ... enslaved to the most disgraceful pleasures, gluttony and expensive dinners and flute-girls and hetaerae and dice.’ And so? ‘The headlong pleasures of the body and the idea that nothing is enough, this is what fills the gangs of brigands, this is what mans the pirate ship, this is each man’s Fury, this exhorts him to slaughter citizens, collaborate with tyrants, join in subverting the democracy.’ For the Greeks, private appetites have public consequences. The man who cannot control himself will seek to control others; the wastrel has only one resource – the property of his fellow citizens.

Generalised, this scheme was a favourite of ancient political analysts: money leads to luxury, luxury to decadence, decadence to tyranny – so it was, for example, that the Roman republic became a Roman empire. Modern analysts are less concerned with the dynamic; they tend to take each society as a synchronic package, and look for its static drive. In one popular view, Foucault’s, sexual drive takes centre stage: Greek society is polarised, not just between Us and the Other, but between penetrators and penetrated. In the kingdom of the phallus, males dominate females, active males dominate passive males, masters dominate slaves and imperialists their subjects. Davidson takes issue with this kill-joy schema. He argues that ‘passive homosexual’ is an anachronistic category; what mattered to the Greeks was not how you did it, but why – the depraved think only of lust or cash. That argument fails, it seems to me; no doubt the Greeks did not see ‘passivity’ as an exclusive choice, but in comedy and graffiti and the poems of Priapus the Garden God buggery remains good for a laugh. On the general issue, however, Davidson is surely right to protest at so reductive a structure. A society must be more than the sum of its polarities.

The problem of the Greek state was to maintain social order among a body of noisy, pushy individuals. One thing they all had in common: appetites. Davidson suggests that appetites and their discourse promote social mobility and social coherence: ‘Anyone can learn to be effete. The emphasis in Athenian comedy on eating, drinking and sex can be seen as part and parcel of this blindness to social and economic divisions, this class-unconsciousness.’ Perhaps; but it can be seen less paradoxically as a tribute to the mass audience. Come the revolution, says an egalitarian in Aristophanes, there will be fair shares for all. But now? Fish jokes and appeals to the jury depend on the rhetoric of unfairness; appetites are shared, but not their fulfilment, and this in a society where envy is endemic and theologically rooted (the gods, too, envy the successful and will do them down). American society has survived on the myth of equal opportunity; but I doubt whether the average Athenian was much consoled by the prospect of eels tomorrow when it was always sprats today.

This is a book of many pleasures, both in analysis and in anecdote. You can meet heroes of hedonism and martyrs of sensuality: Melanthios, who prayed for a neck like a heron’s, so that he could linger longer on the delicious mouthfuls; Philoxenos, who consumed a three-foot octopus (except for the head), and nearly died of dyspepsia; the anonymous alcoholic immortalised by Aristotle, who put eggs under his mat and sat on them and drank continuously until they hatched. Not many readers nowadays will need the reminder that the Greeks were not all mind and marble. Davidson, however, presents them as a superior class of hedonist: ‘The Greek approach to pleasure was vigorously rationalistic and humane’; they recognised a ‘civic responsibility to manage all appetites’. Contrast our world, in which sex-addicts (even fish-addicts, perhaps) escape responsibility by laying claim to an illness treatable only by external experts and entitling them to pity and understanding. Contrast the traditional world of Christianity or Buddhism, where ascetics flee what they cannot control. The contrast may be exaggerated. The Greeks, too, had their wowsers, who advised abstinence from wine, or from meat (it made athletes thick in mind or body), or from sex (as a passport to a privileged afterlife) – even Archestratos, who was ready to die for a sturgeon, anticipated Nouvelle Cuisine by campaigning against heavy sauces and in favour of wholemeal bread. But no doubt these faddists cramped one’s style less than the envy of the masses and the taste of one’s peers (there is another book to be written about Greek concepts of vulgarity). Certainly, the Athenians devoted much energy to pleasure, and to the discourse of pleasure. This invigorating book paints the scene with polished scholarship and fine Hellenic gusto.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


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.

James Davidson
University of Warwick

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences