Eels Tomorrow, but Sprats Today

Peter Parsons

  • 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?

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