Fishy frolics in Athens

Courtesans and Fishcakes
December 19, 1997

Imagine, if you can, a society devoid of electricity or machinery of any kind; how could you spend your surplus cash, if you wanted to indulge yourself? Ancient Athens was such a society, and James Davidson tries in this entertaining book to give some answers. The high-minded might think it fun to keep a tame philosopher. The aesthetically sensitive might commission works of art to decorate their homes or to dedicate in temples, a rather more subtle way of advertising one's wealth. But this study is concerned with the universal bodily appetites, for food, drink and sex.

It is limited to Athens in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, chiefly because this is the only Greek city for which we have adequate sources. The best evidence is from speeches written by experts for private litigants to deliver, and preserved as samples of the genre. Barristers were unknown, since all litigants had to speak for themselves. Incidentally we learn a great deal about the living conditions and behaviour of ordinary citizens.

We also have incidental references in the works of the philosophers, but these may sometimes be misleading. because when a philosopher discusses the meaning of a term, he may he more concerned to extract a moral than a semantic truth. Then there are the comedies of the time. Few of these survive intact, but we have many short passages quoted by later authors. But this evidence may be biased, because their abnormality may have been the reason why they were quoted; and it is not always easy to judge whether a statement is to be taken at its face value or as a comic exaggeration.

Lastly, archaeology has revealed a few enduring artefacts, so that for instance it may be possible to match literary descriptions of a cup with preserved examples. The scenes represented in vase painting may equally be significant, though sometimes hard to interpret. Even the remains of buildings can yield information about the lifestyle of those who lived and worked in them.

Ancient food was to our taste unutterably boring, a diet of bread, porridge and a few vegetables. Meat was rarely eaten except as the product of a sacrifice. But this vegetarian diet was enlivened by all who could afford it by the addition of spices and what the Greeks called opson. A large section of this book is devoted to a study of this word. It seems originally to have meant any sort of relish eaten with bread to make it more palatable; but since the main ingredient of such relishes was seafood, it gradually acquired this meaning. Especially in a derivative form, opsarion, it came to be the normal word for fish when it appeared on the table, and this survives into modern Greek. As early as St John's gospel account of the miraculous draught of fishes, we can see the normal word for fish used where they are caught, but when ready to be cooked they have become opsaria. Another derivative meant an allowance for buying opson, but came to be a general word for wages, a semantic history paralleled by our salary, in origin an allowance for salt.

Opsophagy thus became the Greek word for gourmandise, substituting the relish for the staple. A slave was reprimanded by his master for this, rather as if the butler were sacked for dining exclusively on caviar and pte de foie gras. The result was that, although most Greek cities were on or near the sea, fish became very expensive, and indulgence could, so we are told, swallow up a large estate.

Drink, in the absence of distillation, was more or less limited to wine, for beer drinking was frowned upon as a barbarian taste. Although the wine of certain areas was favoured, there were no special vintages, so it was impossible to be very extravagant. In any case the alcoholic content was reduced by mixing with plenty of water; only drunkards took their wine neat. At drinking parties one of the company was chosen to regulate consumption and ensure that no one drank to excess.

A famous passage in an ancient speech classifies women as wives, concubines and hetaerae. Wives form a clearly defined group, at least in respectable society. They were kept in purdah, only emerging heavily covered and escorted. The mention of concubines merely acknowledges the fact that female slaves might be used to warm their master's bed. The interesting class is that of the hetaera, a word basically meaning companion, but best understood as a woman outside the other two classes, whose profession was the entertainment of gentlemen. In a society where respectable women had few accomplishments men who felt the need for female company might call on these skilled entertainers. Some had a regular salon where they provided entertainment for male guests; or they might accept invitations to dinner parties, where again the company would be all male. It was not done to offer payment; you gave them expensive presents and they provided female company in return.

At the lowest end of the spectrum the hetaera was difficult to distinguish from a prostitute, but their services were by no means only sexual. Davidson does not make the obvious comparison with the Japanese geisha. The existence of brothels is hardly surprising, and Davidson quotes the case of a large building just inside one of the city gates (always a notorious red-light district), which had a long career as a brothel, as objects recovered from the excavation prove. What is less expected is that it also yielded evidence of wool-working. Scenes on vases confirm that prostitutes might double as spinners; after all they must have needed something to do to while away the tedium of waiting for customers.

Having given us a witty and lively, if at times rather sordid picture of Greek society, Davidson feels it incumbent to relate private to public life. Politicians were frequently accused of sexual vices, gluttony and bribe-taking, and in default of a law of libel no charges had to be proved. It was enough to imply that a man whose private life was disgraceful ought not to be trusted with running the state. I wonder where I have heard that before.

John Chadwick is emeritus reader in Greek, University of Cambridge.

Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Athens

Author - James Davidson
ISBN - 0 00 255591 3
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 372

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