Did you know that biscuits were probably invented by an ancient Greek called Paxamos (whence paximadi in modern Greek) or that the word is to be found in medieval Latin ( panis biscoctus )? Are you clear about the difference between an aurochs, a European bison and a water buffalo? Does it surprise you that the Greeks had no word for blackberries even though they were certainly eaten in the ancient world, as is proved by latrine deposits at Cologne?
All this from a single page of Andrew Dalby's dictionary. And not just the facts but also full references to the ancient sources and to modern discussions of them in learned journals. These are given within each entry but in a clear and admirably non-obtrusive manner. So despite its A-Z format, one can say of it - as Macaulay said of Dr Johnson's dictionary - that it can be read for pleasure just as much as for instruction.
The only problem is putting it down. "Blackberry" may lead you to "Mulberry" (which the Greeks confused with it). Your eye may then be caught by "Mulsum", a Roman aperitif, which will at once take you into the world of "Wine". Here you will want to learn the "Comportment" proper in a Greek "Symposion" or Roman "Convivium", and what kinds of "Entertainment" you may find at them.
Alternatively, you may choose a more serious tour, learning the history of apples and olives, carrots and radishes. From these it is easy to stray into the realm of zoology - the ancients tried eating all manner of birds, beasts and fishes. Dalby for the most part remains professionally objective in describing their experiments in this regard, but recoils at the thought of killing a whole flamingo just to cook its tongue. And there were people in the ancient world who felt similarly. Vegetarianism (here with its own entry) existed. The philosopher Seneca (like our own Lord Chesterfield) went through a phase of being a vegetarian as a young man. But his father talked him out of it because it was a bit un-Roman and might prejudice his career.
Not every entry is equally interesting, and one or two, such as "Satyrs" and "Hittites", seem irrelevant. And every reader will find something missing. My own complaint is that although there is an entry on the medical theory of "Humours", there is nothing about digestion or what doctors thought happened to food once it got inside us. But this is a minor and very partial criticism.
A more general one is that there is no ready way of finding what Dalby has to say on a subject for which there is no specific entry. For instance, he often mentions particular foods as having been thought healthy or unhealthy, but there is no specific article on either of these. I hope that when there is a second edition it will solve the problem by including an English index.
There is already a Greek index, a Latin index, an index of scientific names and a very full general bibliography that allows the references in the individual articles to be cited in a comparatively informal and friendly manner. This is what makes it such an attractive book. For Dalby manages to write for everybody. He never assumes specialist knowledge despite being a fully fledged classicist and an acknowledged expert in the field. But he never talks down to his audience either or underplays the importance of understanding a text in its original language.
A safe birthday present for anybody who is interested in food or its history.
Maurice Pope is emeritus professor of classics, Cape Town University, South Africa.
Food in the Ancient World: From A to Z
Author - Andrew Dalby
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 408
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 415 23259 7