Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
James Davidson, lecturer on history at Warwick College, has read a lot and, like any thinking adult who has done too much research, found that the more one reads, the more there is to learn. This is especially true in the case of “classical Athens,” the time (about 479-323 B.C.E.) and place that have come to epitomize the sprawling, kaleidoscopic empire that was ancient Greece.
Modern researchers and interested parties have investigated this period to infinity, or so it seems. Despite the fine slicing of specialtiescut thinner and thinner with each scholar in search of a subjectmuch of what we think we know about this period is the result of micro-research based on earlier misconceptions. Grecian politics, pastimes, sexuality, and so on come at us in discrete handfuls: democracy, banquets, boys, and so forth. Davidson, who has a playful and resilient mind, finds such information useful only up to a point; he asks, rather, What did democracy mean to the citizen; what was the nature, purpose, or, more specifically, menu, of these feasts; against the vivid silhouette of man-boy love, what shape did the backdrop of heterosexuality take?
With Courtesans & Fishcakes, Davidson seeks to recontextualize Attic culture in terms of its “consuming passions”how the people loved, ate, ruled, and spent. A meticulous scholar, he investigates later theories before looking directly at primary sources, the most useful being court and political speeches (smear campaigns especially), comedies and other theatrical fragments, law tablets, histories, vases, mosaics, statues, and archaeological ruins. A few Greek words, casually translated, have defined some aspects and attitudes of Attic life with such an ill fit that Davidson devotes great length to illuminating each, as it were, under the filters of their various contemporary contexts.
The first, the strangest and most intriguing, is the slippery opsophagos, the lover of opson. Who is an opsophagos, and what does he love? In a word, fish, but that does not answer, for Davidson’s purpose, why so much Attic writing decried the opsophagos. The ancient Greeks ate tons of fish, so much so that most of the food writing that has come down to us refers to it, but the opsophagos is no common seafood glutton, as Plutarch stateselse why does Xenophon describe the division of chefs in Cyrus’ tent into opson makers and staple-food makers? The distinction between opson and sitos, or staple food, could be seen as one of the organizational principles of societydividing the gluttons from the gentlemen, the impulsive from the moderate, the underhanded from the trustworthy. Davidson marches through this difficult terrain with admirable singleness of purpose, quibbling with Margaret Visser’s The Rituals of Dinner on “handedness” of the banqueteer, grappling briefly with A.N. Wilson’s biography of Jesus over the terms icthys vs. opson (briefly, they equal pig vs. pork), and pointing to Homer’s fishless epic as evidence that the dish is decadence defined, not fuel fit for heroes.
It interests Davidson not that Athenians ate so much fishhe points out that, despite Greece’s island location, edible seafood was rare and priceybut that
contemporary sources feared an excess of opson like a drug. The unwritten rules of society were inscribed in gentlemen’s wary treatment of any rich and tasty relish, not necessarily fish per se, but any food unnecessary for survivalwhat Derrida by way of Rousseau called “a dangerous supplement.” That the Greeks treated opson consumption as a slippery slope to sexual profligacy and even tyranny is enormously revealing. Previous scholars tended to approach ancient food mores as a frivolous sideline, but Davidson strives to reflect Athenian culture in its own terms, and the Attic writers themselves believed that dining habits made the man.
The same goes for drinking, another risky pastime proscribed by numerous rules, rule subsets, and corollaries. The symposium, a nightlong wine party in genteel guise, demanded the most civilized format, with the goals of commensality, reciprocity, and equality strictly observed. But Greeks got drunk in taverns as well (which also retailed wine and other goods) and posed as good one-cup drinkers by bringing along their own capacious vessels. The watered wine and the small, flat-bottom cups they drank it from at first (working their gradual way into larger vessels, less water, and drunkenness) preserved their notion of civility, arguing strongly that for the Greeks, the flip side was just a bowl-sized kantharos away.
The horror of slipping into savagery drove Attic culture to proscribe physical spaces into areas where various degrees of indulgence might take place. Not surprisingly, prodigious eating and drinking were equated with sexual gluttony or promiscuity, the most serious charge being prostitutionthe lowest form of which took place in the street. Davidson dissects Aeschines’ scorching prosecution of the politician Timarchus of Sphettus, who made the mistake of lecturing on the importance of strengthening the city’s defenses. Literally translated, Aeschines’ denouncement is obscure to the modern reader. He quotes a Timarchus attacker: “[I]f Timarchus is better acquainted with…the region of the Pnyx, we can make some such allowance…he thought that where everything is so quiet, there will be but little expense for each of you.” Aeschines reports the assembled councilmen roaring at the innuendo, before mention of “the wells” forces them to erupt into a full-scale riot. Timarchus was charged with prostitution after this meetingwalls and streets were the common pornai’s haunt, and wells, or cisterns, were vulgar metaphors for whores-as-
liquid-receptacles. Aeschines also accuses Timarchus of hanging around a fish stall, but that was to be expected.
Davidson also reveals an unusual strain of sexism in classical studies: Powerful courtesans and popular call girls have heretofore been given their duein every ancient culture but the Greeks’. Davidson rights this injustice with an exhaustive study of the courtesan in high societyher appeal, her place in politics and manners, her handbook of specialties. He explores popular sexual positions for their relative social implications and picks apart the economics of exchangesthree obols for the back-alley bendover, a pack of hunting dogs or some jewels for the civilized visit by a notorious beauty.
He also indulges in the philology of two words that indicated not gastronomic but sexual profligacy: katapugon and the later kinaidos. The first identified the man with a penchant for buggery, that is, to be the buggeree, but it also carried lifestyle baggagedebauchery, incontinence. Kinaidos referred to the insatiable sensual glutton (the modern sex addict). Both words carried connotations more fully teased out by the odd usage of moichos, adulterer. Phallocratic interpretations of Greek sexual vulgarisms have usually concentrated on the status of the penetrator, but Davidson finds no evidence that that role represented superiority to the Greeks. The moichos, seducer of married women, was the penetrator, but linguistically he was effeminate, foppish, infantile, and altogether kinaidos-like in his behavior. A real man might visit a flute girl, but only a wimp would chase a lady.
The Athenian agora abounded with temptationseels, wine, girls, and boysand it is this space that foreshadowed the modern “marketplace.” Ideas, economics, and politics were heavily traded in, andgiven the Attic notion of a place’s level of society being defined by its resistance to temptationthese intangibles became indistinguishable from other goods on display. It is not “democratic to chomp on so many fish,” claims a character in Antiphanes; conversely, to swoop on a fish stall to prevent such guttony, claims another comic character, would be akin to tyranny. The city itself, as a space for its citizens and tangible image of those citizens for outsiders, was also prey to analogies of sensual debasement. Some citizens complained that Pericles’ beautifying campaign, with its splendid temples and statues, made Athens look like a courtesan.
These examples appear to be vast exaggerations, but their very hyperbole is telling. Davidson attributes to the Greeks’ “fear of empire” their casual misuse of “tyranny” (like our own much cheapened epithet, “fascist”), evidence of their desperate stake in civic moderation. Imperialism was seen as flagrant and dangerous, empire-building absurd if the conquered land had no material goods to offer. If the Persians’ invasion surprised the Greeks (“They come over here to rob us of our wretched poverty,” joked Xerxes), the lavish habits of the Persian court horrified them. “[O]ften we were forced to drink sweet wine from cups of glass and cups of gold, neat wine!” gasped one outraged ambassador, accused of prolonging his post to enjoy more such power banquets.
The Greeks’ investment in personal and political restraint, which touched every aspect of every citizen’s life, was an appropriate attitude for inhabitants of islands of limited resources. Modern scholars are comfortable with the Greek notion, which the American democracy has inherited, that a man cannot be both pleasure-loving and warlike, but the more general fear of grotesque appetites seems alien to us. For ancient Greece, though, this fear was well-founded. “It was not just that a man of ‘tyrannical lifestyle’ seemed to covet the king-sized pleasures,” says Davidson, talking about Alcibiades’ draining reign. “Rather, a tyrannical man’s desires were already outpacing the resources of a private citizen and forcing him into extremity.”
Hubris and indulgence bring about revolution, and revolution, in the case of ruling Athens’ structure and culture, effectively brought about “the end of civilization,” as Davidson suggests. From the decadent who wished for a throat as long as a crane’s, the better to savor his opson, to Nearchus of Crete’s devastating report of the Icthyophagoi, a tribe of coastal savages who pulled fish from the water and devoured them raw, Courtesans & Fishcakes recounts the rise and fall of the ancient world in terms of the uses and misuses of the pleasures of the flesh; it is a fascinating, meticulously researched, and beautifully told epic.CP