Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.29

Andrew Dalby, Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece. New York: Routledge, 1996. Pp. xv + 320. $39.95. ISBN 0-415-11620-1.

Reviewed by Gwen Compton-Engle, Cornell University,

In Siren Feasts Andrew Dalby intends to answer two questions (xv): "What did the Greeks eat? How did gastronomy and food writing develop among them?" D. has been active in the study of food in the ancient world, with contributions both to classical journals and to food-related publications, including translations of Philoxenus' Banquet and Hippolochus' The Wedding Feast of Caranus. Though he is well-read in many approaches to food in the ancient world, D. works primarily from a historical rather than a literary or anthropological perspective. The beneficiaries of this book will be social historians first and foremost, but D. stresses that a knowledge of the food and entertainment of the classical world is "indispensable background for all who study the ancient world, important to anthropologists and to students of later Mediterranean history" (xi). D. draws on evidence from archaeological, paleobotanical, iconographical, literary, and comparative (modern) sources in his effort to trace the history of food and gastronomy in Greece.

D.'s treatment is remarkably broad in its chronological and geographical dimensions. After an initial chapter on social context (which I will discuss in detail below), the book is divided into four parts: Part I, The Prehistoric Aegean; Part II, Food and Gastronomy of the Classical Aegean; Part III, Food and Gastronomy of the Post-classical Aegean; and Part IV, The Byzantine and Later Aegean. Although D. is most interested in the classical and Hellenistic periods, he starts with an analysis of what can be learned about the prehistoric diet from animal bones found in the Franchthi cave in the Argolid dating as far back as 20,000 to 15,000 BC (Ch. 2) and ends with a few comments on "Food and Wine of the Modern Aegean" (conclusion to Ch. 9). Throughout the book D. focuses on the lands that form the coasts of the Aegean, but turns his gaze as well to Sicily, the Levant, Rome and other bordering regions whose food influenced the Greek diet.

Each of these four parts of Siren Feasts contains what amounts to a listing of the foods that were eaten during the period. These dense passages are packed with notes (232 notes to Ch. 3, for example). The notes themselves do not provide comprehensive lists of the ancient occurrences of a given food word, but as D. reasonably argues, this kind of completeness is no longer necessary in an age when computer searches can easily generate such a list. These chapters of Siren Feasts can be less than engaging to read straight through, but form a useful starting point for investigating a particular food, flavoring, or drink in the Greek world. For this purpose the indices are quite helpful. In addition to the general index, D. supplies an index of Greek words, with English translations, modern Greek and often Turkish equivalents, and an index of ancient and medieval authors.

An example will help to demonstrate both the utility and the limitations of these "catalog" sections. Imagine encountering the word maza (somewhat misleadingly translated "barley-cake" even in LSJ) in a Greek text. The Greek index of Siren Feasts will lead to the following appearance of maza in a paragraph about various breads: "Oven bread was ipnites, crock-baked bread klibanites. Bread baked under ashes was spodites; drop-scones and pancakes were eskharites and teganites; mashes of barley and wheat meal were maza and kollix; porridges made of barley and emmer meal were alphita and khondros" (91). One can imagine many questions about maza that would remain unanswered by this passage. For more detail one must turn to the note (240 n. 230), which itself offers no further information on maza but cites some ancient passages and concludes, "On the nature of maza see Amouretti 1985." Siren Feasts is thus a first step, but by no means a comprehensive resource on its own. Since some of the modern works to which D. refers are in out-of-the-way publications, the reader who does not have access to a large library may be particularly frustrated by D.'s tendency to cite a work without even the briefest summary of its conclusions.

When it departs from its handbook style to follow the rise of gastronomy, Siren Feasts becomes more interesting. D. traces the development of the Greek diet from the simple fare of the prehistoric era to the extravagance of Hellenistic feasts, demonstrating how the Greek menu became increasingly cosmopolitan with the importation of spices and exotic fruits. The development of taste among the Greeks is of particular interest to D. In his discussion of food in the prehistoric Aegean, he highlights the appearance of ingredients used to flavor food, to make it not only filling but also good-tasting (51). From the Homeric poems through fifth-century comedy, Greeks associated excellence with products special to certain geographical areas, such as Thasian wine, Sicilian cheese, Attic honey, and Boiotian eels (105, 125-9). By the early fourth century, the consistency of such gastronomical preferences indicates "a widely accepted body of knowledge, present to the consciousness of popular audiences, open to controversy and to satire" (112).

Along with this emerging body of knowledge comes a host of gastronomical writers. D. introduces the non-specialist to (among others) Mithaecus, the Sicilian who seems to have been the author of the first Greek cookbook; Philoxenus, whose Dinner is a description of an extravagant banquet; and Archestratus, author of the hexameter poem The Life of Luxury, in which the author gives instructions on what foods are best obtained in which Greek cities. D. shows that he is aware of literary issues like genre, although he is sometimes unwilling to take a strong position -- perhaps justifiably, given the fragmentary condition in which these authors have survived. For example, in his discussion of Archestratus, D. refers to the Hesiodic tradition of didactic hexameter poetry, but states that "it is no easy task to draw a line between what is parody and what is not... Somewhere between didactic poetry and its subversion lies the literary ancestry of Archestratus" (117). In the realm of 4th century comedy D. describes and illustrates the stereotypes of pontificating chef and greedy uninvited guest. He pays disappointingly little attention to food in pre-4th century literature, with only a few backward glances at 5th century comedy (122) and medical works (161). Appropriately, Athenaeus receives the greatest amount of attention, with eleven pages devoted to a discussion of the date, organization, manuscript tradition, and usefulness of the stupendous Deipnosophists. D. here provides a good introduction to an author who is so rarely considered in his own right.

One notable deficiency in this history of food and gastronomy is D.'s treatment of the social context of Greek eating. Rather than discussing the social context within his analysis of the food and gastronomy of each period, D. condenses "social context" all together in his first chapter. The chapter treats social context "by sketching the meals and entertainments of classical Athens, the best known and best recorded of all ancient Greek societies" (1). As a result, there is no discussion of the social or ritual aspects of sacrifice and hospitality in the Homeric poems, for example. Even within the limited sphere of classical Athens D. leaves out or skims over important public contexts for food and eating to focus on "the personal, individual, domestic and family contexts of Greek food" (2).

His effort to treat the social context of Greek eating in a single chapter, focused on Athens, sometimes leads D. to make anachronistic statements. For example, D. stresses the centrality of the mageiros, cook, in sacrifice, but concedes that the ritual could take place without this professional: "At Eumaeus' farm, and elsewhere in the epics, and in the wilds of Euboea in post-classical times, no mageiros was needed" (9). The note (214 n. 24) cites Od. 14.407-38 and Dio Chrysostom's Euboean Oration. With respect to the classical period D. is correct in his main point, that sacrifice could be carried out without a mageiros (cf. Isaeus 8.16). Yet it is anachronistic even to apply the word mageiros to epic. Not only does the word not appear until the fifth century, but studies have concluded that in Homer there was not even a specialist by some other name who performed the functions that would later belong to the mageiros.1 D. implies that the rural location was the reason for the mageiros' absence in these sacrifices: "In towns, however, circumstances became different" (9). Though this rural/urban contrast might be valid for the classical period, it is not the reason that a mageiros is absent from Eumaeus' farm or from the Homeric poems altogether.

Elsewhere in the first chapter D.'s argumentation is a bit unclear, particularly when he is drawing upon the evidence of comedy. I will cite one instructive example here. On p. 7, when considering whether or not hetairai and servant girls actually ate at symposia, D. concludes that they were indeed seen eating: "Why else should the typical foods linked to women, in one allusion after another, be the very foods that men chewed with wine at a symposium such as eggs, nuts, roasted pulses and fruit?" It is first of all not obvious what D. intends by "foods linked to women." After referring to D.'s own article which he cites in the note (214 n. 17), I would conclude that he means foods that women are represented eating in literature.2 Secondly, D. neglects to mention sources which refer to women eating the staples of the Greek diet (Ar. Thesm. 418-20 and 556-7, for example). Furthermore, of the passages (all from comedy) that D. cites as evidence in the article and at Siren Feasts p. 214 n. 7, many are clearly sexual double entendres. about what women in fact did eat, at symposia or anywhere else. It is even more difficult to follow D. in the conclusion that the allusions to women eating these foods could only result from men having seen women eating such foods at the symposium. In any case, D. has not always been careful about the problems of using comedy as a source.

Among my minor complaints about Siren Feasts I would list the often misleading or cryptic chapter titles. The title to Ch. 1, "The Way These People Sacrifice," would lead one to expect a comparative study of different sacrificial practices, not a general account of the social context of Greek eating. Ch. 2, "The Gardens of Alcinous" says not a word about the magical gardens of Odyssey 7. In fact, beyond the irrelevant quote from the Odyssey that heads the chapter, D. makes little mention at all of Homer in Ch. 2, relying instead on archaeological and paleobotanical sources. Yet the Iliad and Odyssey are used as sources for Part II (Chs. 3-5), "Food and Gastronomy of the Classical Aegean." The reader who looks at the table of contents under Part III, "Food and Gastronomy of the Post-classical Aegean," and finds Ch. 6 "Lemons of the Hesperides" and Ch. 7 "Strymonian Eels," has no idea what the chapters are actually about. Similarly the title to the book, Siren Feasts, is taken from the setting of a fragment of Epicharmus, mentioned only once in the book (70). D. never explains why this relatively obscure reference is important enough to represent the entire book.

There are quite a few errors in the transliterated Greek, which D. has supplied with accents. Accents are frequently missing, especially when the accent should have appeared above a "y" (six examples on p. 72 alone). Page 12 has an acute accent rather than a circumflex above the first syllable of komos (correct elsewhere). Less explicable than these presumably typographical and editing errors is the consistently incorrect placement of an accent on the ultima of hetaira (index and all pages listed there, plus p. 7). Finally, on p. 121 read "Aristophanes' Wealth" rather than "Aristophanes' Peace."

The strength of Siren Feasts lies in its attention to the development of gastronomy and to the gastronomical writers who are relatively unknown even to professional classicists. The book can also be a useful starting point for inquiries into Greek food. For the study of social history or food history, Siren Feasts should be supplemented with other works on the social context of Greek eating. W. J. Slater's Dining in a Classical Context (Ann Arbor 1991), O. Murray's Sympotica (Oxford 1990), and Detienne and Vernant, The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks (trans. P. Wisser, Chicago 1989), though not comprehensive, will help to provide more detail.


  • [1] G. Berthiaume, Les rôles du mágeiros: étude sur la boucherie, la cuisine et le sacrifice dans la Grèce ancienne, Leiden 1982, pp. 5-7. See also H. Dohm, Mageiros, Munich 1964, pp. 2-3.
  • [2] The article is "Food and Sexuality in Classical Greece," Food, Culture and History 1 (1993) 165-90.