Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.06.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.06.06

John Wilkins, Robin Nadeau (ed.), A Companion to Food in the Ancient World. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World.   Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester:  Wiley Blackwell, 2015.  Pp. xiii, 457.  ISBN 9781405179409.  $195.00.  

Reviewed by Ioannis M. Konstantakos, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (


Since the 1990s, John Wilkins and his collaborators have produced several important and stimulating books on the history and culture of food in antiquity. Their works have been instrumental in setting off the boom of ancient food studies, which has substantially enriched our understanding of classical civilization in the past two decades. With this excellent volume, Wilkins and Robin Nadeau, a recognized expert in the history of table manners, offer us another valuable guide for a culinary journey around the ancient world, in an extended sense of the term. Although the main bulk of the book concentrates on the societies of classical Greece and Rome, specialized chapters or sections cover large areas in the periphery of this familiar cultural space, from the Near East (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Achaemenian Iran) to Celtic Britain and the Scythian hinterland of the Black Sea, and even as far as Pre-Imperial China. This is a satiating tour destined for the voraciously curious traveller to times past.

Unlike other handbooks of food history, in this companion the emphasis is not solely on the foodstuffs and methods of production. Great attention is also paid to the cultural and spiritual dimensions of culinary preparation and consumption: food habits and table etiquette, communal feasting and banquet rituals, dietary prescriptions and religious taboos, the social dynamics of luxurious expenditure or food shortages, food in literary writings and in medical theory, exchanges and influences between different civilizations, traditions and discontinuities in the course of time — these aspects are placed at the heart of the investigation in many chapters. Although only food is mentioned in the title, the book is as much about drink and the socio- cultural contexts of drinking, from the classical symposium to the Christian Eucharist, from Scythian milk to Greek aromatic wines and Celtic or Egyptian beer. A leitmotiv runs through the volume, reflecting a seminal idea found in many ancient mythologies or theoretical discourses on cuisine: feeding is common to all living organisms, but the culture of food is a defining feature of humanity, something that distinguishes mortal men from the animal world or the foodless spiritualism of the divinity. Coquo, ergo homo sum.

The thirty-eight essays of the book, written by top specialists in the corresponding fields, are distributed in five comprehensive parts. The first one (“Literature and Approaches”) is dedicated to the basic sources of information, textual and archaeological; the contribution of modern disciplines, such as gender studies and anthropology, to the interpretation of the ancient evidence is also discussed. The various types of Greek and Roman literature concerned with food (belles-lettres, philosophical and medical writings, cook books and antiquarian compilations) are amply surveyed.

To pick a few examples: Oswyn Murray’s chapter on Athenaeus provides a useful thread to help readers find their way in the tangled labyrinth of the Deipnosophistai. The topics in this enormous encyclopedia of pleasures are overall arranged in an order that follows the successive stages of a deipnon of the Imperial age — although it should be stressed that there are also odd duplications and material that does not fit in a suitable spot within this general outline. Like all labyrinths, the Deipnosophistai contains unexpected corridors and blind recesses. Richard Hunter and Demetra Koukouzika contribute an informative overview of food themes in Greek literature, from the hungry Homeric Odysseus to his ultimate burlesque descendants, the greedy parasites of Alciphron. Matthew Leigh performs the same service for Latin poetry and prose. A parallel reading of these two chapters reveals interesting correspondences and discontinuities. For example, while Homeric epic exploits food as a significant plot motif (witness the shared meal of Achilles and Priam in the Iliad or the symbolic and structural role of the theme of lawless eating in the Odyssey), Latin epic lacks interest in such topics; in the Roman milieu, food is regarded as unworthy of the high-style poetry about a heroic world, an attitude bequeathed to the subsequent Western tradition of the literary sublime. In Robin Nadeau’s succinct discussion of cook books, the reader misses an analysis of select passages from the various compositions of this genre (from Archestratus to Apicius), along with a broader consideration of this type of writing as literature, following, for instance, the researches of Enzo Degani.

Literary works, of course, only give a narrow and biased image of ancient food habits, since they mostly reflect the educated elites that produced and read literature. This picture must be supplemented with the archaeological discoveries, which offer insights into the real life of ancient societies. A number of specialists (Martin Pitts, François Lissarrague, Mark Robinson, and Erica Rowan) analyze a range of material relics, from food remains and human skeletons to art objects, buildings, and artefacts of storage or consumption, which provide valuable information about ancient culinary culture. The close conjunction of written and archaeological evidence is one of the strongest aspects of this book and determines the composite approach of many chapters in the following parts.

The essays of the second part (“Production and Transport”) examine the basic alimentary materials (meat and animal products, fish, agricultural crops) and the methods of their storage and transportation. This is arguably the most innovative part of the volume, in that most of the authors challenge widespread commonplaces about the production and enjoyment of nutrients in the ancient world. Christophe Chandezon considerably nuances the predominant view that meat-eating was exclusively connected with sacrifice and religious contexts. He also documents a gradual growth and popularization of meat consumption from the Archaic to the Roman period and thus revises the common undifferentiated notion that Graeco-Roman populations in general ate little meat. Analogously, Dimitra Mylona refutes the fallacy that the Aegean was a poorly nutritive sea, unable to ensure a sizable supply of fish and establish seafood as a regular ingredient of everyday diet. In the same vein, Geoffrey Kron reconsiders the prejudice about the underdevelopment of ancient Mediterranean agriculture and highlights the technical sophistication and productivity of Greek and Roman farming.

The third part (“Preparation”) includes in fact a medley of topics, not restricted to the places and processes of food preparation (kitchens, bakeries and bread-making, cook-shops and taverns) but covering a wide range of contexts and customs of consumption: family dinners and public feasts, symposia and wine appreciation, royal banquets, and table manners. This entire part contains material and ideas of high interest for the social and institutional history of the ancient world, whether the focus is on the Greek polis, the Hellenistic monarchies, or the Roman imperial state. The revision of established commonplaces continues. Sean Corner convincingly demonstrates that the Greek symposium was not an exclusively elite institution; the abundant references of Attic comedy and the archaeological remains (plainer sympotic ware, andrônes in modest houses) indicate that sympotic entertainment was accessible to Athenians of moderate means. The question remains whether the middle or unprivileged classes were imitating the dining practices of high society, a phenomenon that has occurred in various historical contexts. There are also precious suggestions for future research. Thibaut Boulay, writing on wine appreciation, includes a couple of enthralling paragraphs on the vocabulary and metaphors used in Greek for the description of wine and its qualities. As Boulay notes, there is as yet no general study of the language and imagery of wine in ancient Greece — a topic for a wonderful monograph.

The fourth part (“Cultures Beyond Athens and Rome”) and the fifth one (“Food and Religion / Great Food Cultures”) are perhaps those from which a classicist has the most to learn. Here the perspective is broadened to include the Near Eastern and northern neighbors of the core Graeco-Roman universe. The fifth part, in particular, extends the exploration both spatially and temporally, to examine cultures in which the prescriptions of religion were a determining factor of everyday diet: namely, the Jewish and early Christian communities, along with the three dominant civilizations of the Middle Ages — Byzantium, the European West, and the Islamic world. Special emphasis is placed on the evolution and transformation of the Graeco-Roman cultural heritage in all these societies. As shown in Jordan Rosenblum’s essay on Jewish meals, even in Rabbinic Judaism, which constructed Jewish identity through strongly separatory food practices, the culture and habits of consumption were inevitably influenced by the Greek and Roman sympotic tradition. The same holds true for the gatherings of the early Christians, examined by Dennis Smith. The familiar pictures of Jesus’ Last Supper, from Leonardo to Zeffirelli, make us forget that the participants in this famous meal would have reclined (not sat) on cushions spread on couches or on the floor. The Gospels’ portrayal of the dining Jesus as a sage who presents his teachings in the form of table-talk develops the classical tradition of sympotic wisdom literature, from the Socratics to Plutarch.

Very little is missing from this opulent feast of knowledge. Although most of the thematic chapters cover both the Greek and the Roman world, a few focus exclusively on one of these cultures, while corresponding phenomena in the other one are not substantially analyzed elsewhere in the book. For instance, Mylona’s chapter on fish concentrates solely on Greece and the Aegean. It would be worthwhile including another specialized essay on sea and freshwater fishing in the Roman Empire — a gap only partly supplemented by Kron’s section on Roman fish-farming (chapter 15). Conversely, Robert Curtis’ essay on storage and transport concerns predominantly the Roman world, beginning with an encomium of Aelius Aristides to the arrival of so many merchant ships that make Rome “the warehouse of the earth”. There is a similar passage concerning fifth-century Athens in a comedy of Hermippus (fr. 63 Kassel-Austin), which lauds the great variety of goods brought to the city by ship from every corner of the world. Such comparisons would have been interesting to make. It might also have been useful to include more cross-references between individual chapters, but attentive readers will certainly trace their own connections.

In the general introduction, Wilkins and Nadeau pose two vital questions that affect the subject-matter of the entire volume. The most important question is whether and in what sense we are the heirs of the ancient Greeks and Romans with regard to food culture, as we stand in their debt for many other aspects of our civilization. This issue is explored piecemeal in several chapters, which offer partial but enlightening answers. The underlying structure of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistai (chapter 2 by Oswyn Murray) lives on in present-day cook books, in which the recipes are arranged again according to the order of an ideal meal — from soups and salads through main courses of fish and meat to sweets. The balanced use of nutrients in the preventive medicine developed by Galen and other Greek medical theorists comes close to the prescriptions of modern dieticians and can prove useful today for a healthy lifestyle, as proposed by John Wilkins in his masterly essay on ancient dietary literature. The sophisticated Aristotelian scale of eight basic flavors, as argued by Boulay (chapter 26), exceeds the narrow confines of Adolf Fick’s standard four-taste model and accords with modern research findings on the complex sensation of taste. There are more such examples scattered in the book, which could have been brought together in a final conclusion.

The editors’ other question, namely, whether the Graeco-Roman world produced a “great food culture”, does not ultimately seem so important. Apart from the notorious difficulty in assessing levels of “greatness” in this matter (forcefully demonstrated by Nadeau), the answer, affirmative or negative, would not essentially affect our need and duty to study the ancient history of food. Greece and Rome were in any case great cultures in which food had a central importance for multiple facets of life. We cannot fully understand ancient peoples if we do not research in depth the materials, contexts, and rituals of their eating. Wilkins’ and Nadeau’s companion is a precious tool for this enterprise. Classicists, food historians, social scientists, in fact all the gastrimargoi and edaces of learning will find delight and nourishment in its pages.

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