Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.27

Floris van den Eijnde, Josine Blok, Rolf Strootman (ed.), Feasting and Polis Institutions. Mnemosyne, supplements, 414.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2018.  Pp. xiii, 384.  ISBN 9789004356726.  €121,00.  

Reviewed by Jessica M. Romney, Dickinson College (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume, the result of a three-day conference held at Utrecht University (2014), examines the relationship between the sacrificial feast, the symposium, and the political institutions associated with them. The volume’s title and theme link feasting to polis-institutions, but the chronological spread from the Early Iron Age to the Imperial period necessitates that ‘polis’ be understood broadly. The volume is arranged roughly chronologically, allowing the reader to get a sense of the larger developments over time alongside the specific developments on which each contribution focuses. The geographical spread is narrower than one might hope; over half of the papers concern feasting patterns in Athens and Attica, or rely almost entirely on Athenian evidence for feasting institutions across the Greek world. The papers that specifically step out of Attica include Vlachou’s contribution on Amykles, Whitley and Madgwick on the Cretan andreion, and Mari on the Macedonian influences on Hellenistic feasting. All in all, however, this volume will be a welcome contribution to the Greek room in the Food Studies house, particularly due to the spread of evidence for Greek feasting practices and for the focus on the ways that feasts contributed simultaneously to ideas of citizen equality and to hierarchies of power (the “dialectic of hierarchy and equality” is a common theme). The introduction will be particularly helpful for those new to the field.

That introduction establishes the feast as a “condensed social fact” (p. 6) and “the very institutional framework that keeps the polis in place” (p. 2). The volume is addressed to answering the question of how the framework of the feast supported the structures of the polis, particularly in regards to the question, ‘who paid for what?’ The introduction is grounded in work on the anthropology of feasting, particularly that by M. Dietler and B. Hayden on political commensality. Van den Eijnde devotes the bulk of it to reviewing six main topics: feasting and communication; feasting and power relations; ritual and religion at the feast; the rise of sacred temenē and the ideal of shared patronage; conbibiality and feasting; and the decline of egalitarian feasting. While all are addressed in the volume, the break-down is haphazard: feasting topics such as the first one in the above list (feasting and communication) are very broad, while others are far narrower in the scope of the volume (for example, the rise of sacred temenē and shared patronage). For those new to the anthropology of feasting and food studies, a break-down of the large topics into sub-groups, such as an overview of the various forms of communication at feasts and what they connote, would have been helpful. A section on group membership as predicated on participation at the feast would also have been appreciated, not only due to the prevalence of this theme but also because, as several papers demonstrate, membership can be flexible and even physical presence may not be necessary for participation in the feast and the feasting group. Van den Eijnde’s subsequent contribution to the volume is most concerned with the question of who paid for what as he follows the changing feasting practices in Attica and patronage roles from c. 1100-600 BCE, over which time he argues that the consumption of meat migrated from feasts thrown by local big men to the sacred temenē with a divine patron. The shift to divine patronage means that individual elites are no longer competing with one another for status through increasingly large feasts; elite status is instead displayed by contributing to the divine feast. Van den Eijnde gives one of the more thorough explorations of theory and methods in the volume, focusing particularly on the distinction between ‘ritual’ and ‘religion.’

Three papers examine how feasting contributes to self-definition. Alexandridou’s paper on feasting in Early Iron Age Attica reviews the ceramic evidence from the “Sacred House” at the Academy and compares the assemblage to material from contemporary structures elsewhere in Attica. In contrast to previous work, which emphasizes the presence of sacred activities at the site, she argues that the ceramic assemblage points to feasting by an extended elite kinship group whose commensality was linked to EIA practices of elite self-definition; the subsequent abandonment of the site can then be traced to changes in elite status displays. Vlachou’s contribution focuses on feasting at the sanctuary of Apollo Hyakinthos at Amykles (ancient Amyklai), from the late 11th to the late 8th century. Feasting is an important component of the ritual activities at the site, and Vlachou proposes that it “served as the crucial factor in maintaining the memory of the place” (p. 113) for the groups involved. Lambert’s contribution returns to Attica as he focuses on the sacrifices and sacrificial calendar of the Marathonian Tetrapolis in the 4th century. Lambert includes an appendix with the text and translation of the calendar to accompany his study of how feasting, and particularly the funding of a feast, served as a site for individuals to articulate their status and relationship to the collective. In the Tetrapolis, local identity grounded itself in the sacrificial calendar, and the epigraphical evidence shows a “remarkably collectivist” (p. 168) approach to funding the sacrificial feasts, to which about a third of the adult men contributed.

Three papers examine the connections between the citizen collective and feasting institutions. Whitley and Madgwick’s contribution on the Cretan andreion examines the evidence for the 5th/4th-century building in the First Acropolis of Praisos identified as the Almond Tree House/Andreion by the excavator. They argue that this building was an andreion, as evidenced by the cup deposits, high numbers of wild/feral caprines and hares, and the masculine iconography. As a space where the male spheres of commensality and ritualized bonding produce citizens, the Cretan andreion constituted citizenship through consumption of the wild. Steiner’s paper turns to the more formalized Athenian parallel, the public dining of the prytaneis at the Tholos in Athens. She argues that the principle of isonomia that Ephialtes’ reforms articulated was tangibly expressed in the dining practices of the Tholos, as seen in the round form of the building, the polis’ role as host, and the standardization of ceramic vessels used. Enforced equality accompanied the mandatory shared meals of the prytaneis, reinforcing the new reforms and values of the Athenian democracy. Complementing this, Blok and van‘t Wout’s paper examines the institution of sitēsis at the Prytaneion, the polis hearth of Athens. Their paper includes a new text and translation of the Prytaneion decree, and, while the focus of their paper is on the text and situating it in the early 420s, they also note the significance of sitēsis for Athens as an institution with diacritical significance among the citizen body and for effecting external relationships.

Two papers, those by Lynch and Wecowski, focus on the symposium as such, and both examine its evolution in line with the changing needs of the Classical elite. Wecowski’s paper argues that the twilight of the symposium should be dated to the mid-4th century, with the decline beginning in the mid-5th (versus arguments that date it to the late Hellenistic period). He argues that the diminishing importance of musical accompaniment by the symposiasts themselves, the increasing practice of drinking to one’s pleasure, and the gradual disappearance of the skolion game all point to a change in sympotic practices. Furthermore, during this period the symposium began to lose its role as the site of elite cultural expression and status performance. Lynch’s paper turns to the change from ‘symposium’ to ‘symposium-feast’ as food becomes increasingly important to elite banqueting in the late Classical to Hellenistic period (c. 425-200). Starting in the late 5th century, fine ware assemblages suggest that food becomes more important to elite social activities, and by the 3rd century, food service and consumption vessels exceed the drinking equipment. The square andron is replaced by a rectangular hall, and the emphasis is now on personal relationships with the host rather than group bonding. The increased reliance on wealthy individuals to fund polis initiatives in this period helped shift the diacritical symposium to the empowering and promotional symposium-feast.

The final four papers of the volume focus on feasting in the Hellenistic period. Mari’s paper examines the influence of Macedonian feasting practices on Hellenistic feasting, and she argues that the Macedonian influences go back further than Alexander. She traces five elements of Hellenistic feasting (moveable events; massive increase in scale; masses as audience; mixed contests; and strong military element) to three major Macedonian festivals: the Olympia at Dion, the Xandika, and the Daisia. The other three papers concern themselves with who shares in the sacrifice and how. Strootman’s contribution examines how the Hellenistic kings become members of polis communities through feasting. He argues they did so through patronage feasts hosted by the king and by coopting civic feasts through ceremonial entry into the poleis. Paul turns to the practicalities of civic sacrificial division, where the shares of the sacrifice participate in a dialectic of equality and hierarchy. As seen in the sacrifices to Zeus Sosipolis in Magnesia on the Meander and the Athenian Lesser Panatheneia, the division of special portions among priests and/or those who participate in the pompē define a group separate from the general sacrificial assembly, whose membership is stressed through their notional participation in the sacrifice and division of meat. Finally, Carbon’s paper turns to the issue of ‘traveling meat’: the sending of portions to honorands who are not present at the sacrifice. The granting of honorific portions of meat allowed foreigners and/or metics to participate in the polis community, while the additional grant of meat to those in absentia defined a Mediterranean-wide network through a commensality relationship that overcame the distance between host and guest.

This book will be useful to graduate students and scholars specializing in ancient food studies; the untranslated Greek will pose difficulties for undergraduates, as will the general assumption that the reader shares the same level of contextual knowledge that the authors do concerning specific points in Greek history, regions, and the theory concerning food and feasting. Adherence to the theme established in the introduction varies, as some papers focus more on food than the accompanying political institutions. There are a few typos,1 but the photos and line drawings are generally of high quality. In all, this contribution is valuable for its breadth and for its attempts to link feasting practices to the political institutions which operate beside and through them.

Authors and Titles

1. Floris van den Eijnde, “Feasting and Polis Institutions: an Introduction”
2. Alexandra Alexandridou, “Feasting in Early Iron Age Attika: the Evidence from the Site of the Academy”
3. Floris van den Eijnde, “Power Play at the Dinner Table: Feasting and Patronage between Palace and Polis in Attika”
4. Vicky Vlachou, “Feasting at the Sanctuary of Apollo Hyakinthos at Amykles: the Evidence from the Early Iron Age”
5. James Whitley and Richard Madgwick, “Consuming the Wild: More Thoughts on the Andreion”
6. Stephen Lambert, “Individual and Collective in the Funding of Sacrifices in Classical Athens: the Sacrificial Calendar of the Marathonian Tetrapolis”
7. Josine Blok and Evelyn van‘t Wout, “Table Arrangements: Sitêsis as a Polis Institution (IG I3 131)”
8. Ann Steiner, “Measure for Measure: Fifth-Century Public Dining at the Tholos in Athens”
9. Kathleen Lynch, “The Hellenistic Symposium as Feast”
10. Marek Wecowski, “When Did the Symposium Die? On the Decline of the Greek Aristocratic Banquet”
11. Rolf Strootman, “The Return of the King: Civic Feasting and the Entanglement of City and Empire in Hellenistic Greece”
12. Manuela Mari, “The Macedonian Background of Hellenistic Panegyreis and Public Feasting”
13. Stéphanie Paul, “Sharing the Civic Sacrifice: Civic Feast, Procession, and Sacrificial Division in the Hellenistic Period”
14. Jan-Mathieu Carbon, “A Network of Hearths: Honors, Sacrificial Shares, and ‘Traveling Meat’”


1.   Most egregious perhaps is temenoi in the introduction for temenē.

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