BMCR 2016.11.19

Food, Identity and Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Ancient World. Collection Latomus 354

, , , Food, Identity and Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Ancient World. Collection Latomus 354. Brussels: Éditions Latomus, 2016. 106. ISBN 9789042933040. €22.00.

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

It is not clear whether the articles collected in this volume are the proceedings of a conference, or whether it was conceived as a thematic volume. If the latter, it is a pity that the volume is quite short, because it raises a number of interesting debates. The topic would certainly benefit from more research. As the editors explain in the introduction (p. 7), ‘for a long time, food and cuisine were dealt with in an antiquarian fashion cataloguing data and customs rather than analysing them with a historical focus’. Recently, food has received more attention in the context of cultural exchange. Changes in food consumption can show how a culture is in ‘continual transformation and adapts to internal and external forces’ (p. 7). The editors explain how food is an essential expression of identity, but identity is not static and the result of a dynamic process. Therefore, in studies of ancient identity, food should certainly not be neglected. Food culture ‘negotiates between tradition and change’ (p. 9), but foreign elements can be included in the diet fairly easily. However, they must fit people’s needs and experience: ‘to be fully integrated, they need to be socially valid’ (p. 9).

This means that paradigms such as Hellenisation and Romanisation cannot be used to discuss food and identity in antiquity. Romanisation can be used to describe changes in administration, but not in culture. More useful concepts are connectivity between different cultures and communities, and globalisation, which explains the cultural changes caused by this connectivity. Networking is another useful approach, since it focuses on ‘zones of transition, communication, exchanges and interaction’ (p. 11). The recent concept of ‘transferts culturels’, introduced by Espagne and Werner1 is applied by the authors of this volume: ‘it implies that a foreign element can be understood, applied and reinterpreted in a welcoming culture within existing native categories’; it is ‘neutral, conveying no presupposed ideology’. This is an important point: adopting elements of other cultures does not mean a loss of identity, but a useful addition to an existing culture. To be incorporated, a new element should serve some purpose, whether practical or ideological, in the receiving society. From this premise, the authors of the papers in this volume explore various cultural exchanges with regard to food in the ancient world.

Nadeau discusses the history of the chicken in the Greek world. Chicken were often called ‘Persian bird’ in Greek, leading to the long-standing idea that chicken were introduced in Greece after the Persian wars; furthermore, it was believed that chicken never formed an important part of the Greek diet. However, Nadeau argues, based on archaeological evidence, that chicken were already common in some parts of the Greek world around 3000 BC. Already in the archaic period, chicken was common in art and literature. The name ‘Persian bird’, Nadeau argues, was derived from the strutting behaviour of the rooster, which was compared to the manners of the Persian kings. Thus, the chicken was used as a symbol to establish the identity of the ‘other’, in this case the Persians.

In the next article, Botte investigates tuna exploitation in Greek Sicily. It was assumed that tuna was first exploited in the western part of the island by the Phoenicians, and that this technology was adopted by Greeks living in the eastern part. Botte concludes that tuna workshops appeared a few decades after those in Punic Cadiz, suggesting influence from the Iberian peninsula. However, it cannot be determined whether the Punic or Greek sites on Sicily appeared earlier. Moreover, Greek sites made use of circular vats for salting fish, indicating an independent technological innovation. Unfortunately, this paper does not explicitly address issues of identity, but it seems clear that food production technology was a cultural element that could profitably be adopted and adapted by others, who used it for their own purposes—in this case the export of tuna from Greek Sicily on a commercial scale.

In scholarship, Crete is synonymous with wine production. However, this picture does not adequately address the variety of purposes for which wine could be used, nor the identity that wine played in Crete’s identity. As Gallimore argues, Cretan amphorae in the first to third centuries AD were highly standardized, which enabled the end user to identify a product as Cretan. This shows that Crete’s identity was closely tied to wine. However, this wine was not highly rated as a beverage, but especially intended for cooking and medical use—Crete was also famous for medicinal herbs. This shows that the Cretan identity and the role played by wine was more complex than is usually assumed.

The only French-language contribution to this volume studies the way foreign foods were perceived in second-century BC Rome. In this period, several leges sumptuariae were issued, which limited the amount of money to be spent on food for specific occasions. Some laws even forbade the use of ‘foreign wine’. As Passet argues, in the second century BC a stronger idea of the ‘other’ appeared in Rome, and Romans felt it more necessary to protect their cultural identity. This manifested itself in a rejection of Greek culture, which was seen as overly luxurious. There was also an economic aspect to these laws: the possibilities for social display created by the availability of expensive new foods could easily lead the aristocracy to ruin itself. Instead, the Roman state wished to promote a simple life, based on local agricultural products. This contribution shows the tensions that new foods could cause; but despite these laws and the ideology behind them, foreign foods were quickly adopted in Rome and Italy, showing that they addressed a need felt by the Roman elite.

The longest contribution to this volume is by Broekaert, who investigates the role played by fish sauces in the identity of soldiers and locals among the north-western limes. This paper engages the most with the theoretical concepts behind this volume, which makes it a good example of how theory should be applied to specific case studies. Broekaert argues, against long-held ideas, that the presence of the Roman army did not radically change local food habits. Instead, locals adopted elements of Roman food that appealed to them. A specific ‘military diet’ was adopted by soldiers, in order to create a common identity. At first this was catered for by imports from the Mediterranean area, but soon local producers took over the production of fish sauces and other foods, which they sold to the army. Even when the army left the area, fish sauces continued to be produced locally, attesting to cultural exchange with Rome.

The next paper, by Wilkins, moves to Galen’s ideas on food as medicine. In general, he believed that humans remained in good health by adhering to their customs and doing what was natural. However, most plants prescribed as medicine by Galen were not native to the Greek world, but this was exactly the point: a sick person needed extreme measures to restore his health. After his recovery, he should return to normal food, native to his region, which best fit his body’s needs. Despite the author’s sudden exhortation to return to Galen’s health regime (p. 92), this paper makes interesting points regarding the integration of foods from far-flung regions into the Roman Empire.

The volume closes with Smith’s article on the role of food in creating early Christian communities. Early Christian meetings took place in private houses, where the Greek symposion-model, of a dinner accompanied by philosophical discussion, was followed. At first, Jews were anxious to attend such dinners, as they were not sure whether they should adhere to Jewish food regulations. Paul’s letters exhort non-Jewish Christians to cater for Jews, since hospitality to strangers was a central tenet in the classical world. Thus, the consumption of food could serve as a means to unite in one religion people from different backgrounds.

In short, this volume discusses a wide variety of issues related to food and identity, from production and consumption to perceptions of food, in a wide chronological period. This range makes it sometimes hard to see how they relate to the common theme, especially as not all contributions return to the interesting theoretical comments made in the introduction. Interesting concepts such as networks, connectivity and transferts culturels hardly appear at all. Nor is there a general conclusion, which could have tied the conclusions of the individual papers together and connected them to the general theme. Still, the volume raises many interesting points, such as the close connection between food and identity, and the ease with which food habits could be adopted by other societies, which then adapted them for their own purposes. The subject would certainly benefit from wider exploration, and this volume has made a good start. It is to be hoped that the editors and contributors will continue their investigations in the future.

Table of Contents

Wim Broekaert, Robin Nadeau and John Wilkins, Introduction, 7-12
Robin Nadeau, Chicken à la perse, 13-23
Emmanuel Botte, The exploitation of tuna in Greek Sicily during the Classical and Hellenistic periods: cultural transfer of Punic origin or technological innovation?, 24-35
Scott Gallimore, Creticum vinum excellens ? Reassessing the role of wine in Crete’s identity, 36-50
Laure Passet, La perception des denrées étrangères à Rome au IIe siècle av. J.-C.: l’evolution des représentations, 51-63
Wim Broekaert, The soldiers’ kitchen along the limes : fish sauce consumption and economics, 64-87
John Wilkins, Cultural exchange and Greek dietetics in Galen, 88-98
Dennis E. Smith, Dining with the ‘other’ in earliest Christianity, 99-106


1. M. Espagne and M. Werner, ‘Deutsch-französischer Kultur-Transfer im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert’, Francia. Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte 14, 1985, 502-510.