BMCR 2024.03.28

L’Antiquité est une fête

, L'Antiquité est une fête. Collection B@lades, 2. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2022. Pp. 149. ISBN 9782356135001.

Open Access

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


The Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde is infamously recorded as saying “pleasure is the only thing one should live for.” L’ Antiquité est en fête, an open-access, e-book, makes no such sweeping claim, but instead sensibly invites the reader to “(re)discover the multiple facets of collective pleasures,” both public and private, from Graeco-Roman antiquity.

With a focus primarily on feasting, this volume, edited by Audrey Lacroix and published by a consortium of presses from the Nouvelle-Aquitaines region of France, consists of twenty-six contributions in five broad areas: festive days; the banquet; celebrating the gods and great men; pleasures and entertainment; and, the party, before and after. The entries, written in French, are no more than a few pages each. Most of the articles include brief bibliographies; illustrations, which appear in half of the entries, are well produced and typically enhance the topic under discussion. The result is a fresh and readily accessible introduction to pleasure and feasting that is a worthwhile addition to the current scholarship with its specialist focus on topics such as the philosophical and medical aspects of pleasure and pain, identity, and, increasingly, ancient health and nutrition as recovered through skeletal and food remains.[1]

There is plenty to choose from in this volume. Among festive days in the private sphere, as we might expect, celebrations associated with rites de passage are prominent, especially birthdays and weddings. Concerning the latter, Evelyne Scheid-Tissinier reminds us that, in addition to weddings in the Homeric world, the requirements of hospitality and compensatory donations provided a wealth of opportunities for private celebration. On the other hand, Christophe Pébarthe remarks that not all celebrations were planned, whether the occasion was the unexpected Athenian military victory at Pylos during the Peloponnesian War or, as Christophe Chandezon notes, the celebration of Argos, the loyal family dog of Ulysses, who recognized his master in disguise upon the return of the latter to Ithaka from the Trojan War. As these entries confirm, celebrations often depended on chance, and the ancients were always keen to act on such opportunities.

Janick Auberger provides a useful overview of the variety of banquets available to celebrants in antiquity, while reminding the reader that the festal objective was always the same: to provide an opportunity to gather participants around a common meal in order to reaffirm social bonds or to create new ones. While this is certainly true, there is no mention, for example, of the feasts sponsored by the Roman emperors, evidence that surely would have enhanced the author’s observations on the importance of identity and social standing at shared meals. No less important to consider were the varieties of wines and drunkenness at private banquets. It is a topic that surprisingly has yet to receive book-length treatment, but Fabienne Olmer points us in the right direction by including Alcibiades as a Greek exemplar of aristocratic excess. On the Roman side, Marc Antony would have been a suitable counterpart to include.

Among celebrations devoted to gods and great men, two festivals provided valuable opportunities for celebration: the Halôa, an Attic festival whose origins remain obscure but, as Renée Koch-Piettre informs us, featured state-supported banqueting by female celebrants, most likely in honor of Demeter and Dionysius; and the festal holidays (whether biblical or historical) of Jews under the Roman Empire, occasions which, Maureen Attali argues, were essential to Jewish identity. Attali’s entry is especially useful in reminding us that there were peoples beyond the Greeks and Romans for whom celebration was an essential component of their social and religious identity.

On pleasures and entertainments, the games played by children, found on red-figure ceramic tableware from Athens, are particularly noteworthy. Hanna Amar relates that these artifacts often preserve images of the toys themselves—balls, rattles, mini-vases, and carts that perhaps helped children learn to walk. This type of iconography represents children’s lives mediated by adults and suggests a kind of playful learning that trained children to become reliable Athenian citizens. Indeed, the joy of play was its own form of celebration, and it is both refreshing and appropriate to find it included in this volume.

More practical in scope are entries focusing on personal grooming before the feast and remedies to treat hangovers afterwards. Here, Antonio Ricciardetto details a practice that may come as a surprise to modern readers—the ancient belief that wearing a vegetable crown on the celebrant’s head would relieve the throbbing of the hangover headache (surely a remedy of questionable medical efficacy but one that might have at least provided a smart look for the wearer). At the same time, mention of hangovers leads one to consider heavy drinking and drunkenness in general, and we might suppose that Olmer’s entry mentioned earlier in Part Two would fit more thematically in this final section.

As is typical in edited volumes, there are inevitable overlaps and omissions. Among the former, the Roman Saturnalia appears in three different entries, while among the latter, there is no index and useful bibliography is sometimes missing as, for example, the edited volumes of  Bradley and Grand-Clément and Ribeyrol, which should be included in discussions of perfuming and smell in the final section.[2] Additionally, several topics come to mind that would have enhanced the scope of this study, among them: the Spartan syssitia, unappetizing mess meals that were the antithesis of pleasure; the Roman military diet, especially as found in letters written to home by soldiers requesting that their favorite foods be sent to their post at Vindolanda in Roman Britain –a reminder that pleasure is never far removed from memory; and the sexual overtones that often characterized Greek and Roman banquets.

Even so, these gaps do not detract from a volume that is well edited and that reminds us of the broad range of ancient sources that we must rely upon to learn about pleasure and celebration. In the end, this collection will prove most useful in courses on ancient Mediterranean social history or food studies, or to scholars or laypersons seeking a light and lively introduction to pleasure, feasting, and celebration in the ancient Mediterranean world.


Authors and Titles

I- Jours de fête

  1. La fête de la naissance en Grèce et à Rome
    Greece and Rome’s birth celebration
    Aurélie Damet
  2. « Joyeux anniversaire! » Comment fêtait-on un anniversaire privé chez les Romains?
    “Happy birthday!”
    Lucienne Deschamps
  3. L’usage des cadeaux dans le monde d’Homère
    The use of presents in Homer’s world
    Evelyne Scheid-Tissinier
  4. Fêter une victoire militaire: Athènes face à « l’événement le plus inattendu de la guerre »
    Celebrating a military victory: Athens facing “the most unexpected event of the war”
    Christophe Pébarthe
  5. Merci mon chien!
    Thank you, my dog!
    Christophe Chandezon
  6. Le mois de décembre: calendrier, fêtes et cérémonies
    The month of December: calendar, festivals and ceremonies
    Stéphane Benoist

II- Le banquet

  1. Le banquet comme fête de sociabilité
    The banquet as a sociability’s celebration
    Janick Auberger
  2. Io Saturnalia: les banquets de fin d’année à Rome
    Io Saturnalia: end-of-year’ banquets in Rome
    Dimitri Tilloi d’Ambrosi
  3. La bouche en fête ou la philosophie au banquet
    A feast for the mouth or the philosophy within the banquet
    Luciana Romeri
  4. Vin et ivresse
    Wine and drunkenness
    Fabienne Olmer

III- Fêter les Dieux et les grands Hommes

  1. Fêter Homère (à l’antique)
    Celebrating Homer (the ancient way)
    Flore Kimmel-Clauzet
  2. « Fêter les dieux»
    Celebrate Gods
    Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge
  3. Les Panathénées
    The Panathenaeums
    Marion Muller-Dufeu
  4. Les Saturnaliade décembre
    December’ Saturnalia
    Marie-Odile Charles-Laforge
  5. La fête attique des Halôa
    Haloa‘s Attic festival
    Renée Koch-Piettre
  6. Les fêtes juives sous l’Empire romain
    Jewish holidays under the Roman Empire
    Maureen Attali

IV- Plaisirs et Divertissements

  1. Les jeux du cirque, une passion planétaire
    The circus’ games, a worldwide passion
    Jean-Paul Thuillier
  2. Danses et fêtes en Grèce archaïque et classique
    Dances and festivals in archaic and classical Greece
    Michel Briand
  3. Musique et fêtes dans l’Antiquité: à chacun sa playlist!
    Music and parties in the Antiquity: a playlist for everyone!
    Arnaud Saura Ziegelmeyer
  4. Une soirée chez les précieux ridicules
    An evening at the Precious Ridiculous
    Giulia Sissa
  5. Des jeux d’enfants
    Children’s games
    Hanna Ammar
  6. Athènes est une fête… romaine
    Athens is a… Roman festival
    Marion Faure-Ribreau

V- La fête: préparatifs et after

  1. Se parfumer pour la fête
    To put perfume on for the party
    Isabelle Algrain
  2. Sur les « présages » de début d’année à Rome
    On the beginning of the year’s “omens” in Rome
    Romain Loriol
  3. Se rétablir des excès
    Recovering from excess
    Marie-Hélène Marganne
  4. Se remettre de la fête: porter des couronnes végétales pour éviter la « gueule de bois »
    Recovering from the party: wearing plant crowns to avoid a “hangover”
    Antonio Ricciardetto



[1] See, e.g., W.V. Harris, ed. Pain and Pleasure in Classical Times (Leiden 2018); W. Broekaert, R. Nadeau, and J. Wilkins, eds. Food, Identity, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Ancient World (Brussels 2016); M. MacKinnon, “Osteological Research in Classical Archaeology.” AJA 111 (2007): 473-504.

[2] M. Bradley, ed. Smell and the Ancient Senses (London 2015), esp. D. Potter, “The Scent of Roman Dining,” 120-32; A. Grand-Clément and C. Ribeyrol, eds. The Smells and Sense of Antiquity in the Modern Imagination (London 2022), especially the methodological introduction by the editors.