Peter GARNSEY, Food and Society in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Paperback edition ISBN O 521 64588 3.
Andrew DALBY, Siren Feasts A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece. Routledge, 1996. Paperback edition ISBN 0-415-15657-2.
Review by Hilary McCrae
In many ways these two books complement each other as they reflect the increasing interest in food and diet and its effects in ancient times. Man in order to survive has the ability to eat a wide range of food, which is subject to availability and taste and in accord with man's environment, which involves social, economic, political, legal, gender divisions and also racial, religious and philosophical considerations.
The aims of Peter Garnsey's Food and Society in Classical Antiquity are threefold: Why humans eat, what humans eat and how humans eat. These questions can be applied to any society at any time, but here they are treated in the context of Greek and Roman antiquity and focus more on the diet of the poor rather than that of the elite. Garnsey attempts answers based on literary sources (particularly Galen and Athenaeus) and archaeological findings, but is wary of the ancient writers' own prejudices and environments.
The nature of food available is discussed and whether people got enough of it to eat. Did city dwellers fare better than country folk? This leads to discussion on food values and the prevalence of malnutrition and disease, estimated through indicators such as height, life expectancy and skeletal remains.
Other complex cultural/economic factors at play are considered such as the share-out of food to women and children) which is found wanting in comparison with that of men. He also deals with food as a marker of ethnic and cultural difference, examining the part played by ideological taboos (Jewish dietary laws being a prime example) and as a symbol of difference between barbarian and cultured societies. Comparisons are made between the haves and have-nots of ancient society where food was power -Augustus and others recognised that and fed the mob -where food and its preparation could be a status symbol who ate what with whom. Attention is given to the symposium of Greek life and the three divisions of its Roman equivalent, client, protegee and peer-group dinners, where food was and is a binding convivial factor. That food had greater importance in ancient times than now is indicated by the Athenian award of dinners for life given to a chosen few.
Garnsey's slim book is presented in a workmanlike style, the aims of each chapter being clearly explained under the heading "Preliminaries", These aims are examined in greater detail under individual headings and the chapter summed up under the heading "Conclusions". It is a most thought provoking book, leaving the reader with more questions than answers.
Andrew Dalby's book is aptly named Siren Feasts as its picturesque cover seeks to entice readers other than classical students. Yet the scholarship behind this book is obvious from page 1, as the source for every conclusion and fact is set out continuously. Reference is made to several ancient writers not just in one chapter, but almost on every page. The quality and depth of learning and research which has led to this book is almost overwhelming. This is a comprehensive study of the history of food and gastronomy in Greece.
While the main purpose of Siren Feasts is brilliantly achieved, the range of food from spices to vegetables being examined in respect of their origins, evolution, acquisition, cultivation and effects, it can be read on several other levels. It deals with cookery, telling of the first cooks and the first cookbooks plus the growth of a Mediterranean culinary culture - Mithaecus was the inventor of the cook book and the best cooks were from Sicily. It can be read as social history -shoppers at the Athens market had to beware of birds being sold with air blown into them tQ make them look ptum~r! It can certainly help the aspiring classical student discovering ancient writers for the first time. Dalby's principle source is Athenaeus' Deipnosophists in which over 700 authors are quoted and Chapter 8 deals with the transmission of earlier (now lost) writings retained by Athenaeus in dialogue framework.
Chapter 1 uses The Bad Tempered Man by Menander to try to establish religious and social cooking methods and social eating habits. Other sources used include iconography inscriptions, archaeology and archaeobotany. The time span involved is equally comprehensive starting with prehistoric times to the present day via the Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods. Influences and fashions in Greek gastronomy are traced, particularly those resulting from the movement east by Alexander the Great, as are the difficulties of transporting wine and foodstuffs. While every possible food item is treated in great detail, wine gets extra mention It was taxed as now! but Lesbian wine was tax-free. Aristotle talked of Rhodian wine on his deathbed. Instructions for serving of wine are given: wine is poured on water, not water on wine.
Siren Feasts is a book for the Classical bookshelf to be placed alongside the Classical Dictionary.