Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens3.94 · Rating details · 394 Ratings · 50 Reviews
The luxury of the ancient world is legendary, but the Athenian reputation is sober because this wealthy, successful city-state spent all its money on the conspicuous consumption of ephemeral things. Their consuming passions for food, wine and sex drove their society, as well as generating the rich web of privilege, transgression, guilt and taboo for which they are rememberThe luxury of the ancient world is legendary, but the Athenian reputation is sober because this wealthy, successful city-state spent all its money on the conspicuous consumption of ephemeral things. Their consuming passions for food, wine and sex drove their society, as well as generating the rich web of privilege, transgression, guilt and taboo for which they are remembered today. Using pamphlets, comic satires, forensic speeches - from authors as illustrious as Plato and as ignored as Philaenis - as source material - this study combines a traditional classicist's rigour with an appreciation of the new analytical techniques pioneered in gender and cultural studies to provide an alternative view of ancient Athenian culture and to bring its reality into a focus easier on the modern eye....more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published July 7th 1999 by HarperCollins Publishers (NYC) (first published 1997)
By RICHARD JENKYNS
COURTESANS & FISHCAKES
The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens.
By James N. Davidson.
372 pp. New York:
St. Martin's Press. $25.95.
hat have courtesans got to do with fish cakes? Part of James N. Davidson's answer is that the ancient Greeks understood the temptations of pleasure somewhat differently from us. We think of some desires as being addictive -- those for alcohol, cigarettes or cocaine, for example -- and often we see addictive desires as bringing misery rather than pleasure. Meanwhile, most pleasures, Davidson suggests, do not seem to us compulsive at all; controlling a desire for bacon sandwiches or beach holidays is not like controlling a weakness for the bottle.
The Greeks, on the other hand, while not conceiving addiction as a special category of desire, considered a fierce struggle against desire to be a normal state of affairs. In contrast with the clear dos and don'ts of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Greek ethics were more a matter of degree. The Greek motto was meden agan, ''nothing in excess''; the goal was not to conquer desire but to manage it. Pleasures lay all around; eels and tuna, wine and women -- all were part of a spectrum of delights potent enough to bring disaster if not governed by self-control. Without quite saying so, Davidson seems to hint that he finds this a happier, healthier idea of the appetites, with a lustier sense of pleasure's power.
He claims his subject is ''not so much the pleasures of the flesh themselves, but what the Greeks, and especially the Athenians, said about them.'' Happily, this is not entirely true. His book is richly particular, stuffed with juicy tidbits and meaty detail; he relishes the tastes and smells and textures of ancient Athens. We savor the distinctive taste of Greek wine, redolent not of the vanilla flavors imparted by modern oak casks but of the pitch or resin used to seal amphoras, or of the sheep or goat tang of wineskins. We learn that the shoulder and belly were considered the choicest parts of the tuna, the head that of sea bass and grayfish and that the best eels came from the Strait of Messina.
Davidson apologizes for spending time on establishing facts, as though this were a regrettable necessity, but one may feel that he enjoys the business of problem solving. What did Athenians mean by calling someone opsophagos (literally, ''relish-eater'')? Not ''fish-eater,'' as in later Greek, Davidson says, not quite ''gourmet'' or ''gourmand'': what distinguished the opsophagos was not the exoticism or the quantity of food, but the intensity and immediacy of pleasure.
Why do Greek vases show courtesans spinning or winding wool? Some people have suggested that the women turned on their clients with a pretense of wifely virtue, others that the men were excited by seeing women toiling, others that these are nice girls being tempted into vice by offers of money. Davidson, using recent archeological evidence, offers a more down-to-earth explanation. The sex trade was a business like any other, and its workers supplemented their incomes by making textiles. The vase paintings represent the moment at which they turn from their day job to their night job.
These are not matters of antiquarian curiosity. The connotations of opsophagos tell us something about how the Greeks thought of pleasure. In some ways, they were strikingly unluxurious. Unlike a Roman banquet, Greek dining did not involve elaborate preparation, exotic ingredients or costly plate; Athenians did not go in for conspicuous consumption in the sense made famous by Thorstein Veblen. The spindles on vases show us economic realities that art might glamorize.
Above all, Davidson engages in a careful analysis of words the Greeks used for people whom they considered morally and sexually contemptible, because he is in revolt against a widespread theory of Greek sexual politics advocated by Michel Foucault and supported by an odd alliance of feminists and scholars of more traditional bent. This theory sees the Greeks' sexual ethics -- and their ethics more generally -- in terms of power and the ''reign of the phallus.'' Sexual relations are viewed as a kind of zero-sum game played between dominator and dominated. In homosexual intercourse, the shameful thing is to be penetrated. Women are subjugated by the sexual act; this is why they are so often seen bending over in Greek representations of sexual intercourse. Davidson sweeps all this away. He points out that whereas the language of sexual aggression pervades the obscene slang of today, it is almost entirely absent from ancient Greek. The theory he attacks is simply, he suggests, ''a projection of our own gender nightmares on to the screen of a very different culture.''
Indeed, the whole book is a fine illustration of how the best investigation of a distant past can also be an exercise in self-understanding: we learn from it not only about ancient Greece but about ourselves. In place of the common claim that Greek women were divided, from the male point of view, into Wives and the Rest, Davidson gives a subtle picture of the many gradations of the sex market, from the cheap streetwalker to the courtesan or hetaera (''companion''), who was often, he suggests, just that. She might be more like a wife than a prostitute, and she was wooed with gifts, not crudely paid. Of course, it was all a game, a pretense, but a game, Davidson says, at which the hetaerae were grandmasters.
It is a tribute to Davidson that he is so hard to summarize: he has a sense of the complexity and diversity of real life, its resistance to simple schematization. He writes in a lively, often witty style that only occasionally lapses into a catchpenny vulgarity (''whambamthankyouma'am kind of sex,'' ''mum'' gratuitously for mother). But his dark secret is that behind his air of easy, breezy modernity he is rather robustly traditional. His conclusion is that ''the Greek approach to pleasure was vigorously rationalistic and humane . . . confident enough to insist on personal responsibility in managing appetites, never so frightened of pleasures as to flee them in panic.'' That is what they were saying in the 1820's; now it is old-fashioned enough to be daring novelty.
''Courtesans and Fishcakes'' is a brilliant and original book; it is obviously designed to appeal to a wide market, and it deserves to get it. Despite belonging to that dreaded species, the book of the doctoral thesis, it has led a British newspaper to hail Davidson as perhaps ''the best thing to happen to ancient history writing in decades.'' That is an achievement in itself.
Richard Jenkyns is a fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. His books include ''The Victorians and Ancient Greece'' and ''Three Classical Poets: Sappho, Catullus and Juvenal.''
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