Courtesans & Fishcakes The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

By JAMES N. DAVIDSON St. Martin's Press

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THERE WAS A BANQUET and people were talking and, as so often in accounts of banquets at this period, Socrates was there. The topic was language: the origin of words and their true meanings, their relationships with other words. In particular, according to Xenophon, who describes the scene in his Memoirs of Socrates, they were talking about the labels applied to people according to their behaviour. This was not in itself an uninteresting subject, but failed nevertheless to absorb Socrates' complete attention. What distracted him was the table-manners of another guest, a young man who was taking no part in the discussion, too much engrossed in the food in front of him. Something about the way the boy was eating fascinated Socrates. He decided to shift the debate in a new direction: `And can we say, my friends,' he began, `for what kind of behaviour a man is called an opsophagos?'


If Plutarch had been present (and Plutarch would have given anything to be present had five centuries not intervened) the question might have been a non-starter. For Plutarch is quite categorical: `and in fact, we don't say that those, like Hercules, who love beef are opsophagoi ... nor those who, like Plato, love figs, or, like Arcesilaus, grapes, but those who peel back their ears for the market-bell and spring up on each occasion around the fish-mongers.' An opsophagos, according to this ancient authority at any rate, was someone with a distinct predilection for fish.


    `But if you go to the prosperous land of Ambracia and happen to see the boar-fish, buy it! Even if it costs its weight in gold, don't leave without it, lest the dread vengeance of the deathless ones breathe down on you; for this fish is the flower of nectar.' The Greeks were fond of fish. Fondness, on second thoughts, is rather too moderate a word for such a passion. What the literature of pleasure manifests, time and time again, is something rather more intense, a craving, a maddening addiction, an indecent obsession. The flavour of this yearning is easily sampled in the work of Archestratus of Gela in Sicily, from whom the eulogy of the boar-fish is taken. Another passage from the same work advises readers on what to do if they come across a Rhodian dog-fish (emissole?): `It could mean your death, but if they won't sell it to you, take it by force ... afterwards you can submit patiently to your fate.' Archestratus acquired a certain amount of notoriety for his mock-heroic hexameters rhapsodizing food, but his work, variously known as Gastronomy, Dinnerology or The Life of Luxury, was by no means untypical of the discourse of gourmandise. What should be noted is not so much the extravagance of the language used to describe the fish, as the fact that in a work about the pleasures of eating in general, reference is made to almost nothing else. The Greeks, to be sure, recognized as delicacies some foods which had nothing to do with the sea: some birds and other game (especially thrushes and hares), various sausages and offal (sow's womb was particularly revered), some Lydian meat stews and various kinds of cake, but these were exceptions. The edible creatures of the sea seem to have established a dominance over the realm of fine food in classical Greece that scarcely fell short of a monopoly.

    Fish also seems to have been very prominent in the culinary culture of Sicily. According to one source they called the sea itself `sweet' because they so enjoyed the food that came out of it. Athenaeus tells us of a fish-loving painter from Cyzicus, Androcydes, who painted the sweet fare of these sweet waters in enthusiastic and luxurious detail when depicting a scene of the multiheaded monster Scylla in the early fourth century; we should, perhaps, view the numerous ancient mosaics of marine life with the same perspective we now bring to Dutch flower-paintings, not as cerebral studies in realism, but as loving reproductions of desirable and expensive commodities. The comic poet Epicharmus, who worked in Syracuse, the island's greatest and richest city, at the beginning of the fifth century, seems to have been preoccupied with sea-food, judging from the surviving fragments, although later writers were not always sure what he was referring to: `According to Nicander another kind of crab, the colybdaena, is mentioned by Epicharmus ... under the name "seaphallus". Heracleides of Syracuse, however, in his Art of Cookery claims that what Epicharmus is referring to is, in fact, a shrimp.' In one play, Earth and Sea, Epicharmus seems to have included a debate between farmers and fishermen, arguing over which element produced the best fare.

    Sicily also produced the first cookbooks. Among the earliest of these treatises was one by Mithaecus of Sicily, a famous chef mentioned by Plato and described by one writer as the Pheidias of the kitchen. His fragments are very few, but do nothing to contradict the impression that fish already predominated by this time: `Mithaecus mentions wrasse'; Mithaecus advises, `Cut off the head of the ribbon fish. Wash it and cut into slices. Pour cheese and oil over it' -- one of the earliest surviving published recipes.

    No cookery books or treatises on gastronomy survive from Athens, and the Athenians' own contribution to the history of gourmandize was confined to their cakes, but Attic comedy, especially the so-called Middle and New Comedy of the fourth and early third centuries, provides plenty of evidence that the preoccupations of the gourmands of Sicily and Southern Italy were fully shared by the citizens of this, the largest and richest classical city. Anyone who picks up a collection of fragments of fourth-century comedy is likely to be struck immediately by the large number of references to the consumption of fish. Characters regularly turn aside to enunciate long and metrically elaborate shopping-lists for fish, menus of fish and recipes for fish-dishes, with the ingredients and method of preparation graphically described. One comic chef, for example, in Philemon's Soldier, describes a simple recipe in the following rodomontade:

For a yearning stole up on me to go forth and tell the world, and not only the world but the heavens too, how I prepared the dish -- By Athena, how sweet it is to get it right every time -- What a fish it was I had tender before me! What a dish I made of it! Not drugged senseless with cheeses, nor window-boxed with dandifying herbs, it emerged from the oven as naked as the day it was born. So tender, so soft was the fire I invested in the cooking of it. You wouldn't believe the result. It was just like when a chicken gets hold of something bigger than she can swallow and runs around in a circle, unable to let it out of her sight, determined to get it down, while the other chickens chase after her. It was just the same: the first man among them to discover the delights of the dish leapt up and fled taking the platter with him for a lap of the circuit, the others hot on his heels. I allowed myself a shriek of joy, as some snatched at something, some snatched at everything and others snatched at nothing at all. And yet I had merely taken into my care some mud-eating river-fish. If I had got hold of something more exceptional, a `little grey' from Attica, say, or a boar-fish from Argos, or from dear old Sicyon the fish that Poseidon carries to the gods in heaven, a conger-eel, then everyone would have attained to a state of divinity. I have discovered the secret of eternal life; men already dead I make to walk again, once they but smell it in their nostrils.

    Outside comedy, references to fish-consumption are somewhat fewer in number, but often present even more direct and striking testimony to the citizens' obsessions. Demosthenes notes in disgust that when Philocrates betrayed his city to the Macedonians for the price of a bribe he spent his ill-gotten gains on whores and fish. Aeschines attacking his opponent Timarchus with the aim of depriving him of his rights as a citizen recalls the many occasions he was seen hanging around the fish-stall with his `friend' Hegesander.

    The Greeks were not so blinded by love as to ignore the responsibilities of connoisseurship. Within the exalted ranks of the piscifauna, distinct hierarchies were recognized, if not always with universal agreement. The preserved fish or tarichos, for instance, was generally looked down on and the phrase `cheaper than salt-fish' is used by Aristophanes to mean `ten a penny'. Certain varieties did have their supporters; tuna bottled at the right season in steaks or chunks received much praise, and Archestratus had some nice things to say about salted mackerel. Euthydemus, a writer on diet of the Hellenistic period, even wrote a treatise on the subject although the encomium of salt-fish, which he ascribed to Hesiod and quoted in support of his cause, was strongly suspected of being a forgery.

    Among the fresh fish, the bottom rung was occupied by various small species and immature specimens, not always easily translatable into the taxonomies of modern biology. A fragment of Timocles' comedy, Epichairekakos (He Who Enjoys Other Men'sDifficulties), follows the gate-crasher known as Lark in the, for him, rather novel exercise of shopping. He comes to the eels, the tuna, the electric rays, the crayfish, and asks the price of each in turn. They are all far beyond the range of the four bronze coins he is carrying. Finally realizing he is outclassed he scuttles off in the direction of the membradas, the anchovies or sprats. Another parasite in Alexis' Principal Dancer complains of the hard work involved in cadging an invitation to a fancy dinner; he would prefer to share a plate of sprats with someone who can talk in plain Attic. Other passages confirm that in Athens, at least, these little fish were considered food fit only for beggars, freedmen, and peasants who didn't know any better, attitudes that the sprats-seller in Aristophanes' Wasps attacks vigorously, accusing those who disdain her wares of elitism.

    At the other end of the scale we find the great delicacies, among them the tuna, the sea-perch or grouper, the conger-eel, grey mullet, red mullet, gilt-head, sea-bass, an unidentified creature known as the `grey-fish', or glaukos, and the crustacean known as the karabos, a heavy-handed crayfish lying somewhere along the line between langouste and langoustine. Certain parts were especially prized: of the tuna, the belly and the `keys' taken from the shoulder or neck area, and of sea bass, grey-fish and conger-eels, the head. Towering effortlessly above all challengers, however, the undisputed master of the fishmonger's stall was the eel. Archestratus thought the best were those caught opposite the straits of Messina:

There you have the advantage over all the rest of us mortals, citizen of Messina, as you put such fare to your lips. The eels of the Strymon river, on the other hand, and those of lake Copais have a formidable reputation for excellence thanks to their large size and wondrous girth. All in all I think the eel rules over everything else at the feast and commands the field of pleasure, despite being the only fish with no backbone.

    It was widely believed that the Egyptians offered the eel worship, handing more than one comic author the opportunity for resonant cultural comparisons: `I would never be able to make an alliance with you; there is no common ground for our manners and customs to share, and great differences to separate them. You bow down before the cow, I sacrifice her to the gods. The eel you consider the greatest divinity, and we the very greatest dish.' Another thought the Egyptians had got it just about right: `They say the Egyptians are clever, not least because they recognize that the eel is equal to the gods; in fact she has a much higher value than gods, since to gain access to them we just have to pray, whereas to get within sniffing distance of eels we have to pay at least a dozen drachmas, maybe more, so absolutely sacred a creature is she."

    Reading these fragments we can get some idea of the extraordinary power their passion for fish exercised over the Athenians. Fish are treated as quite irresistible, lusted after with a desire that comes close to a sexual one. The strength of this Athenian appetite is demonstrated most graphically by passages in which fish are involved in a literal or metaphorical seduction. Anaxandrides' play Odysseus, for instance, contains the following eulogy of the fisherman's art:

What other craft gets youthful lips burning, gets their fingers fumbling, has their lungs gasping for air, in their haste to swallow? And isn't it only when it's well-supplied with fish that the agora brings about liaisons? For what mortal gets a dinner-date if all he finds for sale when he gets to the counter are fish-fingers, crow-fish, or a picarel? And when it comes to seducing a real beauty, with what magic words, with what chat-up lines would you overcome his defences if you take away the fisherman's art? For his is the craft that conquers with stargazy pie's overwhelming eyes, that draws up lunch's (arsenal?) to undermine the defences corporal(?), his, the expertise that gets the free-loader to recline, unable to decline to pay his way.

    The anecdotalist Lynceus of Samos even suggested, a little mischievously, that it was for the sake of a fish from Rhodes (the famous dogfish, of course) that the Athenian hero Theseus yielded his favours to Tlepolemus, the island's mythical founding father. In a later period there is evidence that the influence exercised by fish in the processes of seduction was thought to reveal some occult power. Apuleius, author of the Golden Ass, had to defend himself from a charge of casting a love-spell over his rich and aged wife with the magical assistance of fish purchased in the market. There is little evidence for this supernatural connection in the classical period, although because of her triple-sounding name, the red-mullet, or trigle, was associated with the triple-faced patron of witches and guardian of road junctions, Hecate. On the other hand, fish are sometimes found used as love-gifts in Attic vase-painting. One depicts a young man and his attendant approaching a hetaera spinning wool, with gifts of an octopus and two birds. Another vase, once in Leningrad, now lost, had a boy seated and wrapped in a cloak being offered a hoop and a large fish by a winged Cupid.

    It is not just their tastiness that connects fish to seduction, but also the way they look. The two sisters popularly known as the `anchovies' mentioned in a speech of Hyperides were apparently so named because of their `pale complexions, slender figures and large eyes'. And so, by way of a startling metaphorical transition from appetizement to seduction, fish come to be represented themselves as coquettish flirts and paramours. The conflation of images is found fully developed in a fragment of Diphilus' comedy The Merchant. The speaker complains about the high price asked for the fish: `nevertheless, if one of them ever smiled at me, I would pay, albeit with a groan, all that the fishmonger asked of me.' This representation, which sounds so extraordinary to our ears, of fish as seductive bodies comparable in some way to the beautiful boys and hetaeras they helped to seduce, is what lies behind the common trope in which the eel, typically `appareled' in beet (perhaps, most feasibly, beet-leaves), is compared to a nubile woman or a gorgeous goddess. When Dicaeopolis, the hero of Aristophanes' Acharnians, learns that the Boeotian smuggler has fifty `Copaic maidens' in his sack, he goes into raptures: `O my sweetest, my long-awaited desire.' In the Peace, someone imagines the reaction of Melanthius, a certain fish-loving tragedian, arriving at the fish-stalls too late for the eels: `Woe is me, woe is me,' he cries, launching into a spoof soliloquy excerpted from a climactic scene of his own Medea, `bereaved of my darling in beet-bed confined.' It could be suggested that such extraordinary metaphors are only to be expected in comic discourse, with its fondness for startling and jarring images, but the practice of comparing women to mouth-watering fish and fish to women seems to have been rather more general in Athenian society. Apart from the anchovy sisters mentioned above, we find flute-girls and hetaeras given nicknames like `Sand-smelt', `Red Mullet' and `Cuttlefish', a practice exploited to full comic effect by the poet Antiphanes in his play She Goes Fishing, where he plays on this double-meaning of the names of fish, so that it is hard to know at any one time whether he is satirizing his victims for their love of fish or for their excessive devotion to hetaeras and boys.

    Fish seduces and conquers. It functions like the forces of persuasion, or the allure of a hetaera, or the magical power of charms. Comic authors made use of this notion of piscine irresistibility to create spoof imprecations and oaths. In Aristophanes' Knights the Sausage-seller curses the Paphlagonian (a thinly disguised caricature of the demagogue Cleon), his rival for the favours of old Demos (i.e. the people), in the following terms:

I will not make threats, but I do offer the following prayer: May your sizzling skillet of squid be standing by. And may you be about to make a speech on the Milesian business and turn a talent in bribes if you get the job done. And may you hurry to get the calamary down in time for going to the Assembly. And may the man come for you before you have time to eat. And, in your eagerness to get the talent, may you choke to death with your mouth full.

In his Acharnians a similar malediction is invoked against a rival playwright; this time the longed-for squid is pictured sailing slowly and tantalizingly towards the accursed and putting ashore on the table beside him only to be snatched away at the last minute by a dog. Antiphanes even uses the irresistibility of fish to a fish-lover in an oath: `I'd as soon give up my purpose as Callimedon would give up the head of a grey-fish', says one character in resolute defiance. It is perhaps not surprising that the Stoic Chrysippus, writing in the following century, preferred to refer to such people as opsomanes instead of opsophagos, meaning `fish-mad', and comparing the man so afflicted to the gunaikomanes, mad about girls.


Historians are sometimes criticized for taking in earnest what their sources clearly meant in joke. Others are accused of deliberately exaggerating, without explaining, a period's idiosyncrasies in order to exoticize a culture for the reader's amusement. Any study of the phenomenon of ancient fish-madness is in danger of committing both these errors at the same time. These writers are being ironic. The extraordinary celebrations of fish penned by Archestratus or put by Aristophanes into the mouth of Melanthius are manifestly tongue-in-cheek. Demosthenes was sending up Philocrates and his treacherous purchases, Aristophanes was sending up the tragic fish-lover, and Archestratus, with his epic hexameters and mock epithets, was sending up himself. Any amusement we might feel at the ancients' excitement at the prospect of fish for dinner is forestalled by the irony and bathos which is already a distinctive feature of the Greek evidence. It's almost as if they catch the amused eye of posterity in the rear-view mirror and play to it, as if they know how peculiar they are going to look to future generations.

    It is true that the Greeks considered self-knowledge one of the very highest virtues, but that kind of foresight was beyond even them. So why is fish as strange and amusing for them as it is for us? This is more than a marginal question. Their ironic tone holds a clue to unravelling the mystery of fish-madness. What made fish funny for the Greeks goes some way towards explaining what made them so good to eat.

    The first thing to notice is that fish never found its way into the rituals that surrounded the consumption of beef, mutton and pork. With one or two exceptions, fish was not considered a suitable animal for sacrifice. The origins of this exclusion are open to debate. Some believe it was because Greek sacrifice was essentially a blood sacrifice, or a sacrifice of large animals that must be eaten communally. The tuna, one of the few fish that could be sacrificed (to Poseidon, of course) is noted both for its exceptional bloodiness, and for the fact that these large fish are usually trapped and killed in large numbers, providing a single huge catch for the community to consume. Others emphasize that the Greeks sacrificed only domestic animals, and that fish are to be counted among the animals of the chase, wild game that could be killed willy-nilly, outside the symbolic rigours of formal sacrifice. However, the rationale behind the exclusion does not really concern us. What is important is that the omission of fish helped to construct an opposition between the meat of pigs, sheep and cattle, all of which had to be sacrificed before it could be eaten, and fish, which was quite free of such structures, an item for private, secular consumption, as and when desired. In an important sense, fish-consumption was simply not taken as seriously as other kinds of carnivorousness.

    Fish were also absent from another important scene, noted by a character in a comedy of Eubulus: `Where has Homer ever spoken of any Achaean eating fish?' Fish were not present at the banquets of the Iliad, something the fish-mad Greeks of the classical period were not slow to pick up on. A contemporary of Eubulus, the philosopher Plato, thought the missing fish very significant. In a discussion of the regime appropriate for the warrior athletes of his Republic he takes Homer as his reference:

`You know that when his heroes are campaigning he doesn't give them fish to feast on, even though they are by the sea in the Hellespont, nor boiled meat either. Instead he gives them only roasted meat, which is the kind most easily available to soldiers, for it's easier nearly everywhere to use fire alone than to carry pots and panns ... Nor, I believe, does Homer mention sauces anywhere. Indeed, aren't even the other athletes aware that if one's body is to be kept in good condition, one must abstain from all such things?'

    `Yes and they do well to be aware of it and to abstain from them.'

    `If you think that,' Socrates continues, `then it seems you don't approve of Syracusan cuisine, or Sicilian-style dishes.'

    `I do not.'

    `Then you also object to Corinthian girls for men who are to be in good physical problem ... and Attic pastries ... I believe that we would be right to compare this diet ... to the kinds of lyric odes and songs that are composed in all sorts of modes and rhythms.'

    The modern banquet with its cakes and hetaeras is contrasted with the heroic feasts of the Iliad. The conspicuous absence of fish from these antique scenes and from sacrifice as well is perhaps connected, inasmuch as the sacrificial rituals of the classical period were often self-consciously based on the Homeric model. Put together, the structures of exclusion carve out a space for fish as something peculiarly secular and distinctively, decadently `modern'.

    It is this absence of heroic gravity that produces the bathetic humour and mock epic irony of the classical period. The caricature and self-parody which seems to infect descriptions of fish-lovers and fish-loving has an eye not on our future, but on their past, looking back across the gap that yawns between the Homeric age and the classical present. The eulogies offish in epic language and hexameter rhythms, which are such a feature of Middle Comedy and writers such as Archestratus and Matro, get their sense of bathos from a clash of tone between the heroic form and the fishy content. The very names offish were unheroic and their presence in these inappropriate contexts was unavoidably ironic. The effect must have been in some respects like a recitation of modern brand-names, Daz and Persil, for instance, or Weetabix and Coca-Cola in the language and rhythms of Shakespeare. In particular, comic poets seem to have kept in mind the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in the dramatic festivals, the one placed firmly in the modern world, the other confining itself to the age of myth. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that fourth-century comedy is characterized both by its spoofs of mythological tales and its preoccupation with fish. By parodying tragic forms, by setting up a heroic context and then infiltrating it with incongruous and anachronistic images from the modern city, comic poets gave resonance to their representation of the present, a greater consciousness of being contemporary. It is not too much to say that fish in these comedies and parodies contributes significantly to one of the earliest manifestations of the idea of the modern, the contemporary, in Western intellectual history, an appropriate achievement perhaps for a food that in hot countries scarcely lasts a day.

    The rule that excludes fish from sacrificial offerings to the gods is often transgressed for comic effect in a very similar way. One play has a chef whose conger-eel is described as cooked fit for the gods, the poet fully aware that no deity was likely to get near such a delicacy. Another talks of `the belly-piece of a tunny, or the head of a sea-bass, or a conger-eel, or cuttle-fishes, which I fancy not even the gods despise.' These passages exalt the fish they refer to, but also denaturalize sacrifice, reinventing the gods as gourmands and connoisseurs in the modern style. An early play of Menander's discusses the consequences of exclusion quite explicitly:

Well then, our fortunes correspond, don't they, to the sacrifices we are prepared to perform? At any rate, for the gods, on the one hand, I bring an offering of a little sheep I was happy to pay ten drachmas for. For flute-girls, however, and perfume and girls who play the harp, for wines of Mende and Thasos, for eels, cheese and honey, the cost scarcely falls short of a talent; you see, you get out what you put in, and that means ten drachmas' worth of benefit for the sheep, if, that is, the sacrifice is auspicious, and you set off against the gifts and wine and everything, a talent's worth of damages... At any rate if I were a god, I would never have allowed anyone to put the entrails on the altar unless he sacrificed the eel at the same time.

Here the eel represents `real' food, some fish for pleasure's sake, instead of a wretched and perfunctory sheep for ritual's sake. Forget all of that smoking essence of cow and goat, the gods would much rather tuck into a plate of sea-food.

    The fact that fish was not sacrificed had more than symbolic repercussions. Ritual made a very real difference to the way animals were made into food. A crucial element in the sacrifice was the sharing out of the victim among the participants. The division had to be conspicuously fair, and to this end, after the animal had been disembowelled, and the gods and the priest had received their prerogatives, the animal was simply divided into portions of more or less equal size. This marks a substantial divergence from the way animals are butchered today, with very careful differentiation of the cuts according to relative tenderness, sliced along or against the grain. In terms of quality, therefore, the ancient portions of meat were both uneven and unequal, some mostly fat and bone, some largely fillet and rump, and had to be distributed among the sacrificing community by drawing lots to ensure everyone at least got an equal chance at a good piece. It seems probable that, as in many Middle Eastern cultures, all beef, pork and mutton available was the product of this ritualized process. Even the meat sold in the market, it seems, had been cut from animals that had been killed ritually. As a student of ancient butchery puts it: `The perpetuation of a method of butchering that maintained a careless disregard for the animal's different joints meant for the eventual purchaser the possibility of making only one choice, meat (to kreas), or offal: we never get to see in our sources people presenting themselves at the market and asking for a gigot or a cutlet.' The ideology of sacrifice, therefore, and the isometric butchery which resulted, meant that the very form these animals assumed as items of food was dominated by their positioning within symbolic ritual, a positioning that tended to exclude concerns of taste or tenderness in favour of a theatre of participation, where equality took precedence over quality. Fish, on the other hand, along with game and offal, fell outside the rituals of sharing. It was free to be appreciated according to the excellence of its own flavours. Pleasure alone sorted out the most highly regarded species, the finest specimens, the most succulent parts, selected on their own terms according to the opsophagos' taste. With other meat protected from gourmandise by religious rituals, it was the taxonomy, the biology and the body of fish that became subject to the exacting discourse of connoisseurship. Other meat had to be shared out. Fish you were free to fall in love with, grabbing the best bits for yourself. Here in this very small section of the Athenian economy in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, we have what looks like a fully-fledged system of consumer objects.

    In the Hellenistic period some Homeric scholars, the so-called `separators', noted that although fish were indeed off the menu at the Iliad's banquets, there were some occasions when they were eaten in the Odyssey. This seemed decisive proof that the two epics had different authors. Against this view, the scholar Aristarchus observed that, though he may have banned fishing and fish-eating from Troy, the author of the Iliad was not unaware of the existence of fishermen, or of the technologies of fishing, and used the imagery of angling and trawling in similes and metaphors. This meant on the one hand that the two poems could indeed have a single author and, on the other hand, that there must be some reason other than ignorance for the exclusion of fishing from the Iliad, namely that the poet wanted to avoid to mikroprepes, what was demeaning -- the same reason he remained silent about vegetables.

    But in that case how to explain the fact that fishing and fish-eating did occur in the Odyssey? This, argued Aristarchus, was only to be found in exceptional circumstances, when the heroes were suffering from extreme hunger, for instance. The episode when Odysseus and his companions disembark on the island where the Sun-god kept his cattle, having just survived the ordeal of Scylla and Charybdis, provided just such circumstances: `all the food in the ship was gone and they were forced instead to go roaming in search of prey, using bent hooks to catch fish and birds, anything that might come to hand, because hunger gnawed their bellies.' From passages such as these it seems clear that in the Homeric world, as in medieval and early modern Europe, fish could be considered a poor man's food, a food for Lent and Friday fasting. It was clearly not fitting for heroes of the calibre of Achilles and Diomedes to be seen eating such poor fare, unless the poet wanted to show them pushed to extremes of deprivation. Greeks of later generations, however, whose view of fish was, as we have seen, much more exalted, misunderstood the significance and saw the absence in quite different terms. Athenaeus, for instance, thought Homer was protecting his heroes not from the diet of paupers, but from luxury: the poet is silent about the eating of vegetables, fish and birds because that is a mark of gourmandise < lichneia>.'

    When Plato discusses the absence of fish in Homer, therefore, he probably gets it quite wrong, placing the omission in the context of the exclusion of hetaeras, fancy cakes and Sicilian cuisine, the decadent and debilitating accoutrements of the classical dinner-party. In fact, we could say that fish would have been rather an appropriate source of protein for the inhabitants of the simple proto-city outlined by Socrates, a providential food, as in the Odyssey, found in rivers and along shorelines to go with the collard greens and acorns he allows them. Between Homer and Plato a huge shift had occurred in perceptions of what a diet of fish represented. It had shifted from the country to the city, from something scavenged to something bought.

    The feasts of the Homeric world take place in an economy without money, an economy based on the exchange of gifts and its attendant systems of patronage. Sacrifice is also decidedly part of this giving economy, and sacrificial meat is often conceived as a gift of the city or of the private citizen on whose behalf the sacrifice is made, a gift designed to extract favours from the gods, and to unite the participants in the act of eating together. Reciprocity meant an obligation to sacrifice, which few could ignore. Even the Pythagoreans, who were famous for their vegetarianism, felt the need to participate in sacrifice occasionally to avoid a charge of disrespect. Eating meat was a religious duty, and ultimately indispensable. Fish on the other hand was an extra, something that could not be justified on grounds other than a sheer love of pleasure. Ancient vegetarians in this respect display a striking contrast with their modern counterparts who are often more ready to eat fish than any other animal. In both cases it is perhaps the relative bloodlessness of the piscifauna that is the deciding factory:

    Meat did find its way occasionally from the altar to the market but it is only represented there on very rare occasions. Its potential as a consumer item was heavily limited, as we have seen, by the isometric techniques of butchery demanded by ritual. Fish, on the other hand, is the quintessential commodity. The agora is its element. It is even on occasion compared to money. The silver that comes to Athens from its allies is described in one image of Aristophanes as a shoal of tuna spied swimming from far out at sea. In comedies, jokes are made comparing fish-scales with the small change that Athenians carried in their mouths. As a corollary, fishermen, who are often represented as stereotypes of extreme poverty in the ancient world, are, with a few exceptions, quite invisible in the Athenian discourse of fish-madness, victims of the extraordinary fetishization of their products. Instead the focus is consistently and repetitively on the market-place and on the processes of buying and selling. A particular feature of this concern is the caricaturing of greedy fishmongers, often foreigners, and their attempts to trick the citizen-consumer. A typical example is from Antiphanes' play the Pro-Theban: `Is it not strange, that if someone happens to be selling fish recently deceased, he addresses us with a devilish scowl and knotted brow, but if they are quite past their sell-by date, he laughs and jokes? It should be the other way round. In the first case the seller should laugh, and in the second go to the devil.' Another fragment from Xenarchus' Porphura (Mauve or The Purple-fish) includes a character praising fishmongers as more imaginative even than poets when it comes to inventing ways to get round a (probably fictional) law:

For since they are no longer at liberty to anoint their wares with water (this is forbidden by the law), one of these chaps, not exactly loved by the gods, when he saw his fish dehydrating, quite deliberately started a fair old scrap among the traders. Punches were thrown and one seemed to have mortally wounded him. Down he goes, gasping what seems to be his last gasp, lying prone amongst his fish. Someone shouts `Water! Water! Straightaway, another of his fellow-traders grabs a jug and empties it, missing him almost completely, but managing to drench the fish. You would say they had just been caught.

    Such were the perils of shopping that the early Hellenistic writer Lynceus of Samos actually wrote a treatise on how to do it properly, addressed to one of his friends who was a market failure. He advises taking along a copy of Archestratus to intimidate the traders:

One thing you will find useful, when standing at the fish-stalls face to face with the unblinking ones, the unyielding-on-price ones, is abuse. Call Archestratus to the stand, the author of the Life of Luxury, or another one of the poets and read out a line, `the shore-hugging striped bream is an awful fish, worthy ever of nought' and try the line `bonito buy when autumn wanes', but now alas `tis spring, and in summer `the grey-mullet is wonderful when winter has arrived', and many other lines of that sort. For you will scare off shoppers by the score and many passersby, and in so doing you will force him to accept a price you think is right.

    The fishmongers in question belonged to a characteristically urban environment of crafty charlatans and tricksy merchants, for one consequence of the placing of fish in a trade-economy was that it came to be seen as part of the world of the city. If fish do ever make an appearance in the countryside they seem almost exotic, as a fragment from a satire on peasants makes clear:

`You, Pistus, will take some money and do some shopping for me.'

    `Not me, I never mastered the art of shopping.'

    `Well then, Philumenus, what's your favourite fish?'

    `I like them all.'

    `Go through them one by one, which fish would you like to taste?'

    `Well, once a fishmonger came to the country, and he had sprats with him and little red-mullets, and by Zeus he was popular with all of us!'

    `So, now you would like some of them?'

    `Yes, and if there is any other small one; for it is may opinion that all those large fishes are man-eaters.'

The notion of the fish-ignorant countryside goes back at least as far as Aristophanes who in one fragment describes a city-dweller who decides to move out to the country so that he can `have chaffinches and thrushes to eat instead of hanging around for little fishies from the market, two days old, overpriced and tortured at the hands of a lawless fishmonger'. Eating fish, and knowing which ones to prefer, is not only an indication of modernity and secularity, it is also a mark of urbanity.

    The ancient passion for fish, then, can be explained largely in terms of what it was not, in terms of its positioning within a series of intersecting contrasts that set it against other types of food. Eating fish was free of a prehistory commemorated in festival banquets, or Homer's epics, or Platonic recollections of the primitive condition. It was not a serious or venerable activity. Fish were not slaughtered or distributed in a ritualized symbolic context. Fish stood outside the theatre of sacrifice and outside official banquets. It had no public role or responsibilities, free to play itself, the quintessential modern commodity fully fetishized for the private consumer, a food whose value could be gauged only according to desirability and demand, the object of constant assessment according to species and specimen, and the subject of an exquisite discourse, argued over and haggled for in comedies and dinner-parties, in markets and treatises.

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