Mezigis In other words, James Davidson writes, he reflected the culture of ancient Greece in which he lived, a culture of passions and pleasures, of food, drink, and sex before—and in concert with—politics and principles. But their are insights that Davidson provides by just such an approach. What a dish I made of it! How they viewed indulgence, moderation, and abstention Abstention was often viewed as worse than indulgence in the average man. C and F could really have used an editor with a heavier hand. I will await his next volume.
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Start your review of Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens Write a review Jul 29, Cooper Cooper rated it really liked it James Davidsons plus rather dense pages about the ancient Athenians can be boiled down to two related messages: 1 the ancient Athenians believed in self-imposed moderation, and 2 they rigorously monitored signs of private excess gourmandising, whoring, gambling, squandering patrimony because they felt that private excess would invariably lead to public excess theft, bribery, demagoguery which in turn would threaten the safety and well-being of their young democracy.
Background: ancient Athens established the first true democracy as far as we know in the history of the world. And except for women, non-citizens and slaves it was a true democracy: every adult male citizen gathered several times a month in the Assembly to argue policy and pass laws. Anyone could bring up any issue; whoever wanted to could have his say; issues were decided and laws passed by simple majority vote. The new laws were then literally chiseled in stone, and the stone tablets placed prominently in public.
The Athenians also had courts of law: juries were selected by lottery from the roster of male citizens over age Athens had no police force. In many ways its government was minimalist: no bureaucracy, no detailed record-keeping, few petty rules and regulations.
The reasoning was that those who indulged in such private excesses would squander their resources and then need to engage in public excesses to maintain their debauched lifestyles. What public excesses?
To sum up: people who indulged in private excesses could not be trusted honestly to acquit their public responsibilities as Athenian citizens. Davidson makes it clear that this is a simplistic and even absurd view that betrays a lack of in-depth understanding of Athenian history—in other words, either Foucault failed to do his homework or he was blinded by his ideological obsession with power. Or both. So what has all this to do with courtesans and fishcakes?
Davidson seeks to revive the hetaerae as significant players in ancient Athens. Theirs was, in fact, a very complicated role in a society in which adultery was punishable by death if a male citizen caught someone in the act with his wife, mother, sister, or daughter, it was legal for him to kill the offender on the spot. With adultery so hazardous to the health, what was a male body to do? Well, there were always the common street whores, who hung out by the city gates and charged fixed rates for different positions.
But these wenches were far too uncouth for the private dinner parties symposia so popular with the Athenians; the symposia required women who not only looked good but knew how to comport themselves. These were the hetaerae. Some became wealthy and famous. Some were widely renowned for their beauty, others for their wit, still others for their skill at playing musical instruments such as the flute; all were expert at pleasing men. Some men would throw away their patrimonies in pursuit of a hetaera.
Intense devotion to such women betrayed a want of self-control. The Athenians loved fish their favorite? Immoderate consumption of fish raised the red flag because gluttony indicated lack of control and lack of control signified potential danger to the democracy. So Athenians eyeballed each other at the market, and anyone who bought a good deal more than he seemed to need—or started avidly scarfing hot fish right at the stall—was immediately suspect.
The same was true of wine. The Greeks mixed their wine with water, and during symposia the amounts and the process were ritualized to ensure moderation for example, the wine-water ratio was fixed, and the wine was sipped from very shallow cups. Another warning sign. How so? When the Greeks sacrificed an animal to one of their gods say, Athena , they afterward divided the portions of meat equally among the citizens, without regard to quality of cut. If you were the wealthiest Athenian, you had just as much chance of receiving a cut full of gristle and bone as a choice loinsteak.
Did this culinary equality lead to political equality? Hence, the perpetual Athenian fear of honey-tongued demagogues, who could manipulate the citizens into doing things against their own interests. The rich. A very rich man was expected not only to subsidize festivals and erect public buildings at his own expense, but also to build, outfit and support a fighting ship trireme for the Athenian navy.
For this reason, the rich tended toward inconspicuous consumption—and to hide their money there were scant public records of wealth. There was even a law that if Rich Man A had been tagged to provide a trireme, he could bump the obligation to Rich Man B if he could prove that B was richer than he was. She was acquitted. Courtesans and Fishcakes makes for tough reading, even for someone with prior knowledge of ancient Greece.
Still, for the aficionado the book contains some interesting hypotheses and a number of choice historical tidbits.
Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens