James Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes is a brilliant and kaleidoscopic examination of daily life in classical Athens, and the life he reveals is simultaneously more alien and more familiar than we might have imagined. From fish-guzzling gourmands to the ambiguous eroticism of vase paintings, the cradle of Western culture is artfully, and frequently amusingly, anatomized. Davidson believes that many historians, under the influence of Foucault, are guilty of imposing modern views of desire, and particularly sexuality, on Greek culture, resulting in a simplistic interpretation of what was an extremely complicated issue.
He refutes the prevailing opinion that sex in Athens was a simple binary opposition of penetrator and penetrated, drawing on a remarkable number of sources to show how sexuality was a slippery commodity rooted in intricate social negotiations, a characteristic shared with many other objects of desire, from eels to undiluted wine. Davidson sometimes assumes a little too much knowledge on the part of his audience--some basic information about the size of the Athenian population would have been helpful--but in spite of this Courtesans and Fishcakes is both accessible and provocative, offering a fascinating portrait of the private and public lives of ancient Athenians.
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Save for Later. Thus sitos was taken with the left hand, opson with the right. Plutarch describes how children were castigated if they used their hands the wrong way round. This practice throws light on two passages from the classical period. On the one hand so unremarkable and unremarked a feature of daily life that it could almost have escaped the notice of posterity, this distinction seems a classic case of a habit which inscribes ideology into practice. A particular set of beliefs about the world can become more rather than less powerful through being unspoken, aspiring to the rank of habit rather than ideology, and a status beyond language, questioning and argument in the cultural unconscious.
In place of articulation, value and meaning can be assigned by means of carefully modulated differences between symbolically charged zones and directions.
In the case of food, value could be read into the orientations of personal geography: left and right, bottom and top, staple and opson. It is, above all, a space.
This space turns out to be somewhat ambivalent. It has a well-established position in the diet and yet seems somehow superfluous, merely decorative.
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In this it bears more than a passing resemblance to what Derrida identified as a persistent source of anxiety in Western philosophy, an addition which seems to complete something and yet to be extraneous, threatening all the time to forget its negligible subordinate role and take over what it is supposed merely to complete or embellish. Numerous passages seem to treat opson as an essential; it is what the right hand reaches out for to complement the bread in the left; it is one of the three pillars of existence, listed in numerous ancient writings on diet.
It crops up in accounts of daily expenditure along with other essentials such as barley and wood. It is a prerequisite of allowances and salaries. This treatment of opson as the merest garnish is also found early on in the annals of Greek literature, in a passage well known to the Socratic circle and cited by both Plato and Xenophon: a scene from Iliad The other two elements of diet could be fixed and controlled without difficulty.
Bread could be substituted for sitos , and water or wine for potos , but there was no such simple solution to the space of opson , which remained intrinsically awkward to pin down, a space for dietary variety. Philosophers in particular were deeply suspicious about a part of sustenance which represented an opportunity for innovation and extravagance, as Plato makes clear in a section of dialogue from the Republic. Glaucon is outraged and adds the rather sinister comment that Socrates has been talking as if he were fattening up a city of pigs.
Plato was a famously careful writer. After his death a tablet was found among his possessions with the first eight words of the Republic written out in different arrangements. It already has a well-established position in the traditions of Greek diet and cannot ultimately be dislodged, but this omission puts it firmly in its negligible place.
It is something to be ignored, elided or forgotten, something of no importance. When forced to address the oversight, Socrates tries to fix opson in a state of nature; he fills the dietary space with the most perfunctory edibles, whatever is ready to hand, requiring the bare minimum of preparation. In the old system of education, we are told, boys up to sixteen or seventeen lived off bread as sitos , water from a river to supply them with liquid, and cardamon a type of cress as opson.
Opson has at this point become no more than an opportunity.
The dangerous supplement threatens to divert eating away from sustenance and into pleasure, and even to usurp the place of bread as the bedrock of existence. By taking no bread or only a little, the opsophagos threatens to invert the dietary hierarchy and allow simple sustenance to be diverted into pleasure. The error of the opsophagos lies not in eating opson , as everyone else does, but in living off it.
One version of the vice of opsophagia , then, relates to carefully balancing the elements of diet to keep staples staple and everything else decorative.
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How can these two rather different versions be reconciled? Whom do we trust to translate for us, Plutarch the eminent antiquarian or Xenophon, a reliable witness, surely, of the language of his own time? To resolve this dispute we need to take another detour, to another controversy and another part of the ancient world, the sea of Galilee in the reign of the emperor Tiberius.
In the breaking light a figure can be made out on shore.
Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens
He asks if they have caught anything. They answer that they have not. He advises them to cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat. They follow his instructions and find their nets full, so full in fact that they cannot bring the catch on board and have to tow it ashore. When they reach the land, they find that the stranger has already started cooking a breakfast of bread and fish.
This is the tale of the miraculous draught of fishes, as told by John. The story itself occurs with slight variations in Luke as well and raises many points of interest for Bible scholars and theologians. What concerns us here, however, is not theology but philology. This idiosyncrasy of vocabulary has led to some bold conclusions about the author. For John A. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, the word properly referred to cooked fish and was proof that the evangelist, usually considered the latest of the gospel-writers, was on the contrary the earliest, a witness of the things he described, being none other than John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples, a fisherman and trader in fish.
Only a professional, Robinson implies, would bother with such trade distinctions. Wilson, in a more recent biography of Jesus, took this observation as proof that new things can still be discovered in the text of the Bible. Opson together with its diminutive opsarion were by this period perfectly commonplace words for fish, not smoked, and not necessarily cooked, but certainly in dire danger of being, since they corresponded to ichthus as pork does to pig, referring to fish as food. In fact it is from opsarion , and not ichthus , that the modern Greeks get their own word for fish, psari.
This explains why Plutarch thought an opsophagos was simply a fish-lover. It proves nothing about the identity or profession of his near contemporary St John other than his fluency in the currencies of Greek, the lingua franca of the Eastern Roman Empire. The question which exercised ancient students of the language was how much earlier than this the usage first appeared, and in particular whether it counted as good classical Attic Greek.
To push it back a couple of centuries seems straightforward. Some modern scholars have argued convincingly that Plutarch took his definition from Hegesander of Delphi, a Hellenistic source of the second century BCE, and some Egyptian papyri attest the use in the third century, but are there any earlier passages where opson means fish? Are there any classical authors in the fourth or even the fifth centuries who use opson like John the Evangelist? Never with greater urgency was this important question addressed than during the rise of Atticism in the reign of Hadrian and his Antonine successors.
In the second century CE educated men from all over the Roman Empire were growing philosophical beards and trying to write, to speak, even, the kind of Greek thought to have been used in classical Athens five or six hundred years earlier. At this time there was prestige and money to be made out of being a man of letters.