Food in Antiquity
Public (and Private) Eating in Greece 450-300 BC
John Wilkins (1991)
From Oxford Symposium on Food in Antiquity - Public Eating 1991 pp. 306-10.
Cultural background and dates
The Greeks defined their culture by their foods - olives, wheat and barley, the vine, fish, all quintessential elements of the Mediterranean diet - and above all by the ritual of animal sacrifice in which a domesticated beast was led to the altar, had its throat cut and its blood poured over the altar in the presence of the worshippers. It was flayed, the vital organs were removed and a portion offered by burning to the gods, the rest roasted and tasted by the leading participants. The other meat was jointed and boiled and shared among all participants. The entrails and offcuts were made into black and other puddings. In this system the gods were honoured, the community expressed its solidarity, and a rare chance to eat meat was enjoyed.1 Solidarity was important, as now in the meat eating codes of the Jewish and Muslim communities, and was expressed through public and private sacrifice. Anyone who was a vegetarian was not taking part and was in a sense opting out of society.
We should also bear in mind that Greece was not just the mainland but the coast of Turkey, many cities in the Black Sea, cities in Egypt and North Africa, in Spain and Provence, and much of Sicily and southern Italy. There were many indigenous peoples in contrast to whom the Greeks expressed their identity.
Why the period 450-300 BC? It is 200 years before we hear of any sophisticated eating in Rome and nearly 500 years before we hear of great Roman banquets. By quirks of history ancient Rome is more accessible to us than Greece; foodwriters tend to quote Pliny above Theophrastus, Apicius above Athenaeus. Let us be clear that in dining and sophisticated eating, the Romans were largely derivative of the Greeks, used Greek chefs and Greek terminology (cf. Petronius and Apicius), just as we derive much from France. Many Romans managed to ignore sophisticated Greek cooking in southern Italy for up to 500 years, and traditionalists continued to fight rearguard actions when it did become fashionable.
The Roman triclinium can be seen in the remains of any villa visited in the UK. As in the other areas, this is not a Roman but a Greek institution. It is the arrangement of three couches on which diners reclined. Reclining at dinner was an oriental practice introduced into the Greek mainland in about 630 BC. Each diner had a side table beside the couch, and often food was brought ready-served to the table, as if on a tray. By our period the practice was well established for public and private eating. This illustrates the eastern influence on Greek eating, seen also in the gradual introduction of such foods as pheasants, domestic fowls, peaches and apricots. In our period (which runs from the time of Pericles and the height of Athenian democracy to the death of Alexander the Great and the government of Greece by Macedonian despots) the western influence also became strong, western Greek that is, from Syracuse, Tarentum, Sybaris, etc.
As in many countries, eating, public and private, was subject to foreign influence, particularly for the upper classes. For other classes, such influence was slower, if seen at all. There is no ancient equivalent of Burger King which brings a foreign culture affordable to all.
Religious eating: public and semi-public
'Decreed by the worshippers: the host shall make the sacrifice on the 17th and 18th of the month Hekatombaion. On the first day he shall sacrifice a sucking pig to the Heroines and a full grown victim to the Hero and he shall set up a table. And on the second day a full grown victim to the Hero. He shall reckon his expenses and not exceed the revenue. He shall distribute the meat to the worshippers present and to their sons up to a half portion and among the female relatives of the worshippers a full portion to adults and up to a half if they are children and up to a half to one female slave.'2
This stone inscription from about 300 BC sets out the regulations for the annual sacrifices to the local gods 'the Heroines and Heroes' in a suburb of Athens. These gods are worshipped by the sacrifice of animals, part of which will be offered by burning to the gods and the rest of which will be distributed as described. The equity of the distribution is of central importance in Greek culture, and indeed the Greek word for banquet, dais, derives from the verb 'to distribute'. The worshippers are men, but provision is made for their families, and there is equity between male and female. What is the significance of this for public eating? These worshippers are members of a semi-private religious group, the orgeones. They meet on the set days, kill the animals, honour their gods, share a meal at an impromptu table, and take home meat for their relatives cooked or uncooked. Though not said explicitly, it is likely (to judge from similar inscriptions which specify, in one case, 'roasting equipment, dining couches, and tables sufficient for two triclinia')3 that the meat was roasted and eaten on the spot by the worshippers, probably as they reclined on couches and enjoyed what we would describe as a feast. Meat alone is specified but other foods and wine were almost certainly consumed. This is public in the sense that a Roman Catholic mass is public: if you are a member, you share in the sacred meal. The meal happens to be more extensive, and with the added excitement that this is one of the fairly rare occasions when meat is eaten. The people in question are rich enough to have a slave and for the propriety of men eating apart from women to be observed.
Why begin with this rather prosaic inscription? It is a kind of funeral feast for the glorious dead, but less private than a funeral feast for a kinsman. It makes the point that eating is ritualistic. Social rituals and customs define how it is to be done. Eating in many societies appears to have all sorts of rules to an outsider, rules which may be so familiar to the participants that they scarcely notice them. Equally, the rules may be so important that people felt uneasy if anything was omitted. As we have seen, in Greece, if meat was to be eaten, religious rituals came into play also. But this applied to many other foods, and to wine. It was difficult for a Greek to consume anything without first offering a small part, the 'best' part, to a god.
There was also less private eating for people of means than in our society. And public eating took place not in hotels or restaurants but at festivals, sometimes on state business, and in a sense at the symposia, the drinking bouts which followed the deipna or formal meals.
Fully public was the festival of the Panathenaia. Cattle were sacrificed on the acropolis in Athens, and among the human participants shares of meat were distributed 'to the senate committee 5 shares, to the 9 chief magistrates 3 shares, to the stewards of Athena 1, to the temple overseers 1, to the generals and brigadiers 3, to the Athenians in the procession and to the girl basket bearers the customary amount'.4 Here is a fascinating combination of state officials and religious officials receiving their fixed share: they are cited together. Later the inscription provides for the distribution of the meat to the citizens at the Kerameikos, the potters' quarter on the edge of the city. Is this distributed meat eaten on the spot? We have no way of knowing. All Greek cities had festivals of this kind.
Eating by politicians
We do know however that there was much dining at state level. Dining at state expense for life was in fact the highest honour bestowed by the state,5 an equivalent of our Order of Merit, with food supplied.
Class differences appear to have come into play in state dining. In the central square at Athens and other cities, and in the precincts of many temples, dining rooms have been found, that is rooms with provision for couches round the edge (an earlier version of the triclinium). Athens is important in this respect since its democratic system may lead us to think that these dining rooms were open to all. Two passages in comedy imply not. Aristophanes implies at Wasps 1122f that an old man who has served on many state bodies has no knowledge of dining on couches; and at Ekklesiazousai 675-6 and 834f dining at state expense is laid on in a fantastic way which makes it quite clear that this is not normal. Archaeologists have argued that there were two classes of state dining.6 For feasting of state guests, and for aristocratic citizens (who supplied their own food?) there were official dining rooms in addition to their men's quarters at home. And for ordinary citizens on state business, eg the 50 committee members of the senate who stayed in their round office or tholos 24 hours a day, there was only simple food, or even an allowance for them to buy their own food, and seats round the edge of the building, not couches. The general picture is of a considerable amount of public dining, but with its form determined by wealth and class. The balance between public eating and private forms of couch dining or seated dining was probably tilted in favour of public dining - for men only. Quite the opposite obtained for women (see below) and there is much evidence to suggest that women and children rarely if ever reclined on couches: they sat. This is the Athenian democracy. Other progressive states - Argos, Thebes - followed a similar development.
We may contrast this with the practice of the 'mess' in conservative societies such as Sparta and Crete. Plutarch describes the former:7 "They met in groups of fifteen, a few more or less, and each one of the mess-mates contributed monthly a bushel of barley meal, eight gallons of wine, five pounds of cheese, two and a half pounds of figs, and in addition to this, a very small sum of money for such relishes as meat and fish. Besides this, whenever anyone made a sacrifice of first fruits, or brought home game from the hunt, he sent a portion to his mess. For whenever any one was delayed by a sacrifice or hunting, he was allowed to eat at home, but the rest had to be at the mess'. Communal - public - values were enforced by communal eating, among the men. (The food incidentally sounds like a standard unpretentious Mediterranean diet: we should note however reports from many visitors to Sparta that the food was inedible. What did they do in the cooking?) Plutarch tells us shortly afterwards about the selection of senators. The victorious candidate visited his friends and relatives who 'set a meal before him saying "the city honours you with this meal". When he had completed these visits he went back to the mess. Here he was treated as usual except that a second portion of food was set before him, which he put carefully to one side. After the supper was over, his female relatives assembled at the door of the mess hall, and he called to the one he most honoured and gave her the portion he had saved... Upon this she too was praised by the rest of the women'. This clear distinction between ways of honouring men and women with food in public is similar to Athens. In the fantastic state in Ekklesiazousai where public dining is offered to all, it is the men who dine and the women who wait at the doors of the men's quarters/dining rooms to pick them up for sleeping together in the communist state.
Public eating for women
For women a different picture is emerging. In the case of the group honouring the Heroines and Hero, the men (probably) ate together; the women ate the same meat, but at home. Now women did eat publicly, but generally with other women. Their festivals included feasting on meat (and often the converse, fasting) just as men's did. But they were separate. At the secret women's festival of the Thesmophoria, where the women slept in temporary shelters, just as the men used temporary tables and couches above, they were participating in a religious occasion, but also a state-sponsored occasion. The festival promoted human and plant fertility, on which the city's well-being depended. Clearly, this is public eating, like the Panathenaia.
Women, like men, attended many smaller sacrifices: in a comedy of Menander,8 for example, a rich woman offers a sacrifice to Pan at one of the god's country shrines. She asks along male friends. This is an extended family group, essentially private. In France it would be a bourgeois family in the country on a picnic. But she also hires a cook who sacrifices the sheep, butchers it, and cooks it and the rest of the meal. This is the ancient equivalent of Albert Roux.
To summarize thus far, public dining is an expression for the Greeks of community and belonging. While taking account of differences in class, wealth and sex, everyone took part. Ancient authors often cite the extreme of this in Sparta where at the festival of Hyakinthus even slaves took part. Significant dining generally included sacrificial meat. Participation implied shared guilt for the slaughter of the animal and a share in the community which was the city state.
This is the Greek equivalent of our restaurants. If you had the resources, the chef came to your house, not you to his. There were great developments in this area in our period. The word for chef, mageiros, is also the word for butcher and sacrificer of an animal. Essentially then Greeks viewed killing the animal, jointing it and cooking it as belonging to the same area (compare the evolution of the modern kitchen). All the eating examined so far is derived from the sacrificial and butchery skills. The chef came from Sicily. Unlike the Greek mainland, much of Sicily and Southern Italy was a land of plenty, of richer vegetation, better crops, more farmed animals. In this setting wealthy cities flourished, ruled by unconstitutional monarchs who sustained lavish courts - the closest thing in the Greek world to the luxuries of Persia and the East. These courts with a related aristocracy gave birth to banquets which we would call public - as in courts elsewhere, for it was here that the kings dispensed favour and influence - and to a cuisine strong in fish, sauces and extravagant pastries. Large fish in particular had luxurious associations, and were not normally part of the non-luxurious food of sacrifice. Among other things, these developments prompted the first cookery books in Europe, and the fine poem of Archestratos the travelling gourmet, dated to c. 330 BC. Sicilian food was denounced by Plato and other puritans on the mainland,9 but it spread there rapidly. In the centuries before our period we are told of aristocrats and rulers on the mainland who put on enormous banquets, for example at wedding feasts. Then, as now, a royal wedding was a more public feast than a wedding in a less prominent family. By the 300s this had changed somewhat, and there is much reference to the hired chef, his method, his ingredients: in short the food had become as important as the occasion itself.
An interesting question arises. In the earlier period, the banquet with its couches, and symposion and drinking songs to follow, were a feature of aristocratic life. We have considered above the public dining rooms, but even the private symposia in rich men's homes had a public function in maintaining aristocratic ideals between peers in the city. Between male peers that is, kinsmen and political associates. Aristocratic wives and female kin did not take part. Pauline Schmitt-Pantel has written well on this subject. When gourmet eating came to the Greek mainland, was the social function of the symposion modified? Ancient moralists at least would see luxurious eating as corrupting and an end in itself. Perhaps we too, looking at the history of food, would see great interest in food itself as different from and perhaps distracting from other social functions communal eating may have.
We may consider, finally, a different aspect of public eating in ancient Greece. At an early date, wine and foods became topics for songs at aristocratic symposia, short lyrics on the pleasures of drinking and love at the banquet which have come down to us under the name of the poet Anacreon. Food also came into literature by another route, comic drama. Drama in Greece was public in a way unknown in our theatre: the audience, 10,000 to 20,000 strong, honoured the god, Dionysos or another, by watching masked actors. In Athens between 400 and 300 BC audiences watched hundreds of comedies which celebrated elaborate food. Gourmet foods, which we may be almost certain were unaffordable to much of the audience, were listed; different cooking techniques were considered; elaborate dinners were assembled. Nor is this some literary joke. A project is currently under way at Exeter to demonstrate that though the setting is comic, real food is being discussed here. To convince people of this I may say that the case is being put together not just by an academic in an office, but principally by Shaun Hill, who recently told the Western Morning News: "it's all to do with finding out what life was actually like. A lot of the translations were done by scholars who have never fried an egg." We believe there is a very close correspondence between food eaten at fourth-century deipna and the food given for example in the following comic passage (the Greek is in iambic verse):10
CHEF: First I took the shrimps: I fried them all in a skillet. A great dogfish has been given to me. I roasted the middle slices and boiled the inferior parts after making a mulberry sauce. I fetch two very big head sections of grey-fish in a large casserole, lightly adding herbs, cummin, salt, water, and a little oil. After this I bought a really fine sea-bass which will be boiled in an oil and brine pickle with herbs, once I have served the meats roasted on spits. I purchased some fine red mullet and some fine wrasse: these I tossed on the charcoal without more ado, and to an oil and brine pickle I add origano. To these I added cuttle-fish and squid. Elegant is boiled squid stuffed with chopped meat and so are the tentacles gently roasted. To these I added a fresh sauce of many herbs. Afterwards came some boiled dishes with a sauce of vinegar and oil. On top of this I bought a really fat conger-eel which I smothered in a really nice fresh pickle. Some gobies and some rock-fish next: I nipped off their heads and smeared them with batter [...] by such a method I send them on the same journey as the shrimps. A widowed bonito, a really fine beast, I passed through just enough oil and then swaddled it in fig leaves, sprinkled it with origano and hid it like a firebrand in a heap of hot ashes. To go with it I got some Phalerum small fry. A gill of water poured over this is ample. I then cut up plenty of fine herbs, and even if the jug holds a quart, I empty it all. What remains? Nothing more. This is my art, and it doesn't come from books or notes.
This passage is very exciting. If you get this from a comic cook in a grotesque mask, what did gourmet food taste like on the table? Here is a society which puts on a linguistic feast of food at a competitive dramatic festival. There are so many examples that we are bound to assume that people either expected or wanted all this food: otherwise such plays could not have stood a chance in competition. The combination of food and a public place, in this case a theatre, meant something in that culture, which it could not mean for example in ours, given the cultural associations of food in the UK. What precisely it did mean to the ancient Athenians is another matter, and the discovery of that awaits further research.
1 On animal sacrifice in Greece see Detienne & Vernant (1989).
2 The inscription was published by B.D. Meritt, Hesperia 11 (1942) 283, and a translation of part of it may be found in W.S. Ferguson 'The Attic Orgeones', Harvard Theological Review 37 (1944) 73-79.
3 'Roasting equipment etc': from an inscription in W. Dittenberger, Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum (Leipzig 1920 & Hildesheim 1982) III no. 1097.
4 The Panathenaia inscription comes from Dittenberger (1920 & 1982) 1 no. 27 1.
5 Socrates is famous for proposing eating at state expense as the punishment at his trial: see Plato Apology 36d.
6 For different levels of state dining see Cooper & Morris (1990) 75f.
7 Plutarch on Sparta: Lycurgus 12 & 26. Compare Athenaeus 138b ff. On Cretan messes see Athenaeus 143a ff.
8 Menander Duskolos (The Bad-Tempered Man). The picnic is prepared during the play. The cook has a battery of many kettles and pans.
9 See Plato Seventh Epistle.
10 The comic fragment is from the Locked Up Women of Sotades, fragment 1 Kock, preserved by Athenaeus at 293a-e.