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Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

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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 remember 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 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.


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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 remember 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 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.

30 review for Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

  1. 5 out of 5

    Cooper Cooper

    James Davidson’s 300 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: ancie James Davidson’s 300 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. Between sessions the city-state’s business was handled by the Council of 500, randomly selected annually from among the Assembly. The Athenians also had courts of law: juries were selected by lottery from the roster of male citizens over age 30. Athens had no police force. In many ways its government was minimalist: no bureaucracy, no detailed record-keeping, few petty rules and regulations. The Athenians depended on the self-control of individuals—“Nothing too much” (meden agan). “In the ancient imagination the greatest threat to prosperity was not war so much as profligacy.” So the citizens jealously watched each other for signs of loss of self-control—gluttony, gambling, horse-breeding, boozing, extravagant dinner-parties, fornication, adultery. 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? Selling their votes, bribing, advocating attacks on Athen’s neighbors to acquire booty, conspiring to replace the democracy with an oligarchy or a tyrant. To sum up: people who indulged in private excesses could not be trusted honestly to acquit their public responsibilities as Athenian citizens. It is clear that in his analysis Davidson is arguing against other historians—notably “French Mandarin” Michel Foucault, who insisted that ancient Greece (and all other societies) were all about power: and that in Athens there were two classes of people—“the penetrators” (dominant male citizens) and “the penetrated” (females, non-citizens, slaves). 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? *Courtesans—For along time, historians considered the hetaerae (courtesans) a big deal, but apparently the younger generation of historians, influenced by Foucault and the feminists, have pooh-poohed the role of the hetaerae—reduced them to lowly victims (“the penetrated”). 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. Unlike the streetwalkers they were not paid for sex, but they did accept “gifts” from their gentleman friends. 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. In the context of Davidson’s book the hetaerae are relevant because they could and did lure men into immoderate behavior. Some men would throw away their patrimonies in pursuit of a hetaera. Intense devotion to such women betrayed a want of self-control. It was all right to consort with them in the convivial atmosphere of the symposia; it was the excess that was suspect—obsession, losing one’s head, throwing away money. *Fishcakes—Another sign of excess was over-eating—especially fish. The Athenians loved fish (their favorite?—eel). 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). Those who drank wine unwatered and/or from deep cups were considered out-of-control—drinking to get drunk rather than to be sociable. Another warning sign. Some other interesting observations/anecdotes: *Origin of Democracy—Davidson thinks democracy might derive from the Greek tradition of religious sacrifice. 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? Perhaps. According to Davidson, Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy, was known not as a political revolutionary but as a “fair distributor.” All this bears indirectly on “fishcakes”: because most animal meat was devoted to sacrifice and therefore equally distributed, it could not serve as a basis for gluttony—but seafood could, because fish were not used for sacrifice and therefore you could buy whatever types and quantity you could afford—or ill-afford. *Power of Orators—Since in a democracy persuasion is key, skillful orators became very powerful—the politicians of the times. Hence, the perpetual Athenian fear of honey-tongued demagogues, who could manipulate the citizens into doing things against their own interests. *Inconspicuous Consumption—Who put up the bucks to support the Athenian democracy? 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. *Hetaera Anecdote—Phryne, a hetaera famous for her beauty, was on trial for worshipping foreign gods; if found guilty, she could be executed. She was defended by Hyperides, one of the day’s great orators. He presented his arguments forcefully and well, leading up to the climactic moment—tearing off Phryne’s robe, he dramatically revealed to the male jurors her truly stunning body. 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.

  2. 4 out of 5

    John

    The best way to explain what this book is like to read, is this: it's like you are attending a symposium with lots of different history lectures to attend, and you decide to attend the one called "Drinking, Lust and Gluttony in Classical Athens" because you think, "hey, this has to be entertaining, it's about sex and booze", so you go, and the lecture is just endless and incredibly hard to follow, and you start to doze off, but you keep waking up whenever the speaker starts talking about sex, th The best way to explain what this book is like to read, is this: it's like you are attending a symposium with lots of different history lectures to attend, and you decide to attend the one called "Drinking, Lust and Gluttony in Classical Athens" because you think, "hey, this has to be entertaining, it's about sex and booze", so you go, and the lecture is just endless and incredibly hard to follow, and you start to doze off, but you keep waking up whenever the speaker starts talking about sex, then you realize that he is just revisiting some point that he already made twenty minutes ago, and you fall asleep again. Then you wake up at the end and yawningly applaud. There has to be a way to arrange this book in a more easily readable way. The primary point that Davidson seems to be dancing around the entire time is that Athenians were mainly concerned with losing control of one's appetites, and this was what they found threatening. So, seeing prostitutes or even being a prostitute wasn't so bad as long as one could control one's spending on such hedonistic pleasures. Same thing with drinking: totally fine as long as one wasn't blowing huge amounts of money. But Davidson never states anything clearly here, and he comes back to certain events over and over again, without adding anything new. I finished this book through sheer force of will. If you cannot get enough of classical Athens, I suppose you might like it, otherwise, stay away. Great historical tidbit though: "This is probably where the famous punishment of a radish up the arse came into play, the penalty of 'aporhaphanidosis', although as Kenneth Dover points out, in all probability this 'radish' was not simply the very small root we call radish but a generic name covering some much larger species'. So yes, the Greeks not only punished people by stuffing radishes up their rear ends, but they had a special name for it, and it was a really big radish.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Siria

    Courtesans and Fishcakes is a really fascinating, lively and original look at the world of Ancient Greece. Davidson looks at the social implications of desire, and how desire mediated through physical things—food, drink, sex—created tensions and conflict within classical Athenian society. He rebuts Foucault's contention that the fear of penetration was a major stimulus in the Athenian psyche, positing instead that it was a fear of desire—unleashed, unrestrained, uncontrollable—that the average A Courtesans and Fishcakes is a really fascinating, lively and original look at the world of Ancient Greece. Davidson looks at the social implications of desire, and how desire mediated through physical things—food, drink, sex—created tensions and conflict within classical Athenian society. He rebuts Foucault's contention that the fear of penetration was a major stimulus in the Athenian psyche, positing instead that it was a fear of desire—unleashed, unrestrained, uncontrollable—that the average Athenian constructed as the biggest threat to the healthy life of the individual, the oikos, the polis. I found his theory very interesting, particularly his refusal to reduce sexuality to a zero-sum game of dominator/dominated, and his examination of how the hetairai, the courtesans of the title, negotiated the space between public and private. There's something there to come back to, I think. Where I did have a little trouble with what he was saying was his attempt to reconstitute traditional scholarly views on socio-economic class tensions by saying that degrees of luxury were available to everyone, thus negating the existence of an 'upper' class. While it's true to say that we can't map 19th or 20th century preoccupations with class tensions onto the largely agrarian world of ancient Attica, I don't think that means that such tensions were absent—particularly when I can't remember Davidson acknowledging that the sources from which he worked were all written by men, and almost exclusively by men with the means and leisure to support their writing.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Fade

    A fine scholarly work that takes its subject--sex and food--quite seriously, while digging down at it in a lively manner. (I learned all about quail-tapping, which I now believe is the most hilarious gambling method ever devised.) And of course it's about politics, since it's about Athens. In fact, that's a central point of the author's argument; trying to take court cases and plays and histories and dialogues that talk about food and sex, and treating them as if they're ONLY about food and sex, A fine scholarly work that takes its subject--sex and food--quite seriously, while digging down at it in a lively manner. (I learned all about quail-tapping, which I now believe is the most hilarious gambling method ever devised.) And of course it's about politics, since it's about Athens. In fact, that's a central point of the author's argument; trying to take court cases and plays and histories and dialogues that talk about food and sex, and treating them as if they're ONLY about food and sex, means misinterpreting and missing out on an awful lot that has to do with the politics of the day. There are a lot of precise, polite, brilliant jabs at Foucault, which I admit pleases me greatly. The dissection and rejection of the phallocentric method of reading Athenian culture isn't the main point of this book, but it's done with skill and verve. The text as a whole ranges from the hilarious to the nigh-pedantic, depending on what the immediate argument is. (At times I found myself wishing there were a little more clarity for, let's say, those of us who don't know French, or would like a little more info on the Juvenalian satire being referred to.) Those with no interest in Ancient Greece to start with are unlikely to find it rewarding as a whole, but I'd strongly recommend it to anyone who's already interested in the topic. It's almost never dry, and there's a lot of great stuff in here.

  5. 4 out of 5

    AphroPhantasmal

    A really interesting slice of micro-historical text that explores virtue and vice as consumption in the classical Hellenic world. I went into this book thinking it would be about recipes and gossip but instead it's more of a study of what luxury actually MEANT to the ancient Greeks. How they viewed indulgence, moderation, and abstention (Abstention was often viewed as worse than indulgence in the average man). This book is dense but fun and once things really get going, it's easy to fly through i A really interesting slice of micro-historical text that explores virtue and vice as consumption in the classical Hellenic world. I went into this book thinking it would be about recipes and gossip but instead it's more of a study of what luxury actually MEANT to the ancient Greeks. How they viewed indulgence, moderation, and abstention (Abstention was often viewed as worse than indulgence in the average man). This book is dense but fun and once things really get going, it's easy to fly through it provided you have no distractions. It definitely makes me want to read more of Davidson's work and I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in the more obscure aspects of life classical Athens.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Bird

    Wow, this kid knows from Greek, I tell ya. Not a read for someone just beginning to explore the ancient Greek civilization, this is a book for someone well versed in the culture because the author writes to that audience. But if you have a couple of books or continuing ed course down already, give it a shot. Just be warned that he likes to write in omegas and taus and stuff. If you can get through the first chapter on Greek attitudes towards food, especially bread, and gluttony without tossing t Wow, this kid knows from Greek, I tell ya. Not a read for someone just beginning to explore the ancient Greek civilization, this is a book for someone well versed in the culture because the author writes to that audience. But if you have a couple of books or continuing ed course down already, give it a shot. Just be warned that he likes to write in omegas and taus and stuff. If you can get through the first chapter on Greek attitudes towards food, especially bread, and gluttony without tossing this out a window, you are in for a real treat. The book brings a strange, foreign people to life. And somehow gives me hope for democracy.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lepus Domesticus

    I loved this book. I felt the final chapter wasn't quite as good as the rest, and a couple times in the conclusion I wanted to do a Wikipedia-style "citation needed" when Davidson made a statement about "our times" versus Classical Greece. (This one was a particular head-scratcher: "In contrast to our simple sexuality and our straightforward recognition of the salience* of sex, their erotic world seems unnecessarily complicated and terribly difficult to pin down." I think he must mean because th I loved this book. I felt the final chapter wasn't quite as good as the rest, and a couple times in the conclusion I wanted to do a Wikipedia-style "citation needed" when Davidson made a statement about "our times" versus Classical Greece. (This one was a particular head-scratcher: "In contrast to our simple sexuality and our straightforward recognition of the salience* of sex, their erotic world seems unnecessarily complicated and terribly difficult to pin down." I think he must mean because the ancient Greeks had so many classes of prostitute?) At first I really wasn't sure about the organization of the book--from tuna to tyranny!--especially given my lack of basic background on Athenian society, but by about two-thirds of the way through I thought it was really ingenious. It is very difficult to organize a survey like this, and I found Davidson's solution both brilliant and persuasive. He presents a picture of a people filled with anxiety that they aren't as good or worthy as their forebears--particularly ironic, since by the European Renaissance, Westerners were looking to Classical Greece as a pinnacle in human social achievement. He also puts in context the way their society and view of life differed from the later Christianized Europe, even as the reader sees striking similarities between their society and ours (particularly in the realm of politics). He achieves some of his best writing, though, when he is confronting Queer Theory. I find (and I think Davidson would agree) Queer Theory to have been extraordinarily valuable in sociological discourse, but it has one fatal flaw--ultimately Queer Theorists are interested in finding the Grand Unified Theory of Homophobia, and since homophobia is irrational, there is no one rationale behind it, therefore this search is futile (and forcing evidence to fit it does a disservice to the unique aspects of the societies studied). And yes, the ancient Greeks present an example of society that was deeply misogynistic, but not particularly homophobic, or at least not in the same way ours is (or even ancient Rome was). I found Davidson very convincing, despite having familiarity with the idea of Kyriarchy already, and its ultimately classical origins, and generally agreeing with it as a way of describing our own society. Some of this, of course, is an artifact not of Classical Greek culture itself, but of later European thinkers looking back at Greece and interpreting what they found there to fit their own values--with different interpreters coming up with very different interpretations. Davidson's key chapter on this subject ("Politics and Politicians") therefore felt like a stronger conclusion than the final chapter (although the ideas in it were fascinating, and it's a shame they weren't developed quite as fully or as well as what went before). This final line: "It seems very obvious and it is amazing that so many have overlooked it, but the crucial point about prostitutes is not what they get up to in bed, for ultimately that is mere speculation; it is that they are for sale." is I think the British classicist equivalent of a mic drop. I knew virtually nothing about classical Athens before reading this book and I found myself needing/wanting to know more about the political and social systems. I would like to find a basic primer on classical Greek culture that would explain more about how slavery worked**, marriage, the economy, a basic outline and timeline of the Persian, Peloponnesian, and Macedonian wars, etc. I also needed a map (with the ancient names). Those were beyond the scope of this book. However, this book was missing some key information. I could have used a single sentence explaining the denominations of the money, especially since values seemed to change (perhaps reflecting a real change that occurred over time?). I really needed a better explanation of what sykophants and parasites did and what, if any, difference there was between them. And I was left desperately involved in the saga of Timarchus the (maybe-not-actually a) common prostitute, and unsatisfied by where we left him. Did he get off? (Er, pun not intended.) Davidson's language was mostly accessible, minus a few typical academic tics ("problematize" was the word of the day), and the annoying habit of randomly leaving a quote in French or German without rephrasing. He did it more toward the end, so much so I was almost grateful he hadn't left the Greek quotes in Greek, which, as you probably can guess, is all Greek to me. Ha. Over all, though, it was sometimes amusing, very informative, and exactly the kind of resource that writers of fantasy and historical fiction alike eat like catnip. I expect to refer to it often in the future. *Jumping? **I had imagined I suppose that the slavery of the ancient world was somehow less bad than the systematic enslavement of Africans in the New World in more recent history, but Davidson's brief description of the lifelong obligations to their "masters" of even freed people, and the legal torture of enslaved people, as well as the usual abuses common to our slavery and theirs, disabused me. Instead I was left thinking the Roman stoic Seneca the Younger's instruction to Lucilius that he make friends with his slaves (my previous exposure really to classical slavery) even more extraordinary and naive than I had thought when I first read it!

  8. 4 out of 5

    neverwhere

    One of my favourite non-fiction books ever! Utterly fascinating, at times hilarious, always entertaining, this book is not only perfect for the Classics lover, but for anyone who enjoys a good a meal. :)

  9. 5 out of 5

    Caracalla

    I'm not convinced about a few of his conclusions. the eurymedon vase seems to be a real spanner in the works for his reading of attic attitudes to sexuality. but otherwise, interesting, intelligent, etc etc I'm not convinced about a few of his conclusions. the eurymedon vase seems to be a real spanner in the works for his reading of attic attitudes to sexuality. but otherwise, interesting, intelligent, etc etc

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    I was primed to not like this because of some reviews I read that mistakenly (?) seized upon Davidsons Foucaultian leanings - which I am happy to say were wrong. Chatty, seemed longer than it was, lots of sex and fish.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    This is a sensory social history of classical Athens--what would the agora be like while Socrates trolled people? The fishmongering, the dust, the vendors hawking their wares, a trail of perfume from a silken veiled hetaire, baking bread, bleating goats, the sun and the sea.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sanford Holst

    Good look into some odd aspects of life in ancient Greece, but fairly slow-moving.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Iset

    This was a re-read of a book I first picked up many years ago, and one that has stuck in my memory. As others have commented, the book is not for the novice. It assumes an existing familiarity with the history and society of ancient Greece, and delves into particularly specialised topics including colloquialisms and philology, gourmet and gourmand obsessions, body image versus attractiveness in others, and generally explores the thin line between pleasure and vice and how indulgence could be use This was a re-read of a book I first picked up many years ago, and one that has stuck in my memory. As others have commented, the book is not for the novice. It assumes an existing familiarity with the history and society of ancient Greece, and delves into particularly specialised topics including colloquialisms and philology, gourmet and gourmand obsessions, body image versus attractiveness in others, and generally explores the thin line between pleasure and vice and how indulgence could be used in political narratives. If you’re not up for quite that level of detail, you may find yourself lost and/or bored reading this book. I however relished the read, and still do, mainly because the intimate understanding it offers into ancient Greek thought processes enabled me for the first time to ‘get the joke’, and that’s always a powerful moment for a student seeking to comprehend a distant alien culture from the past. It’s worth noting that the text is heavily slanted in favour of an Athenian perspective, but nonetheless, it’s an insightful read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    John

    The sort of effortless erudition to which one aspires. Davidson, through careful reading of plays, speeches and pottery art, reconstructs the the appetites of classical Athens. The ancient Greeks felt very strongly about fish, and their caste system of courtesans seems quite foreign to us (though not perhaps to the Victorians, Davidson points out). This book is recommended to anyone who wishes to travel to that world, and who already posses some background in the plays of Aristophanes, the philoso The sort of effortless erudition to which one aspires. Davidson, through careful reading of plays, speeches and pottery art, reconstructs the the appetites of classical Athens. The ancient Greeks felt very strongly about fish, and their caste system of courtesans seems quite foreign to us (though not perhaps to the Victorians, Davidson points out). This book is recommended to anyone who wishes to travel to that world, and who already posses some background in the plays of Aristophanes, the philosophy of Plato and the histories of Thucydides and Xenophon.

  15. 4 out of 5

    ger

    This is a thorough though at times repetitive book on the views of Classical Athenians on food, drinking and sex. It was well argued and meticulously backed up and rather enjoyable. It was educational and at moments very funny. Complex ideas are well explained and cited and great use is made of contemporary writings. I'm not invested in whether he is 'Right' as some reviewers seem to be and I enjoyed the book a lot. He seemed to make his arguments well and his sense of Athens will remain with me This is a thorough though at times repetitive book on the views of Classical Athenians on food, drinking and sex. It was well argued and meticulously backed up and rather enjoyable. It was educational and at moments very funny. Complex ideas are well explained and cited and great use is made of contemporary writings. I'm not invested in whether he is 'Right' as some reviewers seem to be and I enjoyed the book a lot. He seemed to make his arguments well and his sense of Athens will remain with me.

  16. 5 out of 5

    George

    An intriguing title for a scholarly anaylsis of classical Athenian culture. Using a variety of pamphlets, comic satires, forensic speeches and a number of Greek authors of the time, Davidson provides an alternative view of ancient Athenian culture based upon his linguistic, historical and literary analysis of these various sources. It is well written and organized, but, unless one is interested in this area, it is not a great read.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ella

    3.5 Kinda repetitive.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Rk Wild

    Packed with insights, meticulously documented, and academic to its core... not an easy read, but generally a rewarding one.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Saleris

    I have the trade paperback of this book, but I never seemed to be able to get past the first chapter. I'm doing *much* better with the kindle edition. I have the trade paperback of this book, but I never seemed to be able to get past the first chapter. I'm doing *much* better with the kindle edition.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Philip Coulter

    Very good. A lot denser than I thought it would be (I was expecting something light and fluffy). More name-dropping of Foucault too. But he brings some heavy topics down to a pretty readable level.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Megan Gallagher

    Incredibly interesting topic but the writing style was not my bag

  22. 4 out of 5

    David C D'Andrea

    Probably too academic for general readership.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    I so wanted this book to be fun, but alas, Davidson's lugubrious academic writing weighed it down. Completely misrepresented by the sexy title and cover design, which were clearly meant to attract a popular audience, as was the fact that the Greek was all transliterated. I so wanted this book to be fun, but alas, Davidson's lugubrious academic writing weighed it down. Completely misrepresented by the sexy title and cover design, which were clearly meant to attract a popular audience, as was the fact that the Greek was all transliterated.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mary Catelli

    Quite consuming. When men were criticized for squandering their patrimony, they were said to spend it on hetaera and fishmongers. All sorts of information. The Gospel according to St. John gets pressed into duty to explain the semantic drift of the term opsum, which is -- well -- you have your wine, you have your bread, and then you have everything else, which is opsum, which is why greedy eaters are called opsophagos -- they ought to eat more bread -- except that by the time of the Gospel, opsum Quite consuming. When men were criticized for squandering their patrimony, they were said to spend it on hetaera and fishmongers. All sorts of information. The Gospel according to St. John gets pressed into duty to explain the semantic drift of the term opsum, which is -- well -- you have your wine, you have your bread, and then you have everything else, which is opsum, which is why greedy eaters are called opsophagos -- they ought to eat more bread -- except that by the time of the Gospel, opsum means seafood. The meanings were competing even in Athens. Socrates deliberately lists nothing but non-seafood when talking about what the ideal republic would eat. The tavern vs. the symposium. The tavern gets decried as commercial but they were unquestionably local taverns and comedies talk about the tavern keeper knows how he likes the wine, and the mark of a deeply in debt man is that the taverns won't extend credit. And the danger of damage is less at a symposium since there are rich men who can buy off the problem. The sober effort of pro-Spartans to defend scarlet cloaks as unwomanly, and accustoming men to the red of blood; long hair as making them look more impressive or making it harder to do menial labor; and large cups as containing only water -- because what these things do, after all, is make the Spartans look effeminate in Athenian eyes. The unpleasant life of a flute-girl. Brothels cheap enough to be frequented by slaves. And the delicate art of a hetaera, a companion, who received gifts from her friends -- a delicate art there, to avoid a quid pro quo, and still more to avoid charging a set fee. Orators would argue someone was a prostitute on the grounds he or she took all clients at the same price. Many of hetaera lived with men as if wives, before, or after, or sometimes instead of their citizen wives. It was entirely too shocking to introduce a hetaera into your wife's home, and only a few could set up separate establishments. On one hand, one man said that a wife was worse because she didn't have to please you; on the other hand, one contract for a hetaera is so jealous that the woman is forbidden to swear except by female deities. The frequency with which men with money or gifts are depicted approaching spinning women. Some thought it was an image of seduction, but it appears to the low-class whores making money on the side. Excessive drinking was scorned, but Demostheses was criticized for drinking water. Obviously this showed that he calculated his language, rather than speaking from the heart. Conspicuous consumption -- not so much. Yes, there are men who are famous for dinners, but the gap of rich and poor was not that large. (And rich and poor rose and fell all the time.) Rhetoricians argue from large spending that a man was obviously poor, and from lack thereof, that a man was obviously rich. The adulterer -- whom you can identify because he's a dandy, all dressed up. The very personification of lack of self-control. (Given that the husband could kill him or extort a fortune from him, well, yes, probably lacking in self-control.) The various passions they could see men losing their heads over. Like drink or dice -- or women, which you really had to be crazy about to be woman-mad. Aristophanes invented "sacrificial-feast-mad" as a possible problem with a man in The Wasps before revealing that he's really jury-mad, always running off to selected. And lots of other interesting stuff.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    I found this an amazing and very, very satisfying book. I studied classic Latin and Greek language and history for 6 years, and whereas I could more or less understand the Romans, who were -as ancient people go- a pretty straightforward lot, I was always baffled by the Greeks. Most books about the Ancient Greeks focus on the origins of the theatre, democracy and mathematics. All very interesting and worthwhile subjects, but somehow too abstract for someone trying to understand what made these pe I found this an amazing and very, very satisfying book. I studied classic Latin and Greek language and history for 6 years, and whereas I could more or less understand the Romans, who were -as ancient people go- a pretty straightforward lot, I was always baffled by the Greeks. Most books about the Ancient Greeks focus on the origins of the theatre, democracy and mathematics. All very interesting and worthwhile subjects, but somehow too abstract for someone trying to understand what made these people tick. This book focuses on the universal pleasures of food, drink and sex. With regards to food, I wa fascinated to learn how the Greeks distinguished between "staple" and "opson", which relate to each other more or less like "pizza crust" and "toppings". Fish was a favorite opson, often affordable only by the very rich or the not-so-rich-but-profligate. It fell outside of the normal food categories in that there was no sacrifice to the gods involved and no ceremonial partitioning of the food, as opposed to butchered meat, for instance. As far as wine is concerned, we learn all about the significance of drinking undiluted wine and the highly ceremonial drinking that went on at the symposia - or how all bets were off if those rules were not followed. And as far as sex is concerned, the author sets us straight on the Foucaultian idea that the major erotic activity in Athens was homosexual - there is plenty of evidence of plain old skirt-chasing among the citizens of Athens. All of this is supported by numerous quotations from Classic Greek literature - theatre, philosophical treatises etc. Socrates, Philip of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, and even that archetypical bad boy Alkibiades are all studied in some detail. The book is written in an acessible language without being condescending or dumbed down, and the author shows signs of good common sense and a sense of humor, two attributes that are often sadly lacking in history books.

  26. 4 out of 5

    James

    I found this a fairly choresome read, which was a bit of a disappointment when you consider that sex, food, and ancient Greece are pretty much my three favorite things. The writing, when Davidson has the discipline to eschew the cute, is strong and the argument (that the Greeks, lacking the clear cardinal directions of the proscriptive Judeo-Christian moral compass, were extremely anxious about moderation and self-control - nothing radically new) for the most part solid, but the book feels bloat I found this a fairly choresome read, which was a bit of a disappointment when you consider that sex, food, and ancient Greece are pretty much my three favorite things. The writing, when Davidson has the discipline to eschew the cute, is strong and the argument (that the Greeks, lacking the clear cardinal directions of the proscriptive Judeo-Christian moral compass, were extremely anxious about moderation and self-control - nothing radically new) for the most part solid, but the book feels bloated. Davidson will frequently back up a point with six to eight evidentiary quotes, which ends up feeling more insecure than thorough. I will give him props for having the balls to assert, uniquely, I think, in my reading experience, that Foucault is wrong (in this instance about the social significance in classical Attica of taking the passive role in sodomy). I was most interested in Davidson's discussion of the Athenian obsession with eating fish, the synecdoche for luxurious living in Attic culture. Since the Athenians were a legendary maritime culture, I would have thought that fish would have been a staple, but, apparently, the Mediterranean is notoriously fish-poor, at least with respect to delectable varieties. C and F could really have used an editor with a heavier hand. It did make me drag out my Greek books, though.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Meredith

    I sort of wished I had made a mini-glossary of Greek words because the meanings were mentioned once and there were a lot of Greek words and their associated alien concepts being tossed around. The book is about pleasure, but it's not a light read. are Take aways: 1. Damn. The Greeks were obsessed with fish eating. 2. They didn't recognize alcoholism as a phenomenon. 3. Our ideas about fluid sexuality are charmingly provincial 4. They recognized demand but not supply. Prices were high because of desir I sort of wished I had made a mini-glossary of Greek words because the meanings were mentioned once and there were a lot of Greek words and their associated alien concepts being tossed around. The book is about pleasure, but it's not a light read. are Take aways: 1. Damn. The Greeks were obsessed with fish eating. 2. They didn't recognize alcoholism as a phenomenon. 3. Our ideas about fluid sexuality are charmingly provincial 4. They recognized demand but not supply. Prices were high because of desire only. 5. The way Athens was run...I have no idea. It worked for them though. 6. If you think Pimpin' ain't easy...whoring is way harder. 7. Weavers by day...hookers by night. They put down the shuttle and got down to bidness. Damn! 8. Hetaeras freaking crack me up. THe story about the coppersmith...naughty! 9. Apparently you could get paid to be a "Party Girl" at the Symposium. 10. Flute music made the Greeks go crazy like bass drops. Good read if this is your kind of thing.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie McGarrah

    James Davidson writes about ancient history in a very interesting and compelling way. I know as much about ancient Greece as your average 4th grader, actually they'd probably know more, but I was interested in what social significance passions held for Athenians of that time. For once reading about economies had substance but wasn't a complete bore. Three pleasures are explored in depth. These were known as the consuming passions which Plato believed everyone from the human race was susceptible t James Davidson writes about ancient history in a very interesting and compelling way. I know as much about ancient Greece as your average 4th grader, actually they'd probably know more, but I was interested in what social significance passions held for Athenians of that time. For once reading about economies had substance but wasn't a complete bore. Three pleasures are explored in depth. These were known as the consuming passions which Plato believed everyone from the human race was susceptible to from birth: eating, drinking and sex. The Greeks had a lot of anxiety about turning these necessities into pleasures. You couldn't escape them, but you should regulate and control them. This ancient world is obviously foreign to our own, they had very different views about addiction for instance, but it still feels incredibly familiar and its interesting to think about our own anxieties regarding desires, consumption and social hierarchies.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jocelyn

    I'm not qualified to judge whether Davidson interprets the orators and playwrights correctly, but his interpretation sure is interesting and nicely written. He writes about the politics and economics of desire -- especially for food, drink, and sex. What I learned: that a moral code based on moderation is a natural by-product of Athenian democracy; that excess was seen as a threat to democracy and a precursor of tyrrany; that fish was a valuable commodity in Athens not only because it was yummy I'm not qualified to judge whether Davidson interprets the orators and playwrights correctly, but his interpretation sure is interesting and nicely written. He writes about the politics and economics of desire -- especially for food, drink, and sex. What I learned: that a moral code based on moderation is a natural by-product of Athenian democracy; that excess was seen as a threat to democracy and a precursor of tyrrany; that fish was a valuable commodity in Athens not only because it was yummy but also because it was portioned out according to market prices rather than portioned out equally by a priest who had sacrificed it; that where power was held by free, male citizens, the important social distinctions were Greek/barbarian, male/female, and free/slave. Not to mention all kinds of interesting tidbits about drinking-parties, taverns, escorts, and street-walkers.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sean

    The dustjacket might lead you to believe that this is a fun bit of pop history (come for the sex, stay for the fish!), but Courtesans and Fishcakes reads more like a doctoral dissertation. How's that, you ask? Well, try this on for size: "Even undisputed commodities had a use for the discourse of commodification. They could use it to isolate and detach some discrete commodity separate from their own commodified selves, although it is not always clear what it is." Clear, indeed. Scholar-jargon asi The dustjacket might lead you to believe that this is a fun bit of pop history (come for the sex, stay for the fish!), but Courtesans and Fishcakes reads more like a doctoral dissertation. How's that, you ask? Well, try this on for size: "Even undisputed commodities had a use for the discourse of commodification. They could use it to isolate and detach some discrete commodity separate from their own commodified selves, although it is not always clear what it is." Clear, indeed. Scholar-jargon aside, this book is a great deal of fun, and a fine reminder that, despite the affinity we feel for the Greeks, in many ways they're quite alien to us. Topics covered include sex and sexuality, eating and drinking, politics and democracy, and urges, willpower, and the constant struggle to master the baser elements of human nature.

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