Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 24.

John M. Wilkins and Shaun Hill, Food in the Ancient World. Ancient Cultures Series. Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell, 2006. Pp. xvi + 300 pages, incl. 31 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 0-631-23550-7. UK£50.00.

Gina Salapata,
School of History, Philosophy and Classics, Massey University, New Zealand

The study of food and eating in ancient cultures is currently a very popular subject, as shown by many recent publications, two of which bear the same title as the book under review.[[1]] Indeed, types of foods available, nutrition, food preparation, eating habits, and food professions are not just inherently fascinating topics but also provide great insights into social structure.

Wilkins’ and Hill’s book investigates the complex role of food and eating in Greek and Roman culture (from Homeric times to the early Christian era), focusing on economy and social structure. Wilkins, who has written extensively on food in the ancient world, has contributed the bulk of the book and Hill, a distinguished chef and food writer, has written the brief introductions to the chapters, designed to connect ancient and modern cuisine, and the few recipes at the end. This is a strange mix that, although aimed at attracting a wider audience, will satisfy the academics more than the general public. The text draws mostly on literary evidence (mainly Galen, Athenaeus, Plutarch, and Pliny) but also on anthropological research and archaeological findings, and takes a comparative approach with later historical periods and today.

Since there is a lot of overlapping among chapters and many (irritating) repetitions, I will start with an overview of each chapter and then highlight some important issues.

Chapter 1 (pp. 4-38) surveys the role of food and diet, and explores the cultural interaction and exchange in food matters between the Greek and Roman world, such as the influences from outside brought about by travel and trade in food, technology, and even practices (like reclining that came from Assyria). Chapter 2 (pp. 41-78) addresses the social and political factors that influenced the production and consumption of foodstuff in both formal and everyday settings. Religious thought and practice in relation to food is the topic of the following chapter (pp. 81-109), in which Wilkins deals with sacrifice and eating during festivals and family celebrations of life stages. Chapter 4 (pp. 112-39) examines in detail cereals and pulses that formed the staple diet of all classes with some other additional protein. The preparation of these foods varied a lot and was as important as the type of cereal used for texture, taste and medical effects. In Chapter 5 (142-63) the author turns to meat and fish, including preserved versions that added to the commercial value and extended opportunities to eat meat beyond sacrifice. In the next chapter (pp. 166-84) wine and the social functions associated with drinking are explored. Wine drinking was widespread and linked with religious rituals, economy, and trade, and through the institution of the symposion with poetry, music, and philosophical reflection. The chapter also deals with the dangers of pleasure associated with drinking, reflected in rituals, myths, and poetry that urged restraint and self-control. Chapter 7 (pp. 187-210) presents ancient thought and philosophical debates on food and eating, including the place of animals and plants in the cosmic order and their relation to humans. It discusses ideas of food as an enemy that could turn from nourishment to seductive danger. Chapter 8 (pp. 213-44) deals with ancient medical theories on food, nutrition and health and emphasises the important role played by food in medicine. Since no viruses or microbes were known, the causes of bad health were attributed to food more than in the present day. Thus food was used for therapeutic purposes -- either through a change in diet or through certain foodstuff taken in concentrated form as drugs. The last chapter (pp. 247-76) discusses the use of food and eating in literature, focusing on genres such as epic and tragedy, where food and ways of eating were used to express identity and to identify correct and incorrect behaviour, and lower genres (satire and comedy), where rustic simplicity is often contrasted with urban corruption.

The authors rightly stress the role of geography and climate in creating regional variations in diet and cuisine (for example, east vs west, large urban centres vs countryside, mountains vs plain). They also trace the great diversity in customs, especially as the Greeks and Romans came into contact with other peoples. In fact, many new foods were introduced first for their medicinal properties and applications. Choices in diet depended on contemporary social and medical notions about what was best for the body, as well as seasonal availability and storage techniques. In general the ancients liked strong flavours that combined savoury with sweet.

There was a series of tensions in ancient thought associated with food; excess and sufficiency, usefulness and pleasure, simplicity and complexity. For example, while there was pressure for innovation and luxury in food, driven by the elite, philosophers and doctors praised simple local foods, and traditionalists, like Cato, pointed out the dangerous influences of imported foodstuff leading to barbarian luxury and excess.

Cookery books, originating in fourth-century Sicily, provided suggestions for a more tasty and refined food, but moralists warned about the dangers of desire, pleasure, and appetite, and preached self-control and constraint of bodily pleasures. Plato and Galen contrasted the useful doctor who prescribed food for health and the cook who aimed at pleasure. But at the same time it was acknowledged that tasty food, the goal of the cooks, did not conflict much with the doctors’ aim at benefits from foods, since it was accepted that unpleasant food was generally bad for digestion.

A major contribution of the book is its focus not just on the diet and cuisine of the elite but also of the common people. Interestingly, both classes ate a cereal-based diet supplemented by opsa (tasty additions of plants, fish, meat and animal products), but for the poor meat was a luxury rather than part of the everyday diet. In periods of food shortages before harvest or during serious famine the peasants often had to resort to lower status foods (like acorns), normally fed to animals, but nevertheless quite nutritional. Large-scale consumption of meat and fish and access to exotic imports was an indication of wealth. Fruit and vegetables were generally scorned since they lacked the status of meat and fish and provided less energy than cereals and pulses. In general, though, the ancients ate less (but a wider variety of) meat than today’s developed societies. The quality and quantity of the food eaten was not only determined by status but also by occupation and gender (for example, athletes and soldiers ate a high-calorie diet; women ate less and not as well as men and were more likely to be malnourished).

There are several shortcomings in the structure and format of this volume. The text does not always distinguish clearly between Greek and Roman material, so one is not always sure if the statements apply to one or both cultures. For example, on p. 67 it is not clear if bars and taverns existed in Greece since all examples are from the Roman world. The book ends quite abruptly with no conclusion or summary. The recipes (only three!) at the end are neither very exciting nor complete (no method is given for the olive spread).[[2]] A glossary would have been very useful for little known foodstuff like einkorn. Most importantly, the index is inconsistent and incomplete: for example, there is no entry for important items like pomegranate and plakous, but there are entries for innovation, dolphin, tissues of body, and even Thailand! And why would cumin deserve a place but not coriander which is mentioned along with cumin in the text? The goddess Carna who is mentioned on at least four different occasions in the text is missing from the index.[[3]]

In general, this volume provides a wealth of information that adds to our understanding of the social role played by food and feasting in the Greek and Roman world. But despite Hill’s non-academic contributions, this is a book for specialists, not the general public.


[[1]] J.P. Alcock, Food in the Ancient World (Westport, CT 2006); A. Dalby, Food in the Ancient World from A to Z (London and New York 2003).

[[2]] For a much larger collection of original Roman recipes and their adaptations for the modern cook, see P. Faas, Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome (New York 2003).

[[3]] Of the several typographical errors, only one may create confusion: dining on couches did not move eastwards (p. 68) but westwards. Other inaccuracies and mistakes are more serious: for example, heroes are not deified human beings (p. 88); the vase on p. 148 fig. 5.2 is not a mixing bowl but an amphora; the cult of the Bacchanalia suppressed by the Senate in 186 BC was not only female (p. 168); the first example given for the statement that ‘gods ate in similar social contexts like humans’ (p. 109) is the wedding feast of Lapiths and Centaurs, neither of whom were gods.