Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 3.
Food in Antiquity edited by John Wilkins, David Harvey and Mike Dobson, with a Foreword by Alan Davidson. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. Pp. xiii + 440, incl. an index of texts cited, a general index, chapter bibliographies, 1 map, and 16 figures. ISBN 0-85989-418-5. UKú35.00.
University of Louisville, Kentucky
This thick volume offers a mixed fare of 32 scholarly articles on food in the classical world, with a few exotic items thrown in to spice the pot. The articles derive from papers presented at an Exeter University symposium, and while most of the authors are British there is a healthy mixture of Italians, Israelis, Germans, French, Dutch, and Americans as well. The editors have mustered the various offerings under six headings: Cereals and Staples; Meat and Fish; The Social and Religious Context of Food and Eating; Beyond the Greco-Roman World; Food and Medicine; and Food and Literature.
As recently as 1969 it was possible for a pair of authors to attempt a synthesis of the entire field of ancient food with the identically named volume in the Ancient Peoples and Places series.[] In the intervening years an explosion of specialist studies has put such an overview beyond the reach of a single book. For better or worse the center can no longer be found, either as a subject or a point of view, and we must content ourselves with minute inspection of the splinters and shards into which it has been broken down.
Certainly this intellectual banquet includes something for every taste. The art historian can enjoy Brian Sparkes' survey of fishers and fishmongers on Attic and South Italian vases (pp. 150-61), while Nicholas Purcell ('The paradoxes of seafood') caters to cultural historians of the French school (pp. 132-49). Prehistoric and experimental archaeology is represented by Peter Reynolds' report on Celtic farming and cookery (pp. 303-15); molecular genetics by Robert Sallares' update on the DNA of ancient grains (pp. 87-101). There are even a few old recipes for the practical chef to sample, including Apician sauce (Jon Solomon [pp. 115-31]), Byzantine porridge (Stephen Hill and Anthony Bryer [pp. 44- 54]), Roman bread (Anthony Cubberly [pp. 55-68]), Greek pancakes (John Wilkins and Shaun Hill [pp. 429- 38]), and a duckling stew from Bronze Age Mesopotamia (Jean Bottero [pp. 248-255).
The rather random research interests of the scholars invited to the symposium have resulted in some surprising omissions. Thus we have an exhaustive study of acorns in ancient diet (Sarah Mason [pp. 12- 24]) but none on olives; Archestratos on fish (Andrew Dalby [pp. 400-12]) but not Oppian; Black Sea fish trade (David Braund [pp. 162-71]) but not Black Sea grain trade; and articles on Athenian parasites (Louise Bruit Zaidman [pp. 196-203]), Athenian opsophagists (James Davidson [pp. 204-13]), Athenian comic texts (Dwora Gilula [pp. 386-99]), Athenian cult history (Gerhard Baudy [pp. 177-95]) and an imaginary Athenian banquet in 122 hexameters (Enzo Degani [pp. 413-28]) but no straightforward account of the average Athenian diet. The editors have done their best to fill the gaps with general introductions to each of the six parts, but the picture remains not just a mosaic but a mosaic with important chunks missing altogether.
Thus 'Food in Antiquity' is a book for specialists and scholars, despite the glossy textbook-like design and Wilkins' hopeful claim that 'we write for a diverse public, for the general reader as well as for the Classicist' (p. 1). Those rare classicists who study ancient food will have bought this volume already -- indeed most of them probably attended the original symposium. Should their colleagues who labor in other parts of the vineyard invest in the book? The answer must be 'Yes'. Whatever its limitations or obscurities, 'Food in Antiquity' will prove a valuable addition to the libraries of most classicists. The chapter bibliographies are an exhaustive source of information on recent scholarship and on arcane Greek and Latin authors. The articles include intriguing examples of ancient practices related to modern Mediterranean culture (K.D. White on baking [pp. 38- 43]; Hamish Forbes and Lin Foxhall on peasant food storage [pp. 69-88]; Veronika Grimm on fasting women [pp. 225-41]). And the professor seeking new ingredients for either courses on Ancient Civilization or seminars on current hot topics will be well served by the book's cross-over articles on women's studies (Helen King [pp. 351-58]), ethnic frontiers (Mario Lombardo [pp. 256-72]), health and healing (Elizabeth Craik, Vivian Nutton, Catherine Osborne, and Mark Grant [pp. 343-50, 359-70, 214- 24]), and the 'Black Athena' debate on African and Asian influences in classical culture (David Harvey on Lydia, Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg on Persia, and Shimon Dar on Palestine [pp. 273-85, 286-302, 326- 36]).
Beyond these, special mention must be made of three outstanding contributions which deserve the widest possible readership: Dorothy Thompson's 'Food for Ptolemaic temple workers' (pp. 316-25), Joan Frayn's 'The Roman meat trade' (pp. 107-14), and Thomas Braun's 'Barley cakes and emmer bread' (pp. 25-37). In these elegantly written essays the authors have ranged widely over the fields of archaeology, ethnography, history and philology to illuminate a number of ancient texts. Theirs is the traditional skill of the classical scholar, and their achievement reaffirms the value of study and training in our much-embattled field.
[] Don and Patricia Brothwell, Food in Antiquity (London 1969).