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Courtesans & Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens Hardcover – August, 1998
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Desire is a dangerous thing, and the relationship between the citizens of ancient Athens and their desires was a complex and troubled one. 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. --Simon Leake
From Publishers Weekly
British historian Davidson takes us inside classical Greece's brothels, bedrooms, drinking parties and banquets in this rarefied scholarly inquiry. His aim is not merely to depict Athenians as pleasure seekers but to overturn the current notion, purveyed by Michel Foucault and others, that Athens was a "phallocratic" society permeated with an ethos of penetration and domination, a homosexual-leaning culture polarized between adult male citizens and all others?slaves, women, boys, foreigners. He largely succeeds on all counts, bringing to convivial life a predominantly heterosexual society where classes mingled easily; cultured courtesans bedded leading figures like Pericles and Alcibiades; and wives participated fully in sexual pleasures. Drawing on ancient treatises, pamphlets, comic plays, poems and speeches, Davidson investigates the classical Greeks' indulgences, including their mania for eating fish?a luxury viewed as hedonistic?and their tolerance for booze and sex (though sex addicts were considered to have a lower capacity to resist the natural pleasures). His intriguing study serves up a banquet of arcane lore. Illustrations.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
The author explores the roles of food, drink, and sex to provide social and political insights in ancient Greece. Most would not consider looking for big picture lessons by studying public and private means that commoners, courtesans, and commanders satisfied their primitive instincts. But their are insights that Davidson provides by just such an approach. I now have numerous reasons to question many of my beliefs of Greek as only pugnacious and terribly staid scholarly chaps. Davidson's book opens a door into a fascinating approach to history. I will await his next volume.
The way he describes a drinking party – you might just feel that you're sitting right there...with images from which cups were used, how much wine was poured to what was done between eating and the drinking part like hand-washing and applying perfume. But its not too much about the actual parties, courtesans (“hetairai”) and fish – its about the symbolism and cultural norms associated with the enjoyment of those pleasures. Take, for instance, that the very sign of an urbanity in Athens was knowing which fish to prefer in the marketplace.
The words and divisions they employed tell us about what they held to be important – on top of drinks, there wasn't just food, but two foods, the staple bread (“sitos”) and what you ate with it (“opson”). The staple was eating with the left hand, the 'opson' from the right. The specifics of eating go down to the very fingers used to eat - children were taught to use one finger for kept fish and two for fresh fish.
When it came to fish, it went to the extent of having marine metaphors as a tradition to describe the atmosphere created by men in the Symposium. The details of sympotic life are vivid, the symposiarch would often dictate the pace of drinking in the symposium and the 'wine-watchers' (“oinoptai”) would make sure everyone drank the same amount. As an opposite, the tavern (most similar to a modern bar) is described with having wine as a consumer item, where it is bought, served individually (not shared in a “krater”). Here, wine was used by people to get drunk instead of being the facilitator of conversation in a social event.
If you're looking for any ideas on how culture has an impact on economics in some subtle yet fundamental ways - there are a few insights as novel as how Greek morality (“degrees of pleasure” vs. the Biblical “do or not do”) was inherently shaped in a way that allowed for money as way to measure and go side-by-side with the intensity of pleasure desired. His ideas don't stop there...
We hear all about Athenian democracy in the history books – but it feels abstract, Davidson really tells us how deep rooted this notion was in their life. Small fishes that added to diet were affordable by everyone including workers, and the courtesans may just have been cheap enough for slaves to afford them. Furthermore, it was a fundamentally libertarian society – there were no land registers and the attestation of others determined property rights, neither was there a main prosecution service, crimes were bought to notice by anyone, and these people were rewarded for doing so. Taxes too were determined by appearances and snooping into people's lives – not through accounting.
The absence of a powerful state doesn't alone explain their equality – equality wouldn't really be the right word - more like being class unconscious: simply affording better eel, wine or women didn't divide people into two classes. Instead, comedies and plays used pleasure as a force to unite people into recognizing their common basic instincts (and the common battle of evading excess pleasure) instead of dividing people on the basis of the levels of pleasure they could afford. Furthermore, a large spectrum of people afforded enough leisure time to contribute to democratic institutions, the main divide wasn't between Athenians but from them and women, slaves and foreigners , wealth was recognized in individuals and not families since people would take on their father's name and did not have a family name. Instead of the traditional rich-poor distinction, the main distinctions were young-old, country-urban and speakers-spoken to - all making modern class analysis useless in regards to understanding classical Athens.
Returning to his original theme of pleasure and connecting it to politics, to Davidson, a major part of Athenian democracy was an inherent fear of totalitarianism. In most literary references, tyranny is not associated with restrictive policies but the lifestyle of the tyrant. The tyrant was one who couldn't control his desires and went to excess – Alcibiades was said to have violated the democratic lines of the drinking parties by making himself leader and by drinking straight out of the cooler before wine was mixed with water. Thus, Davidson manages to link the way people treated pleasure in Athens, the way they feared excess and attributed the tyrant's personality to succumbing to excess – as being the basis of resisting tyranny in the first place, ultimately allowing for a grassroots democracy.
Observations like the one above aren't rare in the book, and I can't describe how much one can learn through this book. It is original, terribly interesting and he writes with such acuity that he will make sure you wouldn't want to touch the plain ol' history textbook – this book is golden!
Still, this is a fascinating history. If you enjoy cultural history, then being able to learn about the motivations of the Athenians during this period is something you will enjoy. Its a window into these peoples' lives and serves to humanize them. Political history is great, but this cultural history actually allows you to see how the Greeks thought about their world by looking at a subject matter that remains relevant to us more than two thousand years later.
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