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by James N. Davidson

A portrait of life in ancient Athens examines the hedonistic lifestyles of the Greeks, detailing the vice, excess, and ephemeral pleasures that marked the classical world
Download Courtesans & Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens epub
ISBN: 0312185596
ISBN13: 978-0312185596
Category: History
Subcategory: Ancient Civilizations
Author: James N. Davidson
Language: English
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1 Us ed edition (August 1, 1998)
Pages: 371 pages
ePUB size: 1826 kb
FB2 size: 1733 kb
Rating: 4.2
Votes: 977
Other Formats: docx mobi mobi rtf

An amazing work of linguistic, historical and literary analysis that gives incredible insights into classical Athens. Instead of being one of those dry histories with a list of events, figures and dates – this one is lively and “organic”, rooted in the way Athenians actually conducted their lives. It takes an incredible amount of skill and a great eye to capture attitudes from the language used in texts where there are no direct historical references. Davidson seems to do that effortlessly, capturing hints from a whole range of sources – and forming a beautiful picture using those fragments.

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!
James Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes provides an "extracurricular" view of ancient Greek ways, manners, and mores. It is a work both enlightening and maddeningly unfocused having sources including the writings from 'theatre' and 'traditional' authors known for their more cerebral works. The author is faced with the incredibly difficult dilemma of determining the genuineness of scenes that represent sincerity or comic parody. Davidson draws from the arts and artifacts of these worlds, and commentaries penned centuries after the collapse of Greek culture and economy as additional sources for his interpretations.

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.
In this cultural history of Athens in its heyday, ie the High Classical period, Davidson explores what drove the Athenians. And what was it? Eating and drinking and sex. Specifically Davidson is looking at what the Greeks had to say about these pleasures. By exploring each in turn, Davidson is able to reconstruct what the Athens of this period was like. Or at least some facets of this Athens. Davidson is able to illuminate this world by analyzing the plays of the Ancient Greeks that were written during this time. Sadly not all the plays of this period have survived so we don't get the whole picture. And using plays that are comedic in itself can be considered a dangerous source as we don't know what was true and what was hyperbole.

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.
It's difficult to find books on Ancient Greece that have a new or different slant, but Davidson's book is full of interesting facts about how the Ancient Athenians ate and drank and how it tied into their social and political life. I especially appreciated reading about Athenian taverns, as they don't often come up in other sources. It gives a more complete picture of a regular citizen's life in the polis.
His constant contradictions of his own research makes it hard to take him seriously.
Courtesans and Fishcakes, make no mistake about this, is a textbook. It is a very witty and readable textbook and at times it demands all your background in the classics to immerse yourself in James Davidson's absolutely alien landscape. He is utterly original in his ability to help us put aside 21st century experiences and root around in the eating, mating, prostitution, friendship, tyranny, and socio-philosophical underpinnings of ancient Greece. This is the one book that gives no quarter to the reader. You are made to understand that current morality does not apply to the subject matter of ancient Greece. This book will help you in all your other forays into the ancient classics. It will broaden your understanding of Greek plays, the Peloponnesian wars, Greek democracy (so very different from ours) and Greek appetites, sexual and otherwise, of the ancients. Even if you are just a reader of historical fiction, your enjoyment level will be doubled by your encounter with this remarkable piece of scholarship. Three thumbs up!