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Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (1997)

af James Davidson

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingSamtaler / Omtaler
6951625,130 (3.96)1 / 36
A brilliantly entertaining and innovative history of the ancient Athenians' consuming passions for food, wine and sex. Sex, shopping and fish-madness, Athenian style. This fascinating book reveals that the ancient Athenians were supreme hedonists. Their society was driven by an insatiable lust for culinary delights - especially fish - fine wine and pleasures of the flesh. Indeed, great fortunes were squandered and politicians' careers ruined through ritual drinking at the symposium, or the wooing of highly-coveted, costly prostitutes. James Davidson brings an incisive eye and an urbane wit to this refreshingly accessible and different history of the people who invented Europe, democracy and art.… (mere)
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Engelsk (15)  Svensk (1)  Alle sprog (16)
Viser 1-5 af 16 (næste | vis alle)
"The Greeks imposed few rules from outside, but felt a civic responsibility to manage all appetites, to train themselves to deal with them, without trying to conquer them absolutely."
...---...
"It is a long time since the Greeks were viewed as guiltless pagan pleasure-seekers and I would not like to propose their approach to appetite as an alternative to our own. It may have been less dogmatic, but it was also more totalitarian and at times much more intense."

Insightful and entertaining stuff bringing to life ancient Athenian texts. Fish was in the world of gourmandise as opposed to meat which was sacrificial and shared out absolutely equally. The author discounts Foucault's penetrator/penetree reading, this was a relief as what little I'd heard of that hadn't made any sense to me. ( )
  Je9 | Aug 10, 2021 |
Although I love ancient Greece, I am about sick of fish and floozies after this. Actually this is a well researched sociological take on Greek society viewed through the lens of food and women. To the Greeks, too much fish consumption was comparable to addiction and made one prone to do all sorts of unacceptable things. The number of ways women could be categorized, to keep them under control and in their place, boggles the mind. Sex was dissected into proper and improper sorts with rule, etiquette and consequences for violators.It would have been hard to keep up with. It makes one think the Greeks are the source of many of our modern woes. ( )
  varielle | May 4, 2018 |
There is nothing new under the sun. About a month ago, in a thread chronicling the adventures of Governor Spitzer, the following editorial comment was quoted:


"I suspect that what makes a prostitute worth $5,500 an hour is that she costs $5,500 an hour."


In this book, author James Davidson describes the economics of hetaerae in Classical Athens as a sort of conspicuous consumption; if you could afford one of the highest priced ones, you had it made.


I’ve been used to books about classical Greece that discuss warfare and art and politics; this one is different in that it talks about day-to-day activities: eating, drinking, and sex. The Athenians took “moderation in all things” quite seriously. This made it kind of tricky for the upper class: you had to demonstrate to your friends that you could throw expensive symposia with Chian wine and fancy fish dishes and lots of flute girls and cithara boys; at the same time you had to keep the democratic populace from becoming too suspicious of your wealth. (If you were not rich enough but still wanted to be convivial, there were “bring your own bottle/fish/flute girl/philosopher” symposia). The Athenian state financial system was rather bizarre by our standards – there were no income or property taxes. Instead, wealthy – or presumed wealthy – citizens were selected by lot and required to finance a religious festival or a trireme. If the lucky winner protested that he didn’t have enough, the antidote was the antidotis; another Athenian who had been called upon for public finance and paid could request the defaulter to swap property. Apparently this always worked; at least there’s no evidence of anybody taking the offer (this implies that Athenians had a pretty good idea of what their neighbors were worth). This system may have contributed to the popularity of wine, women, and song: most wealthy Athenians had relatively modest physical property – estates and clothing and such; instead their wealth went to the symposium/potlatch – buying real estate would have just advertised it whereas with drinking parties you could at least hope to be unnoticed (there was even a Greek word – katapepaiderastekenai – meaning “to have wasted an estate in affairs with boys”. This ought to be useful the next time you want to deliver a deadly insult without the recipient having a clue what you're talking about).


There’s a lot more to this book than the little I’ve mentioned here; Davidson is an amusing writer while being very scholarly, and goes into considerable detail on Athenian law and politics as they relate to his subjects. There’s a surprising amount to be learned, and much that throws light on the “higher” elements of Athenian culture – especially the comic plays and law courts. (A warning: Davidson quotes Aristophanes and other Greek authors literally, rather than with the usual euphemisms you see in most English translations, and there’s lot of four-letter words. Do not give this book to your twelve-year-old to help with a school assignment on ancient history unless you are prepared to answer some interesting questions). ( )
2 stem setnahkt | Dec 6, 2017 |
Fascinating exploration by James Davidson of Athenian ideas on the bodily pleasures: food, drink, and sex and what over-indulgence in them was thought to say about a man's (and we are mainly talking about the citizen men here because that's what we know about) character in a world with no hard-and-fast rules forbidding pleasures but where how much you indulged yourself was under continuous scrutiny from your peers. ( )
  Robertgreaves | Jun 2, 2017 |
The lifestyle of the classical Greeks often seems disappointingly modest when compared to those of other legendary civilizations. Where are the marble floors, the pillared halls, the gilden rooms? Even the Athenians, the richest and most poweful of the Greeks, were said by one contemporary to dress no better than slaves.

Athenians, however, were as skilled at spending as their playwrights were at devising tragedies. Vast estates vanished overnight, squandered not on material luxury but on eating, drinking, and sex--ephemeral pleasures that left no monuments but are recounted in numerous ancient texts.

Much of what they describe seems familiar--the pleasures of wine, the dangers of seduction, a mouthwatering plate of squid--but some stories are more puzzling: savages on the shores of the Persian Gulf who live off bread made of fish-flour; Alexander the Great drinks a toast that kills him; Socrates interrogates a beautiful woman who lives in luxury with no obvious means of support.

James Davidson masterfully unravels these strange anecdotes, casting new light not only on ancient pleasures but on the Ancient World as a whole. Full of intriguing detail and perspicacious insight, Courtesans and Fishcakes takes swipe at the old scholarship (Freud, Nietzsche, Foucault) and lays the groundwork for the new, delivering a fascinating and engagingly written study of the hedonism that ruled Athens.

Amazon.com Review

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.
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A brilliantly entertaining and innovative history of the ancient Athenians' consuming passions for food, wine and sex. Sex, shopping and fish-madness, Athenian style. This fascinating book reveals that the ancient Athenians were supreme hedonists. Their society was driven by an insatiable lust for culinary delights - especially fish - fine wine and pleasures of the flesh. Indeed, great fortunes were squandered and politicians' careers ruined through ritual drinking at the symposium, or the wooing of highly-coveted, costly prostitutes. James Davidson brings an incisive eye and an urbane wit to this refreshingly accessible and different history of the people who invented Europe, democracy and art.

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