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


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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.
  GalenWiley | Apr 5, 2015 |
Always a good read. See status updates for more detail. ( )
  comixminx | Apr 5, 2013 |
As a Classicist, I loved this book as in his introduction Davidson brilliantly talked about how difficult it can be to try and figure how things were and the choices scholars make between types of evidence. I would recommend that introduction to be read by anyone curious about the study of Ancient daily life as it aptly presents the complications and hierarchies that exist in the discipline. The book itself is a good balance of details to satisfy historians and a playful tone that makes it accessible to another reader. I would recommend this book to anyone trying to understand the culture that brought democracy into its place in the world. ( )
  katekf | May 26, 2012 |
There's a science publishing maxim that every equation you include halves your sales. I quite like an occasional equation, but something similar happens to my enjoyment every time a book uses the word "discourse". This is a good book, well written, obviously determined not just to be a series of lewd anecdotes, but in places it does make heavier weather of things than is quite necessary. Sometimes people who do Theory seem to think that they invented the concept of context. ( )
  annesadleir | Feb 5, 2011 |
Fascinating book about daily life in Athens, primarily the appetite of the Athenians for fish. ( )
  Welshwoman | Apr 15, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0006863434, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:40 -0400)

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