Taste or Taboo: Dietary choices in antiquity

Taste or Taboo: Dietary choices in antiquity

Michael Beer

Language: English

Pages: 152


Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

This book looks at the way in which food was employed in Greek and Roman literature to impart identity, whether social, individual, religious or ethnic. In many instances these markers are laid down in the way that foods were restricted, in other words by looking at the negatives instead of the positives of what was consumed. Michael Beer looks at several aspects of food restriction in antiquity, for example, the way in which they eschewed excess and glorified the simple diet; the way in which Jewish dietary restriction identified that nation under the Empire; the way in which Pythagoreans denied themselves meat (and beans); and the way in which the poor were restricted by economic reality from enjoying the full range of foods. These topics allow him to look at important aspects of Graeco-Roman social attitudes. For example, republic virtue, imperial laxity, Homeric and Spartan military valour, social control through sumptuary laws, and answers to excessive drinking. He also looks closely at the inherent divide of the Roman world between the twin centres of Greece and Rome and how it is expressed in food and its consumption.


















fatten the body, it enfeebles the soul and intellect.75 Appetite should be restrained as an act of will. Hunger sharpens the mind and its satiation may serve to dull the wits. This view was echoed later by Clement of Alexandria.76 The ability of a restricted and meat-free diet to facilitate the cognitive processes has appeal to pagan and Christian traditions. The belief that the route to the divine is through the exercise of pure intellectual activity, unencumbered by the concerns of the body,

that any living being could potentially house the soul of a human. However, the Pythagorean biographical texts were confused over the status of fish within diet. Fish were perceived as occupying a position that was analo-gous to, but separate and distinct from meat, since not all fish were regarded as forbidden.32 Avoidance of meat was a necessary precaution against inadvertent cannibalism but the attitude to fish was ambivalent. Again, a factor that may have counted against fish was their taste

limitations on their diet? In modern industrialized Western nations, the raisons d’être are diverse. One that springs to mind is the widespread preoccupation with body image, arguably one of the principal methods by which modern Westerners achieve self-definition. Portentous government warnings about increasing levels of both juvenile and adult obesity (with the attendant health risks) coupled with the recurrent presentation in the mass media of aspirational images of youthful,

a different set of habits and preconceptions.17 Although in the discussion which follows there are many instances of people counselling against excessive drinking, there is not a lot of hard evidence from ancient sources for the existence of acute or chronic alcoholism or deaths from liver or brain damage. Authors talk of crippling hangovers and the nausea that tended to follow extended drinking bouts, but evidence of more serious health problems is anecdotal at best. One may cite the tales of

Ferguson, J. (1980) Greek and Roman Religion, Park Ridge, NJ. Ferguson, W.S. (1911) Hellenistic Athens, London. Figueira, T.J. (1984) ‘Mess Contributions and Subsistence at Sparta’, 87–109, in Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974–), Vol. 114. Finley, M.I. (1973) The Ancient Economy, London. Fisher, N.R.E. ‘Drink, Hybris and the Promotion of Harmony in Sparta’, 26–50, in Powell (1988). Fisher, N. ‘Symposiasts, Fish-Eaters and Flatterers: Social Mobility and Moral

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