John M. Wilkins & Shaun Hill, Food in the Ancient World

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John M. Wilkins & Shaun Hill, Food in the Ancient World. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006. Pp. 300. ISBN 0-631-23550-7. 55.00 [pounds sterling]/$70.95 (hardback), 17.99 [pounds sterling]/$29.95 (paperback).

This attractive volume is a worthy contribution to the series Ancient Cultures, which aims to present 'enjoyable, straightforward surveys of key themes in ancient culture' to new-comers to the study of the ancient world. A short time-line, map of the Mediterranean and excellent illustrations of animals and plants from Dioscorides (ed. A. Matthioli, 1598) and of culinary realia add to the book's usefulness and appeal. Each chapter, written by Wilkins (W.), Professor of Greek Culture at Exeter, is preceded by a short introduction by Hill (H.), chef and Honorary Research Fellow at Exeter. A comprehensive Bibliography (281-89), an Index (290-300) and three recipes (277-80) appear at the end.

In the Introduction to Chapter 1 ('An Overview of Food in Antiquity, 1-38), H. touches on various aspects of the ancient culinary world: the different preferences of the wealthier and poorer classes; the influence of changing social and economic conditions, fashion, medical considerations and food prejudices determined by religious belief; the strictly seasonal availability of food and the limited storage facilities and preservation methods; the absence of tomatoes, peppers, maize and chillies; the lack of cookery manuals and scarcity of recipes (the chefs being illiterate); the unfamiliar tastes and textures (e.g. garum, likened to Thai Nam Pla) and the fondness for rank flavours (e.g. cheese) and sweet (honey, dried fruit), strong spices (asafoetida) and herbs (hyssop) to improve often bland food; and the role of inns, private dinners and street food.

Chapter 1 (4-38) proper offers a historical framework (750 BC-AD 200) with the main focus on Greece and Rome and their cultural interaction, but with due attention to exchanges through trade and travel with other regions (4-7). The evidence and problems of interpretation are then discussed (7-17). The main sources are Plutarch's Sympotica, Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae and Galen's On the Powers of Foods, as well as sympotic literature and archaeology (e.g. interesting observations on diet and diseases from the bones of a Late Minoan III cemetery at Armenoi, near Rethymnon and from Grave Circle B at Mycenae). Other literary sources are the casual references to eating and drinking encountered everywhere in Greek and Latin literature and technical treatises: cookery books (first written by the Greeks in the 4th century BC), works on the rustic agricultural world (Cato, Varro and Columella, Hesiod's Works and Days), technical treatises on food and medicine (Aristotle, Theophrastus), works on zoology, botany, cities, agriculture, travel, geography, the encyclopedic works (Pliny the Elder), and Porphyry's treatise On Abstinence (3rd century AD). The confused and confusing terminology in most of these sources makes only a broad treatment possible; the matter is further complicated by the vastness of the ancient world, its many cities and varied cultures, and the time-span. Perspective is gained by comparison with pre-modern shortages and modern Western culture, and by the cultural component of anthropology. After a section on the foods and drinks of the ancient diet (17-30), the chapter closes with mythological and poetic accounts of food for sustenance and healing as a civilising force in human development: the Golden Age, Prometheus, Heracles, Demeter, Persephone and Triptolemus, and Dionysus (30-38).

The Introduction of Chapter 2 ('The Social Context of Eating', 39-78) surveys the diets of the rural poor, with their starch-based diet of porridge and flatbreads, supplemented with herbs, salads and milk, and of the urban poor who relied on street food, occasional fish and game. The cooking methods were simple and practical, using olive oil, garum and wine. …