Food and Society in Classical Antiquity

Food and Society in Classical Antiquity

Food and Society in Classical Antiquity

Food and Society in Classical Antiquity


This is a broad-based, comprehensive general study of food in antiquity. The book deals with food as food or nutrition, the discussion revolving around the concrete issues of food availability and the nutritional status of the population. It also treats the nonfood uses of food, focusing on the role of food in forming and marking the social hierarchy. Food defines the group, whether social, religious, philosophical or political.


Greeks and Romans, rich or poor, were obsessed with food. For most people, life was a perpetual struggle for survival. Among the well-off minority, there developed an elaborate haute cuisine, and, in reaction, a rhetoric (and in certain contexts, a practice) of rejection or continence, in the service of politics, morality, philosophy, religion or health.

This book presents food as a biocultural phenomenon. Food is at once nutrition, needed by the body for its survival, and cultural object, with various non-food uses and associations. Food functions as a sign or means of communication. It governs human relationships at all levels. Food serves to bind together people linked by blood, religion or citizenship; conversely, it is divisive, beingdistributed and consumed in accordance with existinghierarchies.

Historians and archaeologists have long been interested in the material aspects of food in classical antiquity. They have traced the origins, diffusion and evolution of particular foodstuffs and catalogued and discussed what was eaten, from where it came, how it was produced and distributed, how it was processed and cooked. Their findings form part of the background of my research, and to some extent I have followed in their footsteps. Some of the early chapters of this book reflect my previous work on systems of production and distribution, and patterns of consumption duringtimes of both relative normality and stress. But I go on here to pose the question of food-availability. Did ancient populations get enough of their staple foods to provide the food-energy and protein requirements for good health, and were the deficiencies of their staples in certain vital proteins and vitamins made up by complementary foods? I develop a thesis which is likely to be controversial on the nutritional status of the population, with the aid of evidence not normally adduced.

A less traditional interest, which marks some recent work by a new generation of historians, lies in the social, religious and cultural functions of food and its metaphorical uses. Their explorations have . . .

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