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Courtesans and Fishcakes has ratings and 51 reviews. Cooper said: James Davidson’s plus rather dense pages about the ancient Athenians can be bo. J. N. DAVIDSON: Courtesans and Fishcakes: the Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. Pp. xxvi + , map, pls. London: HarperCollin. Cased,? Athenians, the richest and most powerful of the Greeks, were as Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens.

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As any reader of the Symposium knows, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates conversed over lavish banquets, kept watch on who was eating too much fish, and imbibed liberally without ever getting drunk.

In ocnsuming words, James Davidson writes, he reflected the culture of ancient Greece in which he lived, a culture of passions and pleasures, of food, drink, and sex before—and in concert with—politics and principles. Athenians, the richest and most powerful of the Greeks, were as skilled at consuming as their playwrights were at devising tragedies. Weaving together Greek texts, critical theory, and witty anecdotes, this compelling and accessible study teaches the reader a great deal, not only about the banquets and temptations of ancient Athens, but also about how to read Greek comedy and history.

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An amazing work of linguistic, historical and literary analysis that gives incredible insights into classical Athens. It takes an incredible amount of skill and a great eye to capture attitudes from the language used in texts where there are no direct historical references.

Take, for instance, that the very sign of an urbanity in Athens was knowing which fish to prefer in the marketplace.

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The staple was eating with the left hand, the ‘opson’ from the right. The specifics of eating go down to the very fingers used to eat – children were taught to use one finger for kept fish and two for fresh fish. When it came to fish, it went to the extent of having marine metaphors as a tradition to describe the atmosphere created by men in the Symposium. Here, wine was used by people to get drunk instead of being the facilitator of conversation in a social event.


His ideas don’t stop there Small fishes that added to diet were affordable by everyone including workers, and the courtesans may just have been cheap enough for slaves to afford them. Instead, comedies and plays used pleasure as a force to unite people into recognizing their common basic instincts and the common battle of evading excess pleasure instead of dividing people on the basis of the levels of pleasure they could afford.

Furthermore, a large spectrum of people afforded enough leisure time to contribute to democratic institutions, the main divide wasn’t between Athenians but from them and women, slaves and foreignerswealth was recognized in individuals and not families since people would take on their father’s name and did not have a family name. Instead of the traditional rich-poor distinction, the main distinctions were young-old, country-urban and speakers-spoken to – all making modern class analysis useless in regards to understanding classical Athens.

Returning to his original theme of pleasure and connecting it to politics, to Davidson, a major part of Athenian democracy was an inherent fear of totalitarianism. In most literary references, tyranny is not associated with restrictive policies but the lifestyle of the tyrant. Observations like the one above aren’t rare in the book, and I can’t describe how much one can learn through this book.

Print on Demand Paperback Verified Purchase. James Davidson’s Courtesans and Fishcakes provides an “extracurricular” view of ancient Greek ways, manners, and mores. It is a work both enlightening and maddeningly unfocused having sources including the writings from ‘theatre’ and ‘traditional’ authors known for their more cerebral works.

The author is faced with the incredibly difficult dilemma of determining the genuineness of scenes that represent sincerity or comic parody. Davidson draws from the arts and artifacts of these worlds, and commentaries penned centuries after the collapse of Greek culture and economy as additional sources for his interpretations. The author explores the roles of food, drink, and sex to provide social and political insights in ancient Greece. Most would not consider looking for big picture lessons by studying public and private means that commoners, courtesans, and commanders satisfied their primitive instincts.

But their are insights that Davidson provides by just such an approach. I now have numerous reasons to question many of my beliefs of Greek as only pugnacious and terribly staid scholarly chaps.

Davidson’s book opens a door into a fascinating approach to history. I will await his next volume. Kindle Edition Verified Purchase. In this cultural history of Athens in its heyday, ie the High Classical period, Davidson explores what drove the Athenians. And what was it? Eating and drinking and sex. Specifically Davidson is looking at what the Greeks had to say about these pleasures. By exploring each in turn, Davidson is able to reconstruct what the Athens of this period was like.

Or at least some facets of this Athens. Davidson is able to illuminate this world by analyzing the plays of the Ancient Greeks that were written during this time. Sadly not all the plays of this period have survived so we don’t get the whole picture. And using plays that are comedic in itself can be considered a dangerous source as we don’t know what was true and what was hyperbole. Still, this is a fascinating history. If you enjoy cultural history, then being able to learn about the motivations of the Athenians during this period is something you will enjoy.


Its a window into these peoples’ lives and serves to humanize them. Political history is great, but this cultural history actually allows you to see how the Greeks thought about their world by looking at a subject matter that remains relevant to us more than two thousand years later. It’s difficult to find books on Ancient Greece that have a new or different slant, but Davidson’s book is full of interesting facts about how the Ancient Athenians ate and drank and how it tied into their social and political life.

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

I especially appreciated reading about Athenian taverns, as they don’t often come up in other sources. It gives a more complete picture of a regular citizen’s life in the polis. His constant contradictions of his own research makes it hard to take him seriously. Courtesans and Fishcakes, make no mistake about this, is a textbook. It is a very witty and readable textbook and at times it demands all your background in the classics to immerse connsuming in James Davidson’s absolutely alien landscape.

He is utterly original in his ability to help us put aside 21st century experiences and root around in the eating, mating, prostitution, friendship, tyranny, and socio-philosophical underpinnings of ancient Greece.

This is the one book that gives no quarter to the reader. You are made to understand that current morality does not apply to the subject matter of ancient Greece. This book will help you in all your other forays into the ancient classics. It will broaden your understanding of Greek plays, the Peloponnesian wars, Greek democracy so very different from ours and Fiwhcakes appetites, sexual and otherwise, of the ancients. Even if you are just a reader of historical fiction, your enjoyment level will be doubled by your encounter with this remarkable piece of scholarship.

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