Book Review: ‘Courtesans and Fishcakes’, by James Davidson

The past, said L.P. Hartley, is a different country. They do things differently there.

So it’s appropriate, then, that Courtesans and Fishcakes, James Davidson’s 1998 work on food, drink and sex in Ancient Greece (“The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens”, as the subtitle asserts jauntily), takes as its specific project the distancing of its main players, the men of Athens in the years 508–322 BC, from its readers, the women and men of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. The Athenians, he tells us, were not “just like us”, as countless hundreds of social historians historical novels would have us believe. Nor, however, is their society a completely alien one, incomprehensible to all but the most immersed of scholars. They are best seen, perhaps, as a species of strange cousin, the kind you don’t tell your friends about and whom you only see at Christmas.

Possibly the most important component of this distancing is Davidson’s rebuttal of what he sees as the modern obsession with sex as an ideologically unbalanced act. Davidson is at his best here, rebutting Michel Foucault’s infamous and apparently  fictitious theory of Greek sexuality – whereby you (“you” being, of course, male, native to Greece and Not A Slave) could sleep with whomever you liked, providing you were the, ahem, active party – with easy, sardonic humour and replacing it with a new, context-based understanding of the subject: the shame attached by the Greeks to sex was not connected to passivity but to excess, to a lack of moderation.

The same goes for Greek attitudes to food and drink. We might more clearly identify with their comedic and political derision for obesity and drunkenness, except that the Greeks had no concept, apparently, of addiction: overindulgence was simply that, a dangerous weakness of will, an inability to control appetite. This doesn’t stop Davidson describing all the food in maddeningly delicious detail. The Athenians were fond of fish, it seems, to an extent that seems obsessive by modern standards. But, of course, that’s the point: the Athenian approach to desire was not a modern one, and we should stop trying to see it as such. Ultimately, what Courtesans and Fishcakes demonstrates is that the drive to make everything about us is damaging, not only to academic discourse but to our understanding of ourselves as humans in a changing world.

‘Courtesans and Fishcakes’, by James Davidson, was published in 1998 by Fontana Press.

Review by Hebe Stanton