Blog 62 18/12/2017 Ancient Greece: The Golden Age of the Banquet.
Ancient Greece: The Golden Age of the Banquet.
As it’s that time of year when we splash out on food and entertaining, usually to later regret our excesses, I thought I would look at feasting in ancient Greece and the golden age of the banquet which had its beginnings in the 5th c B.C. After centuries of spit-roasted meat, cooking became more refined and fish replaced meat as the main dish. Filet of bream, bass, tuna, and lobster with a vast array of molluscs, oysters, razor clams, sea urchins, and anything else one could offer. It was also the golden age of the fishmonger.
The Sicilian writer, Archestratus of Gela, in his “The Joys of Eating” – the ancient equivalent of the Michelin guide with its five stars, instructs the reader on not only how to cook each dish, e.g. how to cook a slice of tuna or make a pie out of odds and ends, but he also gives important advice on how to organize an elegant and lively party. This was a serious dining experience and a superhuman appetite was needed. So if you think the fine art of entertaining and gastronomy is a relatively recent invention, think again. Any self-respecting socialite of the ancient world needed to follow this plethora of advice carefully in order to maintain his status in society. The dinner party was born. “Let all dine at a single daintily-furnished table. There should be three or four in all, or at the most not more than five. Else we should presently have a tentful of freebooters, robbers of victuals.” (Athenaeus 1. 4e)
Having assured that the menu was finalized and no freebooters would be in attendance, the host is informed that above all, one should not forget the wreaths for the guests’ heads. “Always crown yourself with a wreath of all the flowers that the happy earth produces and perfume your hair with distilled ointment.” Examples of these wreaths can be found in frescoes. They were an integral part of these gatherings and every guest wore one. They were not simply meant to look attractive, the fragrance was also important; fragrances that calmed headaches and guarded against intoxication from too much wine. Dionysus himself, a known party-lover, always wore a fresh green, ivy crown which gave immediate respite from the heat of wine and when pressed tightly against the temples, from headaches. Roses were considered a powerful sedative, marjoram numbed the mind, and henna, sage and saffron had restorative qualities and aided sleep. The guest needed to choose his wreath wisely.
As if the perfume of wreaths were not enough, during dinner other perfumes were also dispensed. To make absolutely sure the dining-room was well-prepared, it was infused with scent the day before. “Continue all day long to toss myrrh and frankincense (the fruits of sweet-smelling Syria) on soft ashes of the fire.” The perfuming of the home is still important in some countries even today. A few years ago I was in Khartoum, Sudan, and was fortunate enough to experience something similar. Various roots and seeds are bought in the markets solely for the purpose of perfuming the house. On entering the home – a mud-brick compound – the fragrance emanating from a charcoal burner filled the area. It was earthy and musky – unforgettable, and a scent I came to associate with that country. After we were seated, the lady of the house brought out a tray filled with small tulip-shaped glasses, tea, and a sorghum drink. She then proceeded to take each glass and hold it over a small burner filled with smoking, tiny, red seeds, and perfumed each one before filling it with the beverage. Not only was this ritual calming but it seemed to enhance the drink. After this experience, I can only imagine how wonderful the classical banquets would have been.
Of course, one could not hold a banquet without entertainment. The women who were permitted to enter, did so on a paid basis; musicians, dancers, and high-class prostitutes. Given their education and beauty, they added to the high spirits. An important part of the entertainment during this period was the symposium. The typical after-dinner festivity of snacking and wine-drinking began with the election of the symposiarch – a sort of Master of Ceremonies who facilitated the evening’s success. He was the arbitrator of toasts and kept an eye on how much each guest drank in order that no-one should get drunk and disrupt the party.
According to Athenaeus, “the temperate person limited himself to three diluted cups: one for the toast, one for love, and one for dreams. Those who stayed longer knew that the fourth cup led to violence, the fifth to rowdiness, the sixth to happy drunkenness, the seventh to laughter (the Greeks called this “to black eyes”), the eighth to policeman, the ninth to biliousness, and the tenth to insanity and the smashing of furniture.” No wonder the M.C. needed to be a man of discerning character. Eventually the banquet would wind up and guests would make their way back to their wives. The benevolent eye of Dionysus now ended happily under that of Aphrodite.
Perhaps we should leave the last word on feasting to Euridides’ Bacchus
“Wine, antidote to all woes, given as a gift to mortals. Without wine, love would not last and all other human joys would die.”
“Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece” by Eugenia Saltza Prina Ricotti
“The Classical Greek Cookbook” by Andrew Dalby and Salley Grainger
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