Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

by James Davidson

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-312-18559-6
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

The astonishing cultural legacy of ancient Athens can leave the impression that ordinary Athenians during the Golden Age spent their leisure-filled lives contemplating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This refreshing look at Greeks at play corrects that idea. By examining the pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex, Davidson is able to draw broader conclusions about the distinctiveness of Athenian culture as a whole. For instance, the author makes much of the Athenians’ obsessive predilection for fish: unlike beef or mutton, fish was not a sacrificial or religious food and could be enjoyed for its own qualities, and fish consumption became a hallmark of urban sophistication, if not decadence. Wine, he shows, was central to Athenian merry-making, though the ancients appear not to have recognized the addictive and destructive powers of drink. Davidson also discusses at length the complex world of Greek sexuality: in the male-dominated society of Athens, an active commercial market in sex, the subjects of which were women classified as concubines or courtesans (decent women were so secluded that they seemed invisible), coexisted with a flourishing homosexual culture. Athenian attitudes toward pleasure had pervasive political implications as well: the pleasure-seeking class was the powerful minority, and excessive pleasure-seeking, or pleasure of the wrong kind, could emerge as a public issue when the private lives of public figures were scrutinized (Davidson discusses the trial of the politician Timarchus in 346 b.c. for having served as a prostitute). In the end, Davidson argues, the Athenian approach to pleasure, for all its flaws, “was vigorously rationalistic and humane . . . confident enough to insist on personal responsibility in managing appetites, never so frightened of pleasures as to flee them in panic.” Scholarly but accessible to the general reader, especially enjoyable in its use of snippets from classical texts to evoke the quotidian world of ancient Athens. (8 pages b&w photos)