Courtesans and Fishcakes: Attitudes Towards Pleasure in Ancient Greece

It’s the right time for another cultural history. The only kind worth reading.

Courtesans and Fishcakes is a book by Ancient Greek historian James Davidson (that is to say, historian of Ancient Greece, rather than from, obviously) strikingly similar to Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre, which I spoke about at some length a few months ago. It deals in the same manner (starting with an anecdote, and using it to explain a worldview) with the eating, drinking, whoring, and spending habits of ancient Athenians in the classical period.

The two books share structures. Davidson follows Darnton in starting with small, seemingly inconsequential episodes, and gradually expanding to cover the political structure of Athenian democracy, through a haze of wine, women, and other pleasures. He peppers the whole sordid affair with tales from the lives of famous hetaera,  playwrights and philosophers, and people with a seemingly bizarre fascination with seafood.

Unfortunately, unlike Darnton, Davidson’s structure works only on a second read or from a previously educated perspective. The layman will be initially lost in accounts of the legal battles between Aeschinus and Timarchus, for example, until the final chapter, when their significance is finally made clear.

We begin with an explanation of the fetishistic attitude Greeks had towards fish. What distinguishes a tavern and a symposium? Then an explanation of the subtleties that separate a hetaera from a common prostitute, and these from a wife. The attitude towards the citizen as distinct from the women, slaves, and foreigners. How their attitudes fed into their politics. The subject matter gradually grows in importance until we have gone from discussing Philoxenus, the Kytherian poet who almost completely devoured a three foot long squid and received dyspepsia for his trouble, to the idea that a man such as Timarchus cannot be allowed to retain his position of power in government because he will cause a widespread fall into decadence.

Running throughout is an implicit indicator of a point Davidson only makes near the end: that the reason for radical Athenian democracy working as well as it did was that everyone in the city was essentially united by the dangers and attractions of pleasure. Everyone, from the lowest slave to Socrates, was able to appreciate the contents of the comedies and tragedies, their characters moaning about losing expensive fish, or having to deal with a particularly onerous goal standing in the way of some universal pleasure and so on. The key uniting factor in their democracy was a shared culture, to the extent that (Davidson claims) the Athenians ignored class almost to the extent that they were loath to acknowledge it.

It was also an interesting time for some Hellenic myth-busting. Davidson finds the time to do a little criticism of Foucault, specifically the way Foucault conceptualised the roles of sexual figures (evidence from vases, etc). Rather than allowing the sources to speak for themselves in context, Foucault applies a kind of psycho-sexual framework over everything and assumes that the passive role is the disrespected and weaker role while the active role is more manly. He assumes that this was the framework used at the time, based off Aeschinus’ speeches against Timarchus.

Students of history and even some dilettantes may have heard of this idea of the penetrative and receptive dichotomy before – it is false. What is so disrespectful about those examples of pleasure, what is so low about Timarchus’ behaviour, is not that he is receptive. It’s that he is what the modern world calls ‘thirsty’. So thirsty, in fact, that he is willing to engage in relations in the most simple, dirty, and quick way, the same method as the cheapest whores, Davidson reveals. Timarchus is unable to control his base desires; hence, he is unfit for office, says Aeschinus.

Interestingly, Davidson deviates somewhat from his chosen topic at the very end to give a small statement about the modern conception of appetite – namely, that the modern west seems intent on finding some quality of the thing consumed to blame for the individual appetite rather than…the individual. Implicit in this short, yet potentially inflammatory paragraph is a condemnation of excessive scientism. Davidson does not make this case overtly. But from that paragraph I can conclude it’s likely a part of his worldview.

And it is simply that we, having so much faith in the scientific method, have come to unconsciously think of ourselves as rational beings, and we’ve discovered aphrodisiacs. So to some extent, we have moved the blame for succumbing to temptation from ourselves to the substance itself with the aid of scientific evidence. This is not to say that substances themselves do not possess addictive qualities – but the fact that ancient Athens never noticed it, because they considered excess of anything negative, surely points to their having a more rational society in that respect than our own. After all, the fact that they never thought of alcoholism as a problem separate from other kinds of excess does point us towards a more civilised attitude.

Perhaps one that we should think about reviving? Or at least considering its merits.

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