What the Greeks and Romans taught us about modern life

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The ancient Greeks and Romans had a passion for gastronomy – and even worshipped their own celebrity chefs, writes Ferdinand Mount.

We do not care to examine too closely the similarities between our attitudes and those of the classical period, largely because we like to think that we have discovered pretty much everything for ourselves.
We do not care to examine too closely the similarities between our attitudes and those of the classical period, largely because we like to think that we have discovered pretty much everything for ourselves.

My local gym has a glass wall. You can look in from the tennis courts next door and see the customers grinding through their stretches, squats and press-ups. As I watched these souls in torment one November morning, it suddenly occurred to me that this was the first time since the fall of Rome 1600 years ago that you could see exactly the same sight in any town in the civilised world. The only difference is that in the ancient world they would be doing their physical jerks outdoors, usually with no clothes on.

Then I reflected that this was not the only pastime which the modern world has revived from classical times. We have copied, almost exactly, the rituals that the Romans followed when they pampered themselves in their enormous bath complexes and luxurious spas. We have adopted the same matter-of-fact attitudes towards every variety of sexual behaviour. We worship art and nature, we are bewitched by celebrity. We are fascinated by science. And not least, we are besotted by the finer points of eating and drinking.

We do not care to examine too closely the similarities between our attitudes and those of the classical period, largely because we like to think that we have discovered pretty much everything for ourselves.

Being modern feels to us like a unique condition in every department of life. Our newness is very precious to us. It is the strangeness of the past that we like to dwell on.

In the case of eating and drinking, for example, what catches our eye are the exotic aspects of the Roman style of dining: the reclining banquets, the naked Nubian slaves, the peacocks stuffed with quails - all the things that are not currently available at your local pizzeria. Yet if you look more carefully and with a cooler eye, it is often hard to distinguish classical foodie culture from our own.

We share the same obsession with food in general, and with fancy recipes and celebrity chefs in particular. Our pious grandparents would have been startled and a little shocked to see that our major source of entertainment, prime-time television, was awash with cookery programmes. The ancient Romans and Greeks would have tuned in avidly.

For us, as for the Romans and the Greeks, in the same way that sex becomes more like eating and drinking, so eating and drinking become more like sex. Both are seen as entirely human preoccupations, to be savoured, rhapsodised, analysed, argued and complained about. There is nothing sacred about them at all. They are of the earth, earthy, and that's what we like about them.

For the Christian world, by contrast, to think of sex and food in the same breath has always seemed swinish, if not sinful. To our remoter classical ancestors, however, such an association would have seemed obvious, even commonplace. Eating, drinking and fornicating went together, whether you approved or disapproved of these pastimes.

In the Greek world, it was Sicily that was famous, or notorious, for overindulgence in both departments. Plato spoke sourly of Sicily as a gluttonous place where men ate two banquets a day and never slept alone at night and the inhabitants were obsessed by food. But quality went with quantity. The Sicilians were gourmets as well as gourmands. Socrates commended "those refinements of Sicilian cookery for which the tables of Syracuse are famous". Aristophanes gave Sicily a good write-up for travelling foodies. The island was then the bread basket of Italy and the home of some of its finest wines. Sicily occupied the position of France today in enjoying the finest produce as well as the finest cooks.

By a natural progression, Sicily also bred the first cookery writers. There are older recipes to be found elsewhere, for example on the Babylonian cuneiform tablets now at Yale. But they offer only terse and practical advice on how to make a bouillon or a duck stew. They do not constitute what we would call a cookery book.

Cookery writing as we know it, in the expansive, discursive, flowery style, seems to have begun in Sicily in the fifth or fourth century BC. And what a lot there were, and the most celebrated of them were Sicilians: Heracleides of Syracuse, Dionysius of Syracuse, Hegesippus of Tarentum (admittedly on the heel of the mainland), Agis of Syracuse. All their works have perished, like those by Greek foodies from elsewhere. Where is the book on bread-making by Chrysippus of Tyana, or the treatise on salt fish by Euthydemus of Athens?

The market in chefs was already as highly developed as the market for cookery writers. The best chefs were highly sought-after and were hired out to the smartest homes, together with their train of sous-chefs.

Then, as now, they had a reputation for being bad-tempered and temperamental, and often appear as comic figures in Greek comedy. One may imagine hot competition for the supreme masters of their craft, not unlike the competition to lure away Anatole, the miraculous French chef employed by P G Wodehouse's Aunt Dahlia.

Greek chefs in the fourth century BC had strong views about the right and wrong ways to do things. Anaxippus of Athens, in his comedy Behind the Veil, has a cook make a speech about the rise of nouvelle cuisine when the chefs did away with the elaborate seasonings of the old cookery books.

"All they asked for were oil and a new pot and a fire that was hot and not blown too often. With such an arrangement, every meal is straightforward."

This fashion for conspicuous simplicity carried on into the Roman world. The comic playwright Plautus in his play Pseudolus has a cook denouncing other cooks who serve up "whole pickled meadows" in their pots, indiscriminately chucking in coriander, fennel, garlic and horse parsley, along with sorrel, cabbage, beet and asafoetida, "pounding up a wicked mustard which makes the pounder's eyes water".

Thus already we have the demand for simplicity and the reaction against crude and pungent flavours. These demands are advanced partly on health grounds, as reform movements in cookery often are.

"Faites simple" was the watchword in the fourth century BC, as it was of Escoffier in the 20th century AD.

By contrast, the De Re Coquinaria of Apicius, the only Roman cook book that has come down to us in anything like complete form, contains recipes of fantastic complexity which would impress even the most pretentious modern diner. Apicius himself claimed that his patina apuana was so full of different ingredients that "at table no one will know what he is eating" - a sensation not unfamiliar today.

The elements of our present-day food snobbery are clearly detectable, too, as in the advice given by Archestratus on how to cook grey mullet, which, he said, the discriminating shopper must buy at Miletus and only at Miletus (a city hundreds of miles away across the Aegean): "The Milesian fish, my friend, are amazing in their excellence. Descale them and bake them well whole, until tender, in salt. When working on this delicacy do not let any Syracusan or Italian come near you, for they do not understand how to prepare good fish. They ruin them in a horrible way by 'cheesing' everything and sprinkling them with a flow of vinegar and silphium pickle."

The ruins of ancient Miletus in what is now western Turkey are now five miles from the sea. The salt marsh, where Archestratus procured his grey mullet, silted up in the Ottoman period, so the grey mullet must have gone long before that. Only the shopping tips of Archestratus survive.

Archestratus was, of course, a Sicilian. He was also the first Galloping Gourmet. His chronicler several centuries later described him as "having travelled round the inhabited world for the sake of his belly and the parts beneath his belly". We must imagine him as a character not unlike the late Keith Floyd, a dynamic sensualist on all fronts.

He was also a first-rate wine snob, going into dithyrambs over the best wine from Lesbos, and sneering at fools who gushed over inferior vintages.

Actually, there seems to have been little cult of "wine years" among the Greeks, but the Romans made up for it. They catalogued wines by consular years, the most excellent being that produced in the amazing summer when Opimius was consul.

"Opimian" became the epithet of highest praise for wine in English as well as Latin.

The Christians, of course, spurned all this talk as merely the praise of gluttony. For foodies, the Dark Ages really were dark. It is interesting, too, that the cult of fasting, which was so central to the early Christians, was pretty much unknown to the Greeks and the Romans.

All the great world religions have given a high place to fasting as a route to spiritual fulfilment, not merely Christians but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Australian Aboriginals, Confucians, the Aztecs and most African cults.

Only the Greeks and the Romans and our modern selves see no point in fasting for spiritual rather than health reasons.

The oil from the olive, the bread from the wheat, the wine from the vines - these were the gifts of the gods, of Demeter and Bacchus, which was only another way of saying the gifts of Nature.

It would be churlish to the point of sacrilege to refuse these gifts that lay ripening in the sun just beyond the garden wall. The sages of the Greek and Roman world sought out the orchard, not the desert. Who needed anything else, who needed anything more?

We too recline on our couches, and idly salivate as we watch the great chefs of our own day perform for our delight.

From Archestratus and Apicius to Keith Floyd and Gordon Ramsay, we seem to have come full-circle.

- INDEPENDENT

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