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Food in the Ancient World from A to Z:
introductory notes

Using classical sources

At the end of nearly every article in Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, classical sources are cited in rough chronological order. This leaves you, the reader, to judge the nature of each source and, on that basis, its reliability in providing the evidence that you need. If it is important as a source of information to you, use the guidance on these topics offered by recent scholars who have worked on the author: it may help to start from the introduction to a recent edition, commentary or translation, or from an entry in OCD 1996.

Although English translations exist for most of the Greek and Latin texts cited, you should read classical sources in Latin and Greek if you can. Translators take different views over all sorts of questions; sometimes they take a demonstrably wrong view. You have to try to be independent of them.

I have very occasionally said that an ancient text is 'confused'. This means that the author is describing something at second hand and has made serious errors; it doesn't mean that all other sources are free of confusion.

It is often necessary to consider whether an ancient author may be making fun of the reader (which means us). The following example is suggested by Frank Frost's useful paper 'Sausage and meat preservation in antiquity' in Greek, Roman and Byzantine studies vol. 40 (1999) pp. 241-252. In his 'lexicon of sausage terminology' (p. 249) Frost says of physkai: 'At Sparta they were nailed to the walls for old men to eat, according to a comedy by Cratinus (Athenaeus 138e).' Follow up the reference, as Frost gives you the means to do. You will find that Cratinus's speaker is not making a statement but asking a question: Is it true, as people say, that all comers are well feasted at Spartan dinners, and that in their public-houses sausages hang from nails for their old men to snap at with their teeth? You are free to conclude that the reply, not quoted by Athenaeus, was 'Yes and no.'

Food in the Ancient World from A to Z guides you to many ancient recipes, and to some modern interpretations of them (see also Recipes). Nothing in Food in the Ancient World from A to Z guarantees the safety in modern nutrition of the things the Greeks and Romans used to eat, or of their methods of preparation. When dealing with ancient recipes and menus the modern cook must rethink them with food safety in mind. Romans liked the sweet flavour imparted by lead channels to water and by lead vessels to sauces, but you would do best not to follow their example. Fish sauces, made the way the Greeks and Romans used to make them, probably contain carcinogens: this is one reason why you would do best not to imitate the ancient method but to buy south east Asian fish sauce (vegetarians, for whom a similar sauce was made from pears in ancient times, may wish to substitute soy sauce).

Using modern scholarship

When working on a cross-disciplinary subject, such as food history, you need to know where an author is coming from. A scientist? Scientists can't be assumed to understand how to handle historical evidence critically. A food writer? Some food writers and journalists treat history as padding, and keep their fingers crossed behind their backs when making historical statements. A linguist? An archaeologist? These two disciplines sometimes appear not to be on speaking terms. A historian? Some historians are able to focus on a narrow band of evidence, and to follow a traditional interpretation of it, sometimes to the exclusion of common sense. All these generalisations of mine are (of course) tendentious, unfair and prejudiced.

Common sense, if you feel the lack of it, can be restored by a judicious use of comparative evidence. All the above disciplines use comparative evidence, though they may disapprove of its use by others. The following example is suggested by Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg's paper, 'Persian food: stereotypes and political identity' in Food in antiquity ed. John Wilkins and others (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1995) pp. 286-302.

Did the young Persians eat 'turpentine wood'? It appears so from B. Perrin's translation of Plutarch's Life of Artoxerxes section 3.2 (Plutarch, Parallel lives tr. B. Perrin, vol. 11 (1926. LCL). You might say 'we don't eat turpentine wood, therefore the Persians didn't'. This is an invalid argument: if you used the same argument to decide whether Greeks ate cicadas your conclusion would be wrong. But you might, after investigation, say 'no humans anywhere can be shown to eat turpentine wood, therefore the Persians probably didn't'. This is a valid use of comparative evidence. It is not conclusive but it should impel you to look hard at the source of the dubious information.

This is where you gain if you can be independent of translators (see above). Does the error (if that is what it is) lie with Plutarch or with his translator? You won't know until you look at the Greek words. You will then find that the word terminthos means not exclusively the wood but also the fruit or nut of the tree (which is more often called terebinth than turpentine, incidentally) and that people in the Near East do indeed gather and eat its tiny oil-rich fruits; if you have travelled in the region you may well have seen them on sale at street stalls. Common sense assists you to the conclusion that Perrin has indeed made an error and that the young Persians ate terebinth fruits, not terebinth wood (other sources concur with Plutarch; see Persians for a further twist to the argument).

Does it matter? It would be wrong to dismiss this as an antiquarian detail. You may be working on the history of nutrition and intending to judge the food value of the adolescent Persian diet; you may be working on social history and hoping to estimate the unlucky youngsters' need to hunt meat to enliven their rations; you may be a structural anthropologist, semanticising the diets of ephebes and gerontocrats. Whichever you are, you need to know whether this, claimed to be one of two major items in the diet of an age cohort of Persians, is a worthless 'non-food' (to borrow the convenient terminology of Peter Garnsey in Food and society in classical antiquity (1999)) or whether it is a nutritious, oil-rich staple.

Greek and Latin terms

Classical names for foods and food species are given selectively in Food in the Ancient World from A to Z. These are the names that were in general use, as demonstrated by ancient written usage (and, where relevant, by medieval descendants of the ancient words). You can find additional and alternative terms by consulting the lexica (ancient and modern) and the texts of ancient authors who are interested in terminology, notably Dioscorides, Pliny, Galen and Athenaeus.

Certain technical terms in Greek and Latin - including the names of many fish, wild plants, and foods - had no standard spelling. I have usually not attempted to show the full extent of the variation, but have chosen a single representative form. If you wish to explore linguistic forms further you will need to use editions of Greek and Latin texts with a good 'apparatus' (footnotes showing manuscript variation) ... where such editions exist.

Identification of foods

Entries for plants and animals which are the sources of foodstuffs are, wherever possible, under English names.

I have occasionally commented on misleading translations and misused terms, and perhaps it is worth pointing out here that there are a lot of them about. Translators of Greek and Latin texts use terms such as 'pumpkin', 'marrow', 'squash', 'kidney bean', 'French bean', 'costmary', though the accepted opinion is that these species were unknown in the Classical world. Archaeologists carelessly describe terebinth fruits from the prehistoric Mediterranean as 'pistachio', thus confusing the history of the Pistacia genus, a history that is well recorded and, when properly interpreted, helps to explain their archaeological finds. Historians sometimes say 'cardamon' or 'cardamum' for Greek kardamon, for which the accurate translation is 'cress'. Other misleading translations such as 'ripe cucumber' (for sikyos pepon 'melon'), once enshrined in a standard reference book, seem to live on for ever. Those who care about real history want to get these little things right; I have tried to do so in Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, which means that I will be really grateful to those who point out my errors.

Some problems of identification are really difficult (see also the entry Names and identifications). Pending a fortunate archaeological find we cannot be sure of the source of ancient cinnamon, or of the species represented by Latin amomum, because the ancient written evidence in both cases is contradictory and inconclusive. There is a real problem, which archaeobotany has not yet been able to solve, about when cucumber became known in the ancient Mediterranean; there are similar problems about chicken and about sesame. Other perceived difficulties are in fact easily solved. On Greek bolboi, Latin bulbi, J. Jouanna wrote: Les érudits discutent encore sur l'identification de ce bulbe (Jouanna's commentary on Hippocrates, Epidemics 7.101 [p. 253 n. 7]). C. Hünemörder, who undertook to write the article on bolbos in Der neue Pauly (1996-) fulfilled his task without ever becoming aware that bolbos is the name of a specific plant. Hünemörder, along with Jouanna's érudits, must never have visited Greece, where volví (the bulbs of grape-hyacinth, Muscari comosum) are still grown for food, are sold at food markets and are served as an appetiser or meze: see Aglaia Kremezi, The foods of the Greek islands (2000) p. 18. As observed by Mark Grant in Roman cookery: ancient recipes for modern kitchens (1999), in southern Italy the same species is familiar as lampascioni and has not quite lost its ancient reputation as an aphrodisiac.

There is no magical way of making identifications certain. If ancient sources offer just a few mentions, and no full description, identification may begin with a process of elimination and fizzle out in guesswork. Therefore, uncertainty should be read into all such identifications given below.

Scientific Latin names

In Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, a short paragraph at the end of nearly all main entries on plant and animal foods supplies botanical and zoological names and classical Latin and Greek names.

The scientific names given in the entries are those currently in most favour among taxonomists and archaeobiologists. When two or more species from the same genus are listed in sequence, the first element of the name is given once in full and thereafter, in accordance with the usual convention, abbreviated. There is a separate index of scientific names: in this index I have added the standard abbreviated names of authorities and also some cross-references from commonly encountered 'synonyms'. For a full explanation of the conventions adopted in botanical names see International code of botanical nomenclature (Saint Louis code) ed. W. Greuter and others (2000). It is usual to give the second element, the specific epithet, a lower-case initial. In Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, because the origins of the binomial names will be of interest to some readers, I have adopted (following the example of Liberty Hyde Bailey, Ethel Zoe Bailey, Hortus third: a concise dictionary of plants cultivated in the United States and Canada [1976]) the alternative convention of giving an initial capital to the specific epithet when it is a noun - which means that it will normally have an origin independent of the generic name, and, often, a classical origin. For an explanation of the formation of words in botanical Latin and other details of this special language see William T. Stearn, Botanical Latin (1966).

From the introduction to Food in the Ancient World from A to Z by Andrew Dalby (2003)

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TODAY'S QUOTATIONLiterary MenusAlphabet of RecipesHistorical PrescriberIFAQs
Bacchus ExtraDangerous Tastes ExtraDictionary of Languages ExtraFood in the Ancient World ExtraGuide to World Language Dictionaries ExtraNotes in the Margin Extra

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