Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Version at BMCR home site

Michael Beer, Taste or Taboo: Dietary Choices in Antiquity. Totnes: Prospect Books, 2009. Pp. 152. ISBN 9781903018637. $24.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jack Lennon, University of Nottingham (abxjl1@nottingham.ac.uk)

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Beer's book offers a select series of case studies on key topics derived from his doctoral research on diet in ancient Mediterranean societies. Throughout the book Beer highlights examples of similarity and difference in Greek and Roman attitudes to foods and in those groups who ate or abstained from them. The central point, stressed throughout, is that food was a means of establishing identity within society or of labelling others as 'outsiders'. Its presentation, consumption or restriction could reveal social class, gender, ethnicity or religion. How one responded to social customs could reveal qualities to be abhorred or emulated. Beer divides his subject into 'actual practice and the realm of literature',1 referring in particular to idealised attitudes towards certain foods or diets, such as the numerous links drawn in literature of gluttony with moral weakness.

The introduction sets the scene with some notable parallels between ancient and modern attitudes to food in popular culture. Did the ancients share our concept of a size zero or a comparable 'ideal form', and was this linked to diet? The author discusses the presence of involuntary and voluntary dietary restrictions in antiquity. Involuntary restrictions might be environmental or economic, resulting from climate or location (soil conditions, distance from the coast, and costs of cultivation/storage/transport). Voluntary restrictions stemmed from social, religious or philosophical taboo, in some cases acting with such force as to blur the line with involuntary restriction.

Chapter 1, "Diet in the Ancient World" offers a general overview of eating practices, stressing that for most people diet was not determined by choice but by necessity. The chief source of sustenance was either wheat or barley. The Greek climate made barley a more suitable staple, whereas Rome favoured wheat. The rejection of barley was subsequently taken up by Latin authors to express 'separateness' from Greece as well as to create a feeling of cultural superiority. Such divisions also appeared within the societies themselves. A number of basic foodstuffs including chickpeas, beans, lentils and pulses were available to all, but their presentation and context revealed the class divide. Foods imported from further afield possessed greater worth, indicating luxury and opulence. Meat was a rare extravagance for many and often available only at religious festivals. Beer raises some initial points about the variety of animals deemed suitable for eating while hinting ahead to the suspicion of vegetarians, whose rejection of meat set them apart from others. Beer stresses that any form of dietary restriction or rejection of cultural eating practices functioned not only as a means of self-representation but also as a way to stigmatise outsiders.

Chapter 2, "Vegetarianism" begins by noting that adherents to vegetarianism would have been a very select minority. They might, through their refusal to participate in sacrificial meals, be viewed as impious. Since sacrifice offered an opportunity to enhance social interaction, such a rejection might also threaten the group's cohesion. A series of references to Greek myths explores the place of meat within the 'idyllic' past. Beer jumps from Porphyry and Plato in discussing attitudes towards the treatment of animals in various contexts, and the effects this had on their consumption. The chief focus of the chapter is Pythagoras and his followers, and Beer summarises the biographies of the philosopher's life and the conflicting views concerning his vegetarianism. Abstinence from meat and its connections with spiritual 'purity' are explored in relation to Pythagorean doctrine, although Beer suggests that not all Pythagoreans were required to observe a vegetarian diet. It was a life choice, but one that Roman authorities might equate with foreign religions, and so could be dangerous. This is demonstrated by the fair-weather vegetarianism of Seneca, who abandoned the diet in the wake of Tiberius' religious persecutions.

Chapter 3, "Beans" focuses on the taboos surrounding broad beans which appear in various forms across the ancient world. Once again the abstinence of the Pythagoreans is a major point of discussion. As with vegetarianism, abstinence is confined to a distinct minority, since references to cultivating and harvesting beans appear throughout agricultural manuals. Since beans were widely available, avoidance of them cannot have been a symbolic rejection of luxury. Various religious taboos are listed, along with the use of beans to exorcise/placate the spirits of the dead in the Lemuria. This is followed by an interesting biological discussion of the potentially harmful toxins within certain beans and the medical issues that may arise amongst those with a specific enzyme deficiency. However, Beer is careful to note the difficulties in attributing any form of taboo to such a condition.

Chapter 4, "Fish" begins by examining cultural attitudes towards the sea itself. Beer rejects the assertion that there was a clear divide between ocean-loving Greeks and hydrophobic Romans. The sea appears to have been associated with unknown dangers, of which large fish were a factor. A cause of some anxiety was their consumption of human flesh. What follows is a slightly strained discussion of fish in Homer, where it could be argued that Beer reads too much into the scarcity of fish in the diet of Homeric heroes. In particular, Odysseus' company's resorting to theft of sacred oxen when starving, instead of fishing, does not suggest to me evidence that fish were abhorred, but rather that the oxen were more easily attainable (and more integral to the story). From here Beer outlines the problems with fish both as food and as sacrificial offerings in Homer, in which their nature as scavengers reappears as a potential explanation for their unsuitability. The lack of fish-sacrifices across the Graeco-Roman world is linked to the apparent 'selfishness' of eating fish, since fish were not shared with the gods (although no reference is made to the Piscatorii ludi, in which fish were offered to Vulcan).2 Much of this section concerns views from 'outsiders' on the superstitious practices of foreigners.

The rest of the chapter deals with fish as a symbol of luxury and excess and with their potential as a corrupting influence. Fish represented a form of food that existed purely for pleasure and as such was the cause of some alarm. The connection with wealth made fish a status symbol, but, as ever, the type of fish one ate was the true indicator of class. Large, exotic fish were the prizes of the wealthy, while the poor ate smaller fish, sometimes taken from insanitary water sources.

Chapter 5, "The Dietary Laws of the Jews" concentrates on the various restrictions observed by those Jews living outside of Judea, where their self-imposed dietary abstinence singled them out as different. Beer lists the various animals excluded from the Jewish diet along with certain specific requirements for animals listed in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. From here he explores attempts by ancient authors, particularly Philo Judaeus, to interpret the laws. Comparable examples of animal avoidance from Greek and Roman society are noted, but what marked the Jews out as different was their apparently unflinching dietary observance. Beer suggests that food played a key role in Jewish identity within the urban environment, where their clothes and language did not mark them out, but where their diet did. He also notes the existence of several subdivisions of Jews, each observing different taboos, not only on what they ate, but also with whom they ate.

Abstention from pork remained the greatest cause of both curiosity and ridicule from non-Jewish observers. This hostility sometimes led to the association of Jews with other foreign groups who were perceived as subversive. Ultimately, Jewish dietary laws united those who followed them at the family or sect level and also excluded outsiders, potentially offending the sensibilities of the wider populace.

Chapter 6, "Restrictions upon Alcohol" first justifies the place of alcohol as a foodstuff, albeit one whose nutritional content was minimal. Its role as a social aid is acknowledged in antiquity, and this acknowledgement is compared to modern attitudes, as is the anxiety over alcohol's potential to damage social cohesion. A clear line is drawn between the status of wine in the Graeco-Roman world and other forms of alcohol amongst barbarian peoples. As with the production of wheat and barley, climate appears to have been a major factor in the cultivation of wine in Greece and Italy, and viniculture became a similar badge of cultural identity. From here Beer moves on to examine those who either refused to consume alcohol or whose access to alcohol was either controlled or otherwise entirely denied, such as women. 'Self-regulation' is a recurring theme, both within the Greek symposium and the Roman convivium, and there appears to have been a distinct disapproval of those whose excesses strayed beyond the boundaries of these events. Again, whom one shared a drink with mattered as much as what one drank.

Chapter 7, "State Control of Food: Spartan Diet and Roman Sumptuary Laws" moves beyond self-control and uses these two examples to explore instances where government regulation of diet and lifestyle was deemed necessary in order to protect the status quo. Here, food existed as part of a wider category of luxury and exoticism. Beer deals with Sparta first, examining concerns about the invasion of foreign tastes and habits. He focuses on the structure of Spartan feasting as opposed to specific dietary regulations, arguing that the popular image of frugality is at least partly the construct of outsider commentators. Seating at meals was determined by social position, and the rich may have been permitted to go beyond the basic foods provided.

In the case of Rome, Beer focuses on the various laws that attempted to restrain aristocratic excess and bring Rome back to an earlier, purer phase of its history. The laws in question span the period from the mid-Republic to the early Principate, and they clearly had little impact on anyone outside the aristocracy. The various causes for the laws are noted, and the expansion of Roman territory is linked with the slow descent into luxury. Thus, by keeping themselves perpetually ready for war, Romans eventually brought about the very state they wished to avoid. In the escalating political competition of the late Republic, food became an ideal way to display the extent of one's influence and power. That sumptuary laws declined from Tiberius onwards is taken as a sign that wealth was no longer a threat when the supreme power centred on a single individual. The stigma attached to gluttony remained.

Chapter 8, "Gluttony versus Abstinence: The Tyrant and the Saint" is much shorter, bringing together various theories from previous chapters. It focuses on Roman emperors whose moral shortcomings were made manifest through their diet. The gluttony of Claudius, Nero and Vitellius is symbolic of their 'weakness', which inevitably leads to further tyrannical behaviour. Conversely, abstemious rulers were thought to have greater control over their urges and thus to be able to avoid the temptations of tyranny. The infamous practice of purging in order to continue eating at banquets is described in terms of pushing the body beyond its natural ability.

In the course of this work Beer addresses a number of heavily debated topics and provides a useful overview of some difficult material. The structure of some chapters is sometimes hard to follow, however, and the author moves back and forth between Greek and Latin examples and source material with some frequency. Without doubt the greatest omission is Petronius' Satyricon, which does not appear in any of the discussions of luxuria. Despite these flaws, the author does manage to simplify a number of tricky subjects. This work will be of interest to scholars while remaining accessible to non-specialists. It employs a large number of primary sources, always offered in translation, and neatly summarises modern theories, making it a good starting point for those wishing to learn more about diet in antiquity.


1.   p. 122.
2.   Festus s.v. Piscatorii ludi; H.H. Scullard Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic (London, 1981), 148.

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