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Food & Drink in the Ancient Mediterranean - Outline

This course uses the notion of the Material Body as a site for the thematic study of some areas of ancient culture, which are sometimes treated separately in modern scholarship, but which are closely related symbolically and structurally in the ancient world: food supply and nutrition, commensality, the body.

Foucault while writing his History Of Sexuality was happy to concede that to the ancients food was overwhelmingly more of a concern than sex, and over the past decade a number of scholars have shown an interest in this important area of study. This concern is manifested most obviously in four particular areas: the Symposium, with all its social and cultural practices, Religion, The Body and Medicine.

A course focussed on food and drink provides the most natural environment, therefore, for the study of some central issues in ancient Greek history, society and culture. Food, drink and the body constituted a privileged zone for constructions of identity and difference: differences between Greeks and Barbarians, gods and men, men and women, humans and animals, social and political distinctions. Practices of equal participation in the sacrificial banquet and medical anxiety about maintaining balance (isonomia) informed political ideologies, while the private symposium, the drinking-party, was a pre-eminent site for the forging of social bonds in the Greek world. The agricultural cycle complemented the cycle of waging war and trading overseas. An inability to maintain control of the routes of the grain-trade led to Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War and remained a critical concern of foreign policy thereafter.

The relevant material is diverse and includes some important corpora: sympotic vases, medical writings, sympotic literature. The diversity of the material and the centrality of the subject mean that students will be able to deploy a particularly diverse range of approaches: comparative anthropology, reconstructions of the ancient environment from economic models, the study of skeletal remains, structuralist approaches to myth, cultic practices and death, Foucauldian approaches to regimen and self-discipline, new approaches to iconography.

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