“Food, Identity and Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Ancient World”

coverWim Broekaert, Robin Nadeau, and John Wilkins (eds.). Food, Identity and Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Ancient World. Latomus, Volume 354. Bruxelles: Peeters-Leuven, 2015, pp. 106, 22€.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Peeters-Leuven for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Food as an approach to cross-cultural exchange and identity in the ancient world is not a popular trend among ancient historians. Yet, as the articles within this volume demonstrate, exploring the cross-cultural exchange of food, cuisine developments, and food customs can contribute to how we can understand social identity in antiquity. Unlike other volumes, which speak of Hellenization, Romanization, acculturation, etc., to discuss cultural exchange, Food, Identity, and Cross-Cultural Exchange focuses on heuristic concept established by French and German historians M. Espagne and M. Werner: “transferts culturels”. While the concept is not in common usage outside of French scholarship, each contribution in this volume explores how ancient Greek and Roman cultures were influenced by external, foreign cuisine. Re-contextualization of the cuisine consequently contributes to understanding one’s projected social identity. Following, I will provide summary and thought on each contribution.

In opposition to scholarly trends which argue that the domesticated fowl first appeared in Greece during the Persian period, Robin Nadeau’s analysis of various Greek records demonstrate that chicken was known, to a certain extent, prior to the Persian period. Although Nadeau offers no alternative option, this contribution clearly shows how ancient discourses about origin can sometimes be deceptive, origins often times part of one’s identity. One feature lacking within Nadeau’s contribution is discussion about how the possibility of chicken in a pre-Persian Greece changes how we understand Greek identity during the period.

Investigating possible Phoenico-Punic influence upon eastern Sicilian sites for fish salting, Emmanuel Botte concludes that the circular vats on the Greek sites were the result of technological innovation, not so much foreign influence. Consequently, Botte provides a better understanding of the cultural independence and reality of salting sites, and communities therein within eastern Sicily. As with Nadeau’s contribution, brief discussion of how it changes the social identity and cultural makeup of the region would be valuable in order to connect the contribution to all three major themes: food, identity, and cross-cultural exchange (in this case, lack thereof).

Scott Gallimore evaluates the role of wine in Crete’s identity in order to highlight the complexities of Cretan wine as part of cooking and medical treatments, not merely wine for drinking. His conclusion is a great reminder that oftentimes identity is far more complex than modern scholars realize. As Gallimore notes, “modern perceptions of wine are almost entirely governed by its role as a beverage, but… the medical advantages of wine…, or its use as an ingredient in cooking, may have held more prominence in the context of the island’s identity in the Roman world” (50).

Confronting chronological and archaeological lacunae in reconstructing the evolution of fish sauce consumption as part of military camp identities, Wim Broekaert traces a continuity of fish sauce consumption up to the 4th century CE as part of soldier identity which incorporated Mediterranean consumption patterns into local economies during the 3rd century CE. So, as supply lines broke down, demand for fish sauce became a local production in order to permit soldiers in the Roman army, and even native soldiers, to maintain a shared sense of identity. Broekaert’s contribution does well in demonstrating an aspect of community that must be taken into considering. Among language, dress, and religion, “we can safely add cuisine to this distinctive and mediated identity” (86).

John Wilkins examines how, in terms of identity, Galen’s Greek centered view of dietetics was open to cultural exchange and not nearly as exclusive and unwelcoming as Galen suggests. Wilkin’s contribution is helpful because it provides a better framework by which to understand cross-cultural interacts with those of Greek identity. In my case, his work provides a possible explanation as to how, from a Greek perspective, Jews were able to maintain their identity in the age of Hellenism.

Dennis E. Smith highlights the Jesus movement as something which began at the dinner table, forming social identity on meal ritual and ideology from the Greek symposium tradition. While there is nothing particularly alluring and innovative in his contribution, it is nonetheless a well-written and explained demonstration of how the dinner table allowed the Jesus movement to form its identity in continuity with the Greek symposium tradition.

All in all, Food, Identity and Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Ancient World is a wonderful volume. While it may not be relevant to many people because it is so nuanced, it helps to strengthen our understanding of identity in terms of food. This volume is most relevant to historians of antiquity because, even if none of the articles pertain to the particular area of study, it helps to carve out the identity of certain social groups in the ancient world. For the sake of any research about identity or food in the ancient world, I highly recommend this book. General readers, though, may not find too much of significance within this work. Additionally, the introduction is extremely valuable because it provides a succinct explanation for the heuristic benefits of “transferts culturels”.

*I should note that there is one article in French; however, because I am not proficient in French, I was unable to review that contribution to the work. 

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