“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. 

“Gods, Kings, and Merchants in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia” by Dominique Charpin

CharpinDominique Charpin. Gods, Kings, and Merchants in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. PIPOAC 2. Belgium: Peeters-Leuven, 2015, pp. 223, $56 (Amazon)

In Gods, Kings, and Merchants in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, Dominique Charpin (Professor at Collège de France, Paris) examines the manners in which the religious, political, and economic spheres maintained fluid boundaries, often time intersecting. Within the work, he continue ideas began in his book Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia (Chicago/London, 2010) and offers valuable analysis of various topic pertinent to understanding ancient Mesopotamia, snapshots of ancient society through administrative documents, and is careful to note various places which need further in-depth studies. Drawing on studies from 1996 to 2015, he provides an excellent overview and up-to-date understanding of elements from the Amorite (or Old Babylonian) period (first half of the second millennium BCE). Much of his work is supported by the ARCHIBAB project, which is a French internet archive of a complete Old Babylonian bibliography and more than 32,500 texts.

Chapter One discusses prophetism in the Mari archives and, after establishing the error in distinction between prophecy and divination, argues that biblical prophecy is well in-line with its predecessor at Mari. Chapter Two analyzes extradition in the Amorite period and fleshes out the nuances of asylum and extradition with special focus on the authoritative role of gods in diplomatic records. Discussing evocation of the past, he then points to visions of the past, theological histories and temporal markers, to illuminate various approaches to and applications of the past. Chapter Four reviews the political and religious dynamics involving various kingdoms from the mourning of a king’s death to a newly established king. Shifting to a broader look on the dead, Chapter 5 explores the relationship between the living and dead by examining literary texts and archaeology, emphasizing the nuances and multiple approaches of Amorite society regarding the dynamics between the living and dead. Chapter 6 surveys the role of gods as creditors, illustrating the human-deity dynamics in commercial and necessity loans. Chapter 7 briefly reviews the range of Amorite archival contracts and offers analysis of how fines and punishment, private and public spheres, and deity and human dynamics interact within a legal Amorite context. Finally, Chapter 8 re-evaluates archaeological studies of Mesopotamian elites households, suggesting new reasoning for household expansion, and provides a snapshot of house management and familial dynamics through archival records.

Without a doubt, Charpin’s work is absolutely essential a variety of aspects. As this blog is called The Biblical Review, Chapter One is the most intriguing. Moving beyond Martti  Nissinen’s four transmission elements of prophecy (sender, context, message, and recipient) from his well-known  Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East (Atlanta: 2002), Charpin offers three additional, or alternative, understandings of the transmission of prophecy which take more seriously the various aspects of prophetism. These alternatives are important because they provides a more tools for accurate readings of prophetic literature. Likewise, they strongly convincing because they are directly rooted in the various pieces of prophetic materials from Mari. Unlike Nissinen, who approaches prophetic transmission fairly rigidly, Charpin successfully breaks from this mold to provide a more comprehensive and historically appropriate approach to interpreting and reading prophetic texts from Mari.

As a brief critique, Charpin would have done well to expand upon his brief discussion of school texts, as school text reflects an even greater issue of the role of the scribal class in the Amorite period. Nick Veldhuis covers the topic of school texts and the scribal class quite extensively his recent work about the history of the cuneiform lexical tradition (Ugarit-Verlag, 2014) and in an earlier work from 2010.Because we see developing scribal identity and traditions during the Amorite Period, coverage of the role of cuneiform lexical lists in scribal identity would have strengthened Charpin’s discussion regarding  elite house management.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Charpin’s work. The analysis in which he fleshes out the nuances and realities of the people and communities who wrote the various, often times administrative, texts effectively illuminates the world through the eyes of the elite during the Amorite period. More specifically, he is able to avoid creating artificial distinctions between religious, political, and economic elements and demonstrates how they all interact with each other. It is an excellent addition or supplement to courses surrounding, or even relating to, the Amorite period. Even more so, Charpin’s work is helpful for research pertaining to the history and culture of Old Babylonian Mesopotamia.