Feasting – for most, the term conjures up colourful associations of flavours, aromas and convivial experiences. For us archaeologists, it describes a significant social activity that can be identified across periods and civilisations. In a broader perspective, feasting is a cultural feature that distinguishes virtually all human societies – and one that we all participate in now and then.
I am completing this post on December 31st. Christmas ended a few days ago and the New Year is awaiting. I dare say that most of our readers have celebrated Christmas in some way or another, and nearly all are going to mark the passing of 2014 and the start of 2015. It is not overly speculative to assume that those celebrations did involve and will involve the consumption of food, most likely of special festive dishes, eaten in a formal or semi-formal setting amongst friends and/or family – in one word: feasting.
By marking such calendar events in the form of a feast, we follow in the footsteps of countless generations before us, all the way back to the dawn of human civilisation. Eating has always been important: after all, it is a key necessity in sustaining our physical existence. But as soon as humans developed a capacity for abstract thought, meals must have started to acquire the plethora of symbolic and social connotations they still often bear.
From the mists of time to early civilisations
For our Palaeolithic ancestors, hunting (rather than gathering) was a group effort. Success, especially in pursuing bigger animals, would have led to the short-term availability of large supplies of meat. It is more than probable that at least the more perishable parts were consumed soon, in a collective meal – the prototype of a feast.
By the later prehistoric periods, the Neolithic and Bronze Age, humankind had learnt to grow food plants and raise domestic animals, leading to more complex agricultural food economies and increasing interdependence between individuals and between groups. Access to food surplus and the ability to dispense them now became a hallmark of power and status. Feasting on marked occasions was one expression of such power, but also of social identity: celebrations involving feasts served to define and underline groups such as families, clans, tribes, even city-states. More often than not, they were framed in a religious context. There is ample archaeological evidence for such feasts, most frequently in form of cooking installations (pits, hearths, cooking vessels etc) and food debris (bones, ashes) – and this is an ancient tradition that never stopped.
Still relevant – when we feast, and why
Feasting still occurs today, still marking particular events. These include culturally significant calendar dates, such as Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving or Easter, often carrying religious meanings at least in their origins, and frequently connected with important junctures in the agricultural calendar (winter solstice, harvest time and so on). We also tend to arrange feasts to celebrate those events on our individual lifelines that mark changes in our status, standing and role, e.g. for baptisms or circumcisions, birthdays, coming-of-age, weddings and anniversaries, appointments, retirements and of course funerals. Less personally, feasts can also form part of public events, such as openings or inaugurations. Although most of us are far removed from the distant cultural origins of such practices, their essence has not changed all that much: we express our being part of a group (family, colleagues, friends, co-religionists, compatriots, fellow voyagers) by enjoying food and drink together. Symbolically speaking, we “break our bread” or “share our wine” in communion with our peers.
When we explore the Classical World of Greek and Roman civilisation on our archaeological tours, the concept of feasting makes frequent appearances, reflecting its central role in those ancient cultures. On the basis of the material remains of feasting places or feasting equipment, we are able to tell the story of ancient conviviality and its meanings, creating a very tangible link between past and present.
Feasting in ancient Greece
In ancient Greece, feasting took centre stage in public and social life, but especially on two types of occasions.
The first was sacrifice to the gods, the public performance and expression of religion par excellence. The heart of any Greek sanctuary was the altar (not the temple – we have described the basic scheme in our post on Knidos), essentially a built platform on which animals (and sometimes other foods) would be sacrificed to the god or gods in question. It is interesting to note what then happened to the remains of the slaughtered beast: its skin, bones and other inedibles were burnt, as the gods were believed to consume the smoke from that sacrificial fire. The muscle-meat and fat, useless to the gods but not to the mortals below, were roasted or boiled and distributed among the congregation.This distribution may appear surprising, but Greek mythology provided a neat explanation.
As meat was not usually a very common commodity especially for the poor, the sacrificial meal can certainly be seen as a public feast, participation being both a religious and civic duty and a personal boon. Apart from Knidos, we get to show our guests ancient altars at many sites, e.g. at Didyma on Cruising to Ephesus, on Samos when Cruising the Dodecanese, at Aphaia on Aigina on Exploring Athens, at Dion on From the Slopes of Mount Olympus to the Shores of the Aegean and most spectacularly at Syracuse on Exploring Sicily.
The second quintessentially Greek feast is the symposion (or symposium), the more or less formal drinking-and-eating party hosted by a citizen for his friends, peers or guests. This was a common and important event, with a central role in social contacts among the citizenry of one or several city-states.
The private homes of ancient Greeks usually contained a specific space reserved for this event, the andron (literally: the men’s room). This was a rectangular room of varying size, its walls preceded by a low parapet to hold the klinai, the couches on which the participants of a symposion reclined. The symposion as we know it was an often long-drawn-out affair, including the drinking of wine, the eating of various foods, sometimes artistic performances and – famously – discussions of politics, philosophy and the like. Hosting symposia and being invited to them was part and parcel of Greek civic identity. The wines and foods served, the guest list and the quality of entertainment and discussion contributed directly to the status of the host. We visit such private andrones e.g. at Priene on From Halicarnassus to to Ephesus or at Olynthos on From the Slopes of Mt. Olympus to the Shores of the Aegean. Symposion equipment can be seen on most of our museums visits – and in Classical museums across the globe – as can images of such events. The world-conquering Macedonians appear to have embraced the symposion idea most thoroughly, in particular the wine-drinking aspect of it, as is attested by both literature and archaeological evidence.
Interestingly, these formalised feasting rooms eventually also became a feature of public buildings. Official guesthouses for visitors to a city included them, as did many important sanctuaries, in the form of so-called “banqueting houses”. The most striking example is probably Labraunda in Caria, where two important 4th century BC rulers, Mausollos (famous for his monumental tomb at Halicarnassus) and his successor and brother Idrieus erected two enormous andrones, as well as a larger number of more modest ones, so as to be able to host a vast number of revellers during important festivals, thus copper-fastening the web of owed favours that gave them their power. The “royal” andrones at Labraunda are so monumental that they used to be mistaken as the sites main temples. They still make for one of the most memorable sights on our tours of Caria. Elsewhere, we see such formalised dining rooms e.g. at Olympia on Exploring the Peloponnese, in the Kerameikos on Exploring Athens or at Morgantina on Exploring Sicily.
Feasting and ostentation in the Roman World
In Roman times, festive dining became a key feature of upper-class private homes. These ostentatious structures always included large and elaborate spaces given over to the reception and hosting of guests. A key element of those reception areas was the triclinium (literally: room of the three couches), a development of the Greek andron, as well as other banqueting rooms. Often lavishly decorated and equipped, they served as convenient spaces for private get-togethers, but also showed off the owner’s wealth and sophistication. In many cases, the decoration, especially the floor mosaic, makes direct reference to themes of food and drink. We visit wonderful examples of these sumptuously luxurious Roman feasting-rooms e.g. at the Terrace Houses of Ephesus, at Pompeii and Oplontis on Cruising the Amalfi Coast, or at Piazza Armerina on Exploring Sicily.
In all these cases, the feasting spaces and facilities are not just a feature among many: they are central expressions of the culture and lifestyle of those who used them. If we were to endeavour on a phenomenology of human eating habits, feasting would be of paramount importance – tell me how (and where) you feast and I tell you who you are (or want to be).
So, if you feel you’ve been overindulging over the holidays, rejoice in the fact that you have been involved in a cultural activity second to none in terms of both age and significance. Dropping just a single letter, fasting is, of course, another age-old practice. We certainly don’t fast on our tours and cruises, nor do we organise full-blown feasts, but we always take food very seriously, considering it a major way of experiencing the culture, tradition and character of the regions we travel. Local specialities and regional wines are an important element on all of our trips and we offer wine tastings on our tours of Sicily, the Cyclades, Athens, the Peloponnese, Northern Greece and Cappadocia. If you are eager for a fuller exploration of those important and enjoyable aspects of our travels, do take a look at our gastronomic tours in Turkey and Sicily – and at the food-themed posts on this blog.
With that, we at Peter Sommer Travels would like to wish you a very happy New Year – and bon appetit. Perhaps we’ll share a meal with you on one of our escorted tours this year?