Safe Dinner Topics From Antiquity: Why Are Wolf-Bitten Sheep so Sweet?

Plutarch, Moralia: Table-Talk Book 3, Question 9—Why wolf-bitten sheep have sweeter meat but a lice-ridden wool

“After that, we considered the problem of wolf-bitten sheep which are said to have the sweetest meat while furnishing wool filled with lice. Patrokleas, my brother-in-law, seemed to propose a not altogether foolish idea about the sweetness, namely that the bite of the beast tenderizes the flesh. For the breath of the wolf is really hot and on fire—which makes the hardest parts of bones melt and liquefy in its belly.

For this reason wolf-bitten sheep dissolve more speedily than others. We were less certain about the wool—perhaps it does not breed the lice but attracts them as it separates the flesh by the effect of the rough ripping or that special heat. This ability develops in the wool thanks to the wolf’s bite and the breath of the wolf as the hair of the slaughtered sheep changes…”

Image result for Ancient Greek sheep

Διὰ τί τὰ λυκόβρωτα τῶν προβάτων τὸ κρέας μὲν γλυκύτερον τὸ δ᾿ ἔριον φθειροποιὸν ἴσχει

Μετὰ τοῦτο περὶ τῶν λυκοβρώτων ἐζητεῖτο προβάτων, ἃ λέγεται τὸ μὲν κρέας γλυκύτατον παρέχειν τὸ δ᾿ ἔριον φθειροποιόν. οὐ φαύλως οὖν ἐδόκει Πατροκλέας ὁ γαμβρὸς ἐπιχειρεῖν περὶ τῆς γλυκύτητος, ὡς τοῦ θηρίου τῷ δήγματι τὴν σάρκα τακερὰν ποιοῦντος· καὶ γὰρ εἶναι τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ λύκου περίθερμον οὕτω καὶ πυρῶδες, ὥστε τὰ σκληρότατα τῶν ὀστῶν ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ τήκειν καὶ καθυγραίνειν· διὸ καὶ σήπεσθαι τὰ λυκόβρωτα τῶν ἄλλων τάχιον. περὶ δὲ τῶν ἐρίων διηποροῦμεν, μήποτ᾿ οὐ γεννᾷ τοὺς φθεῖρας ἀλλ᾿ ἐκκαλεῖται, τραχύτητός τινος ἀμυκτικῆς ἢ θερμότητος ἰδιότητι διακρίνοντα τὴν σάρκα· ταύτην δὲ τοῖς ἐρίοις τὴν δύναμιν ἐγγίγνεσθαι πρὸς τὸ τοῦ λύκου δῆγμα καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα μεταβάλλοντος ἄχρι τῶν τριχῶν τοῦ σφαττομένου.

Some Advice for Dinner Conversation

From the fragmentary Anacreonta (imitations of Anacreon once thought to be real), we have another mention of Thebes and Troy together:

Anacreonta, fr. 26

“You narrate the events of Thebes;
he tells Trojan tales;
but I tell my conquests.
No horse has destroyed me,
nor foot soldier, nor ships,
nor will any other new army
hurl me from my eyes.”

Σὺ μὲν λέγεις τὰ Θήβης,
ὃ δ’ αὖ Φρυγῶν ἀυτάς,
ἐγὼ δ’ ἐμὰς ἁλώσεις.
οὐχ ἵππος ὤλεσέν με,
οὐ πεζός, οὐχὶ νῆες,
στρατὸς δὲ καινὸς ἄλλος
ἀπ’ ὀμμάτων με βάλλων.

This complaint is a generic and contextual one: the narrator doesn’t want a mixing of the themes of war with his own, which are love, drinking and the feast. Another fragment of Anacreon makes this clear:

Anacreon fr. 2

“I don’t love the man who while drinking next to a full cup
Talks about conflicts and lamentable war.
But whoever mixes the shining gifts of Aphrodite and the Muses
Let him keep in mind loving, good cheer.”

οὐ φιλέω, ὃς κρητῆρι παρὰ πλέωι οἰνοποτάζων
νείκεα καὶ πόλεμον δακρυόεντα λέγει,
ἀλλ’ ὅστις Μουσέων τε καὶ ἀγλαὰ δῶρ’ ᾿Αφροδίτης
συμμίσγων ἐρατῆς μνήσκεται εὐφροσύνης.

Such prescriptions against certain content in sympotic entertainment can be serious too. Xenophanes makes similar points, but with a less playful tone:


This is a krater for mixing wine. it has a war scene on it.

Xenophanes, fr. B1 13-24

“First, it is right for merry men to praise the god
with righteous tales and cleansing words
after they have poured libations and prayed to be able to do
what is right: in fact, these things are easier to do,
instead of sacrilege. It is right as well to drink as much as you can
and still go home without help, unless you are very old.
It is right to praise a man who shares noble ideas when drinking
so that we remember and work towards excellence.
It is not right to narrate the wars of Titans or Giants
nor again of Centaurs, the fantasies of our forebears,
Nor of destructive strife. There is nothing useful in these tales.
It is right always to keep in mind good thoughts of the gods.”

χρὴ δὲ πρῶτον μὲν θεὸν ὑμνεῖν εὔφρονας ἄνδρας
εὐφήμοις μύθοις καὶ καθαροῖσι λόγοις,
σπείσαντάς τε καὶ εὐξαμένους τὰ δίκαια δύνασθαι
πρήσσειν• ταῦτα γὰρ ὦν ἐστι προχειρότερον,
οὐχ ὕβρεις• πίνειν δ’ ὁπόσον κεν ἔχων ἀφίκοιο
οἴκαδ’ ἄνευ προπόλου μὴ πάνυ γηραλέος.
ἀνδρῶν δ’ αἰνεῖν τοῦτον ὃς ἐσθλὰ πιὼν ἀναφαίνει,
ὡς ἦι μνημοσύνη καὶ τόνος ἀμφ’ ἀρετῆς,
οὔ τι μάχας διέπειν Τιτήνων οὐδὲ Γιγάντων
οὐδὲ Κενταύρων, πλάσμα τῶν προτέρων,
ἢ στάσιας σφεδανάς• τοῖς οὐδὲν χρηστὸν ἔνεστιν•
θεῶν προμηθείην αἰὲν ἔχειν ἀγαθήν.


Seneca’s Advice for the Holidays: Avoid the Crowd!

Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium 1.7:

“You ask me what I think chiefly to be avoided? A crowd. You cannot yet be safely entrusted to it. I will certainly confess my own weakness: I never bring back the habits which I took with me. Something which I previously ordered is disturbed, something which I previously banished simply returns. As it happens with the sick, whom a long illness has affected to such a degree that they can no longer go out without harm, so it happens with us whose minds are recovering from a long disease. Association with many people is a hateful thing: in the crowd, there is no one who will not commend his vice to us, or even impress and smear it upon us without our knowing. In every case, the greater the crowd with whom we mingle, the greater the danger. But nothing is so dangerous to good morals as to loiter around at a show, where our vices steal upon us all the more readily on account of their pleasure. What do you think I am saying? That I come back more avaricious, ambitious, and prone to luxury? Nay, rather, I return more cruel and inhumane because I have been among humans.”

Image result for ancient roman mosaic feast

Quid tibi vitandum praecipue existimes quaeris? turbam. Nondum illi tuto committeris. Ego certe confitebor imbecillitatem meam: numquam mores quos extuli refero; aliquid ex eo quod composui turbatur, aliquid ex iis quae fugavi redit. Quod aegris evenit quos longa imbecillitas usque eo affecit ut nusquam sine offensa proferantur, hoc accidit nobis quorum animi ex longo morbo reficiuntur. [2] Inimica est multorum conversatio: nemo non aliquod nobis vitium aut commendat aut imprimit aut nescientibus allinit. Utique quo maior est populus cui miscemur, hoc periculi plus est. Nihil vero tam damnosum bonis moribus quam in aliquo spectaculo desidere; tunc enim per voluptatem facilius vitia subrepunt. [3] Quid me existimas dicere? avarior redeo, ambitiosior, luxuriosior? immo vero crudelior et inhumanior, quia inter homines fui.

The Height of Luxury: How to Eat Birds Properly

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 15.8

If you think that your relatives are overly-critical of your tastes or eating habits this Thanksgiving, you may be comforted (or disheartened) to know that gastronomic snobbery is a phenomenon with solid ancient precedent, as attested by this passage from Favorinus (cited by Gellius) concerning the luxury of bird consumption among the elite:

“These words, which I have added, are those of Favonius: ‘The foremost exponents of culinary affairs and luxury deny that a dinner is elegant unless, when you are dining at the height of pleasure, your dish is taken away and replaced by a better and even richer one. This is now considered the flower of culinary excellence among those for whom expense and fastidiousness take the place of elegance, and who deem it unseemly to eat the whole of any bird except the figpecker. Concerning other birds, they think that a dinner is cheap and shabby if the birds are not of such richness that the guests can become full just from eating the rumps; and moreover, they think that those who eat the upper part of a bird have rather unsophisticated palates. If luxury continues to increase at this rate, what will be left but that they order their food to be eaten for them, lest they become exhausted by eating, while their couches are decked out with more gold, silver, and purple for the use of a few humans than for all the immortal gods?'”

Verba haec, quae adposuimus, Favoni sunt: “Praefecti popinae atque luxuriae negant cenam lautam esse, nisi cum lubentissime edis, tum auferatur et alia esca melior atque amplior succenturietur. Is nunc flos cenae habetur inter istos quibus sumptus et fastidium pro facetiis procedit, qui negant ullam avem praeter ficedulam totam comesse oportere; ceterarum avium atque altilium nisi tantum adponatur, ut a cluniculis inferiore parte saturi fiant, convivium putant inopia sordere, superiorem partem avium atque altilium qui edint, eos palatum parum delicatum habere. Si proportione pergit luxuria crescere, quid relinquitur, nisi ut delibari sibi cenas iubeant, ne edendo defetigentur, quando stratus lectuls auro, argento, purpura amplior aliquot hominibus quam dis inmortalibus adornatur?”


Sing Me a Dinner! A Comic Fragment for an Epic Feast

Antiquity has bequeathed us many odd things. Among them, the Attic Dinner attributed to Matro of Pitane, a poet so obscure he does not merit his own wikipedia article. A student of Greek epic–even a rather poor one–should recognize the many allusions to Homer. (Of course, this poet is largely preserved by the gastronome Athenaeus).

“Dinners, tell me, Muse, of dinners, much nourishing and many.
Which Xenokles the orator ate at my house in Athens.
For I went there too, but a great hunger plagued me—
Where I saw the finest and largest loaves
Whiter than snow, tasting like wheat-cakes
The north-wind lusted after them as they baked.
Xenicles himself inspected the ranks of men
As he stopped while standing at the threshold; next to him was the parasite
Khairephoôn, a man like a starving sea-gull,
Hungry, and well-acquainted with other people’s feasts.”

δεῖπνα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροφα καὶ μάλα
πολλά ἃ Ξενοκλῆς ῥήτωρ ἐν ᾿Αθήναις δείπνισεν ἡμᾶς·
ἦλθον γὰρ κἀκεῖσε, πολὺς δέ μοι ἕσπετο λιμός.
οὗ δὴ καλλίστους ἄρτους ἴδον ἠδὲ μεγίστους,
λευκοτέρους χιόνος, ἔσθειν δ’ ἀμύλοισιν ὁμοίους
τάων καὶ Βορέης ἠράσσατο πεσσομενάων
αὐτὸς δὲ Ξενοκλῆς ἐπεπωλεῖτο στίχας ἀνδρῶν
στῆ δ’ ἄρ’ ἐπ’ οὐδὸν ἰών. σχεδόθεν δέ οἱ ἦν παράσιτος
Χαιρεφόων, πεινῶντι λάρῳ ὄρνιθι ἐοικώς,
νήστης, ἀλλοτρίων εὖ εἰδὼς δειπνοσυνάων.


The first line quite obviously adapts the first line of the Odyssey:

“Of a man, tell me, Muse, a man of many ways who [suffered] many things…”

῎Ανδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ

How To Earn A Dinner Invitation: Some Roman Advice (Hint: Lie)

Martial 9.35

“You will always earn a dinner with these skills, Philomusus:
Fabricate many tales, but relay them as if they are true.
You know what Pacorus is considering in his Arsacian abode;
You count the number of Rhenish and Sarmatian men,
You reveal the words consigned to paper by the Dacian chef,
And you see the victor’s crown before it arrives.
You know how many times Pharian rain dampens dark Syene
And the number of ships departing from Lybian shores
For whose head Julian olives are harvested,
And for whom the heavenly father has promised his wreaths.
Forget your skill! You will dine with me today
Under one rule: Philomusus, tell me nothing of the news.”

Artibus his semper cenam, Philomuse, mereris,
plurima dum fingis, sed quasi vera refers.
scis quid in Arsacia Pacorus deliberet aula,
Rhenanam numeras Sarmaticamque manum,
verba ducis Daci chartis mandata resignas, 5
victricem laurum quam venit ante vides,
scis quotiens Phario madeat Iove fusca Syene,
scis quota de Libyco litore puppis eat,
cuius Iuleae capiti nascantur olivae,
destinet aetherius cui sua serta pater. 10
Tolle tuas artes; hodie cenabis apud me
hac lege, ut narres nil, Philomuse, novi.

Image result for Ancient Roman Feasting

A Dinner Conversation Prompt: Why Are We Hungrier in the Fall?

Plutarch, Moralia 635—Table-Talk, Book 2 Problem 2: Why People are Hungrier in The Fall

“After the Mysteries in Eleusis when the entire festival was at its peak, we were having a feast at the house of Glaukias the rhetorician. When the rest had finished their dinner, Xenokles the Delphian began to mock my brother, as he usually does, about his “Boiotian gluttony”.

As I was defending him I used the words of Epicurus against Xenokles, and said “All men don’t make the avoidance of what hurts the boundary and the limit of pleasure. Lamprias honors the Peripatos and the Lukeion before the garden and therefore attests to Aristotle. For this man says that everyone is hungriest in the autumn. He also provided an explanation, which I do not recall.”

“This is better”, Glaukias added, “for we ourselves will try to find one when we have stopped dining, Once the meals were taken away, both Glaukias and Xenokles were claiming that it was autumn’s fruit which was to blame, but for different reason.

The first claimed that it cleansed the bowels and by emptying the body was preparing the appetites anew. The other said that the pleasant and delicate nature of the fruit incited the stomach to food much more than any relish or source. Indeed, the offering of some fruit to people who have been sick and have fasted incites the appetite.”

Image result for Ancient Greek Autumn feast

Διὰ τί βρωτικώτεροι γίγνονται περὶ τὸ μετόπωρον
Ἐν Ἐλευσῖνι μετὰ τὰ μυστήρια τῆς πανηγύρεως ἀκμαζούσης εἱστιώμεθα παρὰ Γλαυκίᾳ τῷ ῥήτορι. πεπαυμένων δὲ δειπνεῖν τῶν ἄλλων, Ξενοκλῆς ὁ Δελφὸς ὥσπερ εἰώθει τὸν ἀδελφὸν ἡμῶν Λαμπρίαν εἰς ἀδηφαγίαν Βοιώτιον ἐπέσκωπτεν. ἐγὼ δ᾿ ἀμυνόμενος ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ τὸν Ξενοκλέα τοῖς Ἐπικούρου λόγοις χρώμενον, “οὐ γὰρ ἅπαντες,” εἶπον, “ὦ βέλτιστε, ποιοῦνται τὴν τοῦ ἀλγοῦντος ὑπεξαίρεσιν ὅρον ἡδονῆς καὶ πέρας· Λαμπρίᾳ δὲ καὶ ἀνάγκη, πρὸ τοῦ κήπου κυδαίνοντι τὸν περίπατον καὶ τὸ Λύκειον, ἔργῳ μαρτυρεῖν Ἀριστοτέλει· φησὶ γὰρ ὁ ἀνὴρ βρωτικώτατον ἕκαστον αὐτὸν αὑτοῦ περὶ τὸ φθινόπωρον εἶναι, καὶ τὴν αἰτίαν ἐπείρηκεν· ἐγὼ δ᾿ οὐ μνημονεύω.”
“Βέλτιον,” εἶπεν ὁ Γλαυκίας· “αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἐπιχειρήσομεν ζητεῖν, ὅταν παυσώμεθα δειπνοῦντες.” Ὡς οὖν ἀφῃρέθησαν αἱ τράπεζαι, Γλαυκίας μὲν καὶ Ξενοκλῆς ᾐτιάσαντο τὴν ὀπώραν διαφόρως, ὁ μὲν ὡς3 τὴν κοιλίαν ὑπεξάγουσαν καὶ τῷ κενοῦσθαι τὸ σῶμα νεαρὰς ὀρέξεις ἀεὶ παρασκευάζουσαν· ὁ δὲ Ξενοκλῆς ἔλεγεν εὔστομόν τι καὶ δηκτικὸν ἔχοντα τῶν ὡραίων τὰ πλεῖστα τὸν στόμαχον ἐπὶ τὴν βρῶσιν ἐκκαλεῖσθαι παντὸς μᾶλλον ὄψου καὶ ἡδύσματος· καὶ γὰρ τοῖς ἀποσίτοις τῶν ἀρρώστων ὀπώρας τι προσενεχθὲν ἀναλαμβάνει τὴν ὄρεξιν.


Athenians also allegedly called Boiotians “piggies” and “oak trees”