Friday, January 1, 2010

Foraging with Theophanes - what the Antiochians ate

Around 320 AD, Theophanes, a lawyer and public figure from the Nile valley city of Hermopolis, made a six-month business-related journey to Antioch. His experiences on this trip are detailed in "The Journey of Theophanes: travel, business, and daily life in the Roman East" by John Frederick Matthews which was published  by Yale University Press in 2006.

The day to day details of Theophanes journey were preserved on papyrus documents and cover everything from distances traveled to daily food purchases, from medicinal supplies to fees paid for services. The collection of papyrus is known as the Archive of Theophanes and was published by C. H. Roberts in 1952, in volume IV of the Catalogue of the Greek and Latin Papyri in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester (hence its standard abbreviation as P.Ryl. 616-51). 

While I have oft bemoaned the lack of new sources on Antioch it just goes to show that the papyrus troves of Egypt (not to mention obscure Arab or Syriac sources) may yet yield us new information to plug some of the many gaps in our knowledge of the mundane in the ancient metropolis. This source is thus fresh meat (and drink) literally to the Antiochophile community. The dossier of material relating to the journey consists of over fifteen hundred lines of close documentation, is a fascinating record of an episode in Theophanes' life. 

In the book, the classicist and historian John Matthews translated these important documents and puts them in the wider context of the social history of the Graeco-Roman world. The memoranda relating to Theophanes’ journey are presented within a historical narrative that offers an array of revelations on diet, travel, social relations, and other fascinating topics. 

The Antioch picture given by the papyri has attracted the attentions of a number of historians besides Matthews. An important article (in modern Greek) was published by J. Kalleris soon after the appearance of the archive and discussed the terminology of its many references to food and drink. A paper, Ein Monat in Antiochia, by Hans-Joachim Drexhage studied the evidence for costs and prices relating to the period of Theophanes' residence at Antioch. (Actually Theophanes spent two and a half months in Antioch not "ein Monat"!)

Matthews, in talking of those who preceded him in working on the subject of Theophanes, refers to "some characteristically acute remarks by Ramsay MacMullen on Theophanes in his public role, some informative pages in Lionel Casson's book on Roman travel, and a somewhat inaccessible article on the same subject by Patrice Cauderlier". 

As Theophanes did his peregrinations in the years preceding the rise of Constantine this is a good snapshot of the city in its pre-Christian apogee. 

Reading through Matthews on Theophanes one is almost tempted to see the ancient traveller as the Samuel Pepys of Antioch. His stay was relatively brief and his record is not a commentary but quite literally a reckoning of his daily expenditures but compared to the inaccuracies of Malalas and the high level politicking of Libanius, Theophanes is the closest we get to a street-level correspondent on the way things were.

He travelled to Antioch on some sort of business, what exactly is never revealed though he eventually signs an agreement and seemingly has a party to celebrate then swiftly hits the road back to Egypt. He came with a small retinue of slaves/retainers most of whom bear Egyptian names. These had to be fed and were entrusted with buying expeditions and thus have been immortalised in their master's budgetary statements. It seems that Theophanes had rented lodgings (as he had to buy firewood almost daily for the cooking requirements) and Matthews speculates that he was staying in a house rented from a widow (due to a large payment paid to somesuch at the end of the stay. 

Theophanes dated his trip and was thus there during the months (on the Egyptian civil calendar) of Pachon, Epheibe and Pauni. Epheibe, at least in 320 AD, corresponded roughly to July of our calendar. This has relevance because some of the diet is dictated by seasonal availability. Everyday Theophanes had bread purchased in two qualities, refined and plain/common (the latter presumably for the slaves and maybe factotums). The shopping records include purchases of vegetables (gourds, cucumbers, lettuce, pot herbs, leeks, onions, carrots etc), eggs, olives, olive oil (of different qualities), pickled and fresh fish and cheeses. Wine was also purchased on a daily basis. He also acquired a herb-flavoured wine, absinthion, which is somewhat akin to today's vermouth. He also bought wine vinegar. 

He bought fruit frequently. From the very start of his Antioch stay he bought figs (both dried and fresh) as well as nuts. He bought apricots (armenia) and plums (damaskenoi) when they came into season. He also bought melons, apples and peaches (the latter as apricots went out of season). From mid-July onwards until the end of his stay he was a buyer of grapes. One one occasion mulberries figures as a purchase, as do nettles. Generally the diet was the far of Antiochians of an elevated standing in the summer time, when fruits were mainly in season. Winter must have been much more restrictive in the choice available. 

As well as the fish we previously mentioned, he also bought meat in sizeable quantities and seasoning like garum (an ancient fish sauce) to flavour it ( or moreover hide the flavour!). He also acquired, salt, syrup and sweet wine and speices such as coriander and cumin for augment the favour of food. He also bought luxury items like honey and on at least one occasion, garlic. He was a very frequent buyer of meet, sometimes up to eight pounds in a day while some of its is dedicated to salting, a necessary action to preserve meat prior to refrigeration. On several occasions he also bought smoked sausages (loukanika) and chopped meat called eissikia (on two occasions) to be made into meatballs. On various occasions he bought trotters (presumably pigs) both boiled/cooked and even once bought a head. The meat is seldom specified but on the occasions when it was mentioned it was either goat or pork.

Matthews then goes on to describe the amounts of money expended and the types of meals that were either eaten amongst intimates or with guests present. 

Int he translated shopping accounts, soap is also mentioned as a purchase as well as "foam of nitre". He also notes buying a sponge from the physician. The cost of a trip to the baths (with Antoninus) figures as costing 200 drachmas. A pair of slippers for the baths was purchased. The repair of crockery is mentioned, as is the cost of buying some wooden bowls. Gourds were purchased also for cooking vegetables in. He also notes buying papyrus (to write up these accounts) but also presumably to draft the agreement (symbole) which concluded his business successfully in Antioch. Finally on the eve of his return he stocks up on loukanika, presumably a portable snack for the road home. 

All in all, Matthews retelling of Theophanes visit is fascinating and makes the daily grind in Antioch come alive. Never has a shopping list been so valuable! Theophanes obviously was a man of means to take such a retinue on his trip. He clearly wanted to live in some style (and entertain) in Antioch, maybe it was all part of making an impression upon whoever he was bargaining with over the still mysterious object of his mission. 




1 comment:

washer said...

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