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Ancient and modern

Socrates and Galen on the Great British Bake Off

Ancient medics and philosophers had thoughts on rich food. Discouraging ones

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

As the national girth expands by the second, Auntie, never backward about lecturing us on the topic, continues to glory in the popularity of The Great British Bake Off. What a take-off, ancients would have thought.

Philosophers, naturally, had little time for fancy cooking. Socrates argued that cooks had no interest in health, only in thrilling the client. They were mocked for the extremes they went to in perverting nature. The Roman poet Martial tells us that one Caecilius fashioned a complete meal from pumpkins which he turned into cakes, lentils, beans, mushrooms, sausages, tuna fish, sprats and sweetmeats. All very Bake Off.


Athenaeus’s lunatic Professors at Dinner in 15 books (late 2nd century ad) pretends to be an account of a banquet laid on in Rome by one Larensis for his 23 guests. In it, they unfold their thoughts on the myriad wonders of the world, and particularly its pleasures, benefits and dangers. Food, drink and sex feature large.

Typical is their discussion of wine. Old wine is better than young not merely for its taste but because it is healthier. This leads into a discussion about the virtue of drinking water with food and wine. If the system absorbs plenty, it is argued, the wine will not exert its full force and thus not eat away at one’s system. A guest suggests drinking only sweet wine, which is less likely to cause a headache, attacks the brain less violently and is easier on the digestive system. As for hangovers, they applaud the Egyptians, who always put boiled cabbage first on the menu at banquets — the great preventative of that morning-after feeling.

The point here is that the ancients were extremely sensitive to the connection between food and health. The great Galen was among the feasters, with more than a dozen doctors involved in all, and the importance of a good diaita (Greek ‘way of life’, cf. ‘diet’) and the idea that you are what you eat was never far from their thoughts. Perhaps Auntie should follow the GB Bake Off with a GP Fat Off.


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