The deathless ones

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					Natural sciences

The deathless ones
Aristotle’s History of Animals is a fascinating backdrop
to the love of fish that swept through Classical Athens

         n 22 February 1882, Charles            bears        the        name        Silurus
         Darwin wrote a letter to a man         aristotelis—Aristotle’s catfish.
         named William Ogle, who had
sent him a translation of a book by             Written sometime around 350 BC, at the
Aristotle. Darwin’s reply began:                tail-end of the Classical period in Athens,
                                                the impact of the History of Animals was
“My dear Dr. Ogle,                              immediate and immense. It was rapidly
                                                adapted to form the backbone of lesser
You must let me thank you for the               works such as Pliny’s Natural History; it
pleasure which the introduction to the          quite possibly influenced the early
Aristotle book has given me. I have rarely      Christian Church’s attitude to women;
read anything which has interested me           and it was copied and recopied, with
more, though I have not read as yet more        varying degrees of accuracy, by successive
than a quarter of the book proper. From         generations of scribes, culminating in the
quotations which I had seen, I had a high       great illuminated bestiaries of Mediaeval
notion of Aristotle’s merits, but I had not     Europe. These contained no more
the most remote notion what a wonderful         information than Aristotle had gleaned
man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have            well over one-and-a-half thousand years
been my two gods, though in very                earlier, although the pictures were
different ways, but they were mere              undoubtedly nicer.
schoolboys to old Aristotle.”
                                                Such remarkable longevity owed much to
The book was called the History of Animals,     the accuracy of the observations made
and is one of several texts which Aristotle     throughout the work. Forty years before
is know to have written on the natural          Darwin wrote his letter to Dr. Ogle, this
sciences. The History of Animals is an          depth and breadth of the History of
attempt to find patterns in the anatomy,        Animals had caused the great French
behaviour, and habitats of the animals          scientist Georges Cuvier, one of Darwin’s
Aristotle found around him, Man                 gods, to write:
included. It mentions around 500 different
species, split approximately evenly             “I cannot read this work without being
between birds, terrestrial animals, and         ravished with astonishment. Indeed, it is
marine creatures. Of particular interest are    impossible to conceive how a single man
the    quite    astonishingly      accurate     was able to collect and compare the
observations on marine life.                    multitude of particular facts implied in the
                                                numerous general rules and aphorisms
To give a brief idea, the book was the first    contained in this work and of which his
to accurately describe the placenta of the      predecessors never had any idea.”
smooth-hound, which was rediscovered
in 1673. It was also the first to accurately    Observations
describe cephalopod reproduction, a             But, brilliant though the History of Animals
subject rediscovered in 1852. As late as        is, Cuvier goes too far. Aristotle did not
1857, naturalists described a new and           collect his facts on his own, nor had they
obscure species of catfish, only to find that   gone unnoticed by his predecessors. In
Aristotle had beaten them to it. So             fact, Aristotle frequently explains how
complete is the description of its habits set   many of his observations came from
out in the History of Animals that today it     people who would have had rather more
SAMUDRA JULY 2002                                                                                              3
                    contact with animals than Aristotle            sites in southern Greece suggest that the
    Mediterranean   himself. Returning to two of the examples      inhabitants there had made the jump from
                    above, Aristotle mentions that the ones        coastal fishing to deep-sea fishing in
                    who have actually determined how               neolithic times. Some of the world’s
                    cephalopods reproduce are the fishermen        earliest frescoes, painted on the island of
                    who catch them.                                Santorini around 1500 BC, depict
                                                                   fishermen’s catches, and tablets, dating

                           ikewise, the description of ‘his’       from a few hundred years later, found in
                           catfish comes, again, from the          the Palace of Knossos on Crete, list stocks
                           fishermen whose living it provides.     of fish kept in the Palace larders.
                    Viewed in this light, the History of Animals
                    may be seen not as an isolated work of         Literary, archaeological and artistic
                    genius, but as a culmination of the            evidence all suggest that, by the dawn of
                    knowledge of nature that the Classical         the Classical Athenian age, the techniques
                    Athenians had acquired, and as a               of fishing were set, remaining essentially
                    reflection of their attitudes towards living   unchanged to this day in certain parts of
                    creatures.                                     the Aegean. Netting, diving, baskets,
                                                                   rod-and-line fishing, long-line fishing,
                    This begs the question of why the              poisoning—all formed part of the
                    observations on marine life are so much        fisherman’s repertoire, and all are
                    more detailed than those on, for example,      mentioned in the History of Animals. The
                    birds. Why should the knowledge of             local fishermen even enlisted the aid of
                    fishermen be any more accurate or widely       fellow mammals.
                    disseminated than the knowledge of, say,
                    bird hunters? To answer this question,         In his poem, The Shield of Heracles, Hesiod,
                    we need to take a slightly broader view of     writing around 700 BC, mentions
                    fish and fishermen in the Classical            “dolphins rushing this way and that,
                    Mediterranean.                                 fishing...and devouring the mute fishes.
                                                                   And on the shore sat a fisherman
                    Fishing in the Mediterranean has a             watching: in his hands he held a casting
                    history as old as the sea itself, and          net for fish, and seemed as if about to cast
                    evidence to show the importance of             it forth.”
                    marine life in the popular diets and
                    economies of the early Mediterranean           Classical writing
                    peoples runs through the art and               This use of dolphins to round up fish is
                    literature of the second and first millenia    mentioned by several Classical authors,
                    BC. Fish bones found at archaeological         Hesiod being the first, and the trick is still

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widespread today, from the autumn              Keos, turtles for the island of Aegina, and

garfish hunts of the Cyclades to the great     tunas and bonitos proudly adorn many
tuna round-ups of the Pacific.                 coins minted in and around the
                                               Bosphorus, reminding the users where

       ut not only did ancient fishermen       these delicacies came from.
       know how to fish, they also knew
       when and where to fish. Fish stocks     Fish were being caught, but who was
fluctuate in the Mediterranean today, and      eating? Initially, as far as we can tell,
we have no reason to suspect it would          nobody important. The two towering
have been otherwise 2,500 years ago. The       works of Ancient Greek literature are
History of Animals covers this, of course,     those      traditionally      ascribed     to
reporting the seasonal migrations of fish      Homer—the Iliad, which tells the story of
through the Bosphorus and discussing the       the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, which
best times of year for certain fish to be      tells of the return home of Odysseus, one
eaten.                                         of the heroes of the Iliad. Both were written
                                               at about the same time as Hesiod’s Shield
However, for once, the History of Animals      of Heracles, which is to say around 700 BC.
doesn’t get there first, being beaten into     Perhaps unsurprisingly for an epic poem,
second place by some fragments of the          banquets abound in Homer’s works.
work of the comic poet Archestratus,           Rather more surprisingly, fish wasn’t
which have survived in a collection by a       eaten at any of them. The heroes of the
late Roman writer named Athenaeus.             Iliad—Achilles,                Agamemnon,
Archestratus wrote a book called The Life      Hector—ate cows, sheep, deer, and boars,
of Luxury at about the same time as            but no fish, a fact which bemused later
Aristotle was writing the History of           generations of Greeks no end. In his
Animals and, although rather less              Republic, written around 400 BC, about 300
highbrow, it is just as accurate in its        years after the Iliad, Plato draws attention
descriptions of fish migrations and            to this:
                                               “For you know that when his heroes are
“If you go to the prosperous land of           on campaign, he does not feast them on
Ambrakia and happen to see the boarfish,       fish, although they are on the shores of the
buy it! Even if it costs its weight in gold,   Hellespont, nor on boiled meat, but only
don’t leave without it, lest the dread         roast. That is what suits soldiers best.”
vengeance of the deathless ones breathes
down on you; for this fish is the flower of    Fish was no food fit for heroes, but a
nectar.”                                       low-class meal, eaten by peasants and
                                               women. In the Odyssey, Odysseus and his
In similar over-the-top vein, Archestratus     men will only stoop so low as to eat fish
praises squid from Dium, maigre from           when they are driven almost to starvation.
Pella, bluefish from Olynthus, shark from      As Homer puts it, “They were forced to eat
Torone, and many more local specialities.      fish because hunger gnawed their bellies.”
More evidence for this identification of       In keeping with this low-status meal, the
fish with sites comes from the coinage,        fishermen who caught it were of
which begins to be seen towards the            comparably low status. They, like most
middle of the first millennium BC. The         workers, were passed over by epic poetry,
Mediterranean at the time was composed         but appear from time to time in vignettes
of a number of city States, which took it in   such as the one by Hesiod, mutely
turns to go to war with the Persians and       collecting their catch and troubling
then each other, until this happy state of     nobody.
affairs came to an end with the rise of
Macedonia under Philip and his son             Changing times
Alexander the Great. Each of these city        Times, however, were changing. The
States minted their own coinage and,           expansion of the Greeks throughout the
naturally enough, each chose a symbol to       Mediterranean in the seventh and sixth
place on the coins, which they felt            centuries BC led to the creation of colonies
reflected well on themselves. An               that stretched from the south of France to
enormous number of these symbols are           the sea of Azov. And, as is so often the case
marine creatures. Cuttlefish stand for         with colonies, the tastes and fashions of

SAMUDRA JULY 2002                                                                                              5

                    the new world came back to corrupt the         latter date, and to that century and a half
                    old.                                           belong the great dramas of Aeschylus and
                                                                   Sophocles, the bawdy comedies of

                             s James Davidson relates in his       Aristophanes, the first concepts of
                             excellent book, Courtesans and        Western democracy, the construction of
                             Fishcakes, by the end of the sixth    the Parthenon under Pericles, the birth of
                    century, a new fashion was beginning in        written history under Herodotus and
                    the Greek colonies of southern Italy—fish      Thucydides, and the foundations of
                    eating. Cookbooks begin to appear in           philosophy under Socrates, Plato, and
                    which fish are lauded. A new type of           Aristotle himself. But the age starts with
                    crockery appears that allows fish eaters to    the defeat of the mighty Persian empire at
                    enjoy their fish to the full. Called the       the battles of Marathon and Salamis. As
                    fishplate, it is a wide, flat dish, on which   victors are wont to do, the Athenians
                    painted fish appear as the real ones on top    decided that they deserved to let their hair
                    are eaten. The fish-eating habits of the       down after their triumph, and began to
                    Italian city of Sybaris become so decadent     enjoy      themselves      on    a    scale
                    that their memory is preserved in the          unprecedented in their history. As they
                    English word ‘sybarite’.                       did so, a subtle change took place in their
                    One particularly extravagant citizen of
                    Sybaris,     a     gentleman        named      Greek meals were traditionally divided
                    Smindyrides, found himself unable to           into three parts—the carbohydrate, which
                    travel to Athens without taking a retinue      was usually bread and went by the name
                    of over 1,000 with him, in which number        of ΣΙΤΟΣ (sitos); the thing which made the
                    are included many fishermen and fish           carbohydrate taste nice, called ΟΨΟΝ
                    cooks. Little wonder then, that after the      (opson); and the drink.
                    Homeric heroes have been lauded for
                    their roast meat, one of Plato’s characters    Real luxury
                    in the Republic speculates, “If that’s your    As we have seen, Homer took opson to
                    view, I assume that you don’t approve of       mean meat, preferably roast, and this
                    the luxury of Syracusan and Sicilian           usage held throughout most of the
                    cooking?”                                      Greek-speaking world. However, in
                                                                   Athens a gradual but complete
                    The heyday of the Ancient Greeks is often      identification of opson with fish was to
                    said to be the Classical period in Athens,     occur. To the Classical Athenians, the real
                    which lasted from about 500 BC to 323 BC.      luxury of a meal was in the seafood. Fish
                    Aristotle’s own death coincides with the       came to be so identified with opson that it

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even appropriated the word, and the            by the priests who were officiating.

modern Greek for fish, ΨΑΡΙ (psari),           Entrails were usually burnt, and the
reminds us of this.                            remaining flesh distributed by lot among
                                               the participants in a manner mirrored

       his association of seafood with         today by the production of halal and kosher
       pleasure reaches its height in the      meat. Since priests tended to keep the
       comic plays of the period, in which     secrets of their religious ritual to
fish are treated as the currency of luxury.    themselves, the average Athenian rarely
Fishermen and fish sellers transform from      got a chance to examine terrestrial animals
the simple hunters of Hesiod to grasping       at length. In contrast, fish were not
pimps, selling their wares to the highest      sacrificed, and so could be bought,
bidder. One comic poet, Lynceus of             dissected, and examined to the heart’s
Samos, even went so far as to suggest that     content.
the Athenian national hero Theseus
would surrender himself to the embraces        We see glimpses of this in the History of
of Tlepolemus, Rhodes’ mythical founder,       Animals. When Aristotle considers sheep,
for a taste of the latter’s (famously          he does so through the eyes of priests,
delicious) dogfish.                            describing variations in the gall bladders
                                               of different breeds, which were one of the
In fact, anybody who did anything with a       few organs used in divination. However,
fish other than eat it was looked at           when it comes to tuna fish, his concerns
archly—reports of fish worship amongst         are those of a gourmet:
the Egyptians and Syrians just went to
show how strange they were. “We will           “And if you should come to the holy city
never get on”, says Anaxandrides to the        of famous Byzantium, eat another slice of
Egyptians, “as the eel you consider the        preserved tuna for me there: it is good and
greatest divinity and we the very greatest     tender,” says Archestratus. “But when
dish.”                                         old”, cautions Aristotle, “the tuna are poor
                                               even for preserving: for much of the flesh
Slowly, seafood became redolent of sex         wastes away.”
and seduction. The renowned orator
Demosthenes said of a traitor that he          “...and these, owing to their rarity, it is
“went around buying whores and fish”,          impossible to classify,” observes Aristotle
two things Athenians associated with           sagely, before relating a collection of
decadent luxury. This association              fishermen’s tales of the “one that got
between seafood and sex grew so strong         away” variety.
that      vocabularies      began        to
blur—courtesans were given fishy               We have seen that, by around 400 BC, the
nicknames; one was called “red mullet”,        behaviour and anatomy of fish had
another “cuttlefish”, and a pair of sisters    become of great importance to the
were named the “anchovies” because of          Athenians. Their love of fish, and
their “pale complexions, slender figures,      eagerness to exploit edible marine life, had
and large eyes.”                               bred a hierarchy of taste, with lowly salted
                                               fish and small fry at the bottom for the
Why did seafood take such a hold?              poor, and with dogfish and tuna steaks at
Nobody is entirely sure why the love of        the top and only for the rich.
fish swept through Classical Athens so
completely, nor why the fad started in         It is this culture of fish identification and
Sicily in the first place. However, one        classification that Aristotle drew upon,
important distinction should be made           and on which, despite the occasional
between the “Homeric” foods, and               display of scepticism, the History of
seafood, and that distinction is a religious   Animals relies so heavily.
one. Fish wasn’t offered to the gods as a
sacrifice, unlike the meat from terrestrial    Age estimation
animals. Most people would only eat            Of course, fishermen’s observations aren’t
cows, sheep, or pigs as part of a sacrifice,   always correct, and their mistakes became
in which the animals were dedicated to         Aristotle’s. For example, when estimating
one or other of the Greeks’ numerous           the ages of marine life, Aristotle and his
gods, before being ritually dismembered        fishermen are spot on with the dolphin,

SAMUDRA JULY 2002                                                                                              7

                    which was held to be sacred and so was         “A Spartan was invited to a banquet at
                    not killed but released when caught:           which sea urchins were served at table,
                                                                   and took one. He did not know how this

                            he dolphin lives many years; some      food is eaten and did not notice how his
                            are definitely known to have lived     fellow diners handled it: he put the urchin
                            for over 25 years, others for 30, by   in his mouth, shell and all, and cracked it
                    the following method: fishermen dock           with his teeth. He was getting on badly
                    the tails of some of them and then let them    with his helping, having not come to terms
                    go again: this enables them to discover        with its tough and thorny surface, and
                    how long they live.”                           said,

                    However, no fisherman will throw back a        ‘Wretched dish! I’m not going to weaken
                    tuna, one of the great catches and likely to   and let you go now—but I’ll take no more
                    fetch a good price at market. Bluefin tuna     of your kind!’”
                    can reach 15 years of age, but Aristotle’s
                    estimate of their lifespan is sadly out.

                    “Tunas live for two years; the fishermen
                    consider this to be proved by the fact that
                    once there was a failure of young tunas
                    for a year, and the next year there was a
                    failure of the adult ones.”

                    Ultimately, however, we should realize
                    the debt of thanks we owe to the
                    inhabitants of the shores of the Aegean,
                    for such lapses are few and far between,
                    and could have been much worse. A
                    famous anecdote from Athenaeus tells
                    the story of how a man from Sparta,
                    Athens’ main rival for power throughout         This article is by John Bothwell
                    the Classical period and an inland city,        (, a plant scientist
                    got on with his seafood. We can only            who works for the Marine Biological
                    imagine how bad a book the History of           Association of the UK and whose
                    Animals might have been had the young           hobby is reading Greek
                    Aristotle settled in Sparta...

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