Opson and Situs

Seafood Mosaic from Pompeii

Seafood Mosaic from Pompeii

In 1997 classical scholar James Davidson published a fascinating little book about the ancient Greeks entitled Courtesans and Fishcakes. Discussing the eating habits of the ancient Athenians, Davidson makes a distinction between opson (ὄψον) and situs (σίτος).

Opson refers to what we would call meat entrées, particularly when they bare seafood. Beef and lamb were more associated with religious sacrifices, during which the meat was shared with participants and attendants at the sacrifice. But fish was the meat of choice at symposia such as the ones described so vividly by Plato and Xenophon.

Certain guests at a Greek symposium were known for what is called opsophagi, or “opson eaters.” It was considered rude for guests to ignore the situs, usually consisting of what we would call the side dish. (In our culture, it would include potatoes, rice, and bread; for the Greeks, wheat or barley was the usual side dish.)

One interest side to diabetes is that it is affected primarily by the dishes the Greeks would consider to be a part of situs (though barley is a special exception). People with Type II Diabetes, such as myself, have to concentrate on the opson, supplementing it with vegetables and fruit.

You can now consider me an opsophagos, though I wouldn’t call it to my face.