While most ancient Greeks dined in their own homes or as a guest in the home of a friend or associate, some men ate meals at the expense of their city. Public dining was a privilege bestowed upon public officials, generals, visiting government officials, and victorious athletes. In Athens, such figures at at public expense in designated areas of the city and their relatively modest meals originally consisted of barley-cakes, cheese, olives, leeks, and wine (1). The identities of those in charge of preparing public meals have been lost to us, but whether they were slaves, servants, or public employees, their work must have been considerable (2).
In Athens, public officials ate and slept in a part of town called the Agora, and, more specifically, in a large round building called the Tholos. A great amount of tableware has been excavated in the area, including cups, which indicate the consumption of wine as a part of public dining (5). These dishes were generally simple and undecorated; many, however, bear the marking ΔΕ or DE, an abbreviation of DEMOSION, meaning public, to prevent theft (3). The circular shape of the Tholos makes it unlikely that the room supported the long couches on which diners traditionally reclined; rather, public officials, 50 in all, probably took their meals while sitting. The identification of animal bones and braziers for cooking meat in the public dining areas of the Athenian Agora suggests that meat was eaten as a part of public dining, possibly in connection with religious sacrifices, which may have occurred before the meals (4). In any case, it seems as though meat and fish were added to the menu for public officials at the end of the 5th century B.C.E.
While public officials dined in the Tholos, other important Athenians and visitors ate in the Prytaneion, the sacred hearth of the city. Visiting public officials, important Athenians, benefactors of the city, and victors in the Panhellenic games dined at the Prytaneion; victors in the Olympic Games ate at public expense for life. In this building, which has not yet been located by archaeologists, the sacred fire of Hestia, goddess of the hearth, was housed; the building, then, served as the symbolic center for all of Athens. Because of this symbolism, the Prytaneion was an important place to dine and those chosen to eat there must have felt a powerful connection to the city's past, present, and future glory. Despite the prestige involved in eating here, however, meals were at first simple, with meat and fish added to the menu only in the late 5th century B.C.E., as was the case in the Tholos (6).
Public dining provided by the city of Athens was an honor bestowed on the most important and worthy members of society; public officials in the Tholos discussed politics, while the eclectic groups of people who ate together in the Prytaneion had the chance to meet others with very different lifestyles. Like dining in the home, public dining was a time not only for eating but also for relaxing, drinking, and enjoying interesting conversation.
- John M. Camp, The Athenian Agora: Excavations in the Heart of Classical Athens (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986): 94-5; John M. Camp, The Archaeology of Athens (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001): 27; Thomas Braun, "Barley Cakes and Emmer Bread," in eds. John Wilkins, David Harvey, and Mike Dobson, Food in Antiquity (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1995): 25-37.
- John Wilkins "Food Preparation in Ancient Greece: Representations of Gender Roles in the Literary Evidence," in eds. Moira Donald and Linda Hurcombe, Representations of Gender from Prehistory to the Present (New York: St. Martin 's Press, 2000): 118-34.
- For pottery found in the Agora, see Brian A. Sparkes and Lucy Talcott, Black and Plain Pottery of the 6th, 5th and 4th Centuries B.C. The Athenian Agora Vol. XII. 2 parts (Princeton, N.J.: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1970); Camp, The Athenian Agora: 95, fig. 70. For other theories on the marking of pots, see Susan I. Rotroff and John H. Oakley, Debris from a Public Dining Place in the Athenian Agora (Princeton, N.J.: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1992): 41-2.
- Rotroff and Oakley, Debris from a Public Dining Place in the Athenian Agora: 47-8.
- On dining in the Tholos and Agora, see Camp, The Archaeology of Athens: 27; Camp, The Athenian Agora: 94-5; John Wilkins, The Boastful Chef: The Discourse of Food in Ancient Greek Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000): 175-9; Rotroff and Oakley, Debris from a Public Dining Place in the Athenian Agora: 46-47; Peter Garnsey, Food and Society in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999): 133-4.
- On public dining in the Prytaneion, see Wilkins, The Boastful Chef: 175-9; Camp, The Archaeology of Athens: 27.