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p835 Opsonium

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp835‑836 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

OPSO′NIUM, or OBSO′NIUM (ὄψον, dim. ὀψάριον; ὀψήμα, Plut. Sympos. Prob. IV.1), denoted every thing which was eaten with bread. Among the ancients loaves, at least preparations of cornº in some form or other, constituted the principal substance of every meal. But together with this, which was the staff of their life, they partook of numerous articles of diet called opsonia or pulmentaria (Cat. de Re Rust. 58; Hor. Sat. II.2.20), designed also to give nutriment, but still more to add a relish to their food. Some of these p836articles were taken from the vegetable kingdom, but were much more pungent and savoury than bread, such as olives, either fresh or pickled, radishes, and sesamum (Plato, de repub. II p85, ed. Bekker; Xen. Oecon. VIII.9). Of animal food by much the most common kind was fish, whence the terms under explanation were in the course of time used in a confined and special sense to denote fish only, but fish variously prepared, and more especially salt fish, which was most extensively employed to give a relish to the vegetable diet either at breakfast (Menander, p70, ed. Meineke), or at the principal meal (Plaut. Aulul. II.6.3). For the same reason ὀψοφάγος meant a gourmand or epicure, and ὀψοφαγία gluttony (Athen. IX.24‑37).a In maritime cities the time of opening the fish-market was signified by ringing a bell, so that all might have an equal opportunity for the purchase of delicacies (Strab. XIV.2 § 21; Plut. Sympos. Prob. p1187, ed. Steph.).b

Of the different parts of fishes the roe was the most esteemed for this purpose. It is still prepared from the fish in the very same waters adjoining Myus in Ionia, which were given to Themistocles by the King of Persia (Thuc. I.138; Corn. Nepos Them. X.3; Diod. XI.57). A jar was found at Pompeii, containing caviare made from the roe of the tunny (Gell, Pompeiana, 1832, vol. I p178).

Some of the principal ταριχεῖαι, or establishments for curing fish, were on the southern coast of Spain (Strab. III.4);c but the Greeks obtained their chief supply from the Hellespont (Hermippus ap. Athen. I.49, p27E); and more especially Byzantium first rose into importance after its establishment by the Milesians in consequence of the active prosecution of this branch of industry. Of all seas the Euxine was accounted by the ancients the most abundant in fish, and the catching of them was aided by their migratory habits, as in the autumn they passed through the Bosporus towards the South, and in spring returned to the Euxine, in order to deposit their spawn in its tributary rivers. At these two seasons they were caught in the greatest quantity, and, having been cured, were shipped in Milesian bottoms, and sent to all parts of Greece and the Levant. The principal ports on the Euxine engaged in this traffic were Sinope and Panticapaeum (Hegewisch, Colonien der Griechen, p80).

Among the fish used for curing were different kinds of sturgeon (ἀντακαίος, Herod. IV.53; Schneider, Ecl. Phys. I p65, II p48), tunny (σκομβρὸς, Hermippus, l.c.; scomber; πηλαμὺς, a name still in use with some modification among the descents of the ancient Phocaeans at Marseilles, Passow, Handwörterbuchs.v.), and mullet. A minute discussion of their qualities, illustrated by quotations, may be seen in Athenaeus (III.84‑93).

Plato mentions the practice of salting eggs, which was no doubt intended to convert them into a kind of opsonium (Symp. p404, ed. Bekker). The treatise of Apicius, de Opsoniis, is still extant in ten books.

The Athenians were in the habit of going to markets (εἰς τοῦψον) themselves in order to purchase their opsonia (ὀψωνεῖν, Theophrast. Char. 28; opsonare). [Macellum.] But the opulent Romans had a slave, called opsonator (ὀψώνης), whose office it was to purchase for his master. It was his duty, by learning what flavours were most acceptable to him, by observing what most delighted his eyes, stimulated his appetite, and even overcame his nausea, to satisfy as much as possible all the cravings of a luxurious palate (Sen. Epist. 47; compare Hor. Sat. I.2.9, II.7.106; Plaut. Menaech. II.2.1, Mil. III.2.73). We may also infer, from an epigram of Martial (XIV.217), that there were opsonatores, or purveyors, who furnished dinners and other entertainments at so much per head, according to the means and wishes of their employers. Spon (Misc. erud. Ant. p214) has published two inscriptions from monuments raised to the memory of Romans who held the office of purveyors to the Imperial family. At Athens both the sale and the use of all kinds of opsonia were superintended by two or three special officers, appointed by the senate, and called ὀψονόμοι (Athen. VI.12).


Thayer's Notes:

a So the Dictionary; but the word does not appear anywhere in Book 9; rather forty-some times in Book 8 (Greek English); the Loeb edition translator usually renders the words by gourmand, gourmandize, sometimes by glutton, gluttony.

b For an additional extended meaning of opsonia, see the article Athletae and my note there.

c More broadly rather, the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Strabo mentions the fish-salting industry on the south coast, at Malaca and among the Exitanians (III.4.2); and on the east coast at Cartago Nova (III.4.6).


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