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OPSON (ὄψον: in Latin obsonium or opsonium corresponds to some extent, but not entirely: see below), by etymology the nonfarinaceous part of a meal (that which was cooked), but by usage almost restricted in post-Homeric times to fish. It must be remarked that in the Homeric age fish does not seem to have been regarded as a proper article of food for those who could get anything else, even when they lived, as in Ithaca, close to the sea: this has been noticed by Plato, Rep. iii. p. 404 B, and Plutarch (de Is. et Osir. 7; cf. Athen. 1.9 d), and the same also is asserted of the old Italians (Ov. Fast. 6.173). It cannot be said that fish was unknown as food, for we have fishermen (Od. 12.251; 19.113, where it is. cheap, gratuitous food; 22.384: compare the gruesome simile in Od. 10.124); and Odysseus and his companions eat fish in Thrinacia; but that is only, as we are told, “under stress of gnawing hunger,” when they were wind-bound and had eaten all their provisions. In Il. 9.489, Od. 3.480, &c., ὄψον is cooked meat: in, Il. 11.630 the word is used in a sense more like that of later times, of an onion prepared as a “relish” or seasoning, in or with wine. In later times, at any rate at Athens, it is easy to trace its acquired meaning. Those who could afford nothing better had bread in some shape or other as their food and their only staff of life, but all who had the means added something to eat with it, and this naturally took the form of something cooked, ὄψον properly so called: the term, however, became so far conventional that it was possible to use it for any dainty which helped to make the bread more palatable (and for which, in default of anything else, λιμὸς is proverbially used, Xen. Cyr. 1.5, 12); so Plato, Rep. ii. p. 372 C, in describing an imaginary vegetarian diet of a simple people, gives them “salt, olives, cheese, and onions” as ὄψον: but just below, when he returns to ordinary life, he uses ὄψα in the more usual sense of meat, or rather fish. What we should call “butcher's meat” played a comparatively small part in the Athenian diet; it was of course eaten (in early times chiefly when a sacrifice had been offered: Athen. 5.192 b; Juv. Sat. 11.85); and birds and game of various kinds (especially thrushes and hares) appeared at the dinner table: still, however, Professor Mahaffy rightly notices (Social Life in Greece, p. 306) that “the Attic people ate little meat, and lived chiefly on fish and vegetables.” Hence it was that ὄψον is used almost exclusively of fish, and the derivatives ὀψωνεῖν, &c. of buying fish, &c., so that in the words of Athenaeus (vii. p. 276 e; cf. Plut. Symp. 4.2, p. 667 f.), πάντων τῶν προπσοψημάτων ὄψων καλουμένων [p. 2.277]ἐξενίκησεν ἰχθὺς διὰ τὴν ἐξαίρετον ἐδωδὴν μόνος (solely) οὕτω καλεῖσθαι. The ὀψοθάγος is an epicure in fish (τὸν οὐ κρέας ἀλλὰ θάλασσαν τιμῶντα, Anth. Pal. 1.287; cf. Plut. l.c.): and in Hellenistic Greek ὀψάριον (like the modern Greek ψάρι) may be used as absolutely =ἰχθύς. (At Sparta, however, according to Athenaeus, iv. p. 141 b, the ὄψον was commonly boiled pork.) As regards the cost, one obol for a simple dinner of fish and vegetables, see Boeckh, Staatshaus. i.3 pp. 128, 141. As to the fish supply, the commonest were the ἀψύαι, caught off their own shores, which were so abundant that Athenaens (vii. p. 285 b) says that, though a delicacy elsewhere, they were looked down upon at Athens as the ὄψον of the poor: Lake Copais produced the eels, regarded as the greatest of luxuries (Aristoph. Ach. 880, &c.): otherwise fresh-water fish were despised ( Athen. 6.228f). We may notice especially the great consumption of salt fish (τάριχος), whence ταρίχους ἀξιώτερον became a proverb. Of this supply the Euxine was the chief source (Athen. 3.119 b): there were ταριχεῖαι (establishments for curing fish) at Byzantium (Dem. Lacrit. p. 993.32; Strab. vii. p.310; cf. ταριχόπωλος βόσπορος, Athen. 3.116 b) and at various places at the mouths of rivers running into the Euxine, and as far as the Sea of Azov (Strab. xi. p.493): abundance also came from Egypt, Sardinia, and Spain (Poll. 6.48; cf. Hdt. 2.215; Boeckh, Staatshaus. 1.128). From these places the salt fish was sent to Athens in jars (κεράμια Dem. Lacrit. p. 934.34, or ἀμψορῆς). The most useful fish for salting were various sorts of thunny; the ἀντάκαιος also was used, which seems to be a sturgeon. The roe was made into a sort of caviare in early times: it is stated by Cell (Pomp. 1.178) that a jar containing caviare was found at Pompeii: fish sauce or pickle was made principally from the σκόμβρος. A long list of the names of the favourite fish will be found in Athen. 6.281 f., which need not be given here: and indeed translating most Greek and Latin names for fish, like Greek and Latin names for nearly all birds and flowers, is very hazardous guess-work. (For the fish-market at Athens, see AGORA; MACELLUM.)

As regards the Latin use of obsonium (or opsonium), it must be observed that among the Romans there was no such common abstention from butcher's meat as among the Athenians, and consequently no such limitation, in the ordinary use of the word, to one kind of food. In the adapters or translators of Greek comedy, we naturally find the word chiefly, though not exclusively, in the Greek sense (e. g. Ter. And. 2.2, 23 and 32), and so in Plautus and Terence obsonare (or obsonari) is to go to market to buy fish: that, however, it was not exclusively so used, even in these writers, is clear from the Aulularia of Plautus, where there is much talk of obsonium and obsonatores, but in Act. 2.8 the “macellum” has a choice of fish, veal, lamb, beef, and pork. In Horace, Sat. 2.2, 41, obsonium probably refers to the fish which precedes, and in Juv. 4.64 it certainly does, but we may conclude that in Latin the word could not be used by itself, apart from the context, to distinguish fish from provisions generally: in Mart. 14.217 the obsonator is clearly the slave sent to market for provisions of any kind required for dinner, which at Rome was certainly not by rule a fish dinner, and in this general sense we may understand obsonalor where it occurs in inscriptions (C. I. L. 6.6246, 8753). In Pliny, 32.87 and 15.82, where obsonium is used for salt and figs, we have the Greek idea of it as something added to give a seasoning to the bread, for which sense of sauce or “relish” pulmentarium is the correct Latin word, and is used to render the proverbs “hunger the best sauce,” &c. in Latin, which the Greeks express by ὄψον: see also Cato, Cat. Agr. 58, which is wrongly cited sometimes as describing Roman “family” life. Cato speaks of the economies of the slaves (familia), and says that you should pickle for them, as the addition to their bread (pulmentarium = ὄψον), the wind-fallen olives, and then those which will not yield much oil, used very sparingly: if these too are all used up before the year goes round, then the slaves must have the dregs of fish-brine (allex or allec; muria being the clear fish-brine). (For the Roman fish supply, see PISCINA: for further discussion and authorities on the subject of ὄψον, see Becker-Göll, Charikles, 2.316; Blümner, Gr. Privatalt. 223 ff.; Marquardt, Privatleben, 432 if.)


hide References (11 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (11):
    • Aristophanes, Acharnians, 880
    • Homer, Odyssey, 10.124
    • Homer, Odyssey, 12.251
    • Homer, Odyssey, 19.113
    • Homer, Odyssey, 3.480
    • Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.5
    • Homer, Iliad, 11.630
    • Homer, Iliad, 9.489
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 1.9
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.217
    • Ovid, Fasti, 6
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