June 22, 2014
As threatened a few weeks back I’m on a jag about food sovereignty. I decided that the best way to approach this topic would be to read up on the way that food showed up in the lives of history’s great sovereigns. I pulled my copy of Selected Lives by Plutarch down from the shelf and started reading. So far I’ve worked my way through Lycurgus, Numa Pompilius, Themistocles, Camillus, Pericles, Fabius Maximus, Alcibiades, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus and Alexander. Some—Alcibiades, for one—were generals who never exercised the power of a sovereign. The Romans on this list date from the age of Republic, so their sovereignty was temporary. The Greeks, too, often elected their sovereigns. So except for Alexander these would be sovereigns more in the sense of Obama and Bush than Caesar. Plutarch does do Julius Caesar, but I haven’t gotten that far in my reading. He also throws in some lives like Demosthenes and Cicero who were known for oratory, but since I wouldn’t expect to learn much about food sovereignty from anyone who was kind of like a philosopher, I’m just going to ignore them.
One thing you learn from reading Plutarch is that very few of these sovereigns died what we here in the 21st century would call a natural death. And no, they didn’t die from consuming too many chips and sausages, drinking 32 ounce Big Gulps or eating the Big Whooper everyday at some drive-through they encountered while leading legions of phalanxes and cavalry all around the Mediterranean. Sovereignty seems to have been accompanied by enmity. Since I’ve yet to read anything about food enmity coming out of the contemporary food movement, I’m going to report this with my hand rubbing my chin, mumbling an audible “Hmmm!” Then I’m going to chalk it up to a diversion for now, but if you start hearing people chatting about food enmity, remember that you read it first in the Thornapple Blog.
Most of these sovereigns (and some orators, too) met their end by the sword, but there are allegations that Alexander, who was the Big Kahuna among sovereigns, was poisoned. We could indulge ourselves in another diversion here, exploring the root of the word “kahuna” which comes from the Hawaiian verb “to cook”, but my point (which less linguistically erudite readers probably inferred already) was simply that among ancient kings and generals Alexander was great. They called him “Alexander the Great”, don’t you know? So let’s just get right on back to the food connection here.
Plutarch was a bit fastidious in his reporting and does not fully credit the story that Alexander was poisoned, putatively at the behest of the philosopher Aristotle. You’ve got to watch those philosophers, you know. But even if we can’t take this story at face value, we have plenty of hysterical evidence that other sovereigns were betrayed at table. The Roman emperors Vitellius, Domitian, Hadrian, Commodus, Caracalla and Alexander Severus are on the list, but the biggie would be Augustus, who was putatively wasted by his wife Livia with a bag of poisoned fig newtons. There’s no report as to whether or not he ate them with milk. Claudius was also done in eating poisonous mushrooms by his wife Agrippina. Agrippina was a real piece of work, by the way. She poisoned Claudius to ensure that her son Nero would assume the throne but held the threat of further poisoning over Nero’shead. Nero himself allegedly used the services of the official poisoner Locusta to off his half brother Britannicus. Britannicus wasn’t a sovereign though so this is just a side note in the present context.
And so my fastidious research shows that when you hear someone advocating food sovereignty, it means that they are in favor of using food as a means of homicide. I’ll go on record as saying that food ethics frowns on food as a means of homicide. But maybe those Big Whooper meals are part of the food sovereignty story, after all.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University