The Christian feast of Saint Valentine, February 14, was first associated with romance in the Middle Ages – possibly because it was near the official start of spring and the beginning of the birds’ mating season — and by the mid-1800s, it had begun evolving into the big business of chocolates, candies, and candle-lit dinners we know today. But the idea that certain culinary delicacies are conducive to love dates back far earlier, to the ancient Greeks — although their criteria for aphrodisiac food was either its physical appearance, a powerful odor, or some symbolic, philosophical property.

The goddess of love Aphrodite (the Roman Venus), had emerged from the sea, so Greek thinkers reasoned that erotic potions should be concocted from seafood; even in the 18th century, it was believed that the Lenten diet of fish made people more lecherous. The oyster was considered especially arousing because of its vulva-esque… More…

Nothing gets a classical scholar’s heart pumping like the sacred prostitutes of Corinth, the Greek port that is depicted as the free-living “Amsterdam of the ancient world.” After landing at the Corinthian docks, sailors would apparently wheeze up the thousand-odd steps to the top of a stunning crag of rock called the Acrocorinth, which offered 360-degree vistas of the sparkling Mediterranean. There they would pass beneath the marble columns of the Temple of Aphrodite, goddess of Beauty and Love, within whose incense-filled, candlelit confines 1,000 comely girls supposedly worked around the clock gathering funds for their deity. Since the Renaissance, this idea had gripped antiquarians, who liked to imagine that congress with one of Aphrodite’s servants offered a mystical union with the goddess herself — uninhibited pagans coupling in ecstasy before her statue in the perpetual twilight of the temple.

In fact, this lusty vision of Corinth was created entirely… More…