The diet of the Ancient Greeks was characterized by its frugality, reflecting agricultural hardship. It was founded on the "Mediterranean trio": wheat, olive oil, and wine.
The Greeks had three meals a day:
- breakfast (ἀκρατισμός / akratismós) consisting of barley bread dipped in wine (ἄκρατος / ákratos), sometimes complemented by figs or olives;
- lunch (ἄριστον / ariston) taken around noon or early afternoon.
- dinner (δεῖπνον / deĩpnon), the most important meal of the day, generally taken at nightfall.
An additional meal (ἑσπέρισμα / hespérisma) was sometimes taken in the late afternoon
The Greeks ate while seated, use of benches being reserved for banquets. The tables, high for normal meals and low for banquets, were initially shaped as rectangles. In the 4th century BC, the usual table becomes round, often ornated with animal legs-like shapes (for example lion's claws). It was custom for the Greeks to place terra cotta miniatures of their furniture in children's graves, which gives us a good idea of the style for that period.
Loaves of flat bread could be used as plates, but terra cotta or metal bowls were more common. Dishes became more refined over time, and by the Roman period plates were sometimes made out of precious metals or glass. Use of the fork was unknown; people ate with their fingers. Knives were used to cut meat, and spoons similar to modern oriental spoons were used for soups and broths.
Cereals (σῖτος / sĩtos) formed the staple diet. The two main grains were wheat and barley. These were softened by soaking, then either reduced into gruel, or ground into flour (ἀλείατα / aleíata) and kneaded and formed into loaves (ἄρτος / ártos) or flatbreads, either plain or mixed with cheese or honey. Leavening was known, but the stone oven did not appear until the Roman period. According to a direction from Solon, an Athenian lawmaker of the 6th century BC, leavened bread was supposed to be reserved for feast days. However, during the classical period leavened bread was sold in bakeries, though it was very expensive.
Barley was easier to produce but more difficult to make bread from. It provided a nourishing but very heavy bread. Because of this it was often grilled before milling, producing a flour (ἄλφιτα / álphita) which was used to make μᾶζα / mãza, the basic Greek dish. In Peace (v. 449), Aristophanes uses the expression ἔσθειν κριθὰς μόνας, literally "to eat only barley", with a meaning equivalent to the English "diet of bread and water". Many recipes for maza are known; it could be served cooked or raw, as a broth, or made into dumplings or flatbreads. Like wheat breads, it could also be augmented with cheese or honey.
Fruit and vegetables
The cereals were often served accompanied by what was generally referred to as ὄψον / ópson. The word initially referred to anything prepared on the fire, and, by extension, anything which accompanied bread. In the Iliad the term refers only to meat; in the Odyssey it is also used of fish. In the classical period it came to refer to vegetables (cabbage, onions, lentils, and beans) in soup, porridge, or puree (ἔτνος / étnos), seasoned with olive oil, vinegar, γάρον / gáron — a fish sauce similar to Vietnamese nuoc mam — and herbs. According to Aristophanes (The Frogs, v. 62–63), puree was one of the favourite dishes of Heracles, who was always represented as a glutton in the comedies. Raw or preserved olives were a common garnish.
In the cities, fresh vegetables were expensive and rarely eaten: the poorer city dwellers had to make do with dried. As for onions, these were symbolic of military life. In Peace (v. 529), Aristophanes uses the smell of onions as typically representing soldiers; in verses 1127-1129, the chorus, celebrating the end of war, sings Oh! joy, joy! no more helmet, no more cheese nor onions!
Fruit, fresh or dried, was eaten as dessert. The primary fruits were figs, pomegranates, and nuts. Dried figs were also eaten as an appetizer or when drinking wine. In the latter case, they were often accompanied by chestnuts, chick peas, or grilled beechnuts.
Meat and fish
The consumption of fish and meat varied in accordance with the wealth and location of the household; in the country, hunting (primarily trapping by young men) allowed for consumption of birds and rabbits. Peasants also had farmyards to provide them with chickens and geese. Slightly wealthier landowners could raise some extra goats, pigs, or sheep. In the city, meat was expensive except for pork. In Aristophanes' day a piglet cost three drachma (Peace verse 374), which was three days wages for a public servant.
The Mycenaean civilization raised cattle for their meat. In the 8th century BC Hesiod describes the ideal country feast in Works and Days: "But at that time let me have a shady rock and wine of Biblis, a clot of curds and milk of drained goats with the flesh of a heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids; then also let me drink bright wine..."(v. 588-593). From the middle of the ancient period, animal husbandry declined, and consumption of meat became marginal, restricted to religious sacrifices which took place during civic festivals. The part of the gods (fat and bones) was burnt while the part of men (meat) was grilled and distributed to the participants.
For their part, the Spartans primarily ate a pork stew, the famous black gruel (μέλας ζωμός / mélas zômós). Dicaearchus, quoted by Athenaeus gives us its composition: pork, salt, vinegar and blood. The dish was served with figs and cheese. The 2nd and 3rd century author Claudius Aelianus, in his Various History (XIV, 7), claims that Spartan cooks were prohibited from cooking anything other than meat.
In the Greek Islands and on the coast, fresh fish and seafood (squid, octopus, and shellfish) were common. They were eaten locally but above all sold inland. Sardines and anchovies were also regular fare for the citizens of Athens. They were sometimes sold fresh, but more frequently salted. Other fish, particularly prized by gourmets, were very expensive, such as tuna or eels from lake Kopais in Boeotia; these were sung of by the heroes of The Acharnians.
The most widespread drink was evidently water. Looking for water was the daily drudge of women. Though wells were inevitable, they preferred spring water, which was recognized as nutritious — it caused plants and trees to grow — but also as a desirable beverage. Pindar called spring water "as agreeable as honey" (fragment 198 B4).
The Greeks would classify water as heavy, dry, acidic, sweet, sour, and wine-like, etc. One of the comic poet Antiphanes' characters claimed that his taste buds were so good he could identify all of the waters of Attica (fgt. 179 Kock). Athenaeus (II, 44) states that a number of philosophers had a reputation for drinking nothing but water, a habit combined with a vegetarian diet (cf. below). Goat milk and mead were also drunk.
The usual drinking vessel was the skyphos, made out of wood, terra cotta, or metal. Critias, cited in Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, XII, 7-8) also mentions the kothon, a Spartan goblet which had the military advantage of hiding the colour of the water from view and trapping mud in its edge. They also used a drinking vessel called a kylix (a shallow footed bowl), and for banquets the kantharos (a deep cup with handles) or the rhyton, a drinking horn often moulded into the form of a human or animal head.
The Greeks made red as well as rosé and white wines. As at the present time, many varieties of production were to be found in Thasos, Lesbos, Chios and Rhodes, from common table wine to vintage qualities. A light cheap wine made from water and pomace (the residue from squeezed grapes), mixed with lees, was reserved for the personal consumption of the producer. The Greeks did not hesitate to flavour their wine with honey, cinnamon, or even thyme. Unlike modern Greeks, they did not produce retsina (wine flavoured with pine resin). Claudius Aelianus also mentions a wine mixed with perfume (Various History, XII, 31). Finally, Athenaeus (I, 31d) mentions a cooked wine and a sweet wine similar to port from Thasos.
Wine was generally cut with water. Pure wine was not recommended for regular consumption; it appears that its alcoholic proof was higher than that of modern wine. In effect, the natural fermentation of a very sweet juice in good sun can achieve from 12° to 16° (with a maximum of 18°). It was mixed in a krater, from which the slaves would fill the drinkers' (kylixes with oenochoes (jugs). Wine was also used as a generic medication, being taken to have medicinal virtue. Claudius Aelianus mentions that the wine from Heraia in Arcadia rendered men foolish but women fertile; conversely, Achean wine was thought to induce abortion (XIII, 6). Outside of these therapeutic uses, Greek society did not approve of women drinking wine; according to Aelianus, a Massalian law prohibited this and restricted women to drinking water (II, 38). Sparta was the only city where women routinely drank wine.
Wine reserved for local usage was kept in skins. That destined for sale was poured into πίθοι / píthoi, (large terra cotta jugs). From here they were decanted into amphoras sealed with pitch for retail sale. Vintage wines carried stamps from the producers and/or city magistrates who guaranteed their origin. This is one of the first instances of indicating the geographical or qualitative provenance of a product, and is the basis of the modern appellations d'origine contrôlées certification.
Homer Iliad Book 11
made them a soothing drink. Old Nestor had taken her
from Tenedos, when Achilles ransacked the place.
Daughter of great-hearted Arsinous, she'd been chosen
for him by the Achaeans, because he excelled them all
in giving wise advice. First, she pushed out in front of them
a well-polished table with feet of blue enamel.
Then she set there a bronze basket holding onions,
to add spice to their drink, with pale honey and bread
made of sacred barley. Beside these she set a cup,
a magnificent work Nestor had brought from home,
studded with gold. There were four handles on it,
around each one a pair of golden doves was feeding.
Below were two supports. When that cup was full,
another man could hardly lift it from the table,
but, old as he was, Nestor picked it up with ease.
In this cup Hecamede, looking like a goddess,
made a soothing drink for them from Pramnian wine.
In it she shredded goat's cheese with a grater made of bronze,
then shook white barley grain on top. When she'd prepared it,
she invited them to drink.
The Greeks also consumed kykeon (κυκεών, from κυκάω / kykáô, "to shake, to mix"), which functioned as a cross between a beverage and a meal.. It was a barley gruel, to which water and herbs were added. In the Iliad (XV, 638-641), the beverage also contained grated goat cheese. In the Odyssey (X, 234), Circe adds honey and a magic potion to it. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (v. 208), the goddess refuses red wine but accepts a kykeon made of water, flour, and pennyroyal. Used as a ritual beverage in the Eleusinian Mysteries, it was also a popular beverage, especially in the countryside: Theophrastus, in his Characters (IV, 2-3), describes a boorish peasant as having drunk much kykeon and inconveniencing the Assembly with his bad breath. It also had a reputation for good digestive properties, and as such, in Peace (v. 712), Hermes recommends it to heroes who have eaten too much dried fruit.
A fresco taken from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver featuring an image of a symposium
The symposium (συμπόσιον / symposion) — traditionally translated as "banquet", but more literally "gathering of drinkers" — was one of the preferred pastimes for the Greeks. It consisted of two stages: the first dedicated to food, generally rather simple, and a second stage dedicated to drink. In reality, wine was consumed with the food, and the beverages were accompanied by snacks (τραγήματα / tragếmata) such as chestnuts, beans, toasted wheat, or honey cakes; all designed to absorb alcohol and extend the drinking spree.
The second stage was inaugurated with a libation, most often in honour of Dionysus. This was followed by debate or table games, such as kottabos. The guests would stretch out on wall seats (κλίναι / klínai), with low tables serving to hold the food or game boards. Dancers, acrobats, and musicians might augment the evening. A "King of the Banquet" was drawn by lots, and had the task of directing the slaves as to how strong to mix the wine.
With the exception of dancers and courtesans, the banquet was strictly reserved for men, and served as an essential element of Greek social life. As with modern dinner parties, the host could simply invite friends or family. It could also be a regular assembly of members of a religious group or a hetairia (a type of aristocratic club). The great feasts were very much the domain of the very rich; in most Greek homes, religious feasts or family events were the occasion of more modest banquets.
The banquet served as the backdrop for a veritable genre of literature, for example: Plato's Symposium, Xenophon's work of the same name, the Table Talk of Plutarch's Moralia, and the Deipnosophists (Banquet of the Learned) of Athenaeus.
Gluttons, gourmets and chefs
Up to the 3rd century BC, the frugality imposed by the physical and climatic conditions of the country was held as virtuous. The Greeks did not ignore the pleasures of eating, but valued simplicity. The rural writer Hesiod, as cited above, spoke of his "flesh of a heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids" as being the perfect closing to a day. Nonetheless, Chrysippus is quoted as saying by Athenaeus (I, 8c) that the best meal was a free one.
Culinary and gastronomical research was rejected as a sign of oriental flabbiness: the Persian Empire was considered as decadent due to their luxurious taste, which manifested itself in their cuisine. The Greek authors took pleasure in describing the table of Great King Achaemenid and his court: Herodotus (I, 133), Clearchus of Soli (cited by Athenaeus, XII, 539b), Strabo (XV, 3, 22) and Ctesias (cited by Athenaeus, II, 67a) were unanimous in their descriptions.
In contrast, the Greeks took pleasure in underscoring the austerity of their diet. Plutarch, in Life of Lycurgus (XII, 13) tells how the king of Pontus, eager to try the famous Spartan "black gruel", bought a Laconian cook. "but had no sooner tasted it than he found it extremely bad, which the cook observing, told him, "Sir, to make this broth relish, you should have bathed yourself first in the river Evrotas."". According to Polyaenus (Stratagems, IV, 3, 32), On discovering the dining hall of the Persian royal palace, Alexander the Great mocked their taste and blamed it for their defeat. Pausanias, on discovering the dining habits of the Persian commander Mardonius, equally ridiculed the Persians, "who having so much came to rob the Greeks of their miserable living" (IX, 82).
In consequence of this cult of frugality, and the diminished regard for cuisine it inspired, the kitchen long remained the domain of women, free or enslaved. In the classical period, however, culinary specialists begin to enter the written record. Both Claudius Aelianus (XII, 24) and Athenaeus mention the thousand cooks who accompanied Smindyride of Sybaris on his voyage to Athens at the time of Cleisthenes, if only disapprovingly. Plato, in Gorgias (518b), mentions "Thearion the cook, Mithaecos the author of a treatise on Sicilian cooking, and Sarambos the wine merchant; three eminent connoisseurs of cake, kitchen and wine." Some chefs also wrote treatises on cuisine.
Over time, more and more Greeks presented themselves as gourmets. From the Hellenistic to the Roman period, the Greeks — at least the rich — no longer appeared to be any more austere than others. The cultivated guests of the feast hosted by Atheneaus in the 2nd or 3rd century devote a large part of their conversation to wine and gastronomy. They discuss the merits of various wines, vegetables, and meats, mentioning renowned dishes (stuffed cuttlefish, red tuna belly, prawns, lettuce watered with mead) and great cooks such as Soterides, chef to king Nicomedes I of Bithynia(who reigned from the 279 to 250 BC). When his master was inland, he pined for anchovies; Soterides simulated them from carefully carved turnips, oiled, salted and sprinkled with poppy seeds. The Suda (an encyclopaedia from the Byzantine period) mistakenly attributes this exploit to the celebrated Roman gourmet Apicius (1st century BC — which may be taken as evidence that the Greeks had more impressive culinary anecdotes, though the reattribution shows that later writers favoured the Romans.
Orphicism and Pythagoreanism, two common Ancient Greek religions, suggested a different way of life, based on a concept of purity and thus purification (κάθαρσις / katharsis) — a form of asceticism in the original sense: ἄσκησις / áskêsis initially signifies a ritual, then a specific way of life. Vegetarianism was a central element of Orphicism and of several variants of Pythagoreanism.
Empedocles (5th century BC) justified vegetarianism by a belief in the transmigration of souls: who could guarantee that an animal about to be slaughtered did not house the soul of a human being? (Though the philologist E. R. Dodds observes that Empedocles also included plants in this transmigration, thus the same logic should have applied to eating them.)
The information from Pythagoras is more difficult to define. The Comedic authors such as Aristophanes and Alexis described Pythagoreans as strictly vegetarian, with some of them living on bread and water alone. Other traditions contented themselves with prohibiting the consumption of certain sacred animals such as the white cock or selected animal parts.
It follows that vegetarianism and the idea of ascetic purity were closely associated, and often accompanied by sexual abstinence. In his On the eating of flesh (Moralia book XII, 68), Plutarch (1st - 2nd century) reprises the theme of the barbarism of blood and, breaking with the usual formalities of debate, commands the meat-eater to justify his choice.
The Neoplatonic Porphyrius (3rd century), in his On Abstinence, associates vegetarianism with the Cretan mystery cults, and gives a census of past vegetarians, starting with the semi-mythical Epimenides. For him, the origin of vegetarianism was Demeter's gift of wheat to Triptolemus so that he could teach agriculture to humanity. His three commandments were: Honour your parents, Honour the gods with fruit, and save the animals (IV, 22).
Claudius Aelianus claimed that the first athlete to submit to a formal diet was Iccus de Taranto, an athlete of the 5th century BC (XI, 3). Plato (Laws, VIII, 839e-840a) confirms that he followed a very strict regime, apparently accompanied by abstinence: "...during all the period of his training (as the story goes) he never touched a woman, nor yet a boy?" The phrase "Meal of Iccus" was apparently proverbial. For his part, Athenaeus (XI, 205) refers to ξηροφαγία / xêrophagía a diet based on dry foods, which he indicates was observed by athletes of late Ancient Greece. Diogenes Laertius confirms this: according to him, a Pythagoras (either the philosopher or a gymnastics master) was the first to direct athletes to eat meat, while formerly they had been eating only dry figs, cheese and bread. The choice of meats was made based on a sort of doctrine of signatures based on similarity: eating goat to be able to spring like a goat, beef to be strong as an ox, etc.
- ^ This article was initially translated from the French wiki article fr:Alimentation en Grèce antique on 26 May 2006.
- ^ At the time of Homer and the early tragedies, the term signified the first meal of the day, which was not necessarily frugal: in canto XXIV v. 124 of the Iliad, Achilles's companions slaughter a sheep for breakfast
- ^ Aristophanes. Peace. trans. Eugene O'Neill, Jr. 1938. online at  accessed 23 May 2006
- ^ Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White 1914. online at  accessed 23 May 2006
- ^ For a comparison of Persian and Greek cuisine, see P. Briant's, Histoire de l'Empire perse de Cyrus à Alexandre, Fayard, 1996, p. 297-306.
- ^ Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus XII, 13. trans. John Dryden. online at  accessed 26 May 2006.
- ^ E. R. Dodds, "Les Chamans grecs", in Les Grecs et l'irrationnel, Flammarion, "Champs" collection, 1977 (1st edn 1959), p. 158-159.
- (French) Marie-Claire Amouretti, Le Pain et l'huile dans la Grèce antique. De l'araire au moulin, Belles Lettres, Paris, 1989 ;
- Andrew Dalby, Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, Routledge, 1996 ;
- (French) Armand Delatte, Le Cycéon, breuvage rituel des mystères d'Éleusis, Belles Lettres, Paris, 1955 ;
- (French) Marcel Détienne et Jean-Louis Vernant, La Cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec, Gallimard, "Bibliothèque des histoires" collection, Paris, 1979 ;
- (French) Robert Flacelière, La Vie quotidienne en Grèce au temps de Périclès, Hachette, 1988 (1st edn 1959) ISBN 2-01-005966-2 ;
- (French) Léopold Migeotte, L'Économie des cités greques, Ellipses, "Antiquité : une histoire" collection, 2002 ISBN 2-7298-0849-3, p. 62–63.
Medieval Greece / Byzantine Empire
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