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Greece, Ancient


GREECE, ANCIENT. The appreciation of food in ancient Greeceby those who had the time and moneymarks the beginning of what is known today as gastronomy. Greek literary texts (especially comic plays) of around 350 b.c.e. present detailed discussions of which foods were consumed, how much they cost, and how they would be prepared. From the same period one can trace the beginnings of the idea that each city would have its own local food specialities and its own distinctive wine. Adherents of the medical tradition begun by Hippocrates were developing dietary theories and compiling handbooks that dealt with the contribution made by individual foodstuffs to human health.

An interest in food and wine is evident in the oldest Greek literature. Alcman, lyric poet of Sparta, in a surviving verse fragment, lists five fine wines of the southern Peloponnese; in another, hot bean soup is jokingly demanded as payment for poetry. Hesiod's Works and Days, a poem of farming and practical lore, tells of the hot June days when "goats are fattest and wine best and women lustiest and men weakest. . . . Then we need rocky shade and Bibline wine and creamy barley mash and the last milk of the goats, and the meat of a foraging cow that has not calved . . . and from an ever-flowing unpolluted spring to pour three of water and to make the fourth be wine" (Works and Days, lines 587596). Many of the focal events in the two great Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, take place around shared meals of roast meat and red wine. Odysseus's description of the palace of Phaeacia is a reminder that fruit was prized and seasonal varieties had been developed: "Outside the yard is a big orchard on both sides of the gates . . . where tall trees spread their leaves, pears and pomegranates and shiny-fruited apples and sweet figs and leafy olives; their fruit never fails or falls short, winter or summer, all the year, but the West Wind, blowing, fertilises some and ripens others" (Odyssey, Book 7, lines 112119). These texts were written before 600 b.c.e., and they set the scene for later gastronomy. Most notably, they also highlight olives (for olive oil) and wine. Archaeology shows that these two products already had been important in Greece for well over a thousand years: they remained essential components of the Greek diet throughout ancient times and are still so today. From prehistoric sites, including the Minoan palace at Knossos in Crete, there are vats and plentiful storage jars for oil and wine. From Classical times there are many fine paintings on cups and wine jars showing the olive and grape harvests, the marketing of oil, and the joys of wine. The god Dionysus, with his train of drunken male satyrs and ecstatic female maenads, features in many such paintings, as if to remind the viewer that wine and its pleasures are a divine gift.

In Greek terms any proper meal had three components, sitos (the staple: wheat bread or barley mash or one of the pulses), opson (the relish: fish, meat, vegetable, cheese, or just olive oil) and oinos (wine, the universal drink). The trouble with ancient Greek gourmets was that they were largely opsophagoi, "relish-eaters": they put too much emphasis on fine fish and other relishes, and not enough on simple, wholesome bread. Even worse were the frequent meat-eaters, like the greedy god Heracles and the north Aegean peoples (Macedonians, Thracians, and Greeks of Thessaly), or excessive wine-drinkersa "barbaric" habit reputed by many Greeks to have killed Alexander of Macedon in 323 b.c.e.

Barley grew well in Greece, but it did not make good bread; nor did emmer, the wheat species that grew best locally. Broths, porridges, and mashes were made with these. Athens and some other cities imported bread wheat from Sicily, North Africa, and the northern Black Sea coasts, and the Athenian market became famous for its fine industrially baked bread.

In Athens and many other Greek cities, fish was available at the marketexpensive, as fine fish still is in Greece, but very fresh. Europe's first gourmet writer, Archestratus (c.350 b.c.e.), wrote extensively on the types of fish that should be sought in specific cities, during which season, at what price, and the manner in which it should be cooked. "The bonito, in autumn when the Pleiades set, you can prepare in any way you please. . . . But here is the very best way for you to deal with this fish. You need fig leaves and oregano (not very much), no cheese, no nonsense. Just wrap it up nicely in fig leaves fastened with string, then hide it under hot ashes and keep a watch on the time: don't overcook it. Get it from Byzantium, if you want it to be good. . . ." Some later readers knew Archestratus's poem under the title Gastronomia (Rules for the stomach), the origin of our modern word "gastronomy." A stone inscription dating to the third century found in the small city of Acraephia, not far north of Athens, sets out an official market price for over twenty kinds of fish, a sign of the close interest that governments took in this trade.

Meat was a different matterexpensive, like fish, but in short supply. Livestock was not, and will never be, abundant in much of Greece, owing to the mountainous topography and the consequent shortage of good pasture land. In addition, animals could not simply be killed but needed to be sacrificed to a god. Meat was thus a relatively small part of the diet, a rarity enjoyed at city festivals (free to citizens), celebrations, family events (when participants spent as much as they could afford), and other special occasions. The sacrificial butcher-priest, the mageiros, who was always male, served also as cook on these occasions; the art of cookery was named for this profession, mageirike techne (sacrificer's art).

Imported flavorings included garos (fish sauce), from the Black Sea coasts; rous (sumach, from Syria); and silphion, a now-extinct spice from North Africa, similar to asafetida. Coriander, cumin, and many other native aromatics were in use. Mastic, native to the island of Chios, was used to aromatize bread and spiced wine, and also as a natural chewing gum to freshen the breath. A rich source of information on classical Greek food is The Deipnosophists (Professors at dinner), written by the scholar Athenaeus around 200 c.e.

In the Classical period, the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e., Greeks ate two meals a day: a lighter ariston (break-fast) late in the morning and a fuller deipnon (dinner) in the evening. Breakfast called for bread and olive oil, perhaps with fresh or dried fruit, and red wine. Dinner was a more serious matter, and might well be followed by a symposion (symposium, drinking party). Typically dinner consisted of two courses. The first was a selection of tasty small dishes, some of them resembling modern Greek mezedes (appetizers): shellfish, such as oysters, mussels, and clams, other seafood, salads and cooked vegetables, and fresh fruit. The main course might have included fine fresh fish dishes, delicacies such as sliced salted tuna, and perhaps meat. No wine was taken with dinner. A libation of neat (or undiluted) wine (offered to the gods and tasted by humans) marked the beginning of the symposium, with dried fruits and nuts, cakes perhaps flavored with sesame and saffron and drenched in honey, and plenty more wine, always diluted with water: how much water was a matter for endless discussion.

At both dinner and symposium the proper custom was to recline, a fashion that Greeks had learned from the Near East. At all meals at which guests might be present, men and women ate separately. At sacrifices and open-air meals they formed separate circles (but some religious ceremonies were for women only or for men only). At home only male diners used the andron (dining room), which literally means "men's room."

Conversation languished while the business of eating went forward. The symposium was the occasion for talk, both serious and lighthearted; it was also a time for composing and reciting poetry, and for music and dance performed by the participants or by hired artists (usually slaves), including the ubiquitous auletrides (flute-girls). These performers, along with other entertainers and hetairai (courtesans), breached the rule of separation of the sexes. Symposia might continue all night, drunkenness supervening slowly but surely, since one could not properly refuse to drink; inhibitions disappeared. While some symposia turned into orgies, others formed the backdrop for some of the greatest intellectual achievements of Greece. A symposium just like those described here is the setting for the philosophical discussion of love that is recorded in Plato's Symposium.

Were symposia only enjoyed by an elite? This question is controversial, and the meager evidence can be read in more than one way. Certainly there were great differences in access to food between the rich, who could spend time on eating and entertainment and could have as much meat and fine fish as they wanted, and the very poor, who subsisted largely on pulses (chickpeas, fava beans, and others less nourishing), green vegetables, and roots and fruits (and maybe snails) gathered from the wild. In famine years, many citizens were reduced to such a diet.

See also Ancient Kitchen, The; Gastronomy; Mediterranean Diet; Rome and the Roman Empire; Table Talk; Wheat: Wheat as a Food; Wine in the Ancient World.


Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists. Edited and translated by C. B. Gulick. 7 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 19271941.

Dalby, Andrew. Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Dalby, Andrew, and Sally Grainger. The Classical Cookbook. London and Los Angeles: British Museum Press/John Paul Getty Museum Press, 1996.

Davidson, James. Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. London: Harper Collins, 1997.

Garnsey, Peter. Food and Society in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Valuable study guide, important on food shortages and food of the poor.

Murray, Oswyn, ed. Sympotica: A Symposium on the Symposion. Oxford.: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Olson, S. Douglas, and Alexander Sens. Archestratos of Gela; Greek Culture and Cuisine in the Fourth Century B . C . E . : Text, Translation and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Slater, William J., ed. Dining in a Classical Context. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Wilkins, John, et al., eds. Food in Antiquity. Exeter, U.K.: Exeter University Press, 1995.

Andrew Dalby

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Greece, ancient

Greece, ancient Period beginning with the defeat of the second Persian invasion in 479 bc, and ending with the establishment of Macedonian power in 338 bc. Warring city-states flourished as centres of trade. Athens, the most wealthy and powerful, developed a democratic system under the guidance of Pericles. Its main rival was the military state of Sparta. Classical Greece was the birthplace of many ideas in art, literature, philosophy and science – among them those of Plato and Aristotle. It is traditionally regarded as the birthplace of Western civilization. See also Hellenistic Age

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