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Ancient Greek Foods

About the foods of the ancient Greek meals.

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Dionysus and Panther in the Domus dell'Ortaglia 2nd C. A.D.

Dionysus and Panther in the Domus dell'Ortaglia 2nd C. A.D.

Stefano Bolognini
Like other ancient civilizations, the basic ancient Greek foods were cereals, legumes, oil, and wine. Many ancient Greeks lived in Magna Graecia (Megale Hellas), so the food of the Romans overlaps that of the Greeks. There were, of course, other influences on ancient Greek foods, especially from Asia. We know the Greeks had a wide variety of food items and we have actual cooking and food preparation vessels, as well as artistic representations of food consumption, but details are sketchy.

Vegetarians and Carnivores

There were vegetarians of various philosophical schools and non-vegetarians among the ancient Greeks. Although they raised animals for cheese production, they thought ill of their butter-eating northern neighbors, the Thracians, and tended to evaluate people on the basis of their eating habits. The Spartans have given their name to a frugal style of consumption. The Athenians prided themselves on moderation in consumption. They so highly prized the olive that Athena's gift of the olive tree trumped the sea god's offering. This need not mean that the Athenians consumed olive oil as heavily as today, since it could be used for trade and for industrial purposes ["Food Technologies/Technologies of the Body: The Social Context of Wine and Oil Production and Consumption in Bronze Age Crete," by Yannis Hamilakis; World Archaeology, Vol. 31, No. 1, (Jun., 1999), pp. 38-54.]

In Homeric times, among the aristocratic heroes we read about, salted meat from cattle, sheep, and goats, and bread were staples. Which portion of meat was served corresponded with social status.

Fruit and Veg

Like their south Mediterranean neighbors, the Egyptians, the Greeks favored the allium family, which includes onion, garlic, and leek. Other vegetables eaten included turnip, radish, lettuce, artichoke, cabbage, celery, cucumber, parsley, and thyme. Fruit included dates (imported), figs, and grapes. The wealthy could acquire walnuts and almonds from the East.

In the category of not fauna, but quite fruit or vegetable, mushrooms and honey were available.

Seafood

Although Homer's world may have been less fond of it, later Greeks prized sea fish, which wasn't as readily available as might be guessed. It was eaten fresh, dried, or pickled.

The Staff of Life

Wealth dictated what could be eaten in the way of bread/grain (from barley and wheat, mostly) -- not only the form it took, but the coarseness of the grind. Bread could be bought or made in communal ovens, since private ovens weren't common in normal households. In the house, grain mixed with water could be prepared into a polenta-like dish.

Food From the Homestead

There was also available the product of one's homestead, like eggs and goat cheese. Wine was, of course, a staple, but they also drank local well-water.

Meat

Sacrificial animals produced most of the meat for the non-aristocrats, but there were also opportunities to snare rabbits and such.

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