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Foods of the Classical World

What We Know About What the Ancients Ate and Drank


In a nutshell (which would actually be the casing for a perfectly legitimate supplementary ancient food), the basic ancient diet consisted of cereals, legumes, oil, and wine, supplemented by vegetables, meat or fish, and some other items, like salt and honey.

We have some idea of what people ate in the ancient world based on literature describing routine meals or out of the ordinary feasts, including works praising types of wine and honey. Archaeological evidence occasionally creates new insights into ancient consumption patterns. There are remains of artifacts that enhance our knowledge of dining and food preparation. We also have a good idea of what foods were imported to Europe from the New World at a date much later than Classical Antiquity.

1. What the Romans Ate

Bakery in Pompeii
Corinne Gill
Romans ate meals similar in timing to ours today, with fashion dictating that the sophisticated eat one set of meals, while the country folk eat another.

Also see: What Romans Ate for information on the foods consumed at the Roman meals.

2. What the Greeks Ate

Mosaic of Round Basket with Bread
Museum Collection Fund Brooklyn Museum
Ancient Greeks ate a diet that varied from place to place. The Spartans were known for eating little, and the Athenians, the source of most of our information, were also moderate eaters. Some food was locally grown, other food, imported.

Also read about the names and times of the ancient Greek meals: Ancient Greek Meals.

3. The Roman Military Diet

Roman Legionary on Trajan's Column
We've been led to think that ancient Romans were mainly vegetarian and that when the legions came into contact with the European barbarians they had trouble stomaching the meat-rich food. Maybe this is too simplistic. Perhaps the Roman soldiers weren't opposed to a daily meat-centered meal. Find out more about what the Roman legions ate.

4. Trimalchio's Banquet

In the Satyricon, a satire attributed to Petronius, is a famous scene of gluttony and orgy that is known for the name of the host, Trimalchio's Banquet. This scene was lavishly re-created in Fellini's cinematic Satyricon. The dishes seem outrageous, but behind all the pomp and luxury is a picture of the types of items Romans counted as food. The following is a tray of delicacies:
"Dormice sprinkled with poppy-seed and honey were served on little bridges soldered fast to the platter, and hot sausages on a silver gridiron, underneath which were damson plums and pomegranate seeds."

5. Women at Greek Symposia

It is generally assumed that respectable matrons didn't attend dinner parties in ancient Greece. In "Women's Commensality in the Ancient Greek World," Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol. 45, No. 2. (Oct., 1998), pp. 143-165, Joan Burton suggests that this is simplistic. The Odyssey and Greek tragedy show women present, if not actually eating with the men.

6. Modern Foods to Avoid When Writing Historical Fiction

Some foods seem so essential that it's hard to imagine a world without them. You may know that the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East did not have potatoes or yams, but did you know they also lacked tomatoes and peppers (capiscum, not the spice Piper nigrum)? Here is a list of some of the foods that are indigenous to the western hemisphere and therefore would probably be inappropriate in a work of historical fiction set in classical antiquity.

7. Wheat

Barley - the other grain
Courtesy of Wikipedia
Breeding across species is known to produce sterile offspring. However, bread, the staff of life, is a product of a very strange genetic event: the cross-breeding of two species to produce a third, fertile species.

8. Garum

Garum was a very popular pungent Roman fish sauce used as a condiment. The Romans fermented a fatty fish in brine and added other flavorings to make the garum. Our Worcestershire sauce has anchovies in it, so the Roman fish sauce is not as odd as it sounds.

9. Carrots

Carrots, which had the reputation as a love philtre in the Classical world, are believed to have a 3000-year history going back to ancient Afghanistan.

10. Dangerous Honey

In his Anabasis, Xenophon describes the dangerous and intoxicating effects of honey from rhododendron-eating bees. This was a danger military troops of the ancient world faced more than once. See Psychedelic Fruit.

11. Wines

Martial, a Spaniard who wrote Latin epigrams, was knowledgeable about wine. In "Martial's Christmas Winelist," Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol. 46, No. 1. (Apr., 1999), pp. 34-41, T. J. Leary reviews the types of wines Martial lists and his comments on their suitability.

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