Ancient Greece was the home of the warriors, battles and myths which still inspire imaginations today.
But what of the everyday lives of the people who lived there; what did the Athenians, Spartans and other residents of Ancient Greece eat and drink?
Where did food come from?
As in all pre-industrial societies, much of the food that the Ancient Greeks ate was home grown. That which households did not produce themselves would be obtained from the local agora or marketplace. Special “circles”, were designated for purveyors of fish, meat, wine, cheese and other specialities.
Athenians, since they headed an empire, were especially fortunate in their diet. The statesman Pericles claimed that all of the products of the world were available. Though this was a slight exaggeration, if you happened to be a foodie, Athens was the place to live.
What were the popular dishes?
The Greeks ate only two meals a day: a fairly light meal around dawn called ariston, which consisted of olives, cheese, honey, bread and fruit; and deipnon, the main meal, in the later afternoon or early evening.
There were no fast food outlets or restaurants, but if you felt peckish mid-morning, you could always grab the equivalent of a souvlaki from a street vendor. This consisted of bits of vegetables and scraps of meat on a skewer, as it does today.
Bread, olive oil, vegetables, honey, soup, porridge, eggs and tripe – a soup made from the stomach of a cow or sheep – were especially popular foods. Bread was made from a mixture of barley, millet, oats and wheat. Peas and beans were plentiful, as were fruit and nuts.
Meat and fish were a rarity that only the wealthy could enjoy on a daily basis. Birds, salted fish and seafood such as octopus, squid, anchovies, oysters and eels were also luxury items.
The poor would eat meat only at public festivals held in honour of the Olympian deities, when hundreds of animals were slaughtered. Fortunately for them, these occurred fairly frequently throughout the calendar.
Otherwise the poor might eat sausages, which tended to be stringy and the contents pretty dodgy. Their casseroles and stews mostly comprised beans and vegetables.
The Greeks kept no count of their daily calorific intake. They did not have to. Most of them probably came up seriously short compared with what we normally consume. For that reason there were not many obese people in ancient Greece.
The only Spartan dish we hear about is black soup. This consisted of beans, salt and vinegar, with a pig’s leg thrown in for good measure. What gave it its distinctive flavour, however, was the blood in which these ingredients swilled around.
When a man from Sybaris, a city known for its luxury, tasted black soup for the first time, he said, “Now I know why the Spartans aren’t afraid of dying.”
Chocolate and sugar didn’t exist. Oranges, lemons, tomatoes, potatoes and rice had not been discovered. Salt was available, but pepper and other spices were not.
How was food cooked?
A variety of utensils made out of terracotta were used for cooking, including saucepans, frying pans, grills and kettles.
Food was boiled, roasted or steamed, with charcoal and dried twigs being the most common fuels. If the food was cooked indoors smoke would fill the house as there were no chimneys.
Bread was baked in a pottery oven on top of a charcoal brazier. Grinding the grain by rolling a stone back and forth in a mortar was a backbreaking job that might take several hours every day. It was a task invariably performed by women.
What about drink?
Diluted wine was the most common drink at all times of the day, which is just as well because the water in big cities like Athens would have been dodgy. Coffee and tea weren’t available. Nor were fruit juice, milkshakes or selzer water.
The Greeks never drank pure wine. This was the hallmark of barbarians and was believed to result in madness. A ratio of one part wine to three parts water was considered safe. Even one to one was thought to be risky.
The best wine came from the islands of Chios, Lesbos and Thasos. Those with a modest budget would be content with plonk from Kos, Rhodes or Knidos. Neither beer nor spirits were popular.
A sedate affair?
Bars barely existed in Ancient Greece, so drinking was for the most part a very ritualized activity conducted at a symposium – “drinking together” – held in the home. It began with prayers to a variety of gods and ended with a hymn to Apollo. The drinkers reclined on couches.
A wealthy Greek would own a set of decorated pottery that he reserved exclusively for the symposium. It included drinking cups, a bowl for mixing wine and water, a water jug, and a wine cooler.
These items were so highly prized that they were often buried with their owner, which is why so many Greek pots have survived intact.
Only freeborn men and hired women, known as hetairai, could participate at a symposium. Wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, nieces and even girlfriends weren’t welcome.
Men didn’t drink with their buddies every evening, however. On one or two evenings a week they probably graced family members with their presence.
The tone of a symposium depended on the temperament of the drinkers. The participants in Plato’s dialogue ‘The Symposium’ each give a speech about love. But this kind of sedate and philosophical affair would have been the exception rather than the rule.
Some of the scenes which adorn drinking vessels are highly erotic.
Drinkers sometimes played a mindless game called kottabos, which required them to chuck drops of wine at a target to see which of them could topple it over and make the loudest clatter.
There’s a proverb that says a lot about the average drinking party : ‘I hate a symposiast with a good memory.’ In other words, ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’
Professor Robert Garland teaches Classics at Colgate University in Upstate New York. He is interested especially in how people lived and thought in the ancient world, especially marginalised groups like the disabled, refugees, evacuees, and children. How to Survive in Ancient Greece is his first book for Pen and Sword.