Our knowledge of ancient Greek cuisine and eating habits is derived from literary and artistic evidence. Our literary knowledge comes mostly from Aristophanes' comedies and quotes preserved by 2nd–3rd century CE grammarian Athenaeus; artistic information is provided by Black- and red-figure vase-painting and terracotta figurines.
The Greeks had four meals a day. Breakfast (ἀκρατισμός akratismos) consisted of barley bread dipped in wine (ἄκρατος akratos), sometimes complemented by figs or olives. A quick lunch (ἄριστον ariston) was taken around noon or early afternoon. Dinner (δεῖπνον deipnon), the most important meal of the day, was generally taken at nightfall. An additional light meal (ἑσπέρισμα hesperisma) was sometimes taken in the late afternoon. Ἀριστόδειπνον / aristodeipnon, literally “lunch-dinner”, was served in the late afternoon instead of dinner.
Men and women took their meals separately. When the house was too small, the men ate first, the women afterwards. Slaves waited at dinners. Aristotle notes that “the poor, having no slaves, must use their wives and children as servants”.
The ancient Greek custom to place terra cotta miniatures of their furniture in children's graves gives us a good idea of its style and design. The Greeks normally ate while seated on chairs; benches were used for banquets. The tables, high for normal meals and low for banquets, were initially rectangular in shape. But by the 4th century BCE, the usual table was round, often with animal-shaped legs (for example lion's paws). Loaves of flat bread could be used as plates, but terra cotta 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. Cutlery was not often used at table: Use of the fork was unknown; people ate with their fingers. Knives were used to cut the meat. Spoons were used for soups and broths. Pieces of bread (ἀπομαγδαλία apomagdalia) could be used to spoon the food or as napkins, to wipe the fingers.
As with modern dinner parties, the host could simply invite friends or family; but two other forms of social dining were central in ancient Greece: the entertainment of the all-male symposium, and the obligatory, regimental syssitia.
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 parts: the first dedicated to food, generally rather simple, and a second part dedicated to drinking. However, wine was consumed with the food, and the beverages were accompanied by snacks (τραγήματα tragēmata) such as chestnuts, beans, toasted wheat, or honey cakes; all designed to absorb alcohol and extend the drinking spree.
The second part was inaugurated with a libation, most often in honor of Dionysus, followed by conversation or table games, such as kottabos. The guests would recline on couches (κλίναι klinai); low tables held the food or game boards. Dancers, acrobats, and musicians would entertain the wealthy banqueters. A “king of the banquet” was drawn by lots; he 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. It was an essential element of Greek social life. Great feasts could only be afforded by the rich; in most Greek homes, religious feasts or family events were the occasion of more modest banquets. The banquet became the setting of a specific genre of literature, giving birth to 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.
The syssitia (τὰ συσσίτια ta syssitia) were mandatory meals shared by social or religious groups for men and youths, especially in Crete and Sparta. They were referred to variously as hetairia, pheiditia, or andreia (literally, "belonging to men"). They both served as a kind of aristocratic club and as a military mess. Like the symposium, the syssitia was the exclusive domain of men — although some references have been found to all-female syssitia. Unlike the symposium, these meals were hallmarked by simplicity and temperance.
Cereals formed the staple diet. The two main grains were wheat (σῖτος sitos) and barley. Wheat grains were softened by soaking, then either reduced into gruel, or ground into flour (ἀλείατα aleiata) and kneaded and formed into loaves (ἄρτος artos) or flatbreads, either plain or mixed with cheese or honey. Leavening was known; the Greeks later used an alkali (νίτρον nitron) or wine yeast as leavening agent. Dough loaves were baked at home in a clay oven (ἰπνός ipnos) set on legs. A simpler method consisted in putting lighted coals on the floor and covering the heap with a dome-shaped cover (πνιγεὐς pnigeus); when it was hot enough, the coals were swept aside, dough loaves were placed on the warm floor, the cover was put back in place and the coals were gathered on the side of the cover. The stone oven did not appear until the Roman period. Solon, an Athenian lawmaker of the 6th century BCE, prescribed that leavened bread be reserved for feast days. By the end of the 5th century BC, leavened bread was sold at the market, though it was 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 roasted before milling, producing a coarse flour (ἄλφιτα alphita) which was used to make μᾶζα maza, the basic Greek dish. In Peace, Aristophanes employs 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.
The cereals were often served accompanied by what was generically referred to as ὄψον opson, “relish”. The word initially meant anything prepared on the fire, and, by extension, anything which accompanied bread. In the classical period it came to refer to fish and vegetables: cabbage, onions, lentils, sweet peas, chickpeas, broad beans, garden peas, grass peas, etc. They were eaten as a soup, boiled or mashed (ἔτνος etnos), seasoned with olive oil, vinegar, herbs or γάρον gáron, a fish sauce similar to Vietnamese nước mắm. According to Aristophanes, mashed beans were a favourite dish of Heracles, always represented as a glutton in comedies. Poor families ate oak acorns (βάλανοι balanoi).. Raw or preserved olives were a common appetizer.
In the cities, fresh vegetables were expensive: the poorer city dwellers had to make do with dried vegetables. Lentil soup (φακῆ phakē) was the workman's typical dish. Cheese, garlic and onions were the soldier's traditional fare. In Peace, the smell of onions typically represents soldiers; the chorus, celebrating the end of war, sings Oh! joy, joy! no more helmet, no more cheese nor onions! Bitter vetch was considered a famine food.
Fruits, fresh or dried, and nuts, were eaten as dessert. Important fruits were figs, raisins and pomegranates. Dried figs were also eaten as an appetizer or when drinking wine. In the latter case, they were often accompanied by grilled chestnuts, chick peas, and beechnuts.
The consumption of fish and meat varied in accordance with the wealth and location of the household; in the country, hunting (primarily trapping) allowed for consumption of birds and hares. Peasants also had farmyards to provide them with chickens and geese. Slightly wealthier landowners could raise goats, pigs, or sheep. In the city, meat was expensive except for pork. In Aristophanes' day a piglet cost three drachmas, which was three days wages for a public servant. Sausages were common both for the poor and the rich.
In the 8th century BCE Hesiod describes the ideal country feast in Works and Days:
|“||But at that time let me have a shady rock and Bibline wine, 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…||”|
Meat is much less prominent in texts of the 5th century BCE onwards than in the earliest poetry, but this may be a matter of genre rather than real evidence of changes in farming and food customs. The eating of fresh meat was accompanied by a religious ritual in which the gods' share (fat and bones) was burnt while the human share (meat) was grilled and distributed to the participants; there was however a lively trade in cooked and salted meats, which demanded no ritual.
Spartans primarily ate pork stew, the “black broth” (μέλας ζωμός melas zōmos). According to Plutarch, it was “so much valued that the elderly men fed only upon that, leaving what flesh there was to the younger”. It was famous amongst the Greeks. “Naturally Spartans are the bravest men in the world”, joked a Sybarite, “anyone in his senses would rather die ten thousand times than take his share of such a sorry diet”. It was made with pork, salt, vinegar and blood. The dish was served with maza, figs and cheese sometimes supplemented with game and fish. The 2nd–3rd century author Aelian, 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 more often transported inland. Sardines and anchovies were regular fare for the citizens of Athens. They were sometimes sold fresh, but more frequently salted. A stele of the late 3rd century BCE from the small Boeotian city of Akraiphia, on Lake Copais, provides us with a list of fish prices. The cheapest was skaren (probably parrotfish) whereas northern bluefin tuna was three times as expensive. Common salt water fish were yellowfin tuna, red mullet, ray, swordfish or sturgeon, a delicacy which was eaten salted. Lake Copais itself was famous in all Greece for its eels, celebrated by the hero of The Acharnians. Other fresh water fish were pike-fish, carp and the less appreciated catfish.
Greeks bred quails and hens, partly for their eggs. Some authors also praise pheasant eggs and Egyptian Goose eggs, which were presumably rather rare. Eggs were cooked soft- or hard-boiled as hors d'œuvre or dessert. Whites, yolks and whole eggs were also used as ingredients in the preparation of dishes.
Country dwellers drank milk (γάλα gala), but it was seldom used in cooking. Butter (βούτυρον bouturon) was known but seldom used either: Greeks saw it as a culinary trait of the Thracians of the northern Aegean coast, whom the Middle Comic poet Anaxandrides dubbed “butter eaters”. Yet Greeks enjoyed other dairy products. Πυριατή Pyriatē, was a kind of thick milk, commonly mistaken as yogurt. Most of all, goat's and ewe's cheese (τυρός) tyros) was a staple food. Fresh and hard cheese were sold in different shops; the former cost about two thirds of the latter's price. Cheese was eaten alone or with honey or vegetables. It was also used as an ingredient in the preparation of many dishes, including fish dishes. The only extant recipe by the Sicilian cook Mithaecus runs: “Tainia: gut, discard the head, rinse and fillet; add cheese and olive oil”. However, the addition of cheese seems to have been a controversial matter; Archestratus warns his readers that Syracusan cooks spoil good fish by adding cheese.
The most widespread drink was water. Fetching water was a daily task for women. Though wells were common, spring water was preferred: it was recognized as nutritious because it caused plants and trees to grow, and also as a desirable beverage. Pindar called spring water "as agreeable as honey". The Greeks would describe water as robust, heavy or light, dry, acidic, pungent, wine-like, etc. One of the comic poet Antiphanes's characters claimed that he could recognize Attic water by taste alone. Athenaeus states that a number of philosophers had a reputation for drinking nothing but water, a habit combined with a vegetarian diet (cf. below). Milk, usually goats' milk, was also consumed.
The usual drinking vessel was the skyphos, made out of wood, terra cotta, or metal. Critias 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 are thought to have made red as well as rosé and white wines. As at the present time, many qualities of production were to be found, from common table wine to vintage qualities. The best wines, in general opinion, came from Thásos, Lesbos and Chios. Cretan wine came to prominence later. A secondary wine made from water and pomace (the residue from squeezed grapes), mixed with lees, was made by country people for their own use. The Greeks sometimes sweetened their wine with honey and made medicinal wines by adding thyme, pennyroyal and other herbs. By the first century, if not before, they were familiar with wine flavoured with pine resin (modern retsina). Aelian also mentions a wine mixed with perfume. Cooked wine was known, as well as a sweet wine from Thásos, similar to port wine.
Wine was generally cut with water. The drinking of akraton or "unmixed wine", though known to be practised by northern barbarians, was thought likely to lead to madness and death. Wine was mixed in a krater, from which the slaves would fill the drinker's kylix with an oinochoe (jugs). Wine was also used as a generic medication, being taken to have medicinal virtue. Aelian mentions that the wine from Heraia in Arcadia rendered men foolish but women fertile; conversely, Achaean wine was thought to induce abortion. Outside of these therapeutic uses, Greek society did not approve of women drinking wine; according to Aelian, a Massalian law prohibited this and restricted women to drinking water. Sparta was the only city where women routinely drank wine.
Wine reserved for local use was kept in skins. That destined for sale was poured into πίθοι pithoi, (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.
The Greeks also drank kykeon (κυκεών, from κυκάω kykaō, "to shake, to mix"), which was both a beverage and a meal. It was a barley gruel, to which water and herbs were added. In the Iliad, the beverage also contained grated goat cheese. In the Odyssey, Circe adds honey and a magic potion to it. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, 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, describes a boorish peasant as having drunk much kykeon and inconveniencing the Assembly with his bad breath. It also had a reputation as a good digestive, and as such, in Peace, Hermes recommends it to the main character who has eaten too much dried fruit.
Food played an important part in the Greek mode of thought. Classicist John Wilkins notes that “in the Odyssey for example, good men are distinguished from bad and Greeks from foreigners partly in terms of how and what they ate. Herodotus identified people partly in terms of food and eating”.
Up to the 3rd century BCE, 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 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 decadent due to their luxurious taste, which manifested itself in their cuisine. The Greek authors took pleasure in describing the table of the Achaemenid Great King and his court: Herodotus, Clearchus of Soli, Strabo and Ctesias were unanimous in their descriptions.
In contrast, Greeks as a whole stressed the austerity of their own diet. Plutarch tells how the king of Pontus, eager to try the 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, 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”.
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 began to enter the written record. Both Aelian 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, mentions "Thearion the cook, Mithaecus 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 Athenaeus in the 2nd or 3rd century devoted a large part of their conversation to wine and gastronomy. They discussed 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 BCE). When his master was inland, he pined for anchovies; Soterides simulated them from carefully carved turnips, oiled, salted and sprinkled with poppy seeds. Suidas (an encyclopaedia from the Byzantine period) mistakenly attributes this exploit to the celebrated Roman gourmet Apicius (1st century BCE) — which may be taken as evidence that the Greeks had reached the same level as 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 askēsis 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 BCE) 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? However, it can be observed that Empedocles also included plants in this transmigration, thus the same logic should have applied to eating them. Vegetarianism was also a consequence of a dislike for killing: “For Orpheus taught us rites and to refrain from killing”.
The information from Pythagoras (6th century BCE) is more difficult to define. The Comedic authors such as Aristophon 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 vegetables, such as the broad bean, or of 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 On the eating of flesh, Plutarch (1st–2nd century) elaborated on the barbarism of blood-spilling; inverting the usual terms of debate, he asked the meat-eater to justify his choice.
The Neoplatonic Porphyrius (3rd century) associates in On Abstinence 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 ‘Spare the animals”.
Aelian claims that the first athlete to submit to a formal diet was Ikkos of Tarentum, a victor in the Olympic pentathlon (perhaps in 444 BC). However, Olympic wrestling champion (62nd through 66th Olympiads) Milo of Croton was already said to eat twenty pounds of meat and twenty pounds of bread and to drink eight quarts of wine each day. Before his time, athletes were said to practise ξηροφαγία xērophagía (from ξηρός xēros, “dry”), a diet based on dry foods such as dried figs, fresh cheese and bread. Pythagoras (either the philosopher or a gymnastics master of the same name) was the first to direct athletes to eat meat.
Trainers later enforced some standard diet rules: to be an Olympic victor, “you have to eat according to regulations, keep away from desserts (…); you must not drink cold water nor can you have a drink of wine whenever you want”. It seems this diet was primarily based on meat, for Galen (ca. 180 AD) accused athletes of his day of “always gorging themselved on flesh and blood”. Pausanias also refers to a “meat diet”.