Saturday, December 3, 2022

The Truth Behind the Trojan War

 


Jeff—Saturday

This post originally  went up nine years ago to the day.  It's one of my favorites and took so long to write originally I feel it deserving of occasional re-runs on its merits.  Besides, considering how intense my week has been, it'll be better than what I could do afresh, for late this afternoon I finished what I like to think is a polished re-draft of Andreas Kaldis #13, set on the Grande Dame of the Cyclades islands, SYROS!   So, with that introduction, here's Helen and crew.... 

How many of you have heard of the Trojan War?  I bet there’s not one of you who hasn’t. It’s the world’s best known epic tale of romance, action, and intrigue, and thanks to Homer’s telling in the Illiad and the Odyssey, a source for countless storylines down through the ages…including the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou.


But how many of you know the actual story of the War? Other than of course the bit about the (possibly) kidnapped Helen’s face launching a thousand ships and The Horse.  Aha, the ranks are thinning quickly.

Well, here’s my adapted telling of the tale based upon a version I came across while reading The Everything Classical Mythology Book, by Lesley Bolton.

The most well-known character in the myth is, of course, Helen of Troy, though she really wasn’t from Troy.  That’s just where she ended up spending ten years waiting to be “rescued.”  Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world and the daughter of the union of Zeus and Leda (not Leto, whose children with couldn’t-keep-it-in-his-pants-Zeus were the twins Apollo and Artemis).

Helen by Evelyn De Morgan

However the aggravation of raising such a beautiful daughter (something I know first hand) didn’t fall to her natural mother and father (assuming there’s anything natural about a Greek god turning himself into a swan to seduce a mortal), but to her foster father, King Tyndareus of Sparta.  

King Ty, as I like to call him, worked out a way of keeping all the suitors for his daughter’s hand (and a lot more) at bay by making all swear that in order to participate in the competition, they had to agree to abide by Helen’s choice of husband and defend her against anyone who might try to kidnap her.  The winner was Menelaus of Sparta and they were wed.

Menelaus by Giacomo Brogi

Then along came Paris of Troy, who stopped in to say “Hi” to the groom and, when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a quick trip out of town for Menelaus, to repay his host’s hospitality by stealing away his bride. 

Paris and Helen by Jacques Louis-David

But the kidnapping wasn’t a spontaneous whim.  Paris felt he had a right to claim Helen.  You see, Paris had been the judge in a beauty contest among the gods Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera to settle a dispute as to which of the three was the fairest.  In keeping with the sort of judging still seen in many parts of the world today, Paris made a side deal with Aphrodite that he’d choose her in return for her promising him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. But before he could claim her, she’d married. 

No matter, to Paris a deal was a deal and he’d come to Sparta to collect his prize. He spirited Helen away and, after spending their first night together on Kranae, a tiny island just off the port city of Gytheio on Greece’s Southern Peloponnese, it was off to Troy.  

Abduction of Helen, Francesco Primaticcio

Church on Kranae
[As a side note, that one-night diversion has created a thriving cottage industry on modern day Kranae, for today couples exchange marriage vows at a church on that spot, no doubt hoping for better luck than came to Paris and Helen.]

Not surprisingly, Menelaus didn’t take kindly to Paris’ thank you, and when Menelaus’ trip to Troy with Odysseus (aka Ulysses) to demand of King Priam of Troy her immediate return proved futile, Menelaus returned home to Sparta, massed Helen’s former suitors who’d pledged to defend her against kidnappers, and with his brother Agamemnon in command, dispatched an army of a thousand ships to reclaim her. 

But the Olympian biggie gods were involved in this mess up to their tiarasses.  Some had aligned with Greece (e.g., Poseidon because he was pissed at the Trojans for not having paid his bill for construction work, and Athena and Hera because of Paris’ involvement in fixing their beauty contest).  Others sided with Troy (e.g., Aphrodite who’d created the mess in the first place, and Apollo joined in it with his twin sister, Artemis.) 

Anytime the gods got involved in something there were problems.  And in this instance, just to get things started, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter to the god Artemis (a backer of Troy) for the winds to blow and launch his thousand ships. 


The Greek plan was simple, conquer the numerous towns surrounding Troy and thereby squeeze it into submission.  A simple plan turned into nine years of war with still no end in sight. Hmm, sound familiar? 


In the tenth year everything went to hell in a hand-basket for the Greeks.
First, the Greeks’ greatest warrior, Achilles (slayer of the Trojans’ greatest, Hector) died when pierced in the heel (surely you knew that) by an arrow cast into the air by Paris from behind his fortress walls and guided to its mark by Apollo.  

Then a fight broke out between Odysseus and Ajax of Salamis (non-kosher style for sure) over who’d get to wear Achilles armor (starting to sound more and more like that Brad Pitt 2004 version of the tale called Troy, does it not?), an honor ultimately bestowed on Odysseus that led Ajax into madness and ultimately taking his own life.  And then the Amazons weighed in to fight on the side of the Trojans.

But the Greeks did not give up.  Led by Odysseus they captured the King of Troy’s son, and through him learned what they needed to do if there were to be any hope of Troy falling.  The Greeks did as the prince had said, culminating in snatching away the sacred statue of Athena—the Palladium—which stood within Troy to protect the city from destruction.

But still Troy did not fall.  Then Odysseus came up with a plan, perhaps the most famous hustle in history: one requiring a gigantic wooden horse and some mighty gullible Trojans.


It was the blueprint for a classic scam that’s since played out countless times in print and film:  Present the mark with a fascinating unexpected gift.  Get a shill to tell a believable story compete with a hook that gets the mark to thinking it’s come up with a way to outsmart the hustler, and toss in a last minute twist that threatens to destroy the plan but fails because of an even greater surprise twist. 

In this case, the Trojan Horse (more aptly the Greek or Spartan Horse, since they built it) appeared one morning outside the walls of Troy with the Greek army nowhere to be seen, leaving the Trojans confused over what to do with it: destroy the horse, or bring it within their city’s walls.   Then appeared a man in rags—the disguised Greek soldier Sinon—who claimed he’d escaped being sacrificed to Athena by the Greeks as an offering to appease her ire at their having stolen the Palladium from Troy. 

Then seemingly by chance he revealed a secret of the Greeks: that the great wooden horse before them was also meant to appease Athena by serving to replace the Palladium, but the sneaky Greeks had intentionally built it far too large to pass inside the walls of Troy out of fear that if brought inside it would bring victory to the besieged city.

Just as the Greeks’ plan seemed to be working, one Trojan stepped forward to challenge Sinon’s story (standard screenwriting fare these days), and hurled his spear at the wooden horse, no doubt hoping to elicit a cry from whomever it struck within. But just as he did, a giant sea monster reared up and devoured the cynic, distracting the crowd from the point of both his logic and spear.

The Trojans took the monster as a sign of Athena’s anger at the spear being tossed at an offering to her—rather than of an effort on her part (remember, she was on the side of the Greeks) to silence one threatening to expose the Greeks’ plan. 

Surprise, surprise the Trojans figured out a way to bring the horse within their walls, and while rejoicing in their good fortune missed Sinon freeing the soldiers inside it and opening Troy’s gates for the rest of the Greek army to enter the city.


We all know what happened next. Or at least we think we do.  Helen was returned to her husband.  But not until after the Greeks had engaged in a bloodlust rage of battle so unsettling and sacrilegious to gods that had once backed the Greeks that they turned on them, bringing Odysseus ten more years of trials and tribulations before reaching home (after all, it was a two-book deal for Homer) and far worse fates for far more.

Homer 850 BCE

Yes, that’s a plot line we’ve seen before and will see again. And though there were no real winners in the Trojan War, there sure have been a lot of modern day literary and box office triumphs. 


Many thanks again to Lesley Bolton for the inspiration I found for this post in her The Everything Classical Mythology Book.



—Jeff

Friday, December 2, 2022

The not so quiet quitter.

                    'Every office has three people who work and ten who stand at the watercooler.'


I’ve been looking back on a career (a very long time!) and thinking what was all that about. And thinking of those I have employed along the way… some now have PhDs, some who have gone onto become neurosurgeons, some who still struggle to know what day of the week it is.

This mulling of those and such as those came about when I was reading about quiet quitting.

Is that a thing? Or is that being a lazy monkey? Or just not having engagement with the workplace?

And with regard to those who have worked for me, there were a few who really couldn’t be bothered to do anything properly. And I mean anything.

We had one who excelled in being late. They really were Olympic standard. And precisely late. Always ten minutes. How can anybody always be ten minutes late? Surely all you have to do is leave the house ten minutes earlier. But that might entail the additional hardship of getting out of bed ten minutes early. Having a very precise amount of tardiness is a specific skill set. It’s a bit like scoring zero on a multiple choice. Even a monkey, scoring by pure chance, would get the odd question right.  And there was always an excuse. In the end we would number the excuses 1,2,3, 1a, 2b etc. I recall, ‘couldn’t find the car keys,’ ‘road works,’ ‘loose haggis on the motorway.’ etc

But the serious upshot of the keyholder being late, was that somebody else has to go in early to make sure the heating in the treatment rooms gets put on in time. That person was usually me.

We had one co worker who could move slightly slower with than a sloth with an underactive thyroid and a heavy bag of shopping.  There was no point in asking him to go from the front desk to the store cupboard at the back, about 13 metres. As by the time he got there, the entire clinic would be running late.  I once said to him, sarcastically. ‘Do you think you could do that any slower?’ He took it as a challenge and did!

Most of them have been fine. Many have been superb. But it’s the bad ones that stick in the memory. Some of them are far too cringeworthy to mention here. Like one who asked a patient for a painkiller as they had a sore back, and they were a receptionist in an osteopath practice.

There was one with a body odour issue who we used to burn candles and aromatherapy oils round her desk, she still didn’t get it. With the flames and the scents around the PC, I’m sure some patients thought she was a sacrifice to the god of Microsoft.

And now there’s quiet quitting. Is this a new thing? Is it working to rule i.e., fulfilling your contractual duties and nothing more. I suspect it’s a bit more of an attitude than that.

My contract says that the receptionist must do anything that I ask them to do (?) but that’s also anything that I would do myself.  Seeing a patient out to a taxi, calling them the taxi, making them a cup of tea, crawling along on the floor of a taxi because they have lost their purse, cleaned up their dog pooh, cleaned up baby pooh. You name it, we have done it.

I think the key word there is ‘we’.

Laws here very much protect the employee. They get 6 weeks holiday paid, and public holidays on top of that. Much more than the boss or the self employed in the business can afford to take. With covid and lockdown, we had to give 9 weeks paid holiday to somebody.

I’m not sure quiet quitting is a new thing. Is it a state of mind? The polar opposite to ‘do your job to the best of your ability.’  If you don’t, what do you do with your life? And it is boring?

Quiet quitting seems to have come to the notice of social media, and employers, after the pandemic and those working from home for the time of lockdown.  As essential workers, we were back in ASAP and all the staff seemed keen to get back to work as they were bored and fed up with kids/spouses/ furlough pay.

But to be fair, I’ve never worked for a big company, never been bullied at work, never felt unrewarded for what I do. I hope, I try to ensure my staff have the same experience. We’ve always had very well defined, but unwritten, rules about contacting our employees out of work hours. We have a group chat on WhatsApp that they can look at as and when they wish. It’s more like ‘The heater in room three is coming off the wall, so don’t walk into it.’  Or ‘My Mum’s just gone into hospital, can somebody cover for me until 5 pm.’ It’s never, ‘get that report done now!’


What makes a good boss? The knowledge that the business needs everybody to make it work. Support and care to the workforce…. And that includes giving the quiet quitter a wee kick up the whatsit as nothing annoys an employee more than watching somebody else get paid for doing half the job, and some other poor person, with a better attitude, getting 150% of the workload to do.

Equally, it’s my world. I’m paying for your time. I encourage chit chat, telling jokes, talking to the oldies, dealing with those who are lonely. I don’t encourage looking at  phones, scrolling through Facebook, taking selfies, booking holidays on our computer. You know the taloned fingernails that pull the receipt from the credit card machine with no eye contact whatsoever….

They tend to end up in a book. You can guess what happens to them…..

C

Thursday, December 1, 2022

The beautiful game? Or the boring game?

 Stanley - Thursday

Fans all around the world are watching what is called the beautiful game at the Football World Cup currently being held in Qatar.  Frankly, I think it would be more accurate to call it the boring game. 



First, here are a few trivia associated with the game.

In most of the world the game is called football. In the USA and Australasia, it usually known as soccer. The etymology. of the word football is obvious. However, the origin of the word soccer is quite old, dating back about 200 years to Britain when the game and its rules were becoming organised. It is short for association football - a specific form of the game at that time. Until mid-Twentieth Century, football and soccer were used interchangeably in the UK. The story goes that when the Brits realised that Americans were using the word soccer, they decided they couldn't possibly use the same word and opted for football.

Football (soccer) is the world's most popular game, with hundreds of millions playing it. Part of its popularity is due to its simplicity. All you need is a ball and two goals. The latter can be defined by goal posts, or two rocks on the ground, or marks in the sand. Although there are rules about the official size of the playing field, it can be played on a field of any size.

The game at international level has two halves, each of 45 minutes, plus additional time for injuries. In most important games, if the game is tied at full time, the winner is decided by a penalty shootout. I think the game would graduate from boring to bearable if each half was only five minutes.

The game itself is simple. One player passes the ball to another, who passes it back. Sometimes the ball goes to a third player, who passes it back. The ball goes sideways more than forward, often going way back to the side's own goal keeper. After this continues for a while, someone falls asleep and the other side gets the ball.  They then pass the ball to one another, sideways more than forward, often going way back to the side's own goal keeper.

The game is the embodiment of a well-known psychological phenomenon called intermittent reinforcement. Specifically people are attracted to things (games, for example) where success occurs occasionally and unpredictably. Good examples of this are golf, gambling and, of course football. If a golfer hit good shots every time, or if a gambler hit the jackpot with each pull of the lever, or if scoring a goal was simple in football, no one would play and no one would watch.

In football, excitement and success are so uncommon that millions of people participate or watch in the hope that they'll witness a goal. And on the rare occasion a goal is scored, the excitement is so intense that people come back hoping for another intense moment.

In reality, the game is so boring that even the players have devised ways to inject excitement into the proceedings while waiting for the moment of intensity. Specifically, the mildest of bumps between two players has turned a nothing-moment into an opportunity to show off great acting ability. 

Brazilian star Neymar is a star amongst stars.

Neymar again.

Christiano Renaldo

Not to be content with histrionics during play, players (and even sometimes managers) have found other ways to show their talents as this short video shows. 

Not be be left out of the action, fans on and off the pitch have also found ways to enliven the tedium of the game. Football hooliganism has become widespread as a way to inject excitement into the sport. Last week, for examples, Belgian football fans got their thrills by trashing parts of Brussels.



In fact, the incidence of fans creating some excitement is so great that Wikipedia devotes a huge amount of space to it. If you're suffering from insomnia and watching a football game doesn't help, I suggest start reading the Wikipedia article.

To be fair, as Michael would say, occasionally something happens that is worth watching. For example, Brazilian player Richarlison's second goal against Serbia startled me out of my reverie. What talent; what beauty. Watch it here. Talk about intermittent reinforcement! One moment of excitement from the 42 games played so far!

The game is so boring, even the referees get excited when the game is over. This must have been a particular soporific game!

So, thank you for the Football World Cup 2022, but no thank you. I'm off to watch some cricket.




Monday, November 28, 2022

The Harlem Hellfighters

 Annamaria on Monday

My work in progress these days is the fifth in my Africa series, set in 1915 against the background of WWI.  You might think you that my topic today is something that I discovered by accident while researching that awful conflict. But no! I learned about the Harlem Hellfighters during a casual casual conversation with a vendor in the Union Square farm market.  We were talking about music. I'll get around to the music in a minute.  First, who were the Harlem Hellfighters?

The regiment of today's topic was formed in New York State, comprised of black volunteers who wanted to join up and fight for their country despite the despicable way a lot of their countrymen treated them. They, largely mistakenly, believed that if they showed their valor and patriotism, they might earn the respect that they merited.

Valorous they were!! The 396th Infantry was organized in June of 1916 in New York and went through combat training in October 1917 at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, SC--not exactly a welcoming locale.  But, according to the men of the regiment, the nasty Jim Crow treatment they received in South Carolina forged a bond among them that stood them in good stead when they faced combat.

And face it, they did.  They shipped out from New York for France on December 27, 1917.  At first they were relegated to only lowliest tasks, but in April of 1918, the US Army decided to assign the unit, which wanted to serve in combat, to the French Army. The French welcomed them as comrades in arms and assigned them the French 185th Infantry Brigade.  They were issued French weapons and gear to go with their American uniforms, and a month later, they went into the trenches as part of the French 19th Division.  


They proceeded to distinguish themselves in battle after battle.  At one point they were under fire for over six months, the longest deployment for any unit during that war.  Six days after the armistice, they were the first Allied unit to reach the banks of the Rhine.



One of the most decorated was Pvt. Henry Johnson, who had been a railway station luggage porter in Albany, New York.  Along with Pvt. Needham Roberts, he fought off 24 Germans, who were attacking their observation post.  Roberts was badly wounded early on.  Johnson, after spending all of his ammunition, fought back with grenades, with the butt of his rifle, and finally with a knife. He was able to turn the Germans away.  He himself sustained 21 injuries.  He became the first American to be awarded the Croix de Guerre!

It took until the Obama administration for his heroism to be properly recognized by this own country.

Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson
 of the New York National Guard accepting the Medal of Honor
on behalf Herman Johnson, who died in 2004 


Now, about that music: the Hellfighters Marching Band.  The fabulous musicians, recruited from jazz and ragtime musicians in NYC, were lead by James Reese Europe, a composer and prominent musician in Harlem before the war. The band went to France with the soldiers and while there were the first to introduced jazz to the French and other Europeans. They were a sensation in Paris and remained one in the United States after the war. I heard about them in that conversation at the market. I came home, found a sample on YouTube, and went straight ahead and bought all of their available recordings at the iTunes store.  They are perfect! I wish I could give you a better-mastered recordings, so impressed was I of how elegantly they played. Here is a scratchy example, the best I can share on Blogger.



Sunday, November 27, 2022

Reasons To Be Thankful

 The Thankful and Doubly Thankful Villages


Zoë Sharp

 

November traditionally sees the annual Remembrance Day here in the UK, when we remember the fallen – particularly in the two World Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Despite the fact that World War II saw more than three times the casualties of the conflict that preceded it, we still mark this occasion on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at eleven in the morning – the moment hostilities ceased in 1918.

 

The number of fatalities in these two wars boggles the mind – there are simply too many zeroes to compute. In WWI, it is estimated that there were anywhere between 15 million and 22 million casualties, including military personnel and civilian deaths. WWII added a staggering 70-90 million to this total. (And that’s before we reckon up the number of animals who died in the service of man during those conflicts, as detailed in Caro Ramsay’s beautiful blog about the Hyde Park memorial.)

 

Those who are skilled with statistics calculate that the number of people killed in WWII was roughly 3.5 percent of the entire population of the planet, which totalled around 2.3 billion in 1940. To bring that into context, if there was a similar war today, and the same percentage of the world’s population was killed, the dead would number 274,295,000.

 

As it was, everywhere in the UK (as with every other nation involved) saw the flower of their youth march off to war – many never to return. There are memorials in every town and village, usually erected after WWI, with more names added in 1945. Often, the same last names crop up over again, as members of the same local families fought, and fell, and died.

 

This is why it is such a surprise when you come across a sign like the ones at the top of this blog, for villages that claim to be Thankful. You may have to look hard to find one, though – there aren’t many around.

 

Reason to be Thankful

After WWI, it was discovered that, of the tens of thousands of villages in England and Wales, fifty-three stood out. All the men who had gone to fight returned safely. Not one village in Scotland or Ireland has yet been identified as being so lucky.

 

Of the fifty-three Thankful Villages – also known as Blessed Villages – the most fortunate county was Somerset. Here, there are nine places on the list, followed by Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, with five each, then Nottinghamshire with four. Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, and Suffolk have three each. The rest have one or two.

 

In Derbyshire, the county I currently call home, there is just one Thankful Village  – Bradbourne, home of the oldest surviving watermill in Derbyshire.

 

Bradbourne has another claim to fame, however. It is one of only fourteen villages that classify as Doubly Thankful. All its combatants in WWII also returned safely at the end of that conflict.

 

The Doubly Thankful villages are:

 

Herodsfoot in Cornwall

 

Bradbourne in Derbyshire

 

Langton Herring in Dorset

 

Ironically perhaps, Upper Slaughter in Gloucestershire

 

Middleton-on-the-Hill in Herefordshire

 

Arkholme-with-Cawood, and Nether Kellet in Lancashire

 

Allington, Flixborough, and High Toynton in Lincolnshire

 

Stocklinch, and Woolley in Somerset

 

Butterton in Staffordshire

 

St Michael South Elmham in Suffolk

 

Catwick in Yorkshire

 

As well as Llanfihangel-y-Creuddyn in Ceredigion, Wales

 

And Herbrandston in Pembrokeshire, Wales

 

The term Thankful Village was made popular by the educator, writer, and journalist, Arthur Henry Mee. Mee worked on The Children’s Encyclopædia (called The Book of Knowledge in the USA) before founding a weekly publication, The Children’s Newspaper in 1919. Much of Mee’s writing looked back to the years immediately following WWI. He is best known for The King’s England, a series of guides to the counties of England.

 

To put the Thankful Villages into perspective, only one village in the whole of France came through WWI with no casualties – Thierville in Normandy. Even more remarkably, Thierville’s small population also survived the Franco-Prussian War, WWII, the First Indochina War, and the Algerian War without a single fatality, either.

 

Reasons to be Thankful, indeed.

 

This week’s Word of the Week is nepotism, which comes from the Italian, nepotismo, which in turn is taken from the Latin, nepos, meaning nephew. It dates back to the Middle Ages, when Catholic popes and bishops would bestow the kinds of office and favours that would be normally given by fathers to sons, to their nephews instead. Pope Paul III appointed two of his nephews – aged just fourteen and sixteen – as cardinals.

 

It wasn’t until 1692 that Pope Innocent XII issued a papal bull that prohibited popes from bestowing such honours, titles, or income onto relatives. In more recent times, the phrase ‘nepo baby’ has come into use to describe celebrities whose main claim to fame is being the offspring of someone more famous.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

What Did Ancient Greeks Eat

 

Reykjavik, Iceland

Jeff–Saturday

On Wednesday evening I returned from eight days in Iceland eating my way through five delectable days at Iceland Noir and three more scrumptious ones touring Iceland’s magical southern coast along with three dozen or so fellow mystery writers and their partners. I followed that up with Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner and loads of leftovers assembled by my daughter for a “follow-up Friday feast.”

Is it any wonder then that when I thought of what to write about this Saturday, “food” kept flashing through my mind as the logical subject. So, I looked for inspiration in Greece’s “Ekathimerini” newspaper, and lo and behold found an article it had borrowed from Greece-is, written by Duncan Howitt-Marshall.


I figured that if it’s good enough for Athens’ newspaper of record to borrow, it’s good enough for me to do the same—especially since it bears the on-point title “What did the ancient Greeks eat?”

Perhaps next week I’ll find an answer to how those same Greeks shed extra kilos—other than through sword play. But for today I’ll stick to sharing this article written by Mr. Howitt-Marshall, a well published archaeologist. 

Duncan Howitt-Marshall

It is widely acknowledged that the traditional Greek diet is one of the healthiest in the world. Rich in fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, oily fish, and a moderate amount of animal protein – mainly from white cheese and yogurt – health experts agree that the Greek diet can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and even improve your cognition. But how similar was the diet of the ancient Greeks? And was it just as healthy and balanced?

In many ways, the everyday eating habits of the ancient Greeks were quite similar to today’s Greeks. While a number of key ingredients used in the modern cuisine would have been absent from ancient kitchens, including tomatoes, peppers and potatoes, brought from the Americas after the 15th century, and rice from India and China, the diet was still largely based around the “Mediterranean triad” of cereals, olives and grapes, and leaned heavily towards the consumption of beans, lentils and nuts.

 

Ancient olive

Following the rhythm of the seasons, scholars believe that up to 80 percent of the ancient Greek population would have been employed in agricultural work at any given time. Farmers harvested olives and grapes in the autumn months and cereals in the summer, and, depending on the availability of land, raised livestock (goats and sheep being the most common). But due to the relatively poor quality of the soil – described in ancient texts as “stringy” or “tight” – crop yields were low, which likely explains the rapid expansion of Greek colonialism from the 8th century BC onwards.

Whilst wealthy Greeks were able to afford elaborate meals and banquets (“symposia” – literally “gathering of drinkers”) that boasted a wide variety of ingredients, including finely selected and prepared meats, the diet of the average Greek would have been relatively simple and frugal.

Symposium

Much like today, cereals formed the mainstay of the ancient diet. The two main grains were wheat and barley, baked into loaves or flatbreads, and, for special occasions and religious festivals, into cakes made with oats, chickpeas, sesame and honey. Today’s Christmas cookies, melomakarona, are thought to be derived from the ancient “makaria,” made from flour, olive oil and honey, and eaten at funerals.

Olives and olive oil were also important components of the everyday diet. Olive trees have been grown and harvested in Greece since at least the mid-4th millennium BC, likely earlier, and olive oil was traded across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean throughout antiquity. Besides food, olive oil was used in religious rituals, as fuel for lamps, and for medicinal and cosmetic purposes (Aristotle even recommended it as a form of birth control).

Olive cultivation

Wine was consumed throughout the day, from breakfast time to the evening meal, and was generally mixed with water. The best wines hailed from Thasos, Lesvos and Chios, and, like olive oil, was a widely traded commodity. The ancient Greeks also sweetened their wine with honey, and made therapeutic concoctions by adding thyme, pennyroyal, and other herbs.

Dionynus

Seafood was also widely consumed, much like today, including squid, octopus, cuttlefish, prawns and crayfish. Island and coastal communities had the best access to fresh fish, but sardines, anchovies and sprats (the cheapest) were oftentimes dried and salted and transported inland. Indeed, dried/salted fish was a cheap source of protein for poorer citizens throughout Greece. Other sources of animal protein included milk and cheese, from sheep and goat, and “oxygala,” an early ancestor of yogurt.

Salted sardines

The consumption of meat was much less common than today (except for pork sausages). For many city-dwellers, roasted meat was only consumed at religious festivals and on special occasions. Fresh meat was prohibitively expensive – a piglet, for example, cost three drachmas, which was three days’ wages for a public servant – but for those in the countryside, wild fowl (quail, pheasants, mallards), hares, boar and deer would have been more readily available.

Pig sacrifice

While modern nutritionists argue that the first meal of the day should be your biggest – “Breakfast like a king; lunch like a prince; dinner like a pauper” – the ancient Greeks believed the opposite was true. Breakfast (“akratisma”) was usually a very simple affair of barley bread, similar to today’s paximadi rusks, dipped in wine, and a side dish of figs or olives. Various sorts of pancake (“tiganites”) were also available, made with wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and curdled milk. 

A light lunch (“ariston”) was taken around midday or early afternoon, consisting of salted fish, bread, cheese and olives, and selection of fruits (grapes/raisins, figs, apples, pears and plumes/prunes) and nuts (walnuts and almonds). Some opted for a light afternoon snack (“hesperisma”) of bread and olives and dried fruits.

Dinner (“deipnon”), taken at nightfall, was the biggest and most important meal of the day. It was also the time when wealthier Greeks would host dinner parties with extended family and friends, although men and women frequently ate separately. “Meze-style” dishes included a selection of lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas and broad beans, as well as bread, cheese, olives, eggs, fruits and nuts. Fish would have been eaten, too, including sea bream, red mullet, sardines and eels.

Fish dish

Despite the paucity of fresh meat in the ancient Greek diet, pork sausages were nevertheless widely available and affordable to the urban poor. Soups would have also been a regular feature in the diet, made from lentils – the workman’s dish – beans and vegetables (onions, garlic, cabbage and turnips). The most famous soup from ancient Greek antiquity was the Spartan “Black Broth” (“melas zomos”), made with pork, salt, vinegar and blood.

Sweets and desserts were available, too, including “plakous” and “kortoplakous,” possible ancestors of baklava. Similar to the ancient Roman “placenta cake,” a honey-covered baked layered-dough dessert, kortoplakous was made of thin sheets of pastry, almonds, walnuts and honey.

I think that’s enough to chew on for this week, folks!

–Jeff