Saturday, November 26, 2022

What Did Ancient Greeks Eat


Reykjavik, Iceland


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.


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.


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!



  1. After recent meals, I never want to see food again!

  2. I'm just finishing "How To Survive In Ancient Greece" by Robert Garland, an ebook I bought on sale a year ago. Fascinating, and has really changed my mental image of ancient Greece. It focuses primarily on Athens/Attica, with frequent comparisons with Sparta. Although Athens was a 'democracy', as is so often the case, it was for the wealthy and male. Women, nope. Poor, nope. Slaves (a majority of the population), not a chance.

    As for the Spartan Black Broth, INfamous might be a more apt description. :-) The book, which is framed as being a "guide book for a modern time-traveller," says:

    If you're looking for haute cuisine, give Sparta a miss. The only Spartan dish we hear about is black soup. Its ingredients are enough to make you want to retch. These consist of beans, salt and vinegar, with a pig's leg thrown in for good measure. What gives it its distinctive flavour, however, is the blood in which these ingredients swill. When a man from Sybaris in southern Italy tasted black soup for the first time, he said, "Now I know why the Spartans aren't afraid of dying." Sybaris is well-known for its luxury and the Sybarite couldn't imagine anything worse than eating black soup every day of his life.

    1. That's a terrific book suggestion, EvKa. Thanks. As for the ingredients of the infamous "Spartan black soup," have you ever bought a hot dog off a street vendor?

    2. Hah! Not since I was old and wise enough to know better. And that was TOO long ago... :-)

  3. I was well aware, being not only half-Italian but also a history buff and a former food professional. It is really an incredible diet, nuch of which I follow to this day.
    (Tonette, who Blogger does not like!)

    1. Huh? What's this about you being disliked by a blogger!! Name the cad, and a thrashing soon follow!!!!

    2. Please don’t feel bad that the Blogger software is uncooperative, Tonnette. Many of writers on MIE are ourselves constantly flummoxed by its user unfriendly complexities, especially when it comes to comments. From Annamaria who is forced to comment anonymously. Arrrggghhh!!!

    3. Months and months ago, I briefly experienced the 'anonymous' posting problem. I used the 'sign-out' link at the top of the site, then signed back in, and haven't ever had the problem since. Worth a try, if you haven't already...

    4. That works for a very aged I Pad. All other devices allow me to sign in, so I can creat or edit posts. But as soon as I click to comment or reply, it kicks me out. Re-signing in produces the same result. Grrrrr! AA

    5. Well, obviously, BlogSpot recognizes you for the rabble-rouser and trouble-maker that you are... :-)

  4. I didn't need the visual for Placenta Pie, either!