Vegan History: The Classical Approach


Vegan History: The Classical Approach


An Introduction in Ancient Greece, Rome and Early Veganism

When you walk into a museum, which artefact immediately catches your eye? The intricate, hand-sculpted statues, the finely crafted mosaics or the delicate Grecian vase? When I gaze at these pieces – the inscribed characters tell a story. Line by painted line you see the daily lives of both slaves and the free, depicted in mundane household activities on painted cups and wine mixing bowls of ancient Athens. Despite the 2000 years of separation between the classical eras of Greece and Rome, we can recreate dishes they ate and observe daily rituals from the human vignettes interspersed with the mythical images of gods and heroes. Surprisingly, we can also discern the history of the vegan diet by examining these relics of the past.

Historical details are found in the remains of archeological artefacts. Letters discovered from the garrisons of northern Britain to the Nile Valley bring their writers’ thoughts back to life. These personal letters were copied and recopied throughout medieval times – a virtual gold mine for ancient historians. However, these clues to the previous era are difficult to interpret. Yet, with study we can discern codes that shed light on certain aspects, e.g., slave and the free, or the social divide between the wealthy and the poor. As society becomes more and more industrialized, it becomes even more crucial to understand the past, to view a simpler time of life through the eyes of our ancestors.

Letters from history - evidence of life in the Graeco-Roman period
Letters discovered by archeologists unlock invaluable historical evidence of what life was like in the Graeco – Roman period.

Ancient Cuisine and Prominent Vegan Ingredients

In any society, both ancient and modern, the specifics of food and drink are always at the center of it all. One classical masterpiece abundant in information is the Odyssey; when composed, ‘Greece was a land of farmsteads and small towns, beset only from wars and piracy. There were no big states as each little town had its protecting wall, and each country farm had its thorn hedge’. The fascination of this story is that its protagonist views this world as an outsider, a “shipwrecked wanderer and beggar.” To approach the early world of Greece – how better than to see through his eyes? 

During this time in history, Greece produced barley for bread, olives for olive oil (a cultural representation of the country today) and grapes for wine (vegan ingredients take centre stage here). However, the rocky landscape offered no favor, and many depended on the ‘wine dark sea’, known today as the Mediterranean. Over time, towns grew to cities and the sea trade brought the luxuries that were tasted at Greek symposia, or social drinking parties, where philosophical discussions alternated with entertainment including music, games, comedy and acrobatic displays. Greeks across the country enjoyed wines of the Rhone valley, exporting precious silphium resin to the kitchens, and pickling tuna and other vegetables for exotic tasting dishes.  

Image depicting a Symposium - an event in history where vegan food was often consumed
Example of a Symposium – known as the ‘drink after the main meal’ accompanied by various entertainment – music, poetry, dancing, comedy or acrobatic displays.

Globalization of Food

Such prosperity eventually led Alexander the Great to set out on his career of conquest, leading to the establishment of Macedonia, which became a dominant world power. Responsible for the introduction of new philosophies and ways of life to his people, Alexander’s travels resulted in the importation of foods from the Middle East, such as citrus, peaches and pistachio nuts. Despite these revolutionary tastes introduced for the wealthy, the diet of the poor saw little change over these decades. Bread was their staple and in some cities, the local government issued a free bread ration. Yet, many of the population were unable to bake, and thus made varieties of porridge or polenta with their wheat and barley.  

History of Vegan Philosophy

Surprisingly, history reveals the poorest and sometimes the healthiest population had a modified version of an early vegan diet. The bulk of their diet would contain large amounts of vegetables, fruits and cereals harvested in their own gardens. Meat was rarely consumed, if at all, as only the rich were able to afford such daily luxuries. Prominent philosophers shared and practiced ethical principles, most notably: Pythagoras’s philosophy argued that animals, like humans, had souls. Furthermore, he was a believer in reincarnation – if a human could become an animal after death, the consumption of animals would corrupt the non-human soul, interfering in the human’s higher form of reality.

History shows that another acclaimed philosopher, Epicurus, concluded that both pleasure and pain are measures of what is good and evil in the world, stating that killing even a lowly creature causes pain on the perpetrator (mentally) and on the victim (physically). Therefore, animals were no exception and that the consumption of meat should be ceased. Further philosophers appeased these beliefs, such as Plotinus, Plato, Aristotle and Ovid – spearheading theories that laid the groundwork for early vegetarianism. 

Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher who believed in early aspects of a vegan diet.
Pythagoras of Samos, an accredited Greek Philosopher who believed in the early aspects of a vegan diet and known for his mathematical ability: The Pythagoras Theorem.  

The Wealth of Food 

By 400 BC, the eminent banquets of the rich began with bread, where their one main meal began in the early evening and would continue throughout the night. Décor was important: hanging lamps would light up the room with a soft glow and varied scents would perfume the halls, such as sweet leaves and oils that would be passed around and both wheat and barley loaves would be offered. The service sequence would start with savories such as fresh fruit, roasted meat and vegetables in flavored sauces, progressing to fresh grilled fish or stewed lamb. The dessert course, also known as ‘second tables’ amongst the Greeks and Romans, would serve wine, sweetmeats, cheese, dried fruit and nuts.  

Artefact depicting symposium, with wine and vegan ingredients
Drinkers discussing the wine. This artefact depicts a range of symposium paraphernalia: the cups, wine jug and the boots which guests removed before reclining.

The Art of Food

Despite the feasts as an archetypal culture of Greek and Roman life, they were not the first in celebrating ingredients and the special flavors of food and wine. As early as the third millennium BC, recipes were inscribed on cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, as is evident in the burial chamber of King Tutankhamun (1346-1327 BC). Although archeologists and historians have established the Greeks as the first to regard cookery as a serious skill and art form, essential for human life, cooking has always been an instinctive art, rather than an absolute science, never bound by precise quantities, cooking times and temperatures.

When recreating ancient food, we will never know exactly what it should taste like but must rely on approximations with modern ingredients. It is no mistake that the acclaimed Roman cookbook, ‘Apicius on Cookery’ has no quantitative instructions – only a basic list of ingredients. This book was made to serve as an aid to slaves to satisfy their masters or own tastes and made to prevent certain or obvious errors.  

A tablet recording the allocation of beer.
An early writing tablet recording the allocation of beer, 3100 – 3000 B.C.E. The symbol for beer is an upright jar with a pointed base, appears three times on the tablet. One sign on the bottom row to the left shows a bowl tipped towards a schematic human head. This is the sign for “to eat”. 

The Flavors of History 

The preeminent flavors of Greek and Roman cuisine are honey, vinegar, a fermented fish sauce and a vast array of herbs and spices. The vegan version of honey would be any sweetener and for the ‘fish’ sauce, a mixture of seaweed, water, garlic, peppercorns, mushroom soy sauce and miso. The secret is to balance the sweetness, the bitterness and the sour. Both cuisines differ by their quantity of seasonings – in fact, the Romans ignored the ‘less is more’ approach and consequently were subject to ridicule in a comedy by Plautus, where ‘they serve a whole meadow in their dishes!’.

While classical Greek cuisine showed more restraint, adding only three or four spices or herbs to a dish, the Romans would have ‘taste explosions’ – reminiscent of modern Indian food with many ingredients. However, the Apicius suggests a more refined and tasteful cuisine for the ‘cultured’ Roman, probably a continuation of the general moral and personal restraint. 

Using History to Shape a Vegan Future

Learning from the past can help us evaluate our culinary practices today and shape a better and more environmentally sound future. Cuisine and culture have always gone hand in hand with prevailing notions of ethics, social or religious values. Celebrating and exploring food from eons ago can educate us and improve our view on what constitutes compassionate living.  

To work out how you can live more compassionately, why not check out our Lifestyle section?

An Original Vegan Dessert Recipe

“Let us find time to speak of other cakes, the ones made with wheat flour. Teganitai, as we call them, are made simply with oil. The oil is put in a frying pan resting on a smokeless fire, and when it has heated, the wheat flour, mixed with plenty of water is poured on. Rapidly, as it fries in the oil, it sets and thickens like fresh cheese setting in the baskets. And at this point the cooks turn it, putting the visible side under, next to the pan, and bringing the sufficiently fried side, which was underneath at first, up on to the top, and when the underneath is set they turn it again another two or three times till they think it is all equally cooked. Some mix it with honey, and others again with sea salt.” 

GALEN, On the Properties of Foods I, 3 

A Greek physician named Galen (AD 129-199) gives a serious and painstaking description of a simple dish of pancakes that we cannot help but be amused by. This recipe is already over 2600 years old, 1800 by the time Galen wrote it. Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger have translated and revised many historical recipes, just like this one, in their book “The Classical Cookbook”.

Anna Crawford

Anna Crawford

Been vegan for three years now and has always had a passion for food since she could reach the spice rack on her tip toes! Enjoys learning and writing about Plant Based Nutrition, Food Anthropology and the Gut Microbiome.

A penny for your thoughts

I may receive a commission if you make a purchase through some of the links on this page (see full disclaimer here). But don’t worry, I’ll use the money to fund more useful articles and resources, and of course, to buy more vegan snacks to keep me fueled up. I promise not to blow it all on vegan ice cream…I’ll save some for a cocktail or two. A girl’s gotta eat (and drink)!

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