On the dietary habits of the Roman Empire
as seen by outsiders, Jews and Christians

by Veronika Grimm

Yale University

It needs no great effort to convince the reader that food customs and practices of a given society may contribute significantly to the historical understanding of its life. Food in actuality, its availability, quality and distribution, together with its manifold symbolic meanings have always formed an important part of social intercourse. Food, in addition to being the source of energy for the sustenance of life, is also, as some Greeks so nicely put it,

eating is one of the basic pleasures life offers. Food sharing has always meant inclusion and acceptance in the group; while accusations of disgusting eating habits, just like, and often together with those of unacceptable sexual habits, are well-tried means of social exclusion, employed quite profitably by the morally superior or the gossip-monger for ridiculing, excluding, and showing up their victims.

Despite the veritable sea of food references that even the most cursory search of Greek and Roman literature will turn up, who ate what and when still remains quite uncertain. Eating and drinking habits are described for a great variety of purposes, that range from moral metaphors to character assassination, with little in the way of trustworthy objectivity[1].

In pursuing my somewhat daunting quest for a historical assessment of the dietary habits of the Roman empire I had plenty of occasions to wish for an objective observer, or if this proved impossible, at least for an outsider with open eyes: someone like Lucian's Anacharsis.

As will be recalled, in Lucian's highly amusing dialogue Anacharsis, the barbarian 'outsider', comes to learn Greek wisdom from Solon. The focus of their discussion is on gymnastic training and its lofty role in the education of Greek youth. Under the guidance of Solon Anacharsis observes and thoughtfully ponders the evidence before his eyes, asking the wise man question after question in an effort to remedy his utter lack of comprehension of rationality in what he observes. The contrast of customs for the training of manly courage is made very funny by Lucian, while we do get a vivid picture of Greek gymnastics.

Encouraged by this, I hoped that 'outsiders' to Graeco-Roman culture might provide valuable evidence about its food customs. Jews and Christians of the first few centuries of the Empire were often seen as ´outsiders' to its polytheistic culture. In what follows I shall discuss what we may learn about Graeco-Roman eating and drinking from these sources.

Unfortunately I did not find amongst Jewish and Christian witnesses of the empire an Anacharsis or a Lucian who would so clearly describe and contrast dietary customs. What we have before us, instead, are texts that were written for a variety of purposes, defence, exhortation, propaganda, and others; impartial objectivity was seldom regarded as a cardinal virtue by their authors (neither was a sense of humour, unfortunately). The term 'outsider' itself may raise a lot of questions, but for our purpose here it will describe those who were outsiders to Graeco-Roman polytheistic culture. What, if anything, may be learned from their views about the food habits of this culture? My witnesses on the Jewish side will be Philo, Josephus and early rabbinic literature, and on the Christian side, apologists, like Tertullian.

I shall first discuss the Jews, since they were and remained throughout the period a distinct ethnic group with a distinct religion and, most importantly, a food culture that more or less guaranteed to keep those who adhered to it strictly, as ´outsiders', i.e. as different from the dominant culture. While this statement is seldom questioned, one may still ask just how different Jewish food was from that of their gentile neighbours. The elaborate list of dietary regulations set out in the Pentateuch, presupposes a meat eating population. If, as is often claimed by modern historians, meat was a negligible part of the ancient diet and most people only ate meat on sacrificial occasions,[2] one may wonder why the Law enumerates a large number of animal species, both in the permitted and the forbidden categories, that were definitely not suitable for sacrifice. The Torah distinguished, just as the Greeks did, between  and  (Xenophon, Anab. 5:3.9), between those animals that were proper for sacrifice and others that were acceptable as food but not for sacrifice. Like other ancient deities, the god of the Jews demanded domestic animals from the herd and from the flock for his altar, but the people of Israel were permitted to hunt and eat also ´the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain sheep', not to mention the locust and the cricket (Lev. 11:22, Deut. 14:5, Deut. 12:15 clearly indicates that the eating of non-sacrificial meat was taken for granted).

Rather than addressing a largely vegetarian society which only ate meat at the occasional sacrifice, the Law appears to confront a human society which in order to obtain its necessary nutrients in a most efficient form would eat, if not regulated, just about anything that moved. The biblical text does not tell us how much meat was available, how often it was eaten and by what classes of people. Meat regulation, however, is the central issue of the dietary laws. There is not one law concerning vegetables or fruit - not even apples, when grown outside the Garden of Eden, are forbidden fruit! This observation may not be trivial in light of the fact that there were other ancient cults that forbade the eating of certain vegetables, e.g. garlic (cult of the Magna Mater) or beans (the Pythagoreans), etc.

The Torah that embodied the core of Jewish religious life gave explicit permission for meat eating, wine drinking and the enjoyment of all the good things of life. In the presence of the Lord your God... you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock... spend the money for whatever you wish - oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. (Deut. 12:15; 14:23-27). It is conceivable that this clear and unequivocal permission in the written Law accounts for the dearth of exhortations to vegetarianism as a way to religious piety amongst ancient Jews. Meat eating seems to have been seldom questioned. Not even the pietist parties or sects are known to have urged vegetarianism. Josephus the historian, aiming to present the Pharisees, amongst whom he counted himself, in the most noble light, claimed that they were like Stoic philosophers who 'despised delicacies in diet' (Antiquities 18:12). Regardless of their sentiments concerning ´delicacies' in diet, the Pharisees ate meat. Essenes, sectarians who regarded themselves as the true Israel, also ate meat, for they believed that they knew better than the Temple priests how to adhere to all precepts of the Law, and observe all the biblical feasts, which, of course, entailed the eating of meat.[3] Even John the Baptist, a miraculously frugal eater, sustained himself on locust, an animal permitted for consumption by the Law! Among ancient Jewish writers whose work is extant the only one who valued alimentary self-denial and a meatless diet very highly is Philo of Alexandria; I shall return to him later, since he is one of our Jewish witnesses here.

The Law permitted meat eating but deemed the indiscriminate use of animal protein as not fitting for the people of Israel. The reasons for this are not known, although many hypotheses have been put forth to account for the choice of permitted meat, ranging from various hygienic to separatist ones. There is not a shred of evidence for the hygienic claims; a lot to be said, however, for the separatist one. Whether it was knowingly intended by the framers of the Law or not, the dietary rules of the Jews have kept the observant from eating meat prepared by non-Jews, and this to a greater or lesser degree, has always separated the Jews from the surrounding world. The Jews, in terms of diet, were 'outsiders' to Greco-Roman culture and apparently this was their own choice. Disdainful or downright hostile Graeco-Roman writers often present the Jews as misanthropes, who are unwilling to share the pleasures of the table with their neighbours. Few of these writers show any depth of interest or understanding of Jewish customs, even to make the obvious distinction, one which is supported by ample evidence, that while the Jews may not have felt free to eat meat at the gentile's table, they did extend hospitality to strangers, who were free to eat Jewish food, which, while restricted to a narrower range of flesh food by the exclusion of pork and shellfish, may not have been otherwise much different from their own.

Hostility and disdain on the part of some did not prevent others from showing interest in the Jews. Various strands of ancient evidence also testify to a considerable curiosity and attraction that Judaism evoked in peoples coming in contact with the Jews. A large part of the voluminous efforts of the two surviving Jewish writers of the empire, Philo of Alexandria and Josephus, is devoted to the exposition and explanation of Judaism and Jewish customs to all who wanted to know. Both were eager to arouse the interests of those whom they considered to be the best class of gentiles and they hoped to win them at least as a sympathetic audience. Philo's intended public was an educated Greek upper-class, brought up on philosophy; while Josephus hoped to appeal to the gravitas and auctoritas of a Roman elite. Both aspired to make Judaism into a philosophy, admirable, and ideally useful for the teaching of self-restraint and other Stoic virtues. Each in his own way tried to elucidate the moral superiority of Jewish law, while both kept quite clear of outright criticism of the empire.

For the topic under consideration, i.e. food customs, Philo is the more interesting of these two writers. But to what extent can he be considered, on the one hand, as an 'outsider' to Hellenistic culture, and on the other as a reasonably objective reporter of food customs? Philo was a wealthy Alexandrian Jew, who had the benefit of the best of Greek education and Hellenistic culture (De congressu quaerandae. 148; De specialibus legibus 230). He seems to have been thoroughly familiar not only with literature but also with athletics, theatres and concerts, all of which he appears to have valued and enjoyed. His social standing, wealth and education made him eminently suitable even for the task of leading a delegation of Alexandrian Jews to the emperor in Rome.

Philo was hardly an outsider; he was thoroughly steeped in the Greek culture of his city, Alexandria and equally deeply and passionately committed to Jewish religion. His lifelong aim was to unite these two in a harmonious union. With the tool of allegorical interpretation, invented long before his time to give new meaning to the Homeric pantheon, he tried to invest the Jewish Scriptures with the spirit of Platonic theology and Stoic ethics.

Philo's ethical writings reflect a radically dualistic, conception of the universe, coupled with a darkly pessimistic world-negating asceticism according to which the 'flesh' is a hindrance to the spirit (De gigantibus 29-33), the soul dwells in the body as in a tomb, the body a ´the dwelling place of endless calamities' (Quis rerum divinarum heres 68, 85, 273; De somniis 1:139; Quod Deus immutabilis sit 111-115; De ebrietate 101; De Abrahamo 9; De confusione linguarum 177, and other places). This view of soul and body reveals an attitude much more congenial to Pythagorean or Platonist dualism, than it is to Biblical Judaism, which Philo aimed to explain to his readers. Added to his devotion to Platonic dualism, Philo's thought is gripped by an obsessive concern with personal piety; allegorising the Law did not release the Jew from the keeping of its literal meaning. Philo insisted on the meticulous observance of the letter of the Mosaic law as the infallibly revealed will of God.

The control of the 'passions' and the disdain for the pleasures of the flesh, often with strong misogynist, undertones were common moralising topoi, shared by Cynics, Stoics, and Platonists in the Hellenistic world. In Philo's religious piety these attitudes, which are not characteristic of Biblical Judaism, are even more exaggerated; the 'passions' were not only to be kept under control but were to be eliminated and the body rejected. The chief amongst the Stoic 'passions' against which he struggled most were not anger, or fear or grief, but the desires of 'the belly and what is underneath it'. The amount of space and emphasis that the dangers of gluttony receive in Philo's work reveal an obsessive fear of overeating and fatness which is remarkable and rare in ancient Jewish sources (De specialibus legibus I.148; II.50, 193-196; III.9-11; De opificio mundi 158-159; Quod deterius potiori insidiatur. 101-103, 135-137, 156-159. De vita contemplativa 74 and countless other places). For Philo the pleasures of the table will inevitably make man a glutton and a drunkard, ´while they also stimulate and stir up the stings of sexual lusts' (De opificio mundi 158). As Philo sees it, the purpose of the dietary laws handed down by Moses was to train his people in self-control and frugality. For this purpose he forbade the eating of those creatures whose flesh were the fattest and tastiest. Especially pig's meat and shell-fish, as he assures us, since all who eat these agree that these are the most delicious meats (De specialibus Legibus IV 100).

Philo preached ceaselessly against the pleasures of the senses, against gluttony, and venery. Dinner-parties were all occasions for drunkenness and debauchery. This firmly held view often caused him difficulties when discussing the many feasts in the Bible. For example, he goes out of his way to distance the Passover feast, ordered by the Torah, from the usual dinner parties. This dinner, he insists, is quite different: The guests assembled have been cleansed by purificatory lustrations, and are there, not as in other festive gatherings, to indulge the belly with wine and meat, but to fulfil with prayers and hymns the custom handed down by their fathers. (De specialibus Legibus II 148). Fancy cooks and pastry makers come in for special odium, together with steaming meats, wicked sauces and lethal honey-cakes. All of these were ancient literary topoi, with a long and lively history in comedy and satire. With Philo the humour was missing, replaced by an uncompromising sanctimonious earnestness. With his veritable phobia of the evils of overeating, it is surprising how little in way of direct comment on Graeco-Roman diet there is in Philo's writing.

Moreover, in all his censure of luxurious eating habits, it is never quite clear whose habits is he talking about. An exception to this is when he compares the Day of Atonement of the Jews and the Greeks' 'holy month', as two religious practices equivalent in solemnity. The Jewish celebration, he argues, is highly superior in piety since the Jews, frugally, eat and drink nothing for a whole day, while the Greeks do not fast at all during their 'holy month' but celebrate with lavish food and drink (Vita Moses 2:23-24).

In most other places where Philo denounces luxurious dining habits and all that pertains to them, it is far from clear at whose habits he is aiming, whether Greeks, Egyptians, Romans or humanity at large; and often it is hard to escape a nagging suspicion that if he is talking about anything real and not just repeating old literary clichés, than he is talking about his well-to-do fellow Alexandrian Jews.

A similar unwillingness to comment in detail on the diet of their non-Jewish neighbours faces us in Rabbinic literature. While clearly they regarded gentiles as idol-worshippers, who eat meats unfit for a Jew, the rabbis of the Mishnah, worried mostly about idolatry and possible Jewish involvement in it, inadvertently, through daily interaction with non-Jewish neighbours. Consequently, the rabbis advise in the Mishnaic tractate, Avodah Zarah, that for three days before festivals of gentiles, Jews should not do business with those whose houses and shops are decorated with garlands. In addition to the public festivities, the rabbis also warn against doing business with individuals on their private family holidays, the day they celebrate the shaving off the beard, on the day someone in the family returns safely from a sea voyage, or on the day someone got out of prison. On this and other similar occasions when the gentile makes a banquet, presumably involving sacrificial offerings, Jews should not interact with them. The same tractate of the Mishnah discusses what Jews can or cannot buy from gentiles; again the discussions concern items that may be suspected to have been involved in 'idol-worship', or where there is clear indication that Jewish dietary laws are transgressed. For example, while a Jew may buy milk from a gentile (especially if he saw it being milked), he may not buy cheese because the gentiles use animal rennet to curdle it. While most of the discussion in Avodah Zarah lets Jews carry on commerce with gentiles and generally reflect a busy interchange between Jews and gentiles (even eating together! Avodah Zarah 5:5), some hints of hostile suspicion are here and there revealed, as the following short discussion between the rabbis indicates, where alternately one gives the principle, the other states the reason for it: A. They do not leave cattle in the gentile's inns,
B. Because they are suspect in regard to bestiality.
C. And a woman should not be alone with them,
D. Because they are suspect in regard to fornication.
E. And a man should not be alone with them,
F. Because they are suspect in regard to bloodshed.
G. An Israelite girl should not serve as a midwife to a gentile women.
H. Because she serves to bring forth a child for the service of idolatry (Avodah Zarah 2:1). To sum up so far, our Jewish witnesses did not write about Graeco-Roman food customs as a Herodotos, Strabo or Pliny the Elder would write about the exotic habits of strange peoples. They lived in the empire, Josephus and Philo endeavouring, each his own way, to make Judaism respectable in the eyes of those Greeks or Romans whom they considered important. The rabbis of the Mishnah paid attention to gentile ways only as far as these may have impinged on what they saw as their job, the regulation of Jewish daily life. Pagan customs in themselves had no great interest for them.

Turning now to our other group of 'outsiders', we run into the already familiar problem at the outset: when and to what extent were Christians 'outsiders' to Graeco-Roman culture? The first Christians, indeed, as the New Testament assures us, were Jews with Jewish food customs, but they soon received through the medium of Peter's vision, as related in the Acts of the Apostles, dispensation from Heaven to indeed eat just about everything that moved: He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down... In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up Peter; kill and eat." When he protested that the creatures were not kosher, the same voice assured him three times: What God has made clean, you must not call profane (Acts 10:9-16). The rejection of the Jewish food restrictions opened the proselytising mission to the gentiles. Christian missionaries could bring the message to the cities of the far-flung empire and discuss it in convivial meetings in dinner-parties, as long as they did not eat blood or meat that was sacrificed to idols. Again it has to be pointed out that the argument against the Jewish food laws, raised by the mission to the gentiles, would not have arisen if the diet of these was mainly vegetarian. Jewish food restrictions hampered conviviality only with meat-eating gentiles. With the rejection of Jewish dietary laws, newly converted Christians had no need to change their dietary habits, maybe with the exception of not buying sacrificial meat.

Early Christian apologetic writings, aimed to allay the senseless suspicion, distrust and hostility of pagans directed against them for being Christians, emphasise that Christians share the same daily habits with their pagan neighbours; as the Greek Epistle to Diognetus (an apologetic written c.200), puts it: Christians... conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits... they take their full part as citizens... Like other men, they marry and beget children, though they do not expose their infants. Any Christian is free to share his neighbour's table, but never his marriage bed (Epistle to Diognetus, 5). Tertullian, one of the first great Latin Christian writers, in his Apologeticus, agrees; Christians are human beings who live alongside their pagan neighbours, not as outsiders, but using the same forum, the same meat market, baths, shops, factories, inns and market days. There are some reservations; Christians do not recline to eat in public at pagan celebrations as the Liberalia, but wherever they dine, they use the same supplies as their neighbours (Apol. 42).

The similarity of Christian and pagan convivia impressed him too, and just like Philo in the case of Jewish festive meals, Tertullian too feels that he has to accentuate the differences, and his argument quaintly echoes that of the Alexandrian Jew: Christians come together in a good cause to help the needy, not like the parasites who sell their freedom to fill their bellies. Christians pray first and purify themselves, eat and drink frugally, not like gluttonous pagans, and so on (Apol. 9:39).

If the protestation of common customs did not bring the pagans closer nor allay their baseless accusations of immorality and bad citizenship, then the best strategy was to attack the pagans and turn the accusations back on them. In the Apologeticus, Tertullian's oration in defence of Christian innocence is turned into a scathing attack on the life and customs of polytheistic society. But was he describing Carthaginian society as he saw it around him? I think not. He scoured the literature from Herodotos to Aulus Gellius for evidence of outrage and moral degradation. By throwing at his pagan contemporaries all the atrocities that centuries of Greek and Latin literature had dreamed up, Tertullian endeavoured by comparison to make the moral superiority of the Christians self-evident.

Communal food practices of the Christians were viewed with suspicion by non-Christians, nasty rumours often circulated about their banquets, not stopping short of lurid accusations of cannibalism and incestuous orgies as being the banquets' main attraction. To refute these Tertullian turns the accusation back on the accusers. He deplores the luxury and wastefulness of contemporary eating habits. Tertullian's intended audience, just like Philo's, would, of course, be thoroughly familiar with the image of the rich banquet as the conventional sign of contemporary decadence. They would all have often heard from the mouth of any aspiring social critic about a long-past, frugal golden age 'before Lucullus introduced luxury to the Romans'; and that this luxury with fancy banquets prepared by professional cooks brought with it nothing but effeminacy and all kinds of corruption. Following this tradition Tertullian too contrasts present-day decadence with the moral fortitude of a legendary past, by appealing to the great days of Rome when sumptuary legislation, like the Lex Fannia, promulgated before the third Punic War, prevented excess. Where have those laws gone that limit luxury? The laws that forbade more than 100 asses to be allowed for a banquet or more than one fowl to be set on the table and that fowl not fattened either... Now not only senators but freedman and slaves give "centenary" banquets [costing 100,000 sesterces]' (Apol. 6), - while pagan festivals make the city look worse than a tavern and the celebrants care for nothing but to make mud with wine, to rush about in droves for outrage, impudence and the incitements of lust... all under the pretext of religion, which becomes ´an occasion for indulgence' (Apol. 35).

Is this a description of actual events in Carthage, an outdoor banquet in celebration, for example, of the victory of Septimius Severus, or is it a literary allusion, a borrowing from Tacitus (Ann. 15:37), or some other writer with a healthy dose of aristocratic disdain for popular fiestas? Tertullian, like his contemporaries, orators and writers of the Second Sophistic, enjoyed writing literature on literature. The well-worn characters and situations of classical Greek and Roman writing, familiar to the audience from childhood through a shared education, appeared more 'real' to them than real life. Ostentatious and expensive banquets, together with the nostalgic comparisons with an earlier age of frugal self-control, were used by Tertullian for the same purpose that these served for many other, non-Christian orators of antiquity: that the Trimalchios and their guests should be made to blush with shame under the stern gaze of an ancient Cato! a topos ages old and familiar to all.

But Tertullian's aim was not simply to deplore the useless luxury of his contemporaries. He had a more important task, to prove the innocence and moral superiority of Christian customs by once and for all clearing his fellow Christians from accusations of secret orgies, cannibalism and infanticide. Here again the best defence he thought was attack. As was his custom, he ransacked the literature for cases of human blood-drinking and conveniently found various instances of it in Herodotos, Sallust, Pliny the Elder and others. Armed with these 'facts' as evidence for the prevailing customs of his contemporaries, he confronted the enemies of the Christians (Apol. 9:9-12). How could those who themselves are in the habit of drinking human blood, and who 'demand the paunches of bears stuffed with the crude undigested entrails of men as delicacies', accuse Christians of killing and eating children, when Christians do not include even animal's blood in their diet. (Apol. 9:13, echoing the Apostolic decree of Acts 15:20,29). Tertullian even suggests to the magistrates a new test to flush out Christians; just offer them what seems to have been ordinary food, eaten by all, the blood sausage, a kind of black pudding - Christians will refuse to eat it!

The texts briefly reviewed here do not provide any deep insight into Graeco-Roman daily dietary practice, with the exception of casting serious doubt on claims that the ancient Mediterranean food cultures were largely vegetarian. The rhetoric about food rather reveals the views of each writer about his own and his group's status in the larger society. In that sense they may indeed separate ´insiders' from ´outsiders'.

References to food practices were used by our witnesses not for objective description but to express certain attitudes, invitation to closeness and friendliness or the opposite - distance, distrust and hostility. Our Jewish witnesses, having indeed distinctly different food habits from their neighbours, did not want to appear as hostile 'outsiders'. But they could not say when wanting to assume a friendly stance, 'look we are all the same we eat the same food, etc.' so what do Jews who wanted to be accepted, like Philo or Josephus, say? They say, 'Look, the very thing that appears strange to you in us, our food laws, teach your best values, the virtues taught also by your own philosophers!' The Christians, who most likely shared the same food culture with their pagan neighbours, said so when wanting to be accepted. When, either in self-defence or due to mutual hostility, they wanted to distance and exclude pagans as enemies, then suddenly the eating habits of their neighbours become an object of odium, wasteful, disgusting, sometimes even horrifying. That most of the accusations of horrid food habits were not based on any real evidence is probably supported by the fact that when the pagans were not the prime target of propaganda anymore, the same accusations of filthy eating and sexual habits were hurled by Christians at other Christians with whom they had doctrinal differences.

[1] In recent literature on food in antiquity Emily Gowers, The Loaded Table, Oxford 1993, is noteworthy for its analysis of the many metaphorical uses of representations of food in Roman literature. My own book, From Feasting to Fasting, The Evolution of a Sin, Routledge 1996, is a study of attitudes to food and fasting in the varied and changing cultures of the late antique Roman Empire.

[2] R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, 2nd ed. 6 vols. 1964 vol. 3 p. 86; G. Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, First Three Centuries C.E., 1989 pp. 25, 27-34. Similarly for Greek society see Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks, transl. Paula Wissing 1989 pp. 3, 5, 11.

[3] Josephus in Bell.Jud. 2:132-133 describes their food habits as involving two daily communal meals where the baker () places the bread and the cook or butcher () places the meal in front of them. Josephus also mentions among their occupations the tanning of animal hides. It may be assumed, in the face of no contrary evidence, that the meat of some of these animals was consumed by the community. Archaeological finds of animal bone deposits around the Qumran camp provide additional support for the accepted view that the Dead Sea community ate meat. (R. de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1973 p. 12-13). For the Essenes and the Qumran community see Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, 175 B.C. - A.D. 135, 1986 vol. 2 Appendix B. On food and purity concerns of the Essenes see Sanders, Judaism, Practice and Belief 63 BCE - 66 CE, 1992 pp. 352-361.

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