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Eating Like It’s 440 B.C.

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Eating Like It’s 440 B.C.

Image: Isis, adorned with cow’s horns, is nursing Horus, 611-594 B.C., Metropolitan Museum, New York.

This post today is inspired by a book that has been grabbing a lot of my attention lately. Its author is Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian who reported on what he observed and the stories he heard as he explored some of the world known to his 5th-century-B.C. contemporaries (from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Indus River in today’s Pakistan in the East, and from the Caucasus Mountains in the North to the Arabian Peninsula in the South). Herodotus’s notes and comments focus especially on the Persians, on the various peoples that made up the Greek civilization and on the Egyptians. Learning from him about their mores and customs is as fascinating as time travel. Especially all that deals with food.

Herodotus was especially fascinated by Egypt and the Egyptians–he stated as much. And he wrote at length about their way of life. He was especially impressed by the population who lived off the land, who were among all Egyptians “the most attached to their past and the most knowledgeable on many subjects.” He noticed that “they purge themselves for three consecutive days each month and maintain their health through laxatives and emetics since they think all diseases are caused by the food they ingest.” Their diet consisted of spelt bread, “barley wine” (beer) and small fish and birds (except for sacred ones).

Husband and Wife Plowing Fields, Tomb of Sennedjem (ca. 1306-1290 B.C.), Dehr al-Madinah, Egypt.

Although Herodotus doesn’t mention it, modern historians claim that the poor supplemented their diet of bread and beer with onion and garlic (food with medicinal qualities), while the wealthy had access to a more diverse selection of vegetables, including lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, turnips, lotus bulbs, legumes and various melons and gourds. Fruits included dates, figs, grapes and pomegranates.

At any rate, what Herodotus does mention is the Egyptians’ reputation for being the healthiest of all peoples in his time, which he attributes also to their consistent weather year around and the absence of seasonal changes.

Incidentally, by the time of Herodotus’s visit, Egypt was no longer the lush land that it had been in its pharaonic glory days (if one believes the frescoes and carvings left in temples and tombs). The desert had crept in and its inhabitants were pretty limited in their choice of meat.

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Laetitia Mailhes

Laetitia Mailhes is a French-born journalist. After many years as the technology and innovation correspondent of the French "Financial Times" in San Francisco, she decided to focus on what truly matters to her: sustainable food and farming. Find more articles and videos on her blog, The Green Plate Blog.


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8:13PM PST on Nov 27, 2011


7:19PM PST on Feb 26, 2011

Very interesting, thanks!

8:43PM PST on Feb 12, 2011

Really enjoyed this article, thanks!

10:13PM PST on Jan 22, 2011

interesting thanx :)

8:26PM PST on Jan 19, 2011

thanks, interesting

11:35PM PST on Jan 18, 2011

Fascinating facts that we should commit to memory.

1:11AM PST on Jan 16, 2011

I like learning new things. Pass the focacia bread and the Sam Adams!

2:14PM PST on Jan 15, 2011

Interesting - thanks! :)

3:11PM PST on Jan 14, 2011

A very interesting article - I always enjoy reading about different cultures - especially when it is food-related. Thank you very much!

2:26PM PST on Jan 14, 2011

Thanks for the article!

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