What Ancient Greeks and Romans Ate for Breakfast
Stories of food are the stories of consequence. Ancient Greek and Roman mythology is full of them. The kidnapped goddess Persephone eats pomegranate seeds, dooming the earth to winter. For Helen, Prince Paris gives a golden apple to Aphrodite and sparks the epic Trojan War. Food is the dynamo churning beneath the romanticism and splendor of ancient Greece and Rome, putting lives and livelihoods in the balance. But what of Greco-Roman breakfast? What did the scribes and soothsayers and average Roman citizens and Mount Olympians do for their first meal?
Breakfast was a meal for the poor, the worker, the warrior. Those who could afford it slept in. If you had slaves, they were the ones who ate breakfast. They had to eat to prepare and make your meals. For those who ate it, breakfast was not a leisurely meal. It was the way to survive the morning, eaten on the go for the day at hand.
There were two Greek words for breakfast. One was for the kind of meal eaten. At akratisma, the Greeks ate akratos, bread dipped in undiluted wine. Typically, the Greeks drank their wine cut with water, making it last longer and keeping them sober. So, a bit of the strong stuff was sure to give you the jolt needed. The other word for breakfast, ariston, was for the time of day when it was eaten, around 4 a.m. This was before rosy-fingered Dawn has arrived on the battlefield, so it’s natural we find it in Homer’s epics Iliad and Odyssey. At ariston, you ate what was available, possibly last night’s leftovers.
In Greek historical accounts, breakfast is often mentioned in relation to combat. An army, of course, travels on its stomach. Attacking troops before or during breakfast seemed to be a favorite surprise tactic. In fact, the writer Xenophon recommends it in his work for cavalry commanders. The reason is simple: “For at all these moments soldiers are without arms, infantry for a shorter and cavalry for a longer time.” A brilliant, if dickish, move.
Xenophon seems to be a big fan of breakfast, if only for strategic purposes. In The Anabasis, he mentions breakfast at least nine times as Cyrus the Younger and his Greek mercenaries march to take the Persian throne from his brother. In one episode, the Persians attack the Greek food wagons in the middle of the night. Elsewhere, the Spartan general Clearchus declares: “There is no man alive who will dare to talk to Greeks about a truce unless he provides them with a breakfast.” The moral here is that hangry Greeks don’t do diplomacy.
Perhaps the most famous Greek reference to breakfast is enshrined in 300, that sword-and-sandal epic graphic novel and film based on Herodotus’s telling of the Battle of Thermopylae, where a particular number of Spartans died fighting the armies of Xerxes. King Leonidas, with his washboard abs, commands his men to prepare their breakfast and eat up, because that night they’ll dine in Hell. There were six thousand other Greeks there, too, fighting an army of probably 100,000 Persians. Go eat that breakfast. You’re gonna need it.
In the midst of all of this breakfast bloodletting, it’s good to know that the Greeks had that great comfort food, pancakes. Tiganites go back as far as the fifth century BCE, when the poet Cratinus described them as “hot and shedding morning dew.” Um. Okay, poet. But pancakes! Mmm. Tiganites were made of wheat flour, olive oil, and curdled milk, fried in a pan and served with honey. A bit fancier than the humble akratos, it’s still eaten today.
Like ariston, the Roman ientaculum was eaten around 4 a.m. The plebeians would probably only have bread dipped in oil or wine and probably not much more. The patricians would also have meats and cheeses, as they could afford it. Like the Greeks, it was merely to fill the hole to get through the work day. The Romans did have prandium, which was taken in the late morning to noon, but would not be considered to be like our leisurely brunch. Rather, it was a time when the wealthy came home from work to eat something more substantial. Still, not much is written about Roman breakfast. Greek or Roman, it continued to be a meal of utility.
But the lack of attention to breakfast is telling. And what is it about breakfast that captivates us, now? And how have these Greek and Roman meals escaped our attention for so long? Perhaps, we can find it in the words of the Roman writer Martial ending his vast book of epigrams, his observations on Roman life. “Rise!” he writes, “Now, the baker sells breakfast to the children and all around crested birds sing at dawn.” The day begins with the hungry chirping of boys and girls and birds. It is as mundane as it is essential. What needs to be said, really? Breakfast has a beautiful simplicity to it, there under the dark sky turning from blue to pink. We pause and eat and hear the first sounds of the day, even if it is the sound of attacking soldiers.