fish plate
The Greco-Romans ate cheese, porridge, honeycombs, puddings, irises, and lamb. Ancient people largely ate with their hands. Sometimes they used knives and spoons. Athenians reportedly didn't have breakfast but ate a single meal each day of porridge.

The oldest known pies were made in the 5th century B.C. Greece. Known as artocreas , they were hash meat pies with only a bottom crust. Top crusts and fruit and sweet fillings were developed by the Romans. One of the most popular pies, placenta , had a wheat-rye flour crust and had a filling made of honey, spices and sheep milk cheese. One of the greatest delicacy was foie gras made by force feeding figs to enlarge the goose’s liver. The Roman are sometimes credited with invented foie gras but the Greeks also ate it. In 1st century A.D. the Roman Emperor Nero ate desserts made from snow brought in from the mountains.

The Greeks ate insects. Aristotle wrote that he liked cicadas best when they were in the nymph stage, adding that “first males were better to eat, but after copulation the females, which are then full of white eggs.” Aristophanes called grasshoppers “four winged foul.”

fish plate
Vegetarianism was practiced and promoted by the Pythagoreans. The Pythagoreans believed in a general prohibition against eating animals on the grounds of “having a right to live in common with mankind.” It was said that Pythagoras was one of the first people to become a vegetarian for health and philosophical reasons. He ate bread and honey for his meals, with vegetables for desert, and he even abstained from eating eggs and beans. He didn’t eat meat because he believed that animals had souls. His belief about beans had nothing to do with farts. Instead it based on the belief that beans were the first offspring of the Earth. See Pythagoreans Under Philosophy

The first known cookbook appeared in Sicily in the 5th century B.C. In work the 3rd century B.C. entitled Glossary Of Cooking Terms Artemidorus wrote: "Let the meat includes organs and intestines and be chopped fine; add as condiments vinegar, toasted cheese, cumin, fresh and dried thyme, fresh and dried coriander, two kinds of onion of which one is to be roasted, poppy-head or raisins or honey, seeds or an acid pomegranate; fish may be substituted for meat." Renaissance Italians looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration on food. Renaissance cooks brought back foods such as artichokes, asparagus shoots, garum (salted fish), capers, olives. and foie gras were all eaten by the ancients and resurrected by Renaissance and incorporated into Renaissance dishes.

Book: Courtesans and Fishcakes: the Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson (St. Martins Press, 1998)

Fruits and Vegetables in Greco-Roman Times

20120221-Food House_of_Julia_Felix_still_life_wine_and_fruit 1.jpg
fruit in Pompeii fresco
The Greco-Romans grew cabbage, olives tangerines, oranges and lemons often in poor soils.They ate olives, leeks, barley, figs, grapes, turnips, pears, apples, chickpeas, irises, and lamb. Cucumbers were known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. They originated in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. Lemons, apricots and cherries were introduced to Rome around the A.D. 1st century.

Apples were mentioned in the Bible, Greek myths and the Viking sagas. The earliest apples were versions of crab apples. Pictures of apples have been found in caves used by prehistoric men. All trees which produce eating apples are believed to originate from the Malu sieversii tree, which grows in the high altitude forests of Kazakhstan. Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, means “father of apples.” Apple tree orchards are found in and around Almaty. “Aport” is a famous variety of apple with links to ancient apples. [Source: Natural History, October 2001]

Scientists believe that Malu sieversii was hybridized with crab apples native to Central Asia. Most likely these hybrids not Malu sieversii itself became the ancestors of the apples that people eat today. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were being cultivated over a wide area around the Tien Shan. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were common place around the Mediterranean. The Romans spread apple cultivation throughout their empire.

Melons are one the earliest crops along with wheat, barley, grapes, and dates. Native to Iran, Turkey and western Asia, they are depicted in an Egyptian tomb painting dated to 2400 B.C. Greek documents from the 3rd century B.C. refer to them. Pliny the Elder described them in the 1st century A.D.

Watermelon originated in Africa. Domesticated watermelon seeds dated to 4000 B.C. were found in the 1980s in southern Libya. Dorian Fuller of University College London told the New York Times, “The wild watermelon is a horrible, dry little gourd that grows in wadis of the northern savannahs but it has seeds you can roast up and eat.” The watermelon we eat was not developed until Roman times.

20120221-Food strawberries Pompeii_Fresco_003.jpg
strawberries in Pompeii fresco
Pomegranates are ancient fruit. They are mentioned in the Bible, the Koran and the Odyssey . According to one of the most famous Greek legends, Persephone was condemned to the underworld for eating a seed from a pomegranate. The Assyrians made necklaces of gold pomegranates. Pomegranates are thought have originated in Southeast Asia. They were found in much of the ancient world and are thought to have introduced to several places by the Phoenicians. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used the fruit in their medicines.

Figs have been around since ancient times, when they were associated with magic and medicine. The Egyptians buried entire basketfuls with dead and valued them as a digestive aid. The Greeks called them “the most useful of all the fruits which grows on trees.” In the Middle Age, fig syrup was a popular sweetener.

Cabbage is the world's most widely consumed vegetable and one of the first to be harvested. Native to the Mediterranean, it was eaten by Achilles in the Iliad and is believed to have introduced it to Europe and other parts of the world by the Romans. Asparagus was a favorite of the Romans. It was used mostly as a medicine in the Middle Ages before it became a popular food in the 17th century.

Onions originated in Egypt. Egyptians believed that onions symbolized the many-layered universe. They swore oaths on onions like a modern-time Bible. Radishes were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians at least 4,000 years ago. They were eaten with onions, and garlic by workers. Egyptians believed that radishes were aphrodisiacs. Leeks were also eaten in ancient Egypt. Ovid wrote that radishes were aphrodisiacs. Martial said onions were. In a popular epigram he wrote, "If you wife is old and your member is exhausted, eat onions in plenty."

Grapes, See Wine

Ancient Greek Bread and Meat

baking bread
Bread was the staple of the Greek diet. People often ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wheat and rye were grown domestically and imported from North Africa (fertile and rain-drenched in Greek and Roman times). After these grains were crushed in washing-machine-size mortars and baseball bat-size pestles they were baked into bread and boiled into a porridge-like gruel. The wheat used to make round loaves of bread in Greece today is a similar to wheat used 3,300 years ago in the Copper Age and in ancient Greek times.

Meat was rarely eaten. When it was it often came from animals sacrificed during festivals. Eating meat was closely associated with ritual sacrifice although goats, pigs, sheep and cattle had all been domesticated by this time. Fish was the main source of protein. Fish were often eaten in fish cakes. Raw oysters were considered a delicacy.

Sausages made by stuffing spiced meat into animal intestines were made by the Babylonians around 1500 B.C. The Greeks also ate them and the Romans called hem salsus , the source of the word sausage. In the Odyssey , Homer wrote "when a man beside a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted."


Greek olive gathering
Olives and olive oil were staples in ancient Greece and Rome. Olives were used as food. fuel and a trade commodity. Sophocles called olives "our sweet silvered wet nurse.” Olives were valued more as a source of fuel for oil lamps than as a food. They were also used to make soap. Olives were regarded as so precious that killing an olive tree was sometimes punished by death.

Olives are fruit that comes from a gnarled tree and are a staple of the Mediterranean diet. People eat them for meals and snacks, and use olive oil for cooking and even eat on bread. They come in host of colors and textures: salty, wrinkled and black; oily and green; and even massive and purple. Italy alone is home to 60 different types of olive tree. [Source: Dora Jane Hamblin, Smithsonian; Erla Zwingle, National Geographic, September 1999]

Through the ages, olives and olive oil have been used as food, fuel, light source, lubricant, soap, mediation, weapon and sacred oil. Among the historical figures who ate olives were Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Christ, the Apostles, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Columbus and Galileo.

A food critic who divided Europe into regions of butter, lard and olive oil and discovered the most passionate people lived in regions dominated by olive oil. It also the lifeblood for regions have difficulty producing other crops. "The olive tree looks like death, but to countries where it grows, it sometimes literally means life. The olive is as much a savior of man in semi-arid areas of poor soil as the date of the oases in the desert."

The olive is a drupe, or stone fruit, like a plum or cherry. Olives start out green and very bitter and turn black when they mature. A bitter olive eaten raw off a tree is like eating "a unplucked chicken or a an uncooked potato." Different varieties of olives are usually picked at different points in the development of the fruit. Green olives generally have more Vitamin E and less oil than black olives, which have a stronger flavor and more oil. Most green olives are eaten whole rather than made into oil. Only 10 percent the olive crop is eaten as olives. Most is made into oil.

Olive Agriculture and Olive Oil Production. See Agriculture

Websites and Resources: Olive Oil Source ; Olive Oil articles in Global Gourmet ; Wikipedia article on Olive Oil Wikipedia ; An Ode to Olives: ; Making Olive Oil oliveoilsource ; Type of Olives ;

Book: Olives, the Life and Love of a Noble Fruit by Mort Rosenblum (North Point/ Farrar Straus Giroux).

History of Olives

Olive press in Pompeii
Olives were one of the first processed foods. At a Stone Age site in Spain 8000-year-old olive seeds were found and archeologist speculate that the olives had to have been processed somehow, otherwise they would have been too bitter to eat.

The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all consumed olives and olive oil. Olives were first cultivated in Palestine around 4000 B.C. and spread to Syria and Turkey and reached the ancient Egypt around 1500 B.C. (the Egyptian were using olive purchased from Palestine long before that). The Phoenicians took olives to Carthage and Greece and the Greeks took them to Italy, southern Spain, and Sicily. The Romans brought them to southern France.

The Greeks and Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and fragrances, as a base for perfumes and treatment for heart ailments, hair loss, stomach aches and excessive perspiration. The Greeks rubbed cult statues with olive oil. Romans burned it in the alter of their gods. Greek athletes anointed their bodies with olive oil scented with flowers and roots when they worked out and competed.

Greeks believed that olive oil was a gift to humanity from Athena and Olympic champions were rewarded with a crown of olives. Zeus decreed that the city that would become Athens would given to the god who produced the most useful thing for mankind. Poseidon gave them a horse. Athena stamped on the ground with a spear: an olive tree sprung up. The people liked olives so much that Zeus gave the city that became named after her. The olive branch became a symbol of peace.

In the Roman Empire olive oil was a major cash crop. Consumption by individuals rose to as much as 50 liters a year and some families grew quite rich trading it. In many ways olive oil was valued as much in ancient times as petroleum is today, with governments going to great lengths to make sure there was a steady supply. Some emperors gave it out free to the masses as part of their bread and circuses policy.

Jesus was anointed with olive oil (Christ means the "anointed one") and olive trees that date back to Christian times can still be found on Israel. Olives were also important to Muslims. Islam's oldest university, in Tunisia is named al-Zitouna “the Olive Tree.

Attica fell to Sparta after the Spartans uprooted their rivals olive trees.

Olive Oil

20120221-olive press -Volubilis1.2.JPG
Roman olive press
Olive oil is a fruit juice (the only edible oil made from a fruit). It is prized for its rich flavor, purity and lack of greasiness. The oil content of an olive varies from 8 percent to more than 20 percent of the olive's weight, including the pit. Oil-rich varieties are generally used for making oil while less-rich strains are used for eating.

Most olives are made into olive oil. Oil-grade olives are usually 20 to 40 percent oil, not including the pit. The best grades of olive oil---virgin, sublime or 1st expressed oil---come from the pulp of olives picked in the brief time after they are ripened but before they turn black.

Olive oil is used to make salad dressings or to dip bread and can even be consumed by itself. Olive oil changes little at high temperatures, which makes ideal for cooking. It also an excellent preservative, used for keeping fish, cheese and even wine for years. Olive oil soaps don't produce much lather but they leave the skin feeling luxuriously smooth. Olive oil is also used in cosmetics; as a lubricant; to comb wool; and to polish diamonds.

Nuts and Spices in Ancient Greece and Rome

20120221-Food House_of_Julia_Felix_still_life_wine_and_fruit.jpg
Almonds are one of the world's oldest cultivated crops. The ancient Mesopatamians used almond oil as a body moisturizer, perfume and hair conditioner. Almonds have been in the found in Minoan place in Knossos and were a favorite dessert food of the Greeks. They and pistachios are the only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.

Salt was highly valued. Both the Greeks and Romans salted their sacrifices before their throats were cut and salt was so valuable Roman soldiers were paid a salarium (salary) to buy salt and productive workers were said to be "worth their salt."

Garlic was consumed by the ancient Egyptians. The pyramid builders ate lot of it along with onions. . One of the first recorded strikes occurred when their garlic ration was reduced. A slave could be bought for seven kilograms of it. Garlic was also consumed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Romans regarded it as a food for the lower classes. Roman legions wore it on their bodies to ward off colds.

The Romans and Greeks regarded garlic and leeks as aphrodisiacs. Truffles, artichokes and oysters were also associated with sexuality. Anise-tasting fennel was popular with Greeks who thought it made a man strong. The Romans thought it improved eyesight.

Ginger was a popular spice in ancient Greece and Rome. Ginger shakers were often placed on the table along with ones for salt and pepper. The word "ginger" came to mean spices in general. Pliny believed that pepper was a stimulant. Ginger is one of the earliest spices known in Western Europe. It imported from India as far back as Greek times.

The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom as a teeth cleaner. The Greeks and Romans used as perfume. Vikings that traveled through Russia to Constantinople brought it back to Scandinavia, where it remains popular today. Arabs ascribed aphrodisiac qualities to it and was mentioned a number of times in Arabian Nights .

Cloves and nutmeg were seen by Romans as appetite stimulants. The ancient Greeks grew sage and used cumin, thyme, coriander and poppy seeds in their cooking. They considered parsley to be too sacred to eat and the Romans set the precedent of using it as garnish, so it could be used over and over. Cloves were delivered to the Romans from present-day Indonesia by Arab traders and prized as a medicament in medieval times.

There were few sweets however. Things like sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and chocolate were not introduced to Europe until much later. Nor was there any coffee or tea. Honey was the primary sweetener.

Hellenistic drinking scene

Drinks and Alcoholic Drinks in Ancient Greece

The Greeks preferred to drink from small, shallow cups rather than large and deep ones. Chilled fruit juices, milk and honey were enjoyed in the time of Alexander the Great (4th century B.C.). Rites of passage included giving three-year-old children their first jug, from which they had their first taste of wine.

Wine was far and away the main alcoholic drink. It was consumed with meals and at parties, regarded as sources of good conversation and extolled in poems and songs. Grape juice became wine quickly because there was no refrigeration or preservatives in ancient times.

The Greeks drank a lot wine but associated drunkenness with overindulgence and lack of discipline. According to their custom the Greeks mixed five parts water and two parts wine and sometimes added honey and salt water as flavoring. The Greeks believed that drinking undiluted wine could cause blindness, insanity or other terrible things. Later the Franks popularized the custom of drinking wine straight.

grape crushing

Men used to hang out at wine shops where strong syrupy wine was poured from an amphorae and diluted with water in a large mixing bowl. Rich Greeks and Romans chilled their wine with snow kept in straw lined pits, even though Hippocrates thought that "drinking out of ice" was unhealthy.

The wine from Kos was good and relatively inexpensive. Higher quality wines came from Rhodes. Artemidorus described a drink called melogion which "is more intoxicating than wine" and "made by first boiling some honey with water and then adding a bit of herb." Homer described a drink made from wine, barley meal, honey and goat cheese.

Kottoabis is one of the world first known drinking games, A fixture of all-night parties and reportedly even played by Socrates, the game involved flinging the dregs left over from a cup of wine at a target. Usually the participants sat in a circle and tossed their dregs at the basin in the center.

Early Wine

20120207-wine Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Nebam.jpg
collecting grapes in ancient Egypt
Grapes contains a lot of sugar. Fermentation caused by the addition of yeast turns toe sugar into alcohol. Yeats is very common, Wild grapes often have some present on their skins, probably transported by wasps or other flying insects. Without distillation, the highest alcohol content is 5 percent for beer and 11 to 12 percent for wine. Above these levels the yeasts lo longer produce fermentation.

Stone Age people drank fermented wine by accident and probably made by accident too. The first people who drank alcohol probably eaten a fruit that fell off a tree and naturally fermented. Elephants sometimes get loaded by eating fermented fruit. Grapes sometimes ferment right on the vine. Birds who have gotten so drunk from eating sch grapes they have fallen off their perches.

Wine is believed to have been tasted by Paleolithic men who ate grapes with juice that had fermented within the grape skins during years that occurs naturally on the skins. They then might have made wine in containers that had to be drunk quickly, like Beaujolais Nouveau, before it turned to wine.

First Wines

Roman wine-making
Intentional wine-making is believed to have begun in the Neolithic period (from about 9500 to 6000 B.C.) when communities settled in year-round settlements and began intentionally crushing and fermenting grapes and tending a grape crop year round. This is believed to have first occurred in Transcaucasus, eastern Turkey or northwestern Iran. Around the same time the Chinese were making wines with rice and local plant food.

Scholars believe that men may have learned what foods to eat by watching other animals, and through trial and error experimentation. Early man may have discovered early intoxicants and medicines this same way.

Winemaking is believed to have been refined through trial and error. One of the biggest hurdles to overcome was manipulating the yeast that turns grape juice into wine and the bacteria that transforms it into vinegar. Many early wines were mixed with pungent tree resins, presumably to help preserve the wine the absence of corks or stoppers. The resin from the ternith tree, a kind of pistachio, was found in wine dated to 5500 B.C.

There are a number of myths and stories about the first wine. According to the Greeks it was invented by Dionysus and spread eastward to Persia and India. Noah raised grapes after the flood and became so enamored with his product that he became the first town drunk. In a Persian legend, wine was discovered by a concubine of the legendary King Jamsheed, who suffered from splitting headache and accidently drank from jar with spoiled fruit and fell into a deep sleep and awoke cured and feeling refreshed. Afterwards the king ordered his grape stocks to be used to make wine, which was spread around the world.

Book: Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages and Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture by Patrick E. McGovern (Princeton University Press, 2003). McGovern is an ancient-wine expert and a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.

First Wine in China

20080211-1171 Oldest wine Institute of Cultural relics and Archeology.jpg
Vessels with the
world's oldest wine
The earliest evidence of wine making has been found in China: traces of a mixed fermented drink made with rice, honey, and either grapes or Hawthorne fruit found on pottery shards dated to 7,000 B.C. found near the village of Jiahu in Henan Province northern China. Wine has also reportedly been found on a pottery sample from a Chinese tomb dated to 5000 B.C.

Analysis by University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the pores of 9000-year-old pottery shards jars unearthed in Jiahu turned up traces of beeswax, a biomarker for honey; tartaric acid, a biomaker for grapes, wine and Chinese hawthorne fruit; and other traces that “strongly suggested” rice.

Grapes were not introduced to China from Central Asia until many millennia after 7000 B.C., so it is reasoned the tartaric acid likely comes from hawthorne fruit which is ideal for making wine because it has a high sugar content and can harbor the yeast for fermentation. Wine traces has also been found in a pottery sample from a Chinese tomb dated to 5000 B.C.

This findings raises the question: which came first grape wine or rice wine. Grape pips, an indication of possible wine making operations, have been found in six millennium B.C. sites in the Dagestan mountains in the Caucasus.

First Wine in Iran

20120221-drink Satyrs_vine_press_BM_D550.jpg
Greek satyr's wine press
An archaeological site called Hajii Firuz (Firuz Tepe) in the Zagros mountains in Iran with mud brick-buildings dating to 5400-5000 B.C. yielded jars with traces of tartaric acid (a chemical indicator of grapes), calcium tartrate and terebinth resin, which are left behind by dried wine. There were also remains of stoppers which could have been placed in the jars to prevent wine from tuning into vinegar. Based on the colors of the residues, the Neolithic people that lived there enjoyed both red and white wine. The site was identified by a team lead by Patrick McGovern, an ancient-wine expert and a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, in 1996.

Ceramic remains unearthed at Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains suggest that wine was produced there about 3,500 B.C., pushing back the earliest documented evidence of wine making by about 500 years. The discovery was made by a graduate student at the Royal Ontario Museum who noticed a stain on a vessel she was assembling. When the stain was analyzed it revealed tartaric acid, a substance found abundantly in grapes. If the stain was indeed made from wine it shows that wine-making and writing evolved about the same time. [National Geographic Geographica, March 1992].

World’s First Winery in Armenia

In January 2011, a team led by UCLA’s Gregory Areshian announced they had found the world's oldest known winery near the village of Areni, Armenia in the same cave where the oldest known shoe---a well-preserved, 5,500-year-old leather moccasin---was found. Located near a burial site, the “winery” consists of a wine press for stomping grapes, fermentation and storage vessels, drinking cups, and withered grape vines, skins, and seeds. "This is the earliest, most reliable evidence of wine production," Areshian told National Geographic. "For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years," he said. [Source: James Owen, National Geographic News, January 10, 2011]

The prehistoric winemaking equipment was first detected in 2007, when excavations co-directed by Areshian and Armenian archaeologist Boris Gasparyan began at the Areni-1 cave complex. In September 2010 archaeologists completed excavations of a large, 2-foot-deep (60-centimeter-deep) vat buried next to a shallow, 3.5-foot-long (1-meter-long) basin made of hard-packed clay with elevated edges. [Ibid]

20120207-ritual chinese vessel hree_Jia.jpg
Chinese ritual vessels

The installation suggests the Copper Age vintners pressed their wine the old-fashioned way, using their feet, Areshian said.Juice from the trampled grapes drained into the vat, where it was left to ferment, he explained. The wine was then stored in jars---the cool, dry conditions of the cave would have made a perfect wine cellar, according to Areshian, who co-authored a study on the finding in the Journal of Archaeological Science. [Ibid]

To test whether the vat and jars in the Armenian cave had held wine, the team chemically analyzed pottery shards---which had been radiocarbon-dated to between 4100 B.C. and 4000 B.C.”for telltale residues. The chemical tests revealed traces of malvidin, the plant pigment largely responsible for red wine's color. "Malvidin is the best chemical indicator of the presence of wine we know of so far," Areshian said. McGovern agrees the evidence argues convincingly for a winemaking facility but said the claim could be made stronger if the presence of tartaric acid was found. Malvidin, he said, might have come from other local fruits, such as pomegranates. [Ibid]

Implications of the World’s First Winery in Armenia

McGovern called the discovery "important and unique, because it indicates large-scale wine production, which would imply, I think, that the grape had already been domesticated." This finding is consistent with previous DNA studies of cultivated grape varieties that pointed to the mountains of Armenia, Georgia, and neighboring countries as the birthplace of viticulture. [Source: James Owen, National Geographic News, January 10, 2011]

McGovern said the Areni grape perhaps produced a taste similar to that of ancient Georgian varieties that appear to be ancestors of the Pinot Noir grape, which results in a dry red. To preserve the wine, however, tree resin would probably have been added, he speculated, so the end result may actually have been more like a Greek retsina, which is still made with tree resin. [Ibid]

brick showing wine making in ancient China

The location of a winemaking facility and drinking cups near an ancient burial ground is significant. Areshian has speculated that winemaker’s drinking culture likely involved ceremonies in honor of the dead. He told National Geographic, "Twenty burials have been identified around the wine-pressing installation. There was a cemetery, and the wine production in the cave was related to this ritualistic aspect...I guess a cave is secluded, so it's good for a cemetery, but it's also good for making wine...And then you have the wine right there, so you can keep the ancestors happy." [Ibid]

The discovery is important, the study team says, because winemaking is seen as a significant social and technological innovation among prehistoric societies. Vine growing, for instance, heralded the emergence of new, sophisticated forms of agriculture. "They had to learn and understand the cycles of growth of the plant," Areshian said. "They had to understand how much water was needed, how to prevent fungi from damaging the harvest, and how to deal with flies that live on the grapes...The site gives us a new insight into the earliest phase of horticulture---how they grew the first orchards and vineyards.” [Ibid]

University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Naomi Miller commented that "from a nutritional and culinary perspective, wine expands the food supply by harnessing the otherwise sour and unpalatable wild grape. "From a social perspective, for good and ill," Miller said, "alcoholic beverages change the way we interact with each other in society." [Ibid]

Dionysos mosaic

Early Wine Grapes and Early Wine Production

Early wine was probably made from the wild Eurasian grape ( Vitis vinifera sylvestris ), which grows wild throughout the temperate Mediterranean, and south, west and central Asia. Later domesticated grapevines---now account for 99 percent of the world’s wines--- were developed from wild Eurasian grapevines. Domesticated grapevine are self-pollinating, hermaphroditic plants that yield larger and juicier grapes. Transplanted to irrigated regions where didn't grow before, the Eurasian vines are the source of nearly all modern wine-producing grapes, whether red pinot noirs or white Chardonnay.

The first domesticated grapevines are believed to have been developed in the northern Near East, perhaps in Armenia or perhaps in the Zagros mountains of Iran, where wild grapes still grow today and pollen cores show they grew in Neolithic times. By 3000 B.C. domesticated grapes had been transplanted to the Jordan Valley, which became a major exporter of wine. It produced large amounts of wine that was traded to Egypt and elsewhere. An Egyptian King named Scorpion who was buried in 3150 B.C. with 700 jars of imported wine.

Between 3000 and 2700 B.C. the Egyptians were marketing wines in amphorae with labels that indicated the year, the contents, where it was produced, the owner of the vineyard and the quality with the best being rated as “very, very good.” Between 3000 and 2500 B.C. winemaking became a major export business in what is now Shiraz in Iran. The Sumerians and other Mesopotamian groups were major buyers. Viticulture arrived in Crete in 2500 B.C. From there it made its way to Greece. A Greek drinking cup from the 6th century B.C. shows the god Dionysus carrying grapes in a ship across the Mediterranean. Between 200 and 100 B.C. General Zhang brought grape cuttings from Central Asia to the Chinese Emperor.

20120221-LawrenVintage_Festival 2.jpg
19th century vision of a Greek wine festival

Opium and Other Drugs in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek Olympic athletes took psychedelic mushrooms for a competitive edge. Cannabis was mentioned by the Greco-Roman era physician Galen. Archaeologists in Israel unearthed remains of a teenage girl with the remains of a fetus in her abdomens dated to the 315 A.D. With the remains was ash containing THC (an active ingredient in cannabis). The archaeologists speculate that maybe cannabis was given to the girl as pain relief.

The Greek scholar Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.) wrote about the use of opium poppy juice and mentioned opium in connection with myths of Ceres and Demeter. The founding fathers of medicine, Hippocrates, Galen and Dioscorides, also wrote about opium. Poppies were also pictured on Greek coins, pottery and jewelry, and on Roman statues and tombs (where poppies symbolized a release from a lifetime of pain).

Ceramic jugs, dated to 1,500 B.C., shaped like an opium capsules and containing stylized incisions were unearthed in Cyprus and believed to have held opium dissolved in wine that was traded with Egypt. Ivory pipes, over 3,200 years old and thought to have been used for smoking opium, were found in a Cyprus temple.

Roman grape collecting scene

In ancient times, opium was used in religious rituals, as ingredient in magic potions and as a painkiller, sedative and sleeping medicine. The potion "to quiet all pain and strife and bring forgetfulness to every ill" taken by Helen of Troy in Homer's Odyssey is believed to have contained opium.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.