Barley groats and salted fish – The diet of Greek soldiers from the classical age to Hellenism

When we think of hoplites or Hellenistic soldiers, we usually imagine splendid armour, famous battles and great strategists. But there topics that are rarely recovered from the mists of history which are of of great importance for the reenactor. One of these aspects may have be one that might have troubled soldiers throughout history: Provisions.

The hoplite armies of the classical era are far from those modern armies where a soldier is able to draw rations from a field kitchen. The same must be assumed for the already professional soldiers of Alexander the Great and his successors. We have to consider the soldiers diet of these times as highly similar to the diet of civilians. But let us begin by taking a closer look at the basic things.

Staple foods

The menu of the ancient Greeks contained far less ingredients than we would find in modern Greek cuisine. The majority of ingredients used by modern Greek chefs arrived much later in the Mediterranean (e.g. tomatoes, potatoes, citrus fruits etc.). Additions to the indigenous range of food start to pour in during the age of Hellenism but it will take until Roman times to ultimately establish them.

The dietary basics are provided by various cereals, most prominently barley (krithé), emmer (zeiai) and einkorn (típhe) (A Dalby, 1998; Sekunda, 2002) In addition legumes like e.g. lentils (phakós), peas (písos) and chickpeas (erébinthos) have been frequently part of Greek dishes (A Dalby, 1998)⁠. The benefits of these food types are obvious: they are cheap, can be stored when dried over a long period of time and can be easily processed. While the various cereals have been used for producing bread, groats and cakes, the legumes have been popular for the preparation of soups or stews (Dalby, 1998; Lee, 2007; Sekunda, 2002).⁠Especially stews containing legumes appear to have been consumed frequently by the common Greek citizens (A Dalby, 1998)⁠. Rich nobleman and aristocrats however have not been overly fond of these dishes. In contrast, products made of cereals are considered regular food regardless of class and personal wealth.

Therefore we can assume that soldiers may have also depended on these basic ingredients. Of course social status and wealth would have made a difference just as in civilian life.

Regular additions

Cereals and legumes are ideally suited for the soldiers diet in the field. But let alone they make a poor, uninteresting meal. As it has been practised throughout history, the Greek soldier could improve his daily meals by buying at local markets, requisition in the field or simple pillage. Especially in terms of trade, wealth could make the difference between a simple meal and a delicacy.

But what additions would have been usual for a Greek soldier? Lets take a look into Xenophons Anabasis, in the seventh book, first chapter, part 37 he wrote:

“The following day Koiratadas appeared with animals for offerings and a seer, carrying barley flour with them, twenty with wine, three with a load of olives, one with a large amount of garlic, as much as he was able to carry, and finally one with a huge amount of onions.” (Vretska, 1999)⁠

Xenophon included the most frequently used ingredients for a regular meal while describing a scene at the gates of Byzantium. He mentions barley flour as well as wine, not only for drinking but also in use to add flavour to dishes (Dalby, 1998).⁠ He also noted olives, garlic and onions, three fundamental items in the inventory of the Mediterranean cuisine.

All mentioned products are typical for the Mediterranean and are known throughout classical and Hellenistic times (A Dalby, 1998; Andrew Dalby & Granger, 1996; Andrew Dalby, 2003; Lee, 2007; Schneider, 1975; Sekunda, 2002)⁠. There is one principal ingredient which is not mentioned by Xenophon in this part: cheese.

Cheese (tyrós) seems to have been a fundamental part of the ancient Greek diet and may have been as important as all the other mentioned food types (A Dalby, 1998; Andrew Dalby & Granger, 1996; Sekunda, 2002)⁠. It was eaten pure or as an addition to groats or gravies. The milk of Sheep or Goats, more often then that of cows was used in the production of cheese (A Dalby, 1998).⁠ Cheese was most likely a common product of ancient Greek agriculture. Therefore we can assume that soldiers had many occasions to enhance their daily meal with cheese.