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Vegetarianism in Ancient Greece and Rome

Updated on October 30, 2015

If people are asked what they know about ancient Greece or Rome, most of them would conjure images of myths, heroes, battles, and even Hollywood movies. They are all well and good but it is rather unfortunate that a majority of people all over the world tend to overlook the vegetarian diet of ancient Romans and Greeks.

Were there Really Ancient Vegetarians?

Vegetarianism is by no means a new “thing,” though it might seem that way due to the fact that it is perceived as something of a trend or a “cool” thing to do in recent years. However, the practice of vegetarianism has been around for hundreds and possibly, thousands of years. It was practiced by different people in different parts of the world and a few examples include: Buddhists, Hindus, and the Ancient Greco Romans.

It is easy to understand why Buddhists and Hindus stayed away from meat but what prompted the ancient Greeks and Romans to do the same? Their reason wasn’t religious but rather, it was based on the age-old argument about what justice was due animals. Oftentimes, modern people assume that the omnivore diet was the diet of choice back then but a closer look at history reveals a different story. Added to that, philosophers from ancient times had the fiercest debates that do not seemed to be centered on diet but were really more about justice and who deserved it. It is interesting to note that this debate continues until now and in order to know which way the debate will go, it is important to know what was said about this in the past.

What Did They Eat Then?

So some of the ancient Greeks and Romans were vegetarian but what exactly did they eat? Back then, the Greeks and Romans would usually look to vegetables, fruits, and cereals to make up the bulk of their diet. In fact, most of what they ate usually came from their own gardens.

If and when meat was consumed, they would usually choose fish, pig, and fowl for the reason that these were cheaply priced and easy to kill. It is important to note that it was only the very rich that could afford to eat meat on a daily basis for the reason that most poor citizens could not afford the prices for such meats and if they were to buy meat they would usually get cast-off parts and not the choice cuts. In a way, it can be said that vegetarianism was forced upon the poor people of Rome but the whole concept of vegetarianism for their society did not stem from this but rather, it started with the arguments and thoughts of philosophers.

Why Would Philosophers Care about Vegetarianism?

It might seem odd to the modern man why these ancient philosophers would even take the time to debate about vegetarianism. However, for them it wasn’t so much as a debate over health but it was more of a dialogue about justice, ethics, and basic rights. Some of the most vaunted philosophers involved in the vegetarian debate are listed below:

  • Pythagoras – Pythagoras was perhaps the first western philosopher to create a vegetarian legacy. A Greek teacher, he was born in 580 BCE in the island of Samos and got his education in what is now known as Iraq, Greece, and Egypt before he went on to Italy. It was in the city of Croton where he established his school. It is a fact that Pythagoras is most famous for his contributions to science, music, philosophy, and math (Pythagorean Theorem), although it is his philosophy that should be important here. Pythagoras believed and taught that animals, just like humans, had souls. These souls were immortal and would reincarnate after death. According to him, if a human could become an animal after death and the consumption of animals with non-human souls corrupted the soul and interfered with the evolution of a human being to a higher form of reality, then it would mean eating animals should be out of the question. Pythagoras also believed that the consumption of meat wasn’t healthy and made people more war-like. These were his reasons for avoiding meat and he also encouraged others to do the same.

  • Plato – This is another Greek philosopher that really needs no introduction. After all, he is famous enough on his own and his works have their own followings. However, it should be noted that this student of Pythagoras did absorb some concepts about vegetarianism although he really didn’t take it as far as Pythagoras did. It is not too clear what Plato did and did not eat but taking a look at Plato’s teachings clearly shows that he believed immortal souls were only for human and the universe was created solely to be used by humans. What makes things somewhat convoluted is that in the Republic, he went as far as to state that a vegetarian city was the ideal city and eating meat was a luxury that leads to decadence and would result in war. By this alone, you could see that for Plato, eating meat wasn’t exactly a moral debate but rather a desire for peace and a cry to stay away from an excessive lifestyle.

  • Aristotle –This is another famous philosopher that had a say in the debate. Aristotle, a student of Plato, shared his belief that the universe was for humans and only humans had immortal souls. He also argued in favor of a hierarchy where humans were on top of the food-chain and plants occupied the lowest parts of the ladder. Of course, this is the same hierarchy where he stated some humans were naturally slavish in nature and women were lesser to men. As for his beliefs on the killing and eating of animals, he stated that humans did not have an ethical obligation to the beasts since they were irrational creatures.

  • Ovid – Ovid is a Pythagorean-inspired Stoic and was a well-known moralist and poet. He was exiled to Tomis by Emperor Augustus in 8 CE. He worked to keep the legacy of Pythagoras alive as is evidenced in his poem, the famous Metamorphoses where he evokes the teachings and pleas of Pythagoras to abstain from the partaking of animal flesh and to cease animal sacrifice. These passages were to help keep the memory of Pythagoras alive and also served as proof of the vegetarian lifestyle that Ovid preferred.

Many a history teacher would say that people from the ancient Greco-Roman period didn’t eat meat but what they fail to establish is the “why?” they abstained from meat. It wasn’t just a lifestyle choice for them; it was more of a belief and ethics system that had larger implications about society.

What is the Future of Vegetarianism?

It must be said that modern vegetarians are not exactly the same as ancient philosophers – at least not when it comes to their reasons. Modern vegetarians are against meat since it represents animal cruelty; others avoid it for health and environmental reasons. However, it has to be said that vegetarianism, despite not being mainstream, has managed to be alive for thousands of years. Modern vegetarianism may not be similar and driven with the same issues as what drove the Greeks and Romans but it is driven by issues that are present now, and it will continue to evolve to suit issues that will drive people in the future.

What do you think is the main reason why vegetarians choose this kind of lifestyle?

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  • kgmonline profile image
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    Geri MIleff 3 years ago from Czech Republic

    Glad that you find this hub interesting, Nero! Thanks for your comment! :)

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    Nero Walker 3 years ago

    Awesome hub! I knew that meat wasn't as much of a staple for the Romans as it is for people now. But figured it was a convenience/health thing. I heard the soldiers mostly didn't eat meat. Thought maybe stamina was a possible reason. :D

    Anyway, very interesting and enlightening read. Thank you!

  • kgmonline profile image
    Author

    Geri MIleff 3 years ago from Czech Republic

    Thanks, DDE! :) Happy to hear that you find it useful :)

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    A wonderful insight here I enjoyed the interesting enlightenment here,

  • gerrywalker profile image

    Gerry Walker 3 years ago from Treasure Coast, Florida

    Truly an interesting hub! Up to now if I'd thought about ancient diets (which I honestly didn't) I would have just figured veggies were easier to come by than meat. Your hub told me things I'd never known before re their ethical and philosophical ideas concerning it. That's one of the biggest reasons I love hub pages, we learn things.

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    ondrajj 3 years ago

    Interesting analysis, usually when I think of ancient vegetarians, I don't think about Greeks and Romans, but for Indians for example...that was interesting, thanks!