Resources on Ancient Foodways
BY B.J. SEDLOCK
If you are writing a story about people in history you almost have to know about the food those characters ate. I’m betting that HNS members can probably use some help in researching food history.
The list below is meant as a starting point for research on ancient foodways. It’s not comprehensive, but represents print books that can be found in academic libraries on the topic. If your local library does not own a title from this list you want to use, inquire about borrowing it via interlibrary loan. I include ISBN numbers in case you want to order a copy from your favorite online vendor.
At the end, I’ve included some websites on Greek and Roman foodways, if you prefer online to print.
BOOKS ON ANCIENT FOODWAYS IN GENERAL
Food and Drink in Antiquity: Readings from the Graeco-Roman World, a Sourcebook, by John F. Donahue. Bloomsbury, 2015. 9781441133458
“Present[s] a reasonably representative selection of literary and documentary sources illustrating food and drink in the Graeco-Roman world”—introduction. Date range: 8th century BCE—5th century CE. Donahue reproduces excerpts from ancient writings on food topics, with commentary. Food and religion, food in the military, food in society are some of the chapter topics. Chapters end with lists of suggestions for further reading.
Food and Society in Classical Antiquity, by Peter Garnsey. Cambridge, 1999. 0521645883
“Greeks and Romans, rich or poor, were obsessed with food…This book presents food as a biocultural phenomenon”—preface. Chapters include: food and the economy, malnutrition, forbidden foods, food and the family. There’s an extensive bibliography after the last chapter.
The Food History Reader, Primary Sources, edited by Ken Albala. Bloomsbury, 2014. 9780857854131
This is intended as a food history course textbook; the excerpts are “meant to illustrate attitudes and practices of the past, drawn from a broad range of sources and multiple vantage points”—general introduction. Part one covers Sumer and Egypt; two, ancient Greece; three, ancient Rome, and the following sections are on ancient China, India, and the Hebrews. It has an extensive bibliography.
Food in Antiquity, edited by John Wilkins, David Harvey & Mike Dobson. University of Exeter Press, 1996. 0859894185
The emphasis is on Greece and Rome (e.g., ancient vegetarianism, Roman meat trade, ancient bread baking), but also includes articles on Persia, the Celts, Egypt, and Palestine. Articles include notes and/or a bibliography for further research.
Food in the Ancient World, by Joan P. Alcock. Greenwood Press, 2006. 0313330034
“This book discusses food grown, produced, and eaten from the beginnings of the Egyptian predynastic civilization, about 4000B.C., to the end of the Roman Empire, in the fifth century A.D.”—introduction. Many of the chapters are about a particular food type, such as root vegetables, or spices, and the author discusses that food’s use across different civilizations. Civilizations included: Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Celts. This strikes me as a book to use as an introduction, and then graduate on to other sources.
Food in the Ancient World from A To Z, by Andrew Dalby. Routledge, 2003. 0415232597
The alphabetical listings in this reference volume cover food and drink of the archaic and classical Mediterranean. Besides individual food listings, entries include social issues such as drunkenness, excess, open-air dining, and travel food. Samples: the entry on oats says that Greeks viewed the grain more as a weed than a food; roses were occasionally used for flavoring food or making wine. Indexes include Latin and Greek terms, and one of scientific names.
Inside Ancient Kitchens: New Directions in the Study of Daily Meals and Feasts, edited by Elizabeth A. Klarich. University Press of Colorado, 2010. 9780870819421
These are papers from a symposium on food history sponsored by the Society for American Archaeology. Articles include material on the Philippines, Mesopotamia, and ancient Peru. As expected, the academic papers have extensive bibliographies you can use for further research.
Taste or Taboo: Dietary Choices in Antiquity, by Michael Beer. Prospect Books, 2010. 9781903018637
“In looking at some of the most powerful and strange instances of food avoidance in the ancient world, I hope to discover how such attitudes to food helped shape the psyche, and how they may have influenced in turn our own attitudes’’—introduction. Chapters include vegetarianism, Jewish dietary laws, an especially interesting one on alcohol restrictions, and gluttony in the ancient world. An extensive bibliography is included.
BOOKS ON ANCIENT ROMAN FOOD
Around the Roman Table, by Patrick Faas. Palgrave Macmillan, 1994. 0312239580
The foreword states that this “is neither a history book nor a cookery book; it is a bit of both.” The first section covers 753BCE to 476CE, with chapters on table etiquette, menus, wine, and spices used in cooking. Part two has recipes and discusses the types of meat, vegetables, and cereals eaten. An appendix lists prices and weights and measures, along with a one-page bibliography.
Apicius: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, tr. by Joseph Dommers Vehling. Dover Publications, 1977. 0486235637
This contains ancient Roman recipes, and is thought to have dated from the 5th century CE, first published in English in 1936. However, Wikipedia’s article about the book says that Vehling’s translation is faulty and more recent and better translations exist. Some recipes: boiled ostrich, leeks and beans, and boiled cuttlefish.
Roman Cookery: Elegant & Easy Recipes from History’s First Gourmet, revised ed., by John Edwards. Hartley & Marks, 1986. 0881790117
This is an adaptation for modern cooks of recipes from Apicius’ book listed above. It probably can’t be relied on for historical accuracy, but I’m including it here in case you might be an historical reenactor and want to serve a Roman-inspired feast made in a modern kitchen.
Food in the Ancient World, by John M. Wilkins and Shaun Hill. Blackwell, 2006. 9780631235514
Wilkins presents chapters on food and religion, cereals, meat/fish, wine, food and medicine, and food in literature, the emphasis being on ancient Greece and Rome. Hill provides a handful of recipes. A bibliography will guide you to further research.
Food and Cooking in Roman Britain: History and Recipes, by Jane Renfrew. English Heritage, 1985. 1850740801
Renfrew’s sources include Apicius’s work above, plus bones and seeds found in archaeological digs and also “letters preserved at Vinolanda, written by soldiers serving on Hadrian’s Wall.” Romans introduced new kinds of game animals and plants into Britain that changed local eating habits. Short chapters include: how food was prepared and served, a section of modernized recipes, and a short bibliography.
Culinary Aspects of Ancient Rome: Ars Cibaria, by Almudena Villegas Becerril. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021.
This academic work “shed[s] light onto the significance that Ancient Romans attached to food, the banquet, and the simple daily act of sharing food”—back cover. The author personally tested some Roman cooking techniques such as emulsification of eggs and olive oil. It has extensive end notes for further research.
BOOKS ON ANCIENT GREEK FOOD
Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, by Andrew Dalby. Routledge, 1996. 0415116201
“What did Greeks eat? How did gastronomy and food writing develop among them?” are two key questions dealt with in this book, which covers prehistoric Aegean civilizations through Byzantium. It seems to be very comprehensive, with a lengthy bibliography which could provide many leads for further research.
Food, Cuisine and Society in Prehistoric Greece, edited by Paul Halstead and John C. Barrett. Oxbow Books, 2004. 1842171674
These are papers given at the Round Table of the Sheffield Centre for Aegean Archaeology in 2001. Animal husbandry, feasting, drinking, etc. are studied from archaeological finds from the region. Since they are academic treatises, there are plenty of leads for further research in the accompanying bibliographies.
Gifts of the Gods: A History of Food in Greece, by Andrew and Rachel Dalby. Reaktion Books, 2017. 9781780238548
The first four chapters cover prehistory through the Byzantine Empire. Some recipes are scattered throughout the text, such as one to make pucker-inducing quinces palatable for modern taste by simmering them in Coca-Cola. The authors are a historian and his daughter who runs a present-day café on the island of Paros.
The Mycenaean Feast, edited by James C. Wright. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2004. 0876619510
“Scholars take a close look at the evidence for ritual feasting and drinking ceremonies in the Mycenaean world…large deposits of drinking and serving vessels, …animal bones, depictions in frescos and on painted pottery, and Linear B documents from Pylos, Thebes, and Knossos”—preface. Chapters include extensive scholarly bibliographies.
FOODWAYS IN AREAS OUTSIDE OF CLASSICAL EUROPE
Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, by Colleen Taylor Sen. Reaktion Books, 2015. 9781780233529
The first six chapters of this volume cover Indian subcontinent food from prehistory through 600CE. “It is intriguing to unearth what makes Indian food recognizably Indian and how it came to be that way, and to investigate where there is a gastronomic culture common to all Indians”—introduction. One chapter connects food with Indian medicine. Chapter references and a select bibliography will guide you to more resources.
Land of Milk and Honey: Travels in the History of Indian Food, by Chitrita Banerji. Seagull Books, [2007?] 9781905422340
The emphasis is on Bengali regional cuisine. Chapter one looks at the history of the use of milk, others are on food in ritual and art, and food’s role in Bengali women’s lives. It has an extensive bibliography for a small volume.
Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China, by Roel Sterckx. Cambridge University Press, 2011. 9781107001718
The author explores ancient Chinese foodways’ connection to sacrificial religion. The book “take[s] the culture of food and sacrifice as a point of departure to help us understand Chinese attitudes to human virtue, personal salvation, self-cultivation, and conceptions of moral government”—introduction. It has an extensive bibliography, but many of the sources appear to be only in Chinese, not translated.
The History and Culture of Japanese Food, by Naomichi Ishige. Kegan Paul, 2001. 0710306571
“Designed to inform a non-Japanese audience about Japanese dietary history and how the culture of Japan is projected through its food”—preface. The first three chapters have the most information about ancient Japan. Part two of the book would be useful to anyone traveling to Japan in present-day; the author includes information like chopstick etiquette.
Rice and Baguette: A History of Food in Vietnam, by Vu Hong Lien. Reaktion Books, 2016. 9781780236575
“The story of what the Viet have eaten throughout history, and of why and how they eat certain types of food”—introduction. The first several chapters cover food in ancient times. References and a bibliography are included.
The Cuisine of the Muslims, by Ibrahim Chabbouh. Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, [2004?] 1873992831
The author doesn’t claim to be comprehensive in this slim volume, but provides a “preliminary framework…that would deal with all elements related…to the culture of food” in the Muslim world. Discussions of ancient texts used as sources are included, how food was served, specific spices, etc. The last section contains documents written in Arabic.
Farming, Hunting, and Fishing in the Olmec World, by Amber M. Vanderwarker. University of Texas Press, 2006. 0292709803
The author examines archaeological evidence to gather information about agriculture and food in the Olmec society between 1400BCE to 300CE, in present-day Mexico. She also considers political aspects of Olmec foodways. It includes an extensive bibliography.
Her Cup for Sweet Cacao: Food in Ancient Maya Society, edited by Traci Ardren. University of Texas Press, 2020. 9781477321645
“This volume aims to explore the social aspect of food and foodways in Classic Maya society”—introduction. Most chapters report on archaeological findings, such as analysis of dog bones, microscopic plant remains, cave findings, food rituals, etc. This would be a good source to consult on the historical use of cacao/chocolate. Chapters have extensive bibliographies.
The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, by Jean Bottero. University of Chicago Press, 2004. 0226067351
The author states that he uses an anthropological approach to Mesopotamian food than an historical approach. Important sources are from the Yale University Babylonian collection, just about the oldest recipe collection known, taken from 1600BCE cuneiform tablets. There is a bibliography but many of the works listed are not in English.
Indian Agriculture in America, Prehistory to the Present, by R. Douglas Hurt. University Press of Kansas, 1987.
The first two chapters cover Mesoamerican and prehistoric Native North American agriculture.
Rivers of Change: Essays on Early Agriculture in Eastern North America, by Bruce D. Smith. University of Alabama Press, 2007. 9780817354251
“Prehistoric Native American societies in eastern North America and their transition from a hunting and gathering way of life to a reliance on food production”—introduction. Includes archaeological findings on plant domestication/food crops in eastern North America.
From Colonization to Domestication: Population, Environment, and the Origins of Agriculture in Eastern North America, by D. Shane Miller. University of Utah Press, 2018. 9781607816164
The author started with the question, “How and why did Native Americans go from hunting mastodons to planting sunflowers in eastern North America?” Archaeological evidence is used to support a theory that plant domestication was tied to a boom/bust cycle of increasing population and declines in hunting.
A FEW WEBSITES ON ANCIENT GREEK AND ROMAN FOOD
These will provide brief introductions to the topic.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.