What was Herodotus’ Favourite Food?

Answer by Jeremy McInerney

Well, I suppose the short answer is, we don’t know, because he never tells us. What we can say is that a lot of stories in his treatment of the Greeks and other people involve food. This is because he was interested in the customs that made different cultural groups distinctive, and food, as we know, is one of the most culturally specific markers there is (along with speech and dress).

A famous episode that reveals Herodotos’ interest in food is his account of the Egyptian king Psammetichos, who wanted to know what the original language of mankind was (2.2). He kept two children in isolation and the first word they uttered was “bread” in Phrygian, leading Psammetichos to conclude that Phrygian was the first language. That “bread” was their first word also suggests that for Herodotos bread was the most fundamental food known to humans, or at least the Greeks. He claims that the Ethiopians, nomadic herders who eat meat and drink milk have no familiarity with bread and dismiss it as dung (3.223.23): a good example of how food serves as an indicator of whether you are like the Greeks or not.

Often when he discusses food, he does so in order to show which crops grow best in particular places. For example, he has a long discussion of the irrigation system around Babylon that produces fantastic cereal crops, and explains that they manufacture sesame oil and grow palm trees whose fruit they use for food, wine and syrup (1.193). But he doesn’t express a preference for one food over another. The Greeks use olives, dates and figs for the same purposes as the Babylonians use palms, but he makes the comparison without expressing a preference. He even seems to describe the Skythians inhaling cannabis smoke and becoming intoxicated without passing judgement (4.75). Different strokes for different folks.

The two types of food that Herodotos refers to most frequently are meat and fish. His stories about them also reflect Greek values. For example, meat is connected to sacrifice, since most Greeks got their meat as the result of sacrifices made to the gods. Festivals, such as the Hekatombaia (“one hundred cattle”) at the Argive Heraion involved sacrifices on a massive scale that were followed by enormous feasts for the entire community. For Herodotos, meat eating in a festival/feast setting was absolutely normal. In fact, people’s approach to festivals, sacrifices and meat-eating is a measuring stick of what is either familiar (and Greek) or unfamiliar (and foreign) that recurs throughout his work. The Persians allow women to sit at their feasts (unlike the Greeks) (5.18). The Padaians in India eat tribe members who are sick so as to acquire immunity from the disease(!) while the Kallatiai eat their dead parents as a mark of honour (3.99 and 3.38). In each case the oddity or the abnormality of the practice (from the Greek point of view) just confirms Herodotos’ view that each people thinks its own customs are the right ones.

Because fish aren’t a part of this sacrifice/feast/meat cluster, they are treated differently by Herodotos. For example, he tells the story of Polykrates, the tyrant of Samos, who tries to avert misfortune by giving up something he cares about: he tosses his gold ring into the sea. But after Polykrates is a given a huge fish as a gift, the fish is cut open and he discovers the ring: he can’t avoid his fate (3.40-43). As usual, the story is not just about food, in this case a large, glorious, freshly caught fish, but about the lesson to be learned about fate. Most of Herodotos’ stories about fish, especially stories about people who eat a lot of fish, involve people who live beyond the Greek world, suggesting that for Herodotos fish hinted at something exotic. The basic Greek diet was fairly simple: bread, cheese, fruit and vegetables, and many Greeks were suspicious of rich food and drink: it just seemed foreign. When the Spartan king Pausanias wants to demonstrate the difference between Greeks and Persians he has a Persian banquet prepared and then sets it next to a Spartan meal (9.82). Since the most famous Spartan dish was black broth, made from blood and either mutton, goat, pig or horsemeat, the contrast was pretty clear. Whether Herodotos had a taste for Spartan cooking or not, we don’t know, but I suspect it was a bit much even for him.