Alexander the Great had an enormous influence on the ancient world, as we all know, as a result of the Greek conqueror’s military campaigns across the Near East, reaching as far as India.
By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani
In every book and every historical discussion on Greek history, it is rare not to see a debate on the imperial reach of Alexander the Great: according to many, he was an undisputed genius of military policy and diplomacy; according to others, simply a violent tyrant with great skill in subterfuge.
Whichever one’s position towards the historical facts and the personage in question, we cannot deny that the cultural importance of these conquests led to the creation of a first great “globalization.”
But here I would like to expand on an under appreciated aspect of this revolution and cultural fusion, cuisine — the fulcrum, especially in ancient times, of social relationships between people and countries.
Alexander the Great’s influence stretched from military realm to social customs
The evolution of customs, flavors and rituals that link food to the sacred and divine underwent an enormous upheaval during and after the conquests of the young Macedonian king.
In this article and in subsequent stories I will try to retrace the march and the journey that built the foundations of a new common cultural identity and brought about the birth of new flavors and gastronomic influences.
The first leg of the journey to one of the three macro cultures we will be analyzing concerns Persia and its ancient and contemporary culture — which is not confined within present-day Iran, as many claim.
In 334 BC Alexander crossed the Hellespont and marched toward victory over Darius III and the conquest of the Persian empire, following the shores of present-day Turkey and continuing southward.
Despite the fact that his initial journey took place close to the sea (in order to have the support of his fleet), Alexander never had maritime control, making supplies by sea problematical. This led to the emergence of new military figures, such as senior officers of the baggage trains, whose task was the management of them and their supplies.
Persia opened up new social realm to Greek conquerors
This included salt (despite the accurate territorial studies before the march, the presence of salt was never certain despite the various lands’ proximity to the sea), amphorae of red wine, an initial supply of cereals and nuts (such as figs), honey, spices (such as saffron) and especially the stocks of what today could be called a superfood, sea buckthorn.
After a year of wars and sieges, thanks to the battle of Isso in 333 BC, the Persian empire found itself on its knees and stripped of its important territories, and it welcomed Alexander as a liberator and not as a conqueror.
Supplies for Alexander and his army were no longer a problem: the conquered territories allowed him the necessary supplies to continue the conquests and the consolidation of the new rising empire, without having to rely on the Greek territories and the western capitals.
It was in this period that the real cultural marriage between the ancient Western and Eastern world began.
The first impact with Persian gastronomic culture and its related social customs had great effect on the Greek warriors. In fact, when Alexander entered the doors of the royal palace of Persepolis and saw the dining rooms and representations of banquets on the walls, he understood what luxury and decadence truly were.
Sumptuous Persian banquets featured much drinking, array of savory and sweet foods
But even before the Alexandrian campaigns, during the second Persian war, General Pausanias had marveled at discovering the eating habits of the opposing generals, uttering the following words “he who has so much, comes to rob the Greeks of their miserable life.”
The Persians were used to sumptuous banquets and the act of dining was always undertaken with much more magnificence and luxury than in Greece.
The majesty and the long duration of their banquets served almost as a theatrical backdrop for their exceedingly refined and elegant repasts.
A strong presence of meat and fish, often cooked very slowly (like our stews), exotic fruits that enriched breads and sweets, delicate sauces prepared by the best cooks of the empire, spices imported from nearby India and rice as an accompaniment to the main dishes: all this made the Persian empire the most gastronomically evolved civilization at that time.
Greek culture in those times was much more rigid and crude about social conventions regarding eating; dining was only a side dish to the “symposiums,” and almost exclusively dealt with the basic sustenance of daily life.
So why were two different worlds so fundamental in the development of future gastronomy?
Mainly because of the radical differences between the two culinary and social worlds, the sudden clash between them originated a sudden opening of borders in terms of gastronomy, with an exchange of customs, habits and matters between the two people.
Rice, dates, sauces, fish roe, combinations of sweet and savory tastes exchanged between cultures
Rice was imported in the western world thanks to the conquest and military campaigns of the Macedonian king. In the Persian world it already played a central role in daily nutrition; in fact the main dishes of royal banquets were based on flavored and spiced rice, to be served with meat stews.
The use and consumption of dates, despite their name deriving from the Greek δαχτυλο (finger) because of their elongated shape, were not well known in the Greek world: it is even said that Alexander the Great’s army, during a rest, tasted the fruit of the palm and choked on them, causing the Persians to laugh at them.
Another important turning point in this culinary exchange was the reciprocal exchange in sauces: Greeks taught to the Persian world the complexity of sauces made of fish and their roe, which were used with many dishes.
On the other side, the culture of combining sweet and sour tastes, so characteristic of Persian-influenced countries, made the opposite journey, entering Greek kitchens and enriching fried fish and vegetables.
The mastery of grilled cooking in the Greek world — together with the knowledge of marinades and spices of Persian cooks — led to the birth of one of the most famous street foods in the world, kebab.
There was another great difference between the Persian and Greek social cultures; that is, the actual organization of the meal.
In Greece, the meal had a shorter duration than in the western world, even paradoxically in banquets, which were famous for their long duration; food was the initial part with wine as a continuation for the rest of social ritual.
Persians, after having indulged in the pleasure of the savory main dish, would then provide some sweets and small bowls of fruits, which were part of the next dishes offered.
The concept of sweets in Greece, in contrast, was more of a delicacy at the end of the meal, and not as an essential taste as part of the meal itself.
Regarding the duration of the act of eating, Persians said about Greeks that “they stop eating while they are still hungry because after the meal they are not served any food of value.”
Greek “symposiarchs” kept excess drinking to a minimum in time of Alexander the Great
However, as regards the banquet, we must point out that, despite their magnificence and passion for luxury, the Persians lacked one of the things that we still see lacking in social gatherings around the world today: the social graces.
The behavior of Persians, and especially those of the higher social classes during banquets, often became violent; the habit of not drinking watered down wine often led to annoying behaviors, especially towards the king’s women, who were often harassed by drunk diners.
Thus with the arrival of Greeks, who at the time were strangely defined as uncouth, was introduced the figure of the “symposiarch,” a person appointed by the king or master of the house with the task of controlling the flow of wine — and subsequently the behavior of diners.
What can be deduced through the study of this fusion of macro cultures?
Every time we follow a stereotype, even today, we risk missing the true reality: the Persians rethought themselves when they saw that the Greek world was not as coarse and superficial as they had thought.
And the Greeks? We can only imagine the incredulity in their eyes when they realized that despite what they themselves had thought, Persia was a land of deep culture and knowledge, not just a place of barbarians.
We can therefore continue to define Alexander the Great, as not only a tyrant and a conqueror, but perhaps a synthesizer of cultures. Indeed, in a way, the term “globalization” finds in his deeds its first great, and ancient, definition.
Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here.