“An army marches on its stomach,” the famous French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is believed to have said. This statement would have rung just as true thousands of years earlier for the armies of ancient Greece as it did during the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th and 18th centuries, or indeed for any military force now.
For an ancient Greek army on campaign, ensuring soldiers had a consistent supply of food was essential for ensuring the health, morale, and fighting ability of soldiers remained as high as possible.
When we think of ancient warfare in the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods, we typically imagine the iconic hoplites of ancient Greece in the heat of battle. However, the success of a military campaign could be just as easily decided by logistics, and the sourcing of food for an ancient Greek army was of critical concern.
Feeding an ancient Greek army
In military practice, logistics refers to “the transfer of personnel and materiel from one location to another, as well as the maintenance of that material.” An important aspect of this is making sure that troops are well-fed throughout a campaign.
As Professor David Charters explains, “Although the hoplites were supposed to bring some foodstuffs and wine with them, they could carry only so much along with their shields and spears. So, to feed themselves and their animals, armies had to live off the land, timing their campaigns when the grain was ripe and pastures full.”
An ancient Greek army on a campaign would therefore acquire food from a variety of sources. As has generally been the case throughout much of history, the hoplites and other Greek soldiers would have foraged for food, hunted, bought goods from markets and traders, and pillaged towns and villages.
Certain staples of the ancient Greek diet were eaten by campaigning soldiers depending on availability. These likely included various cereals and legumes, as well as olives, onions, garlic, and cheese.
In his Anabasis, the ancient Greek mercenary soldier, philosopher, and historian Xenophon recounted an occasion when one of his comrades in arms returned with a bundle of food. The description provides a glimpse at what ancient Greek soldiers might have eaten on the move.
“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,” wrote Xenophon.
The perfect sweet snack for a hoplite
Although we can infer from the available evidence that the diet of an ancient Greek soldier was typically quite bland, especially if it was difficult to supply the army with food during a prolonged campaign, there was one snack that would have appealed to warriors with a sweet tooth.
In the Odyssey and in the Iliad, a sweet called ιτριον (itrion) is mentioned by Homer. A dish made of honey and sesame, it was used to give energy to Greek warriors who were battling in the Trojan War.
Now known as pasteli (παστέλι), this ancient Greek dessert has endured as a sweet treat in some form or another for thousands of years.