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The Decline of Ancient Sparta as Seen Through Its Food

staue of Leonidas king of sparta
Can the change in Sparta’s food be used to detect the ancient Greek city’s decline? Image: Statue of Leonidas of Sparta, Greece. Credit: Dmpexr/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Athenaeus of Naucratis in his famous work Deipnosophistae stated sarcastically that the fault of the decline of Sparta lay with its cooks, who, because of the influence of the Roman Empire, lost the ability to prepare the traditional recipes that for centuries had maintained the strength of the city.

For anyone who knows anything about ancient Spartan cuisine, it’s impossible not to laugh at this jab, made at the Spartans’ expense.

We all know the central role that great food had always played in Greek culture throughout the previous centuries.

But Sparta, despite its great prominence in the Greek cultural landscape, appears to be an exception to this rule. How can Sparta, the city and land of legends, heroes, and timeless and immortal myths, have declined because of its food and the customs behind sharing it?

We will try to explain and see what truth can be hidden behind the sarcasm of the Greek writer Athenaeus.

We will see a before and an after: a period characterized by rigidity and solidity, followed by a period of change and decay.

The watershed moment was caused by an evolution of many factors nad even gastronomic factors in fact.

Starting from the ancient Syssitia, the later Roman word for the common cafeteria-like manner of communal eating, we will trace the evolution of Spartan foodways to the new way of dining after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Spartan system of communal eating in public buildings

Incredibly, alone amongst all other Greek city-states, Sparta had a system of communal eating that can be compared to a cafeteria. This consisted of the distribution of common meals in places that can be likened to canteens or city halls.

Instituted with a purpose of better managing food supplies within the walls of the city-state, this practice ended up strengthening the feeling of community in Sparta and creating an even more cohesive society.

This most unusual gastronomic custom was instituted during the Iron Age well before the birth of the Greek poleis, however. The legendary king of the Enotrian people, Italo, established his tribe in southern Italy in settlements, bringing an end to their nomadic ways.

At that time, he established a very innovative custom at the time, the common dining hall, to his people.

This custom was soon taken up by a number of communities, but it was Sparta that made it the centerpiece of its very society.

The first Spartan ruler to introduce the measure was Lycurgus, who was not only one of the most important legislators in history but is also credited for being the very creator of the moral and political principles of the Spartan soul.

Immediately the communal meal became the singular characteristic of its society, which was seen as necessary to not only strengthen the cohesiveness of its people but to enforce the simplicity that was so distinctive of Spartan life.

Even though communal dining was initially practiced by the non-ruling population, after the fifth century BC it was also extended to the noble class, including the king and his family. This was obviously with different portions and precedence but always with the very same dishes of which everyone else partook.

The practice of communal eating in its traditional form ceased towards the second half of the fifth century B.C. probably thanks to the great earthquake of 464 B.C., which destroyed not only part of the city but its economy as well.

Incredibly, it was reintroduced after the passage of more than two centuries around 250 BC but was gradually practiced less and less in the centuries to come.

What foods did the common daily ration consist of in Sparta?

As you might imagine, the rigidity and strictness of Spartans were always reflected in the various elements of gastronomy as well.

During the communal daily meal, bread, called maza, a thin toasted wheat flatbread, was served along with melas zomo (black broth) containing pork and the blood of the pig (which gave it its dark color). Figs and cheese were common at the table.

Spartans would traditionally have wine, which unlike other Greek city-states, was offered to women as well as men.

Not surprisingly, food in the city-state of Sparta was seen as a means of sustenance only; it didn’t exist for luxury, entertainment, or overindulgence.

Black broth is still recognized as the most important element in the daily Spartan diet and of warriors in battle.

Prepared with pork and blood, vinegar, onions, and bay leaf, the concoction was considered a “culinary horror” by other Greek poleis and further afield since ancient times.

A traveler from Sibari of southern Italy, after having tasted the dish, famously said: “Now I perceive the reason for the lightness with which Spartan warriors go to death: after it they will not have to eat melan zomos anymore.”

Still, it is beyond doubt that despite its unpalatable look and taste, the Spartan soup was also recognized for imparting great energy to its warriors, making them the greatest of all, which was essentially the reason for being for that city-state.

Culinary changes and the decline of Sparta

A process of evolution and transition in the cultures of ancient and Hellenic-era Greece, including Sparta, took place around the second century B.C.

The expansionistic arrival, first of the Macedonian empire, and of the Roman Empire later, irrevocably changed many Greek characteristics; moreover, it increased the wealth of some social classes, increasing the luxury of banquets.

Even the great warrior state of Sparta was influenced by these societal changes over time. That even extended to the cuisine of the city of Leonidas, changing its gastronomic DNA.

Sparta’s cuisine gradually ceased to have such a rough and rigid identity, amazingly allowing even Roman customs to be incorporated into the daily diet.

The melas zomos stopped being the most important food and sustenance, leaving room for more refined, foreign dishes.

The common dining hall of older days, always seen as a symbol of the strength of the Lacedaemonians, gave way more and more to banquets, which were far more sumptuous and splendid.

And so, at the same time, the values of Sparta, including its almost cult-like social rigidity and rigor, gave way to new customs that came with the new world opening up to them.

This was admittedly a kind of “globalization,” which tragically left behind entire cultures and peoples in the wake of Roman hegemony.

And so of the ancient Sparta, and of its heroic warriors, there are now only memories and legends.

Hence, we can see how food and the way it is experienced has always played a central role in our history.

Indeed, we are what we used to eat.

Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here. 

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