Ancient Greek Historian Plutarch One of the First Vegetarians

Plutarch Vegetarian
A bust of ancient Greek historian and philosopher, Plutarch, who was a vegetarian. Credit: Odysses/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The ancient Greek historian Plutarch, who was also a philosopher and a high priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, could be considered the first outspoken vegetarian in the West, as he believed that it is “immoral” to eat animal flesh.

In his book Morals, Plutarch has a chapter on meat eating in which he writes that since man has access to so many fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts, it is inconceivable that he is forcing himself to eat bloody animal flesh “trying to cover the taste of blood with thousands of spices.”

In words that resemble the statements of quite strict vegans and vegetarians today, Plutarch described the act of eating meat in off-putting and visceral terms:

“Ι wonder what sensation the first man who put his lips on the blood of a dead animal felt. He put his mouth on the flesh of an animal that was killed. Lining up on his table stale carcasses. He called delicacies those parts the animal was using to roar, speak, move and see…”

Plutarch inquires: “How could his eyes stand the sight of the blood of slaughtered, skinned and quartered creatures? How could his nose bear the stench? How could his mind not avert his tongue to touch foreign ulcers, to enjoy juices and fluids of mortal wounds?”

Plutarch was a staunch vegetarian

Plutarch also argues that man was not made to eat meat: “The fact that man was not made to eat meat is evident in his body structure. Indeed, the human body does not look at all like the bodies of animals made to eat meat…”

“Man has no protruding lips, sharp teeth, sharp nails, hard stomach and hot breath able to process and digest the heavy components of meat,” he added. “Man’s nature, with the flat teeth, small mouth, soft tongue and weak breath for digestion precludes meat eating.”

The historian and essayist adds that if man insists on eating meat, he should kill the animal with his bare hands rather than using an ax, arrow, or knife.

He argues that animals that are made to eat flesh kill other animals on their own without the use of weapons or other devices. If man were designed to eat meat, then he must tear the animal with his teeth and eat it raw like natural carnivores do.

Plutarch also argues that by roasting or boiling the meat, he alters its taste and then fools himself by using spices and honey to cover the taste of blood and hide his guilt for eating something that had a soul. He also fools his tongue for tasting something that is foreign.

The ancient Greek diet

From Plutarch’s words, one might think that ancient Greeks ate meat at nearly every meal. But was this actually the case? Records from antiquity paint an entirely different picture.

The diet of the ancient Greeks is fascinating for many reasons. They had impressively varied eating habits, but they naturally contrasted in many ways to ours—with the most characteristic difference being that they ate much less than we do today.

In ancient Greece, people would begin their day with a very lean breakfast, which included a little barley bread dipped in lukewarm wine and figs.

Greeks of that time were very fond of fish, perhaps even more so than we are today. For lunch, they would routinely dine on any fresh fish that was available, including sea bream, mullet, sardines, and eels.

There was always an assortment of legumes from which to choose, including lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas and broad beans, to eat with their fish.

The eternal European staple of bread was always part of the midday meal, accompanied by cheese, olives, eggs, nuts, and fruits.

Ancient Greeks considered dinner to be the most important and enjoyable meal of the day, and it often contained many vegetables, grains, and fish.

Regarding meat, it was in fact not often consumed in ancient Greece. In their diet, the ancient Greeks showed a particular affinity for pork and veal while they rarely ate goat or lamb.

They also loved hunting, especially small birds such as thrush and quail, but they were not averse to hunting deer as well, so venison was not unheard of at the ancient Greek table.

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