The Greek city-state of Sparta was a military society, and Spartan men were expected to be fearless and resolute in every aspect of life -- including food. A familiarity with this diet helps explain why the contemporary adjective "spartan" now conveys self-denial carried too far. The most famous Spartan dish was known as "black broth," made from pig's legs, blood and vinegar with a taste that most likely no one other than a Spartan warrior could stomach.
The black broth of the Spartans was made of blood and boiled pig legs seasoned with vinegar, according to food-science historian Rebecca Rupp, Ph.D. The ancient Greek writer Plutarch claimed that the Spartans were so fond of black broth that older men would even eat it in preference to meat. Dionysus, the dictator of Sicily, was so curious about black broth that he asked his slave to make some for him, but then spat it out as soon as he tasted it. Black broth was served at a communal meal called the syssition, of which a visitor from Sybaris was reported by Herodotus to have said, "It is no wonder that Spartans are the bravest men in the world; for anyone in his right mind would prefer to die ten thousand times rather than share in such poor living."
Black broth was not the only food the Spartans ate at their communal meals. The men who participated in these meals were expected to contribute food, which included barley, cheese, figs, olives and wine. The main course, or aiklon, was always black broth with a small serving of boiled pig's leg, but aiklon was often followed by a second course called epaiklon. This consisted of any contributions made by individual dinner guests. A guest who wanted to provide epaiklon had to either hunt for it or provide it from his own farm -- buying it at the market was frowned upon. This second course could include meats like hare, goose, dove, lamb, blackbird or thrush, but it was reserved only for the adult men. Boys were usually fed more frugally on barley cakes called kammata instead.
The Spartans occasionally held a celebration dinner called the Kopis or "Cleaver," which included loaves of wheat bread, barley cakes, figs, nuts, raw greens, a meat dish and, of course, some black broth. The Kopis could also include green cheese, sausage, small cakes, and a dessert made of green beans, dry beans and figs. The Kopis was a national holiday, and visitors to Sparta were always invited to participate. The Spartans sacrificed goats to the gods at this festival, and everyone was allowed to eat part of the sacrifice.
The Spartan communal meal, or syssition, stands in stark contrast to the Athenian symposium, where men would get drunk, listen to music and spend time with courtesans while lounging on elegant couches. Everything about the Spartan syssition was plain by comparison, including the food, the furniture and even the conversation. The simplicity and harshness of the syssition was so important to Spartan culture that membership in a dinner club was a precondition of citizenship for Spartan men. If a man's dinner club kicked him out for failing to supply his share of the food, he lost his citizenship, one of many punishments that constantly threatened the Spartan male.
- National Geographic: When Feeding the Troops, Flavor Is Rarely on the Menu
- Tufts University: The Spartan Common Messes
- Unversity of Chicago: The Ancient Customs of the Spartans
- Academia.edu: Drinking From the Same Cup - Sparta and Late Archaic Commensality
- University of Chicago: The Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus
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