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TitleFood Tradition and Change in Hellenistic Egypt
TagsAncient Egypt Agriculture Cereals Wheat Ptolemaic Kingdom
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Table of Contents
		Volume Information
		Front Matter
		Prehistoric Diet and Nutrition: Some Food for Thought [pp.121-135]
		Food: Tradition and Change in Hellenistic Egypt [pp.136-146]
		Diet and Dental Disease [pp.147-162]
		Prehistoric Diet and Subsistence of the Moche Valley, Peru [pp.163-184]
		Diet, Nutrition and Population Dynamics in the Basin of Mexico [pp.185-207]
		Theoretical Goals and Methodological Realities: Problems in the Reconstruction of Prehistoric Subsistence Economies [pp.208-226]
		Initial Perspectives on Prehistoric Subsistence in the Inland Niger Delta (Mali) [pp.227-243]
		Back Matter [pp.244-244]
Document Text Contents
Page 1

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Page 2

Food: tradition and change in Hellenistic Egypt

Dorothy J. Crawford

When he visited Egypt in the mid fifth century B.C. Herodotus, the Greek historian
from Halicarnassus, was struck by the good health of the Egyptians which he ascribed
to the consistent climate of the country, connecting it closely with their diet:

They eat loaves made from emmer wheat (olyra) which they call kyllestis. The beverage they
drink is made of barley; for there are no vines in their country. They eat raw fish, dried in
the sun or salted, and also quail, duck and small birds, pickled in brine; other birds and fish,
apart from those held sacred, they eat either roast or boiled. (II 77- 3-5)

The balanced diet of the Egyptians came from bread and beer ('wine made from barley'
is Herodotus' description) supplemented by the wild life of the countryside, and fish
and fowl which would, even after pickling, provide ready protein to supplement the
cereals. To a Greek the natural resources of the land of Egypt, the Nile, its annual
flood and the regular and plentiful harvest this produced, were something of a miracle.
Commenting on the large population of Egypt in the first century B.C. Diodorus Siculus
describes the use of other wild products which provided a cheap source of nourishment:

They bring their children up with incredible ease and little expense; they feed them with
plenty of raw vegetables which are in ready and cheap supply; they give them those papyrus
stems which can be crushed for flour and the tops of the marsh plants, sometimes raw, some-
times boiled and sometimes roasted. (I 80. 5-6)

In detail such accounts may be over-simplified but the main point is surely correct.
There were available in Egypt, in the crops raised in the fields, in the palms, carob and
other fruit trees which grew in the countryside, and the wild plants, fish and fowl of
the Nile and the Nile marshes, the constituents necessary for a balanced and healthy

The extent, however, to which such a diet was actually enjoyed by the inhabitants
of the country is worth investigation, even if only partial answers and preliminary
conclusions are possible. To what extent did this diet differ over the long periods of
Egyptian history? How far were there regional differences in diet? Herodotus for instance
described the cheap and plentiful Egyptian diet summarized by Diodorus as especially
typical of the inhabitants of the marshes of the northern Delta:

World Archaeology Volume iI Number 2 Food and nutrition

? R.K.P. 1979 0043-8243/1102-0136 $1.50/1

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140 Dorothy J. Crawford

(P. Rev. Laws); many of these were suited to marginal land where salinity from poor
drainage remained a problem despite the extended canal system (Crawford 1973: 248)0
Besides the main oil crops, grown as cash-crops under tight governmental control-
sesame, castor-oil (kroton for kiki-oil), kolokynthos (gourds), safflower and linseed-
experiments were made with other oil crops, poppy and lettuce, grown on the estate
of Apollonios and recorded in the accounts of Zenon (P. Lond. VII 1994; 99 5). Other
new strains of crops were introduced, garlic from Tlos in Lycia (Crawford 1973a) and

chick-peas from Byzantium (P. Cairo Zen. 59731 = P. Col. Zetn. 69. 14, i6, 21i)
Viticulture was much extended in this early period of Greek occupation and fruiit trees
also were introduced in new orchards and plantations - figs, walnuts, peaches, apricots,
plums and olives (Preaux 1947: 22-7).

Besides crops, livestock was reared on the estate both for regular use and for special
festivals which in the ancient world were always the occasion of meat consumption aind
so played a significant part in increasing the protein intake of the regular diet. From

250 B.C. there survives the record of expenses connected with the transport, among
other livestock, of five cages of wild boar from Apollonios' estate to his residence in
Alexandria, as a present for the king for the festival of Arsinoe. Some of the boars died
en route but nevertheless were skinned ready for consumption; meat could not go
wasted (P. Lond. VII 2000).

The change which must have affected the diet of the greatest number of people,
however, was the change in the main cereal crop of Egypt. All evidence up to the
Ptolemaic period suggests that besides barley (Hordetim vulgare), tetraploid emmer
wheat (a husked wheat, Triticum dicoccum) was the staple cereal crop of the country,
the grain referred to as olyra by Herodotus and later in the papyri (Dixon 1969; Darby
et al. 1977: 461-79). With the Ptolemies a naked tetraploid wheat (Triticum durum)
was introduced to Egypt and soon completely supplanted the earlier emmer wheat.
From Triticum duroum was produced flour of two qualities: semidalis which was top-
quality flour and whole-wheat (autopyros) flour. A choenix of wheat yielded either half a
choenix of semidalis (though this probably includes a milling charge) or one choenix of
whole-wheat flour. Olyra continued to be grown but in decreasing quantities (Schnebel
1925: 94-9). Besides coarse loaves, a rough porridge-like substance known as chondros
was made from olyra, and it is interestinig that on Apollonios' estate the daily food
allowance drawn by Zenon, his brother Epharmostos and Styrax might on occasion
come in this form (P. Cairo Zen. 59333. 58-70 (248 B.C.)). When chondros was available
Zenon forewent his normal bread allowance, though whether from choice or for the
sake of convenience is unclear. Whether or not Zenon, a Greek though from Asia Minor,
preferred his carbohydrates in fine quality semidalis bread (as it was sometimes drawn)
or in. chondros, the new wheat caught on very quickly, and within one hundred and
fifty years the switch to Triticum durum was almost total. The only cause for surprise
is the silence of the sources. The change is well-documented, but no comment on it
has survived anywhere in the papyri or the agricultural writers.

The influx of Greeks to Egypt following Alexander's conquest will have put an
increased demand, especially for cereals, on the resources of the country. Much of this
demand will have been met by the extension of the area under cultivation, but attempts
were also made to augment cereal production by the introduction of a summer wheat

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Food: tradition and change in Hellenistic Egypt 14I

crop in areas irrigated artificially. On 27 December 256 B.C. Apollonios wrote to Zenon
as follows:

The king has ordered us to sow the land twice. Therefore as soon as you have harvested the
early grain, immediately water the land by hand. And if this is not possible set up a series
of shadoofs [water-lifting devices consisting of a bucket and pole] and irrigate in this way.
Do not keep the water on the land more than five days and as soon as it dries out sow the
three-month wheat. And write to us when you are able to harvest it. (P. Cairo Zen. 59155)

This three-month grain may have been the Syrian wheat first recorded under

Philadelphus (Thompson 1930: 213) and is probably to be identified as einkorn; other
cereal strains too were introduced and the Zenon papers record a wide variety of cereals

grown on the estate (e.g. Persian wheat, P. Ryl. IV 57I. 4; native wheat and dark
summer wheat (melanaither), P. Cairo Zen. 59731 = P. Col. Zen. 69. 25-6).

Cereals had always been the staple food crop of Egypt. It is not therefore surprising
that the Egyptian peasants embraced the improved wheat strains. But they were not
enthusiastic about royal attempts to exploit the country with new methods and cash

crops. Various reactions are recorded. Explicit criticism of the competence of the
Greeks is preserved in a letter from some native farmers brought in to the Arsinoite

To Apollonios the dioiketes, the farmers from the Heliopolite nome, from the village of
Philadelphus in the Arsinoite nome, from your Io,ooo arouras, greetings. After you gave us
1,000 arouras out of the io,ooo which we cultivated and sowed, Damis took away from us
200(?) arouras, and when we protested, carried off three of our elders until he compelled
them to sign a deed of renunciation. And although we were willing to move from the I,ooo
arouras, and asked him to bear with us only until we had prepared the land and sown it, he
still refused, and allowed the land to remain unsown. There is a further official, an Egyptian,
one of an evil tribe, who does not allow the city to be settled, but drives away those who try
to come here. A large number of mistakes have been made in the 0o,ooo arouras, since there
is no one experienced in agriculture.... (P. Lond. VII 1954. I-8 (257 B.C.))

Alternatively the native population might show their disapproval by non-co-operation.
From the mid-third century B.C. a papyrus from the North-west Fayum gives details,
for four villages, of the annual crop order which attempted to control centrally the
crops sown throughout the country. Figures are given for the distribution of what
actually had been sown and the official adjustments made to the original demands in
the light of the actual state of cultivation (SB 4369 a-b). What is striking is the non-
cultivation of the commercial oil crops, flax, safflower and poppy, as specified in the
crop order, and the preference of the peasants to plant the subsistence crops they
knew and needed, durum wheat, barley, a little olyra and vetch for fodder (Vidal-
Naquet I967: 25-36). The conflict of interest between native and immigrant was both
economic and cultural.

The intense experimentation and agricultural activity of the North Fayum in the
time of Philadelphus did not, it seems, continue, and a more typical picture of agriculture,
and probably therefore of peasant diet, may be seen from the late second century B.C.
South Fayum village of Kerkeosiris. Here in i i6-i i5 B.C. crops sown in the village
were as follows (Crawford I97I: I84-6 with P. Tebt. IV):

Page 11

Food: tradition and change in Hellenistic Egypt I45

Butzer, K. W. 1976. Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt: A Study in Cultural Ecology.
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Carpenter, K. J. 1969. Man's dietary needs. In Population and Food Supply: Essays on Human
Needs and Agricultural Prospects, pp. 61-74 (ed.) Sir Joseph Hutchinson. Cambridge: University

Clark C. and Haswell, M. I970. The Economics of Subsistence Agriculture. Fourth edition.
London: Macmillan.

Crawford, D. J. I97I. Kerkeosiris: An Egyptian Village in the Ptolemaic Period. Cambridge:
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Crawford, D. J. I973. The opium poppy: a study in Ptolemaic agriculture. In Problemes de la
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Crawford, D. I973a. Garlic-growing and agricultural specialization in Graeco-Rornan Egypt.
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Darby, W. J., Ghalioungi, P. and Grivetti, L. I977. Food: The Gift of Osiris. 2 vols. London,
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vols III and IV). New York, 1934 and I940.
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Crawford, Dorothy J.

Food: tradition and change in Hellenistic Egypt
Given the predictable climate and annual flood of the Nile, a rich and varied diet was always
available in Egypt, both from cultivated crops and the wild flora and fauna of the country.
Evidence for diet in the Pharaonic period tends to an upper-class bias, being mainly funerary
in nature. With the arrival of the Ptolemies and their Greek bureaucracy, documentary evidence
adds to the picture. New crops, especially new strains of wheat, were introduced for the

changing urban markets; they met with some native resistance. Records of corn allowances

permit a detailed consideration of some workers' diets. In this respect the temples remained
centres of conservatism and privilege.

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