The Surprising History of Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism wasn’t born yesterday. Greek and Roman philosophers were among the earliest to practice a ‘green diet’ and to defend animal rights

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Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm

In the beginning, there was peace. It was an age of bliss; there was no evil, no pain, no death. The earth was so fertile that it sustained all living creatures and so neither animals nor humans were driven to feast upon the flesh of others.

This myth of a “Golden Age” is portrayed in various mythologies under different names. One of the earliest descriptions comes from the 8th century B.C.E. Greek poet Hesiod, who portrays the thriving period of the earliest race of mortals in his poem “Works and Days”.

Hesiod associates it with the rule of Cronus, son of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). With the fall of the Titans, the children of Cronus and Gaia, the Golden Age came to an abrupt end, and humankind was consumed by greed and violence. With the rise of Zeus, the following sinful periods followed: the Bronze Age, and then the Iron Age, which for Hesiod was of course the modern period, described by the poet as the lowest degree of civilization.

It is during those chapters that humans began to feed on the flesh of other animals, according to that narrative, despoiling the initial sacred plan.

4th-century Roman mosaic of young boys hunting a rabbit, Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, SicilyCredit: paolo s. / psub, Wikimedia Commons

Animal ethics may seem a relatively recent area of contention. However, the debate over the moral consideration of animals and how humans should treat them can be traced back to early antiquity. Hesiod’s poem is the earliest Greek attempt to differentiate humans from animals on philosophical grounds, arguing that humans received the divine gift of justice, a gift not possessed by any other living creatures. The third-century philosopher Porphyry also refers to the myth in his work, “On abstinence from animal food”, stating that together with the slaughter of animals, war and injustice were introduced to the world.

Porphyry was what we would call today an advocate for animal rights and vegetarianism on both spiritual and ethical grounds. The Neoplatonic philosopher believed that animals are conscious and capable of assessing situations, have memory, and can plan and communicate. He argued that killing an animal diverts from the much-needed spiritual progress that one should aspire to achieve. He further suggested that by consuming meat, the body becomes corrupt and unhealthy, and that it leads to obesity (it turns out that obesity was as much undesirable then as it is today).

Hunting deer in the nude, mosaic signed Gnosis in the 'House of the Abduction of Helen' at Pella, ancient Macedonia, late 4th century B.C.E.Credit: Gnosis /, Wikimedia Commons

But more importantly, Porphyry asserted that killing a harmless animal is no different from taking the life of a human being – and thus became one of the first to state, in writing at least, that the animal life is equal to that of a human.

This view is in tune with today’s philosophical debate about the value of animal life. “Even many champions of animal rights believe that human life is more valuable or important than animal life. While I myself do not think that human beings are more important or valuable than animals, I think it possible that our lives are more important to us than their lives are to them. That is one of two views, between which I am ambivalent,” explains Professor Christine Korsgaard from Harvard University, one of the most respected moral philosophers in human/animal relations. “The other view, opposed to that one, is that when you take life away from any creature, you basically take away everything that matters to that creature, and one creature’s ‘everything’ cannot be more than another creature’s ‘everything.’”

Still life of eggs and birds hung by their beaks, and bronze kitchenware, PompeiiCredit: Naples National Archaeological Museum

Hail Pythagoras! - An early vegetarian

The first known advocate for animal rights and vegetarianism was the great Pythagoras who lived in the 6th century B.C.E., who was also the first man to call himself a philosopher, or “lover of wisdom”. Today children learn about his right-angle triangle theorem, but the mathematician was also the first to suggest that Earth is round and that the moon shines because its surface reflects light from the sun. He was held in such extraordinary esteem that some believed him to be the son of Apollo (because of his handsomeness) and the grandson of the mighty Zeus himself. Not only was Pythagoras famous for his theories, but also for his fashion choices, for he wore white robes with trousers, a truly extravagant choice for that time.

For a change of pace, a bread shop in PompeiiCredit: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Naples Nation

Until the word “vegetarian” became synonymous with going off meat, it was the phrase “Pythagorean diet” that was used to tell your friends you had gone vegetarian.

Yet for Pythagoras, going meat-free had little to do with animal wellbeing. His impetus was metempsychosis, the belief that at death, the soul transmigrates into another body. After such revelation, how could one expect to touch meat? Some, such as the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles went so far as to compare the act of eating flesh synonymous with the act of cannibalism.

Fish and ducks mosaic, PompeiiCredit: Marie-Lan Nguyen

Unlike adherents of Buddhism, Pythagoras did not conceive reincarnation as a form of punishment for the wicked or as a reward for the honorable. For him, it was a continuation of experience, knowledge and wisdom (reincarnation ticked all the boxes).

Because apparently there is no such thing as a coincidence, it would be naive to think that the teachings of Pythagoras were not to some degree “ripped off” from his famed contemporaries- the great Buddha and Mahavira.

However, behind Pythagoras’ rejection of eating meat were also philosophically-based ethical considerations. According to him, the human soul consists of three conditions: intelligence, passion and reason. Animals were seen to possess both intelligence and passion (the critical elements for sentience) and therefore their mistreatment was judged unethical.

Still life, 2nd century CE, Tor Marancia, near the Catacombs of Domitilla, ItalyCredit: Jastrow

Yet despite Pythagoras’s passionate animal welfare “campaigning” and his condemnation of carnivorous regimes, the consumption of meat prevailed. His teachings were philosophically elitist, rendering historic vegetarianism a sphere of intellectuals.

It bears adding that Pythagoras’ interests were not limited to human-animal relations. He was also one of the earliest supporters of environmental ethics, instructing his students to use only those plants that are necessary. He advocated for the widespread ancient doctrine of moderation, even if he did not specifically foresee our current state of overconsumption, deforestation and climate change.

The Caligula carnivory factor

Pythagoras’ teachings led other big thinkers to question their own morality. Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, went meat-free but was forced to hide his eating habits and eventually gave up vegetarianism due to the imperial suspicion it caused.

When your emperor is Caligula, the embodiment of cruelty, you might put aside your veggie philosophy.

Wall painting of animals in the pantry, HerculaneumCredit: National Archaeological Museum of Naples

Nevertheless, Seneca firmly denounced the cruelty of training wild beasts and of the bloody venationes, the animal fights that were staged between animals or men hunting animals. These were often ritualized performances that reinforced the notion of Roman domination and justice. The popularity of animal fights were such that far corners of the Empire were searched for wild and exotic beasts that would provide excitement to the people that came to marvel at their display and slaughter. The cast was exceptionally exotic: from lions, panthers, hyenas, bears, crocodiles, zebras and elephants to hippopotami.

The magnitude of the slaughter was colossal. We are told by ancient sources that at the inaugural games of the Colosseum, the emperor Titus held 100 days of “bread and circuses” during which 9,000 animals were exhibited and slaughtered.

Fishes mosaic, PompeiiCredit: Massimo Finizio / Naples Nationa

Forty years later the soldier-emperor Trajan followed the same logic while setting a new record when he held 123 days of games involving 11,000 wild animals. Some later emperors, such as the unstable Commodus introduced some “innovative” techniques to make the blood spectacles even more bloody and disturbing. His crescent-shaped arrows allowed the smooth decapitation of ostriches, creating a spectacle of birds running around the arena headless.

Back to animal consumption: Another great thinker who adopted a green diet and advocated against animal fights was the Greek Platonist philosopher Plutarch. Like any self-respecting advocate, he wrote multiple essays in favor of vegetarianism, reasoning that animals were rational beings deserving respect. In his essay “On the Eating of Flesh” he argued that the human digestive system is incompetent of dealing with flesh and since humans lack claws and fangs, a carnivorous diet is inappropriate. As Korsgaard explains, “It is plain enough, scientifically, that human beings are not ‘incompetent’ to deal with meat. The question is whether we are ‘competent’ to be vegetarians or vegans, and that seems obvious as well. Like many, I would say that if we can be vegans, we should.”

Wall painting depicting predator-prey hunts from the House of the CeiiCredit: Photo courtesy of the Archaeolog

A brief summary of why vegetarianism failed

So why did meat consumption endure in the ancient world, despite the majority of the population being too impoverished to afford to eat animals, and being relegated to a vegetarian diet?

In history in general, meat was both scarce and expensive. It was an extravagance enjoyed by the few. For us citified Homo sapiens , that sounds archaic and distant: meat is pretty much everywhere. Meat has become one of the most democratized products, accessible to most modern-day “hunters”, wrapped in plastic, ready to pick up from supermarket shelves.

For one thing, in ancient Greece (as was the case in other cultures), meat was deeply embedded in religious practices. It is during the religious festivals that regular citizens had the opportunity to “treat themselves”. Saying no to sacrificial flesh was synonymous with rejecting the will of the gods, together with the system of the polis. How could one reject what was essentially linked to the Greek spirit, the Olympic games, held in honor of the wise but easily angered Zeus? The Greek athletes were objects of passion and veneration.

It might come as a surprise to a modern reader but one of the most respected historic personalities of the time, so it seems, was the glutton Milo of Croton.

Milo’s strength was legendary. According to some accounts the wrestler fueled his muscles by consuming 20 pounds of meat, in addition to eating as much bread and drinking three pitchers of wine per day (no, PR is not a new invention). If that was the case, Milo’s daily calorie intake would exceed 50,000 kcal and he would have suffered from terminal liver disease.

At the fast-food stall of ancient Pompeii, decorated with hanging ducks and a rooster (foreground) and cookpots (background)Credit: Photo courtesy of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Greeks believed that essentially “you are what you eat”. A portion of a nightingale was apparently a remedy for insomnia and eating boars was thought to make athletes stronger.

This utilitarian view is strongly opposed by most contemporary philosophers, as it was by the first defenders of animal causes. “The idea that certain groups of creatures are made for others is so pernicious. People of colour or from the ‘third world’ are not here to provide labour for white people from developed nations; women are not here to keep house for men; and animals are not here to provide food, organs, and experimental subjects for humans,” Korsgaard tells Haaretz. “Every creature’s life is valuable for that creature himself or herself; the use others have for it doesn’t compete with that,” she adds.

However, a new unified theory of human evolution posited by Prof. Ran Barkai at Tel Aviv University suggests that our appetite for meat stems from more than fear of the authorities, or admiration for gourmands.

Simply, Barkai suspects that starting from Homo erectus (believed to be the first man in the kitchen – it turns out that cooking might be 2 million years old), the Homo line had become super-predators, heavily though not exclusively carnivorous. Unable to digest as much lean flesh as, say, cats, we developed our keen appreciation for animal fat (a delicacy of the time), and hence had a special prehistoric appreciation of mega-fauna, which had thick layers of fat. As the mega-fauna died out, often with our assistance, we were reduced to smaller and smaller animals and eventually, when the climatic conditions were ripe after the last Ice Age – bereft of other convenient food, we developed agriculture and animal husbandry.

But then was then, now is now and in our current state of evolution, animals should serve less as food for humans and more as food for thought.

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