We must not ignore the changes that have taken place in our food, in the relishes we put on it, and in other aspects of our life style that affect us physically. Many things that used to be left untasted and uneaten are now consumed with the greatest pleasure; for example, honey wine and sow’s womb. They even say that people in the old days did not eat the brain of animals. … There are many old people nowadays who cannot bear the taste of cucumber, melon, citron, or pepper. It is likely that such foods make our bodies feel different, and by the combinations in which we ingest them they gradually establish new characteristics in our bodies and form different secretions. Even changes in the order in which we eat the various courses of a meal make a considerable difference. The cold dishes, oysters, sea urchins, raw vegetables, … are now the first course, rather than the last. … In the old days, they did not drink even water before the dessert course, but people nowadays get drunk on an empty stomach and then start eating when our bodies are moist and very hot (Plutarch, Table Talk 734a).
Wild animals live on a simple diet of one type of food only, and are healthier than humans. Animals that are kept in enclosures are susceptible to diseases and easily develop problems with their digestion because of the varied and sweetened fodder they are given. Moreover, no doctor is so adventurous and hellbent on innovation as to give a variety of different foods to a fever patient, rather than simple food without sauces that is easiest to digest (Plutarch, Table Talk 661a).
As for those who derive their pleasures from the belly, indulging excessively in eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse, for all such people pleasures are slight and fleeting – just the time they spend eating and drinking – but pains are many (Democritus, frg. 235).
In their prayers, people beg the gods for health, without realising that they have power over it within themselves. Through lack of self-control they do the opposite of what they should, becoming traitors to their own health through their cravings (Democritus, frg. 234).
Many people fill their bodies for the sake of emptying them, and empty them for the sake of filling them. This is contrary to nature, and fullness causes no less distress than does emptiness – or rather, these people actually grumble more when they are full, for they regard repletion as a hindrance to pleasure, and therefore they aim to create emptiness, which they suppose gives scope for pleasures. The harm this does is perfectly obvious. … The pleasures derived from this practice are shortlived and unsatisfying, and they arouse a great deal of unhealthy excitement and agitation even while they are being enjoyed. Afterwards, they are replaced by distensions and sharp pains in the body’s passages, and retention of gases, which cannot wait for the natural methods of dispersal, and take over the upper part of these gluttons’ bodies, which are like water-logged boats that have to jettison their cargo, not just bilge-water. While the contents of the belly are being broken down and liquefied with medications, the upheavals in the lower bowels increase rather than relieve the excess. Suppose someone was disgruntled at the overcrowding caused by the Greek inhabitants of his city: can you imagine he would fill it even fuller with Arab and Scythian immigrants? That is precisely the sort of fundamental mistake committed by those who try to dispose of the body’s natural and normal residues by introducing exotic substances into the body: spurge-flax, scammony, and other such harsh and incompatible substances whose power to purge us is not as great as our need to purge them away (Plutarch, Advice on Preserving One’s Health 134a).
I have heard that Tiberius Caesar once said that any man more than sixty years old who holds out his hand to a doctor is ridiculous. That is rather a strong statement, but it is true that … there are people who have no perception of their own health, and are deaf, dumb, and blind tenants of their bodies, people who have to ask a doctor whether their health is better in summer or in winter, whether they find moist food or dry food easier to digest, and whether their pulse is naturally fast or slow. … Nowadays, people correct chefs, since they have the experience to know whether a dish is sweeter than it should be, or too salty, or too sour. And yet, these same people do not know what is light, easily digested, and nourishing when absorbed into their own bodies. Hence, mistakes are very rarely made in their houses when it comes to seasoning soup, but the nasty and harmful way in which they season themselves day after day guarantees lots of work for the doctors (Plutarch, Advice on Preserving One’s Health 136e).
Any intelligent person, reckoning nothing to be as important for human beings as health, should know how to use his own judgment to get help against diseases, and he should know how to judge for himself both the opinions that doctors express and the treatments that they apply to his body. He should know as much about each of these matters as is reasonable for a layman (Hippocrates Affections 1).
What? Those mushrooms, the glutton’s poison, do you suppose they’re not wreaking damage in secret, even if you feel no immediate harm? What? That snow in summertime [to chill wine], do you think it isn’t hardening your liver? What? Those oysters, sluggish flesh fattened on sludge, do you imagine they aren’t causing muddy heaviness? What? That garum sauce, the expensive gore of rotten fish, don’t you believe that it burns your insides with its salty putrescence? What? Those festering foodstuffs transferred to your mouth almost straight from the oven, do you suppose their heat is extinguished in your stomach with any ill effects? How disgusting, how unhealthy, are the belches of those who are breathing out their stale hangovers! How great is their self-loathing! Be in no doubt that their food is not digested, it rots (Seneca, Letters 95).
Plain food is best. It is unhealthy to pile up flavor after flavor in one’s diet, and the danger is even greater if sauces are added. It is difficult to digest the various ingredients in food if they are sharp, rough, unusual, varied, superfluous, or gobbled up greedily. Digestion is more difficult in summer than in winter, in old age than in youth. Emetics designed to improve digestion chill the body, and are particularly bad for the eyes and the teeth. Digesting one’s food while asleep leads to corpulence rather than strength. Trainers therefore prefer athletes to walk about while digesting. Staying up late at night is a particularly good way to ensure that food is broken down (Pliny, Natural History 11.282).
Simple food is best both for digestion and lightness of body, factors promoting growth, good health, and appropriate strength, not the inappropriate, dangerous, and pathetic strength athletes gain through forced feeding (St. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.1.2)
Antiphanes, the doctor from Delos, has declared the vast variety of foods to be one of the causes of disease, with those who dislike hearing the truth driven by fickle delusions to reject dietary moderation and take endless trouble to obtain types of food from across the seas (St. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.1.2)
The body derives no benefit from expensive foods. The opposite is true; for example, house slaves and farm laborers, who live on the cheapest type of food, are healthier, more robust, and in better condition than their owners, indeed they are not merely stronger, they are also more prudent, in the same way as philosophers are more sensible than rich people (St. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.1.5)
It is possible to catalogue more pains than pleasures derived from food. Or rather, such pleasure is restricted to a small part of the body and is of limited duration. On the other hand, what need is there to list all the nasty and painful indignities that come pouring in upon us as we go through the troublesome and disgusting process of digestion? I think Homer has this in mind when he uses their not taking nourishment as proof that the gods do not die: “they do not eat bread, nor drink sparkling wine, and hence they are bloodless and are called immortal” [Iliad 5.341-2]. What he means is that food not only gives us life but also leads us to death, for it is from food that illnesses arise; they feed on the same nourishment as do our bodies, for which repletion is no less unhealthy than deprivation (Plutarch, Banquet of the Seven Wise Men 160a).
Cheaper foods are always better for the body. It is particularly important to guard against overindulgence in food and drink when we are getting ready for a festival or a visit from friends, or when we are anticipating a banquet for a king or an important government official, or some other unavoidable social occasion. We should, as it were, brace ourselves for stormy winds and waves while the weather is still fair, by ensuring that our bodies are trim and light. When people are cheerfully socializing, it is quite a task to observe our normal moderation, and not to give everyone present the impression that we are dreadfully unpleasant, tiresome, and disagreeable (Plutarch, Advice on Preserving One’s Health 123d).
Seneca practised the frugality that he preached so vehemently. Actually, he rather overdid it, for when Nero forced him to commit suicide, he had considerable difficulty in killing himself: Seneca and his wife opened the veins in their arms with a dagger at the same moment. Since his aged body was wasted by his spare diet, allowing his blood to escape only slowly, he severed the veins in his legs and behind his knees as well. … His death dragged slowly on, so he asked his trusted friend, Statius Annaeus, who had medical experience, to give him hemlock that had been prepared earlier, the poison used to execute condemned people in Athens. He drank it, but it had no effect, for his limbs were already chilled and his body resisted the effect of the poison. In the end, he got into a pool of hot water … From there he was carried to a bath, the steam from which suffocated him (Tacitus, Annals 15.63). [His wife’s wound was bound up, and she lived on for several years, but without fully recovering.]
It is best to adopt a moderate and sensible diet, to ensure that the body functions efficiently without any extraneous help with regard to filling and emptying the stomach. But, if the need for vomiting should ever arise, induce it without drugs and without fuss, disturbing the body no more than is necessary to avoid indigestion by removing excess food immediately and painlessly. For, just as linen sheets that are washed with soap and salts wear out more quickly than those washed in water alone, so the use of drugs to induce vomiting causes ruinous damage to the body (Plutarch, Advice on Preserving One’s Health 134d).
Most people live to gratify their stomach, and yet it is the cause of more trouble than any other part of the body. Sometimes, it does not let food pass through, sometimes it does not retain it, sometimes it overflows with it, sometimes it does not digest it. Our habits have degenerated to the point that most people die because of their food. The stomach is the most bothersome part of the body, demanding payment from us several times a day, like a creditor. More than anything else, it is to appease the stomach that greed has become so insistent; it is for the stomach that luxury seasons our food with expensive spices; it is for the stomach that our fleets sail to the ends of the empire; it is for the stomach that the depths of the sea are explored. No one is led by the nastiness of its end product to realize how disgusting the stomach actually is. And so it is that so much medical attention is focused on the stomach (Pliny, Natural History 26.43).
There are some foods which appease hunger and thirst and conserve strength even if taken in very small amounts: for example, butter, cheese made from mare’s milk, and liquorice. Excess is very dangerous in any aspect of life, and this is particularly true with regard to our bodies. It is better somehow to reduce anything that is burdensome (Pliny, Natural History 11.284).
People cater to their gluttony with whatever is produced by the earth, the depths of the sea, and the immeasurable breadth of the sky. … Their appetites know no boundaries. … That sort of person seems to me to be nothing but a set of jaws. … They are addicted to their gourmet food, which ends up in a little while on the dunghill (St. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.1.3).
Gluttons are easy to spot, for they are more like hogs or dogs than human beings, so eager to cram themselves full that they load up both cheeks at once, with their blood vessels standing out and sweat pouring down their faces. They are dominated by their insatiable greed, panting with indigestion, as they stuff their food into their bellies with antisocial urgency, as if they were packing for a journey, not for digestion (St. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.1.11).
There are people who make themselves ill through their harmful way of living, but they are reluctant to give it up because they lack self-control. What a fine life such people live! They consult doctors, but that achieves nothing – except making their ailments more serious and more complicated. They’re always hoping to be cured by whatever drug anyone recommends. … Isn’t it altogether charming that what they hate most is the person who tells them the truth, namely that, until they stop their drinking and gorging, their sexual excesses and their lazy habits, neither drugs nor cautery nor surgery nor incantations nor amulets nor anything like that will be of any use to them? (Plato, Republic 425e)
Who would not be justified in criticizing our modern values? Extravagance and luxury have made our lifestyle more expensive. Life has never been longed for more than now, nor cared for less. We think that our health is other people’s responsibility, that other people should look after it even without instructions from us, and that our doctors should see to everything on our behalf. We ourselves enjoy our pleasures and live by putting our trust in other people – nothing could be more shameful than this attitude (Pliny, Natural History 22.14).
We rely so much on medicine because our modern lifestyle is so indulgent and extravagant (Ammianus Marcellinus 22.18).
People should not make a practice of vomiting as part of a decadent lifestyle. Experience, however, leads me to believe that it can contribute to good health, provided that no one who wishes to live to a healthy old age makes a daily habit of it (Celsus, On Medicine 1.3).
It would be much better for rich people to disregard the number of their cooks and other slaves, and to become familiar with the number of the vocal and respiratory nerves, and with the action of each nerve (Galen, On Recognising the Best Physician 9.15).
In imitation of Apicius [the famous gourmet], he frequently ate camels’ heels and crests taken from roosters while they were still alive, and the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, for it was said that anyone who ate them would be safe from the plague (Historia Augusta, Life of Elagabalus 20).
From time to time, we should sample the sort of food that is served to sick people, so that we can become familiar with it while we are healthy, and not shudder in disgust at that kind of diet, as little children would. We should gradually get used to such food, to ensure that, when we actually are sick, we do not grumble at our food as if it were medicine, and refuse to tolerate it just because it is simple and short on savor and flavor (Plutarch, Advice on Preserving One’s Health 123b).
To prevent diseases, the Egyptians take care of their health by means of drenches, fasting, and emetics, sometimes on a daily basis, and sometimes at intervals of three or four days. They say that most of the food we consume is superfluous, the breeding ground for diseases, and that the procedures just mentioned, by stopping diseases at their starting point, are the best means of ensuring health. All those involved in military campaigns and expeditions into the countryside receive free medical care, for the doctors draw their supplies from public resources. They administer treatment in accordance with a written law, drawn up by many reputable doctors long ago. If they follow the guidelines of the law that they read in the sacred book, and yet are unable to save a patient, they are immune to any prosecution. But if they do anything that runs counter to what is written, they are put on trial for their lives, since the lawgiver believes that only very few people could be wise enough to surpass the rules for treatment compiled by the best practitioners and observed for many years (Diodorus Siculus, The Library 1.82).
Egyptians regard pigs as unclean animals, since they are said to mate most frequently when the moon is waning, and because the bodies of those who drink sow’s milk break out in leprous sores and itchy scabs (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 353f).
Sudden changes of diet are damaging and cause weakness, whether one eats two meals a day or just one. If someone who is not in the habit of taking lunch does take lunch, he feels weak immediately. A heaviness pervades his whole body, and he is feeble and sluggish. If he then has dinner as well, he suffers heartburn, with acidic belching. Diarrhoea may also occur in some cases, because the stomach is overburdened. Its normal routine has conditioned it to a period of drying out, not to being bloated twice, and not to digesting food twice. … Conversely, if someone who is in the habit of taking lunch does not take lunch, he feels weak and feeble, he is disinclined to take any physical exertion, and he suffers heartburn. His internal organs seem ponderous, his urine is hot and pale, and his excrement looks burnt up. In some cases, there is a bitter taste in the mouth, the eyes are sunken, the temples throb, and the extremities are cold. Most people who miss their usual lunch cannot eat their dinner; if they do eat it, their bowels are heavy, and they sleep far worse than if they had eaten lunch (Hippocrates, Regimen in Acute Diseases 9).
What a person eats is not sufficient to ensure his good health, if he does not also exercise. Food and exercise have opposite qualities, but they work together to ensure health, for it is in the nature of exercise to use up resources, of food and drink to fill up what has been depleted (Hippocrates, On Diet 1.2).
The lightest meats for the body to digest are well-boiled dog, poultry, and hare (Hippocrates, On Affections 52).
It is difficult to argue with one’s stomach because, as Cato the Elder was fond of saying, it has no ears. We have to devise a way to make the bulk of what we eat less burdensome, by monitoring the types of food we choose. We should be careful with solid and very nourishing foods – meat, for example, and cheese, and dried figs, and boiled eggs. It is, of course, difficult always to decline such dishes, but we should focus on light and less substantial food – most vegetables, for example, and poultry, and fish with a low fat content. A diet like that satisfies the appetite without overloading the body. The indigestion caused by eating meat is especially dangerous, for meat not only weighs us down as soon as we eat it, but it also leaves a nasty, lingering residue. The best policy is to accustom our bodies not to crave meat at all (Plutarch, Advice on Preserving One’s Health 131e).
Food and drink that is slightly inferior but more palatable should be given preference over that which is better for the patient but less palatable (Hippocrates, Aphorisms 2.38).
If the same food, drink, and other dietary measures were appropriate for the sick as for those in good health, if they were no preferable alternative, the art of medicine would not have been invented, and no such researches would have been undertaken, for they would not have been necessary (Hippocrates, Ancient Medicine 3).
Even nowadays, there are still some people, not just barbarians but also some Greeks, who have nothing to do with medicine. When they fall ill, they persist in indulging in the same diet as when they were healthy, and refuse to abstain from anything they fancy, or to exercise any restraint (Hippocrates, Ancient Medicine 5).
In Western Locri, it was a capital offence to drink undiluted wine, unless prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons (Athenaeus, Wise Men at Dinner 10.33).
Wine mixed with sea water is particularly bad for the stomach, the nerves, and the bladder (Pliny, Natural History 23.46).
Wine drunk in moderation gives relief to the soul and banishes pain from it. Other things have much the same effect, such as moderately hot baths. This is what inspires people to sing when they are in the bath (Rufus of Ephesus, On Melancholy frg. 61).
It is firmly established that wine should not be given to fever patients, unless they are elderly, and even then only if the crisis has been passed. If the fever is acute, wine should be allowed only to patients who are definitely in remission, and the risk is only half so great if the remission takes place at night, when wine may be used to facilitate sleep. Nor should wine be given to women just after childbirth or an abortion, nor to those suffering from: over-indulgence in sexual intercourse, headaches, any ailment that involves chilling of the extremities, fever accompanied by coughing, shaking, pains in the sinews, pains in the throat, pains in the groin, induration of the thoracic organs, violent throbbing of the veins, opisthotony, tetanus, hiccups, breathing difficulties accompanied by fever, fixed or bulging eyes, weak or heavy eyes, abnormally bright eyes, eyelids that do not fully close, bloodshot or rheumy eyes, a thick and furry tongue, dysuria, susceptibility to sudden fright, spasms, bouts of torpor, night-time emissions (Pliny, Natural History 23.48).
After a meal, you should drink water in which a blacksmith has dipped red-hot iron, for it is particularly effective in reducing the spleen. It has been observed that animals reared in smithies have very small spleens (Celsus, On Medicine 4.16).
Even if they could not otherwise restrain their appetites and ensure that they did not attack their food like dogs or wild beasts, academics have many fine ways to distract and entertain themselves at the dinner table on scholarly topics. By contrast, athletic trainers and gymnastic coachs regularly assert that intellectual talk at meal times spoils the food and causes headaches. … Medical authorities recommend leaving an interval between dinner and sleep, and that is precisely what academics do. … The time spent on after-dinner discussions is just the right amount of time needed to allow the digestive process to gain control over the food as it gradually settles and coalesces in the stomach (Plutarch, Advice on Preserving One’s Health 133b).
We Greeks regard it as unholy to taste dog flesh, whereas some Thracians are said to eat dogs. Perhaps this was once customary among the Greeks also. Diocles, who was one of the followers of Asclepiades, prescribed puppy flesh to some of his patients (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism 3.225).
Dog flesh warms and dries the body, and is strengthening, but it is not easy to excrete. Puppy flesh moistens the body, and is easy to excrete, but it is more diuretic (Hippocrates, On Diet 46).
Fat of any kind can soften indurations. Of four-footed animals, the best is lion fat, then leopard fat. Bear fat is better than that of bulls or deer. The fat of she-goats is thicker and drier than that of he-goats or donkeys. Of birds, the best is goose fat, then chicken fat. Then that of pheasants and vultures is better than that of any other species of bird (Pseudo-Galen, Galen’s Alphabet 244).
The lung of a wild boar, domestic pig, or young goat, roasted and eaten on the same day, mixed in with one’s food after a period of fasting, keeps intoxication at bay (Pliny, Natural History 28.262).
A bread poultice soaked in a decoction of poppy heads will relieve a headache (Celsus, On Medicine 3.10).
A few days after the seventy-three day siege of Amida, the tribune Discenes calculated that the Persian King Sapor had lost thirty thousand men. It was that much easier to differentiate between the Persians and the Romans because Roman corpses split open and rot so quickly that within four days their faces are quite unrecognizable, whereas the bodies of dead Persians dry up like tree trunks, without their limbs wasting away or putrifying, a consequence of their more frugal lifestyle and the dry heat of their homeland (Ammianus Marcellinus 19.9).
When the god Augustus was ill, his life was saved by the shrewdness of his doctor, Musa, who put him on a lettuce-diet. This made lettuce so popular that a method was devised for pickling it in vinegar to make it available even when it was out of season (Pliny, Natural History 19.128).
Pork is more nourishing than any other food derived from four-footed animals, since it is the meat that tastes and smells most like human flesh, as some people have discovered when they tasted human flesh unawares (Paul of Aegina, Medical Compendium 1.84).
The followers of Erasistratus maintain that food is ground up in the stomach; those of Plistonicus, that it putrifies; the Hippocratics, that it is cooked by the body’s heat. Then there are the supporters of Asclepiades, who consider all such speculations worthless and irrelevant; they believe that there is no such thing as digestion, and that food is distributed round the body in the same crude state as it is swallowed (Celsus, On Medicine Preface 20).