According to the McCormick Science Institute papers, the most significant role of herbs was in healing, followed by food. Numerous references to the high cost of imported spices, especially those from outside the Mediterranean region, appear in Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Arabic, and Indian works. Spice trade from the first millennium BC and several centuries thereafter was controlled by the Phoenicians, who brought spices from the Land of Punt and India and charged high prices for them.
Although Egypt was the crossroads of the ancient Spice Route and had several Red Sea ports, the herbs and spices imported from the Land of Punt, the Islands of Malacca (modern Indonesia), and India would have been too expensive for most people. Only the rich could afford cinnamon, pepper, myrrh, and frankincense to season and enhance banquets of fowl and meat. Paintings of these grand banquets have been discovered at many prominent Egyptian archaeological sites. Thus, the cuisine of most ancient Egyptians was fairly simple. Herodotus describes it as follows: “They eat loaves of bread of coarse grain which they call cyllestis. They make their beverage from barley, for they have no vines in their country. They eat fish raw, sun-dried or preserved in salt brine” (Histories, 2, 77). Many Egyptians relied on vegetarian food and what the Nile River and its flood plains provided. The most common seasoning was salt, along with locally produced herbs and spices like cumin, coriander, marjoram, dill, vinegar, and lettuce seeds. Mustard was cultivated in Egypt, probably starting in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000–1700 BC). Coriander was prized as an aphrodisiac and its seeds, which symbolized eternal love and faithfulness, were planted in tombs as early as 1000 BC.
Romans and Greeks shared culinary customs, though each retained a unique identity. Greece and Rome both imported ginger from India and used cardamom as perfume. Both regarded garlic and leeks as aphrodisiacs. Anise-tasting fennel was popular too: Greeks thought it made a man strong; Romans thought it improved eyesight. The Romans imported Indonesian cloves and nutmeg, which they regarded to be appetite stimulants. Romans used parsley as a garnish, but Greeks considered parsley to be sacred and not eaten. The Romans were particularly fond of rich sauces flavored with vinegar, honey, pepper, and herbs like dill, coriander, fennel, mint, oregano, cumin, saffron, myrtle berries, celery, sesame, anise, oregano, and lavender.
The history of Greek cuisine can be traced back 3,000 years. It is the forerunner of Western cuisine and spread via Rome to Europe and beyond. The ancient Greeks prided themselves on simple, frugal food. Greece has a long coastline, so naturally its cuisine relies heavily on fish and other seafood. Vegetarianism was common, with food largely composed of wheat, olive oil, and wine. Meat was rarely eaten, although fish was more common. Greek herbs included oregano, mint, garlic, onion, dill, bay laurel, basil, thyme, and fennel seeds. Cinnamon and cloves were also used in stews. The Persians introduced Greece to yoghurt, rice, sweets, nuts, honey, and sesame seeds. The conquest of Greece by Rome in 197 BC led to the introduction of sauces and pasta in Greek cuisine. Roman food is also rich in vegetables, low in meat, and influenced by cultural interactions with other nations.
Ancient Roman cuisine was perhaps the most interesting of the ancient cuisines. In early Rome, culinary differences between social classes was small. As Rome conquered more lands (e.g., Greece, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Europe) and became wealthier, its cuisine also evolved. Expensive spices were imported for banquets through the port of Alexandria starting around 200 BC. Pepper, which was extremely expensive and regarded as a symbol of wealth, was used in nearly every major recipe of ancient Rome. In the 1st century AD, the satirist Persius wrote: “The greedy merchants, led by lucre, run To the parch’d Indies and the rising sun From thence hot Pepper and rich Drugs they bear. Bart’ring for Spices their Italian ware …” Spice factories in ancient Rome manufactured combinations of popular spices. Liquamen, for example, was a sauce made from rotting fish guts, vinegar, oil, and pepper. It was regarded as an aphrodisiac. Among the recipes discovered at Pompeii were mushrooms with honey-and-liquamen sauce; soft-boiled eggs with pine kernels and liquamen sauce; and venison with caraway seeds, honey, and liquamen sauce. Another popular plant was laserpithium, the chief export from Libya and a primary spoil of the Punic Wars. It was roasted as a vegetable and the juice from the stems was used as flavoring. Within two centuries, laserpithium was consumed to extinction.
Descriptions of these ancient cuisines were recorded in several books and texts. Archestratos wrote the first cookbook in 320 BC, and Mithaceus was a cook and writer in the 5th century BC. Lynceus of Samos, a comedian around the 4th or 3rd century BC, described Greek food in his writings. Hippolochus (c. 3rd century BC) and Timachidas (c. 100 BC) also wrote about food. Several authors also wrote about the eating habits of ancient Romans. In 160 BC, Cato the Elder wrote De Agricultura, a treatise on agriculture with sections on cuisine. Columella’s De Re Rustica is another famous work on agriculture written around the 1st century AD that contains about 500 recipes. Marcus Apicius, a gourmet and hedonist, compiled a comprehensive treatise on Roman food of his time. Gaius Petronius Arbiter, a courtier who lived during the reign of Nero in the 1st century AD, refers to a lavish banquet called the Dinner of Trimalchio in his satirical novel Satyricon. Exotic food, opulence, and excess were the defining features of Roman banquets. Martial’s Epigrams 1897 describes popular menus and food, especially during the Saturnalia, the most popular feast of the year.
Ancient Jewish food was influenced by Egypt, Mesopotamia, Judea, Greece, and Rome, as well as Persian and Islamic traditions. High costs limited the use of herbs to local species (e.g., capers, coriander, cumin, black cumin, dill, dwarf chicory, hyssop, marjoram, mint, black mustard, saffron, and thyme) and a few imported spices (e.g., myrrh, galbanum, saffron and cinnamon). Garlic and onions, and possibly fenugreek, were eaten as vegetables and used to season cooked foods. Spices for special feasts, like pepper and ginger, were imported by the wealthy and royalty from Arabia and India.