Biblical Studies Greco-Roman Meals
Jan Heilmann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0326


In the Greco-Roman world it was customary to eat three meals. Breakfast (ἀκράτισμα akratisma/ientaculum) and lunch (ἄριστον ariston/prandium) only served to satisfy the hunger and had no particular social function. In contrast, the main meal in the late afternoon or early evening functioned as the decisive space where communion of social groups was constituted and could therefore possess various symbolic or theological connotations. The participants of the main meal generally reclined on dining couches, as the semantics of reclining terminology in ancient Judaism and early Christianity shows. In the Greco-Roman world, communal meals were divided into an actual meal (δεῖπνον deipnon/epulum) and a subsequent banquet (συμπόσιον symposion; ποτός potos/comissatio). Constituent elements of the banquet were the drinking of mixed wine and the common table talk which could be extended by an entertainment program with, e.g., music, dance, games, poetic contributions, or erotic entertainment. A symposiarch, one of the symposiasts, was responsible both for determining the mixing ratio of the wine and for guiding the table conversation. The transition between meal and banquet was marked by a sung prayer accompanied by a libation. In pagan as well as in Jewish and Christian contexts, the consumed food and drink variated according to the economic and social position of the householder or host. Bread, which also served as cutlery, formed the basis of satiety. Even in poorer circumstances there was a so-called opson (addition to the bread), which mostly consisted of vegetarian dishes as well as dips and sauces. In higher social classes, also in proximity to the coast or lakes, it was supplemented by fish, occasionally also by meat.

General Overviews

The early studies on the meal in early Christianity in the 20th century mainly asked questions about genetical development of the Eucharistic meal, being, above all, highly impacted by meal type theories proposed by Lietzmann 1926. Since the mid-1990s the paradigm shifted toward the approach that the communal meal in early Christianity and early Judaism should be understood as part of the Greco-Roman meal culture of Antiquity. This paradigm is mainly documented in Klinghardt 1996 (a short overview in Klinghardt 2012), McGowan 1999, Smith 2003, and Taussig 2009. Smit 2008 provides a broad analysis of eschatological meals in the New Testament. Garnsey 2002 explores the role of food in Antiquity; Stein-Hölkeskamp 2005 provides an overview of communal meals in Rome, and Bettenworth 2004 compares meal scenes in ancient epic poetry, from which important methodological insights for the evaluation of literary accounts of meals as a whole can be derived.

  • Al-Suadi, Soham, and Peter-Ben Smit, eds. T&T Clark Handbook to Early Christian Meals in the Greco-Roman World. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

    A comprehensive overview of meals in the Greco-Roman world and early Christianity in twenty-seven essays.

  • Bettenworth, Anja. Gastmahlszenen in der antiken Epik von Homer bis Claudian: Diachrone Untersuchungen zur Szenentypik. Hypomnemata 153. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004.

    DOI: 10.13109/9783666252525

    A diachronic study of literary forms of guest meal scenes in ancient Greek and Latin epic poetry. Based on a typical scheme of guest-meal scenes and its structural elements, through analyzing forty examples, Bettenworth determines the norm of guest-meal scenes, deviations from that norm, as well as “Antigastmähler” as an opposite to it.

  • Garnsey, Peter D. A. Food and Society in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    A comprehensive exploration of the cultural and biological aspects of food in antiquity, based on a wide range of evidence. Garnsey investigates various facets of the diet, including how it variated according to social status, economic aspects of food, crises, and malnutrition. Additionally, he addresses food as a marker of formation of the group identity, dietary restrictions, the role of meals in families, as well as the significance of the meal for symbolizing the social status of individuals and groups.

  • Klinghardt, Matthias. Gemeinschaftsmahl und Mahlgemeinschaft: Soziologie und Liturgie Frühchristlicher Mahlfeiern. Texte und Arbeiten zum neutestamentlichen Zeitalter 13. Tübingen, Germany and Basel, Switzerland: Francke, 1996.

    A landmark research and key publication that contextualizes early Christian meals within the broader context of meals in the Greco-Roman world. Klinghardt convincingly rejects older theories of the evolution of the Eucharistic ritual and interprets the texts about meals in early Judaism, 1 Corinthians, and Didache against the background of characteristics of the Greco-Roman meal. Of particular interest is his discussion of the emergence of the Eucharistic ritual in Late Antiquity.

  • Klinghardt, Matthias. “A Typology of the Communal Meal.” In Meals in the Early Christian World: Social Formation, Experimentation, and Conflict at the Table. Edited by Dennis E. Smith and Hal Taussig, 9–22. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137032485_2

    The article provides a concise description of the typical elements of communal meals in the Greco-Roman world, which serves as a valuable starting point for further exploration of the subject.

  • Lietzmann, Hans. Messe und Herrenmahl: Eine Studie Zur Geschichte der Liturgie. Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 8. Bonn, Germany: Marcus und Weber, 1926.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783111324012

    An influential study of the liturgical history of ancient Christianity, distinguishing between agape meals as full meals on the one hand and a religiously connoted ritual with emblematic portions of bread and wine on the other, from which the Eucharistic ritual developed.

  • McGowan, Andrew B. Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198269724.001.0001

    The book explores the role of food and drink in early Christian meals, with a particular focus on ascetic meal practices. The book reveals the diverse range of foods consumed in early Christian meals and highlights the prevalence of ascetic attitudes. By providing a fresh perspective on early Christian meals, the author challenges traditional approaches to understanding the origins of the Eucharist, which have been shaped by retrojecting later forms of the Eucharistic ritual.

  • Smit, Peter-Ben. Fellowship and Food in the Kingdom: Eschatological Meals and Scenes of Utopian Abundance in the New Testament. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2. Reihe 234. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1628/978-3-16-151577-4

    A detailed study of eschatological meals and scenes of utopian abundance in the Gospels and Revelation. Using an elaborate typology, Smit provides a nuanced analysis of the texts in terms of their diverse tradition history and describes the relation of the texts to Greco-Roman “symposiastic ideology” as well as meal scenes in the New Testament.

  • Smith, Dennis E. From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

    One of the important publications of research that contextualizes early Christian meals within the wider context of meals in the Greco-Roman world. Smith investigates the symbolic significance of the communal meal and explores how it functioned as a means of creating and maintaining social cohesion and solidarity within Christian groups.

  • Stein-Hölkeskamp, Elke. Das römische Gastmahl: Eine Kulturgeschichte. 2d ed. Munich: Beck, 2010.

    This book, written in an engaging manner, provides a cultural-historical introduction to the meal and hospitality of the Roman elites. Stein-Hölkeskamp addresses questions of the social status of the participants, spatial and temporal aspects of the meal (including the furniture of the dining room and dishes), the menu with a focus on particular gourmet food, as well the entertainment program at the symposium.

  • Taussig, Hal. In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

    This book continues the research of Klinghardt 1996 and Smith 2003 and brings an important ritual theoretical elaboration into discussion. Taussig addresses, among other things, the importance of meals for the processes of identity formation and for the determination of social relations in early Christianity.

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