An Ancient Tirade on Gluttony That Still Rings True—History’s Lesson on Carbon Food-Prints
An Ancient Tirade on Gluttony That Still Rings True—History’s Lesson on Carbon Food-Prints

Food traveled far in the Roman empire. Today, it likewise travels from far-off places to feed our exotic tastes. There may be some lessons to learn from history.

Gluttony, food orgies, wastefulness, and the like were common as the Roman Empire declined. Many Romans, and not just the emperors, ate exotic foods. Historians, such as Suetonius, described the dishes, containing ingredients from the far reaches of the empire—hummingbird tongues, pike liver, brains of pheasant and peacock, flamingo tongue, and more.

Giraffe was on menus in the Roman city of Pompeii. The giraffe meat would have traveled 2,998 miles (4,823 kilometers) from Nigeria.

The Eat Low Carbon website helps us figure out the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the lengthy transport (or means of production) of our common foods. For example, on the lower end of the scale, seasonal fruit scores 84 points and a Philly Cheesesteak scores 3,228 points (partly because cows emit methane gas). The points represent a measurement of the overall carbon toll, the “carbon dioxide equivalent.”

It is probably the only food measure in which sugar cookies score relatively well, with only 177 points.


Plato Extols Temperance 

Plato, as painted by Raphael in “The School of Athens,” 16th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

While the Romans had a diet with a high carbon food-print, like many of us do today, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato extolled the virtues of temperance and moderation in eating. Plato linked the end of the Persian empire to the festive Persian lifestyle. Ancient Greeks ate little meat and never drank wine pure, but would always mix it with water. Greeks emphasized food etiquette as a sign of being highly civilized.

Plato said: “In order then that disease might not quickly destroy us, and lest our mortal race should perish without fulfilling its end–intending to provide against this, the gods made what is called the lower belly, to be a receptacle for the superfluous meat and drink, and formed the convolution of the bowels, so that the food might be prevented from passing quickly through and compelling the body to require more food, thus producing insatiable gluttony and making the whole race an enemy to philosophy and culture, and rebellious against the divinest element within us.” (Timaeus, 72e-73a)


How to Consider Your Carbon Food-Print and a Different Kind of Low-Carb Diet

1. Try to eat all the food you buy, to reduce waste.
2. Eat food that is in season and locally made.
3. Mooove away from beef and cheese.
4. Try not to buy food that was shipped by air.
5. Cut down on processed and packaged food.

  • HeyJude

    We are wasteful with food. The amount that gets thrown away in this country could probably feed a whole starving nation. Of course we have to be careful with sanitation issues, but it’s crazy to know that donating perfectly good left over foods from restaurants, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, etc., is often illegal. So many are “required” to dump it. Waitress puts a whole loaf of bread on your table that you didn’t touch? It has to be thrown out and not used for anyone else. With so many people in need, this is crazy. I’m sure a starving person would not care that it was on my table uncovered for 20 min. :-(

    • chenelope

      It’s a shame all right.It’s probably because businesses are terrified that someone will make a compensation claim against them if they get sick, feigned or otherwise, after eating the unwanted food. They have to comply with health and safety. I’d like to think the leftover meat the livestock died to provide us with gets recycled for pet food, but the landfill is its most likely destination

  • Sharyn

    And many of those food orgies and tales of gluttony were highly exaggerated. Pfft. WE ARE the real gluttons, now.

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