Celebrating Ancient Greek Vegetarians

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

This post is the last of a 3-part series celebrating the views on food and health held by ancient Greek philosophers. This post features Empedocles, Theophrastus, Apollonius, and Porphyry.


c.484 – 424 B.C.

Each man believes only his experience” – Empedocles

Empedocles was born in Akragas, a Greek city on the south shore of Sicily. His early years are sketchy with authors disagreeing on his date of birth and who his parents were. Diogenes tells of the confusion:

“Empedocles was, according to Hippobotus, the son of Meton and grandson of Empedocles…..This is confirmed by Timaeus in the fifteenth book of his Histories…..But Satyrys in his Lives states that Empedocles was the son of Exaenetus…..Telauges, the son of Pythagoras, in his letter to Philolaus calls Empedocles the son of Archinomus” (Diogenes: Hicks: 367-369).

Empedocles was a pre-Socratic poet, physician, and philosopher who wrote On Nature and On Purifications. He was influenced by the Pythagoreans and believed in transmigration. Timaeus in Bk IX of his Histories, claims that Empedocles was dismissed from the Pythagorean school for stealing discourses (ibid: 54: 371). Aristotle credited Empedocles in the Sophist, as the “inventor of rhetoric” (ibid :373).

As a physician, Empedocles made some observations different from the norm. He thought that we breathe through all of our pores and that breathing is closely connected with the action of the blood [circulation]. This has proven to be true because our blood brings oxygen and nutrients to our organs. But the ancient Greeks did not understand blood circulation. Empedocles believed, as did Aristotle following him, that the heart was the main organ of consciousness. He also believed in miraculous cures and was reported to have performed quite a few (ibid :383).

Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius, Bk I, has this to say about Empedocles and how he was influenced by the Pythagoreans: “And the story that he made at Olympia a bull out of pastry and sacrificed it to the god also shows that he approved of the sentiments of Pythagoras” (Philostratus: Loeb:5).

Empedocles writes in Purifications:

“Wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands from beans! Nor had they [dwellers in the Golden Age] any Ares for a god nor Kydoimos, no not King Zeus nor Kronos nor Poseidon, but Kypris the Queen … Her did they propitiate with holy gifts, with painted figures and perfumes of cunning fragrancy, with offerings of pure myrrh and sweet-smelling frankincense, casting on the ground libations of brown honey. And the altar did not reek with pure bull’s blood, but this was held in the greatest abomination among men, to eat the goodly limbs after tearing out the life” (Empedocles: Burnet: 226).

These quotes Philostratus attributes directly to Empedocles:

“Rejoice ye, for I am unto you an immortal God, and no more mortal.” and “For erewhile, I already became both girl and boy” (Philostratus: Loeb: 5).

In his poem On Purifications, Empedocles speaks of his past lives: “For I have been here now a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a dumb fish in the sea” (Empedocles: Burnet: 223:R.P.182).

Empedocles believed that “the soul assumes all the various forms of animals and plants” (Diogenes: Loeb:77:391).

Empedocles empowered plants with souls as well as animals. In the following verses from a passage from the Purifications Empedocles condemns sacrifice:

“There is an oracle of Necessity, an ancient ordinance of the gods, eternal and sealed fast by broad oaths, that whenever one of the daemons, whose portion is length of days, has sinfully polluted his hands with blood, or followed strife and forsworn himself, he must wander thrice ten thousand seasons from the abodes of the blessed, being born throughout the time in all manners of mortal forms, changing one toilsome path of life for another. For the mighty Air drives him into the Sea, and the Sea spews him forth on the dry Earth; Earth tosses him into the beams of the blazing Sun, and he flings him back to the eddies of Air. One takes him from the other, and all reject him. One of these I now am, an exile and a wanderer from the gods, for that I put my trust in insensate strife” (Empedocles: Burnet: 222).

“And the father lifts up his own son in a changed form and slays him with a prayer. Infatuated fool! And they run up to the sacrificers, begging mercy, while he, deaf to their cries, slaughters them in his halls and gets ready the evil feast. In like manner does the son seize his father, and children their mother, tear out their life and eat the kindred flesh” R. P .184b.

Empedocles interpretation about how plants grow was unique. He said plants received their nourishment from both their roots in the earth and leaves in the air. Theophrastus, the ancient botanist who was influenced by Aristotle, thought this was absurd:

“Indeed, it would be strange if the nutritive faculty, which forms the plant and feeds what it has formed, should exercise its activity by turning from one part to another; or again, supposing that what carries out this activity is something corporeal, as pneuma [breath or wind] or fire, that this corporeal thing should do so, for it is unlikely that these should operate in this way either. What is likely instead is that all these, when stirred to activity with the coming of the seasons, should pervade the whole plant equally. For what generates the plant is a single unit, and not divided as Empedocles divides it, letting earth work with the roots and aether [fire] with the shoots, the generator being separate for each. No; the parts come from a single matter and are generated by a single cause” (Theophrastus: Loeb 12.5: 99).

Aetios, as well as the pseudo-Aristotelian document Treatis on Plants, state that Empedocles was  an advocate of plant sentience, an idea that has never received great attention from other vegetarians because of the obvious implications (what would vegetarians eat if both plants and animals were eliminated from the diet because both are capable of experiencing pain)? These works claimed that Empedocles believed that plants were capable of desire, sensation, the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, and that both sexes were combined in each plant (Burnet: 241). Empedocles was correct in thinking that both sexes were present in each plant.

In the late 1960’s Cleve Backster, (1924 – 2013), who worked for the CIA, did research on plants, hooked them up to lie detector machines to determine if they were capable of experiencing emotion. He claimed that when someone came into the room where the plant was with the intent of killing it the plant registered fear on the machine. When I was an undergraduate student at Goddard College in the early 1970’s I tried to replicate Backster’s experiments and got permission from the FBI to do this with their assistance. Our results were mixed. I think the energy one exudes when there is strong intent can have some effect. This may be why people think someone who loves plants has a “green thumb” but I do believe it is in part the energy they are exerting. Mr. Backster spent years doing experiments on plants and wrote a book about his research, Backster, Cleve, Primary Perception: Biocommunication with plants, living foods, and human cells (2003) White Rose Millennium Press, ISBN 0-9664354-3-5

Another view that Empedocles got right according to what we currently believe was that the sun was “a vast collection of fire and larger than the moon” (Diogenes: Loeb:77: 391).

The view of nature espoused by Empedocles was one of a continuing struggle between Strife and Amity. This struggle has parallels with Darwin’s view of evolution and natural selection where only the strong can survive in an ever-challenging, competitive world.

There are forces in nature called Love and Hate. The force of Love causes elements to be attracted to each other and to be built up into some particular form or person, and the force of Hate causes the decomposition of things.” – Empedocles 


c. 370 – 286 B.C.

“True friends visit us in prosperity only when invited, but in adversity they come without invitation” – Theophrastus


Theophrastus was born in Eresus around the year 370 B.C. He was a pupil of Aristotle and took over the school in the year 323 B.C. Diogenes claims that he was a highly, regarded teacher, with around 2,000 attending his lectures (Diogenes: Loeb:37:483).

Diogenes records some of the sayings Theophrastus was known for in his teachings:

“An unbridled horse ought to be trusted sooner than a badly-arranged discourse. To someone who never opened his lips at a banquet he remarked: Yours is a wise course for an ignoramus, but in an educated man it is sheer folly. He used constantly to say that in our expenditure the item that costs most is time” (ibid :40 :487).

Theophrastus was a prolific writer. Diogenes listed the number of books he wrote and said they made up 232,808 lines. His volumes on plants, De Causis Plantarum, present an extensive amount of information on the cultivation and diseases of plants based upon his acute observations. He also wrote volumes on an enormous range of topics including animals, the natural and physical sciences, emotions, literature, and politics. Theophrastus gave the school a distinct scientific bent as well as influencing literature with his character sketches. Unfortunately, many of his books are lost.

Aristotle renamed his pupil Theophrastus whose original name was Tyrtamus, because of “his graceful style” (Diogenes: Loeb:39:485). Theophrastus was a man of considerable means as his will indicated. He is credited with being the “father of botany.” When he died, he stated he wanted to be buried in his garden. He instructed that three of his slaves be emancipated after his death; two more were to be set free if they tended his garden for four years after his death, and if their conduct was “free from blame” (ibid: 55:507). His extensive property was to be divided up among his friends. He left instructions that the museum was to be rebuilt and statues commissioned with his income.

Theophrastus disagreed with his famous teacher Aristotle, about animals. Aristotle thought that only man had reason whereas Theophrastus believed that animals had reason as well. Porphyry in his treatise On Abstinence from Animal Food, discusses how Theophrastus admired and was influenced by the Egyptians in terms of his perception of their sacrifice:

“It seems that the period is of immense antiquity, from which a nation the most learned of all others [the Egyptians] as Theophrastus says, and who inhabit the most sacred region made by the Nile, began first, from the vestal hearth, to sacrifice to the celestial Gods, not myrrh, or cassia, nor the first-fruits of things mingled with the crocus of frankincense; for these were assumed many generations afterwards, in consequence of error gradually increasing, when men, wanting the necessaries of life, offered, with great labour and many tears, some drops of these, as first-fruits to the Gods. Hence, they did not at first sacrifice these, but grass, which, as a certain soft wool of prolific nature, they plucked with their hands. For the earth produced trees prior to animals; and long before trees grass, which germinates annually. Hence, gathering the blades and roots, and all the germs of this herb, they committed them to the flames, as a sacrifice to the visible celestial Gods, to whom they paid immortal honour through fire. For to these, also, we preserve in temples an immortal fire, because it is especially most similar to these divinities. But from the exhalation or smoke of things produced in the earth, they called the offerings thumialeria; to sacrifice, they called thuein, and the sacrifices, thusiai; all which, as if unfolding the error which was afterwards introduced, we do not rightly interpret; since we call the worship of the Gods through the immolation of animals thusia. But so careful were the ancients not to transgress this custom, that against those who, neglecting the pristine, introduced novel models of sacrificing, they employed execrations, and therefore they now denominate the substances which are used for fumigations aromata, i.e. aromatics, [or things of an execrable nature]. The antiquity, however, of the before-mentioned fumigations may be perceived by him who considers that many now also sacrifice certain portions of odoriferous wood. Hence, when after grass, the earth produced trees, and men at first fed on the fruits of the oak; they offered to the Gods but few of the fruits on account of their rarity, but in sacrifices they burnt many of its leaves. After this, however, when human life proceeded to a milder nutriment, and sacrifices from nuts were introduced, they said enough of the oak” (Porphyry:Bk II: 5:65- 66).

Porphyry goes on to say that Theophrastus forbade the sacrificing of animals as a way to be truly pious. He also discusses cultural relativity:

“But what especially proves that everything of this kind originated from injustice, is this, that the same things are neither sacrificed nor eaten in every nation, but that they conjecture what it is fit for them to do from what they find to be useful to themselves. With the Egyptians, therefore, and Phoenicians, anyone would sooner taste human flesh than the flesh of a cow. The cause, however, is that this animal being useful, is also rare among them. Hence, though they eat bulls, and offer them in sacrifice as first-fruits, yet they spare cows for the sake of their progeny, and ordain that, if anyone kill them, it shall be considered as an expiation. And thus, for the sake of utility in one and the same genus of animals, they distinguish what is pious, and what is impious. So that these particulars subsisting after this manner, Theophrastus reasonably forbids those to sacrifice animals who wish to be truly pious; employing these, and other similar arguments, such as the following” (Porphyry:11 :70).

“In the first place, indeed, because we sacrificed animals through the occurrence, as we have said, of a greater necessity. For pestilence and war were the causes that introduced the necessity of eating them. Since, therefore, we are supplied with fruits, what occasion is there to use the sacrifice of necessity? In the next place, the remunerations of, and thanks for benefits, are to be given differently to different persons, according to the worth of the benefit conferred; so that the greatest remunerations, and from things of the most honourable nature, are to be given to those who have benefited us in the greatest degree, and especially if they are the causes of these gifts. But the most beautiful and honourable of those things, by which the Gods benefit us, are the fruits of the earth. For through these they preserve us, and enable us to live legitimately; so that, from these we ought to venerate them. Besides, it is requisite to sacrifice those things by the sacrifice of which we shall not injure anyone. For nothing ought to be so innoxious to all things as sacrifice. But if someone should say that God gave animals for our use, no less than the fruits of the earth, yet it does not follow that they are, therefore, to be sacrificed, because in so doing they are injured, through being deprived of life. For sacrifice is, as the name implies, something holy. But no one is holy who requites a benefit from things which are the property of another, whether he takes fruits or plants from one who is unwilling to be deprived of them. For how can this be holy, when those are injured from whom they are taken? If, however, he who takes away fruit from others does not sacrifice with sanctity, it cannot be holy to sacrifice things taken from others, which are in every respect more honourable than the fruits of the earth. For a more dire deed is thus perpetrated. But soul is much more honourable than the vegetable productions of the earth, which it is not fit, by sacrificing animals, that we should take away” (ibid:12:70-71).

In the preceding paragraph, Porphyry presents the argument that he attributes to Theophrastus, that it is wrong to sacrifice animals, because in so doing, they are injured and deprived of life. It is much better to sacrifice “the vegetable productions of the earth” that are without a soul. Animals, he believes, have a soul and therefore are capable of suffering. He also makes the argument that it is unnecessary to eat animals except in times of pestilence or war. If there are plenty of other foods to eat, why make animals suffer by eating them?

In the following passage, Theophrastus goes even further in his departure from Aristotle’s view about animals. He says that not only do animals have souls, but they are also united by families of animals just as people are by races, and experience emotions such as desire and anger, and are able to reason. Animals possess intellectual abilities and should be respected for this.

“But Theophrastus employs the following reasoning: — Those that are generated from the same sources, I mean from the same father and mother, are said by us to be naturally allied to each other. And moreover, we likewise conceive that those who derive their origin from the same ancestors that we do, are allied to us, and also that this is the case with our fellow-citizens, because they participate with us of the same land, and are united to us by the bonds of association. For we do not think that the latter are allied to each other, and to us, through deriving their origin from the same ancestors, unless it should so happen that the first progenitors of these were the sources of our race or were derived from the same ancestors. Hence, I think we should say, that Greek is allied and has an affinity to Greek, and Barbarian to Barbarian, and all men to each other; for one of these two reasons, either because they originate from the same ancestors, or because they participate of the same food, manners and genus. Thus, also we must admit that all men have an affinity and are allied to each other. And, moreover, the principles of the bodies of all animals are naturally the same. I do not say this with reference to the first elements of their bodies; for plants also consist of these; but I mean the seed, the flesh, and the conascent genus of humours which is inherent in animals. But animals are much more allied to each other, through naturally possessing souls, which are not different from each other. I mean in desire and anger; and besides these, in the reasoning faculty, and above all, in the senses. But as with respect to bodies, so likewise with respect to souls, some animals have them more, but others less perfect, yet all of them have naturally the same principles. And this is evident from the affinity of their passions. If, however, what we have said is true, viz. that such is the generation of the manners of animals, all the tribes of them are indeed intellective, but they differ in their modes of living, and in the temperature of the first elements of which they consist. And if this be admitted, the genus of other animals has an affinity, and is allied to us. For, as Euripides says, they have all of them the same food and the same spirit, the same purple streams; and they likewise demonstrate that the common parents of all of them are Heaven and Earth” (ibid: 25 :138-39).

Food is often political in a variety of ways. Historically food has been used as a way to show off wealth and status within a culture. The social components of a meal are indicators of personal and societal values. If the following passage about Theophrastus is true, he must have been very radical in his day by his use of food and mealtime as a social equalizer. He lived during a time when banquets among the wealthy were the norm. Though Theophrastus had the financial means to eat whatever he wished, he saw common meals as a means to promote democracy.

“. . . Theophrastus says he caused wealth to be neglected, and to be of no value, through the citizens eating at common tables, and the frugality of their food. For there was no use, nor enjoyment of riches; nor, in short, was there anything to gratify the sight, or any ostentatious display in the whole apparatus, because both the poor and the rich sat at the same table. Hence it was universally said, that in Sparta alone, Plutus was seen to be blind, and lying like an inanimate and immovable picture. For it was not possible for the citizens, having previously feasted at home, to go to the common tables with appetites already satiated with food. For the rest carefully observed him who did not eat and drink with them, and reviled him, as an intemperate person, and as one who conducted himself effeminately with respect to the common food. Hence these common tables were called phiditia; either as being the causes of friendship and benevolence, as if they were philitia, or as accustoming men to frugality and a slender diet. But the number of those that assembled at the common table was fifteen, more or less. And each person brought every month, for the purpose of furnishing the table, a medimnus of flour, eight choas of wine, five pounds of cheese, two and a half pounds of figs, and besides all these, a very little quantity of money” (Porphyry:Bk IV: 4:150-51).

Theophrastus wanted rich and poor to mingle at the same table eating simple, unpretentious food together. This democratic position had the potential of creating a classless society.

“He has the most who is most content with the least.”

– Theophrastus

Apollonius of Tiana

c.3 B.C. – c.97 A.D.

 “Don’t keep your good manners to the end another time but begin with them”.



Apollonius was born to wealthy parents in Tyana at the beginning of the Christian era. He was said to have lived to be about one hundred years old and a temple was dedicated to his cult in Tyana after his death (Philostratus: Loeb:Bkl:viii). A biography was written about him by Philostratus who relied on memoirs composed by Apollonius’ disciple Damis, as well as letters and treatises attributed to Apollonius. The incidence of Apollonius’ birth foretold
a mystical life:

“… To his mother, just before he was born, there came an apparition of Proteus, who changes his form so much in Homer, in the guise of an Egyptian demon. She was in no way frightened but asked him what sort of child she would bear. And he answered: “Myself.” “And who are you?” she asked. “Proteus,” answered he, “the god of Egypt.”

For just as the hour of his birth was approaching, his mother was warned in a dream to walk out into the meadow and pluck the flowers; and in due course she came there and her maids attended to the flowers, scattering themselves over the meadow, while she fell asleep lying on the grass. Thereupon the swans who fed in the meadow set up a dance around her as she slept, and lifting their wings, as they are wont to do, cried out aloud all at once, for there was somewhat of a breeze blowing in the meadow. She then leaped up at the sound of their song and bore her child, for any sudden fright is apt to bring on a premature delivery. But the people of the country say that just at the moment of the birth, a thunderbolt seemed about to fall to earth and then rose up into the air and disappeared aloft; and the gods thereby indicated, I think, the great distinction to which the sage was to attain, and hinted in advance how he should transcend all things upon earth and approach the gods, and signified all the things that he would achieve” (Philostratus: Loeb:Bkl:IV & V:p.11-1S).

Apollonius was said to be “conspicuous for his beauty” and attracted attention because of it. His father arranged for his education with a man called Euxenus. Though Euxenus taught him about Pythagoras, “he [Euxenus] was the slave of his belly and appetites, and modelled himself upon Epicurus” (ibid: Bkl:VII :p.17). Apollonius was very much enamored by Pythagoras and when he turned sixteen, decided to live in the manner of Pythagoras.

“And having said this he declined to live upon a flesh diet, on the ground that it was unclean, and also that it made the mind gross; so he partook only of dried fruits and vegetables, for he said that all the fruits of the earth are clean. And of wine he said that it was a clean drink because it is yielded to men by so well- domesticated a plant as the vine; but he declared that it endangered the mental balance and system and darkened, as with mud, the ether which is in the soul. After then having thus purged his interior, he took to walking without shoes by way of adornment and clad himself in linen raiment, declining to wear any animal product; and he let his hair grow long and lived in the Temple” (ibid: VIII:p.19- 20).

Apollonius also rejected marriage and sex. In the true Pythagorean spirit, Apollonius either went without shoes or wore shoes made out of bark, let his hair grow long, and never shaved. He condemned animal sacrifice. Dancing was also something that Apollonius condemned. The Temple he practiced in was the Temple of Asclepius where his reputation as a healer grew. He was said to have magical powers. Apollonius believed that people should only take cold baths, that hot baths aged people prematurely. He carried no money and encouraged others to give to the poor. For a period of five years, Apollonius took a vow of silence. When his parents died, he gave his inheritance to his brother and his poor relatives. The reason he gave to his brother was to try to persuade him to change some of his habits:

“Someone said to him that it was his duty to correct his brother and convert him from his evil ways; whereon he answered: “This would seem a desperate enterprise; for how can I who am the younger one correct and render wise an older man? but so far as I can do anything, I will heal him of these bad passions.” Accordingly he gave to him the half of his own share of the property, on the pretense that he required more than he had, while he himself needed little; and then he pressed him and cleverly persuaded him to submit to the counsels of wisdom, and said: “Our father has departed this life, who educated us both and corrected us, so that you are all that I have left, and I imagine, I am all that you have left. If therefore I do anything wrong, please advise me and cure me of my faults; and in turn if you yourself do anything wrong, suffer me to teach you better. And so he reduced his brother to a reasonable state of mind, just as we break in skittish and unruly horses by stroking and patting them; and he reformed him from his faults, numerous as they were, for he was the slave of play and of wine, and he serenaded courtesans and was vain of his hair, which he dressed up and dyed, strutting about like an arrogant dandy” (ibid: XIII:p.33).

Apollonius travelled to Egypt, Persia, and India. While in Egypt he met with a sect of the naked philosophers led by Thespesion, the oldest among them. In defending his way of life to the Egyptian sages, Apollonius explained that due to his age he had achieved much wisdom about how to live:

“… For I discerned a certain sublimity in the discipline of Pythagoras, and how a certain secret wisdom enabled him to know, not only who he was himself, but also who he had been; and I saw that he approached the altars in purity, and suffered not his belly to be polluted by partaking of the flesh of animals; and that he kept his body pure of all garments woven of dead animal refuse; and that he was the first of mankind to restrain his tongue, inventing a discipline of silence described in the proverbial phrase, “An ox sits upon it.” I also saw that his philosophical system was in other respects oracular and true. So I ran to embrace his teachings, not choosing one form of wisdom rather than another of two presented me, as you, my excellent Thespesion, advise me to do. For philosophy marshalled before me her various points of view, investing them with the adornment proper to each, and she commanded me to look upon them and make a sound choice … ‘Young man, I am unpleasing and a lady full of sorrows; for, if anyone betakes himself to my abode, he must of his own choice put away all dishes which contain the flesh of living animals, and he must forget wine, nor make muddy therewith the cup of wisdom which is set in the souls of those that drink no wine; nor shall blanket keep him warm, nor wool shorn from a living animal. But I allow him shoes of bark, and he must sleep anywhere and anyhow, and if I find my votaries yielding to sensual pleasures, I have precipices to which justice that waits upon wisdom carries them and pushes them over; and I am so harsh to those who make choice of my discipline that I have bits ready to restrain their tongues. But learn from me what rewards you shall reap by enduring all this: Temperance and justice unsought and at once, and the faculty to regard no man with envy, and to be dreaded by tyrants rather than cringe to them, and to have your humble offerings appear sweeter to the gods than the offerings of those who pour out before them the blood of bulls. And when you are pure, I will grant you the faculty of foreknowledge, and I will so fill your eyes with light, that you shall distinguish a god, and recognize a hero, and detect and put to shame the shadowy phantoms which disguise themselves in the form of men.’ This was the life I chose, ye wise of the Egyptians; it was a sound choice and in the spirit of Pythagoras, and in making it I neither deceived myself, nor was deceived; for I have become all that a philosopher should become, and all that she promised to bestow upon the philosopher, that is mine” (Philostratus: Loeb:Bkll:XI:p.39-43).

Thespesion and Apollonius discussed the influence that Egyptian and Indian philosophy had upon Apollonius. Apollonius claimed that he was first greatly influenced by Egyptian thought.

“And I myself, because my youth and inexperience so inclined me, began by looking up to yourselves [Egyptians], because you had the reputation of an extraordinary knowledge of most things” (ibid: XI:p.43-4S).

However, once Apollonius learned about the Indians and their philosophy, he felt it to be more akin to his thinking:

“It was this which turned my steps to the Indians rather than to yourselves; for I reflected that they were more subtle in their understanding, because such men as they live in contact with a purer daylight and entertain truer opinions of nature and of the gods, because they are near unto the latter, and live on the edge and confines of that thermal essence which quickens all unto life” (Ibid).

Apollonius was said to perform many miracles and was able to predict the future. Some thought he was a wizard who practiced evil magic. In fact, he was tried by the emperor for being an evil wizard. The emperor asked him questions about his dress, why some people called him a god, and how he was able to predict things such as plague. Apollonius risked the death penalty if found guilty and was tried in court. He ended up being acquitted in part by reminding the
Emperor that his father [Emperor’s], had the utmost respect for Apollonius.

“Who then will be my advocate while I am defending myself? For if I called upon Zeus to help me, under whom I am conscious of having passed my life, they will accuse me of being a wizard and of bringing heaven down to earth” (ibid: VII :p.293).

Prejudices about diet and dress played a major role in the accusations against Apollonius:

“… for at the beginning of his [accusers] speech he dwelt upon my dress, and by Zeus, upon what I eat and what I do not eat. 0 divine Pythagoras, do thou defend me upon these counts; for we are put upon our trial for a rule of life of which thou wast the discoverer, and of which I am the humble partisan. For the earth, my prince, grows everything for mankind; and those who are pleased to live at peace with the brute creation want nothing, for some fruits they can cull from earth, others they win from her furrows, for she is the nurse of men, as suits the seasons; but these men, as it were deaf to the cries of mother-earth, whet their knife against her children in order to get themselves dress and food. Here then is something which the Brahmans of India themselves condemned, and which they taught the naked sages of Egypt also to condemn; and from them Pythagoras took his rule of life, and he was the first of Hellenes who had intercourse with the Egyptians. And it was his rule to give up and leave her animals to the earth; but all things which she grows, he declared, were pure and undefiled, and ate of them accordingly, because they were best adapted to nourish both body and soul. But the garments which most men wear made of the hides of dead animals, he declared to be impure; and accordingly clad himself in linen, and on the same principles had his shoes woven of byblus. And what were the advantages which he derived from such purity? Many, and before all the privilege of recognizing his own soul” (ibid: VII :p.303-305) .

“. . . You have listened to the statement made even by my accuser, that instead of living like other people, I keep to a light diet of my own, and prefer it to the luxury of others, and I began by saying so myself. This diet, my king, guards my senses in a kind of indescribable ether or clear air, and forbids them to contract any foul or turbid matter, and allows me to discern, as in the sheen of a looking- glass, everything that is happening or is to be” (ibid: VII:p.321).

As part of his elaborate defense of his diet and lifestyle, Apollonius invoked the noble history of such practices that he followed as a religion:

“This I think: I never sacrificed blood, I do not sacrifice it now, I never touch it, not even if it be shed upon an altar; for this was the rule of Pythagoras and likewise of his disciples, and in Egypt also of the Naked sages, and of the sages of India, from whom these principles of wisdom were derived by Pythagoras and his school. In adhering to this way of sacrifice they do not seem to the gods to be criminal; for the latter suffer them to grow old, sound of body and free from disease, and to increase in wisdom daily, to be free from tyranny of others, to be wanting in nothing. Nor do I think it is unlikely that the gods have need of good men in order to offer them pure sacrifices. For I believe that the gods have the same mind as myself in the matter of sacrifice, and that they therefore place those parts of the earth which grow frankincense in the purest region of the world, in order that we may use their resources for the purposes of sacrifice without drawing the knife in their temples or shedding blood upon altars” (ibid: VII:p.339).

Throughout history people claiming to have magical powers have sometimes been persecuted. Apollonius with his unusual physical presence, vegetarian diet, and healing powers was seen by some as a heretic but honored by others for his intuitive gifts.


234 – 305 AD

  He who abstains from anything animate … will be much more careful not to injure those of his own species. For he who loves the genus will not hate any species of animals”

– Porphyry

Porphyry was born in Tyre, Phonenicia, about 232 A.D. Originally, he was called Malchus. He studied in Athens as a young man where he was taught by Longinus who persuaded him to change his name to Porphyry which meant the purple used for royal garments (Wynne-Tyson: 1965:5). In 262 A.D. he moved to Rome where he studied under Plotinus (Wicker: 1987:1).

Porphyry was taught by Plotinus (c. 205 – 270 A.D.) until 268. He became a close friend and edited Plotinus’ writings. Plotinus was a vegetarian, but his writings do not say why. Porphyry wrote a biography of Plotinus in which he states: “He refused also to take medicines containing the flesh of wild beasts, giving as his reason that he did not approve of eating the flesh even of domestic animals” (Porphyry: Loeb:2:p.5). Porphyry begins his biography by saying:

“Plotinus, the philosopher of our times, seemed ashamed of being in the body. As a result of this state of mind he could never bear to talk about his race or his parents or his native country” (Porphyry: Loeb:1:p.3).

It is thought that Plotinus was born in Egypt and spent his years as a philosopher in Rome. Porphyry says that Plotinus would not reveal his actual birth date to anyone because he did not want a sacrifice or feast to celebrate. However, Porphyry relates this rather bizarre admission that Plotinus related about his youth:

“All the same, he did often in the course of conversation spontaneously tell us something about his early life, to the following effect. Up to the age of eight, though he was already going to school, he used to keep going to his nurse and baring her breasts and wanting to suck; but when someone once told him that he was a little pest he was ashamed and stopped” (Porphyry: Loeb:3:p.9).

The task of editing Plotinus’ writings was not an easy job, for his style was stream of consciousness:

“In writing he did not form the letters with any regard to appearance or divide his syllables correctly, and he paid no attention to spelling. He was wholly concerned with thought; and, which surprised us all, he went on in this way right up to the end. He worked out his train of thought from beginning to end in his own mind, he wrote as continuously as if he was copying from a book” (ibid: 8:p.29).

However, most writers can certainly identify with Plotinus’ sentiment: “When Plotinus had written anything he could never bear to go over it twice; even to read it through once was too much for him (ibid: 8:p.29).

Porphyry claimed that his teacher had God like qualities and could look at people and tell what they were thinking.

“He once noticed that I, Porphyry, was thinking of removing myself from this life. He came to me unexpectedly while I was staying indoors in my house and told me that this lust for death did not come from a settled rational decision but from a bilious indisposition and urged me to go away for a holiday. I obeyed him and went to Sicily, since I had heard that a distinguished man called Probus was living near Lilybaeum. So I was brought to abandon my longing for death and prevented from staying with Plotinus to the end” (ibid:11:p.37).

Plotinus had many women students as well as men. While he does not say in his writings why he was a vegetarian, Porphyry writes about his own vegetarianism extensively in On Abstinence from Animal Food. One can assume that some of the arguments Porphyry puts forth are similar to those of his admired teacher.

Late in life, Porphyry married Marcella, the widow of one of friends and a philosopher in her own right. He married her as a way to educate her children and provide her with a partner “suited to her character.” Eunapius, Porphyry’s biographer gives this account of the marriage:

“It seems that he entered the married state, and a book of his is extant addressed to his wife Marcella; he says that he married her, although she was already the mother of five children, and this was not that he might have children by her, but that those she had might be educated; for the father of his wife’s children had been a friend of his own” (Eunapius: Wicker: 1987:4-5).

Porphyry was a prolific writer but unfortunately few of his texts remain. One reason for this is because he was viewed as an enemy to Christianity. His primary work was an attack on Christianity, and it was publicly burned by Constantine and then abolished by Theodosius. The only record we have of this work are fragments preserved by other authors. A letter from Constantine delights in the destruction of Porphyry’s work:

“Porphyry, that enemy of true piety, has received a fit reward for his impious writings against religion, so that he is made infamous to all future times, and covered with reproach, and his impious writings have been destroyed” (Wynne-Tyson:1965:6).

On Abstinence was written to a former disciple of Porphyry’s, Firmus, who later became a Christian and resumed the practice of eating meat. Porphyry puts forth numerous arguments why
philosophers should not eat meat. His arguments are very logical. For example, Porphyry claims that the only faculty that animals lack that humans have is human speech (they have their own speech that we can’t understand). If animals were able to speak to us and ask us not to kill and eat them, would we still be inclined to cut their throats? Just because we can’t understand their form of language, does that mean we therefore have the right to kill and eat people who speak a language we don’t comprehend?

Not only can animals think, feel, and understand as humans can, they can also show a range of emotions. Since we observe that they can become “mad”, this implies that they are normally rational. So animals possess reason.

Porphyry was a pagan at the end of the ancient period in Greek Philosophy. He was against the excesses of the church and wrote a book Against the Christians. He also believed that people should not be intimidated by those who have different views and should stand up for their beliefs.

Porphyry claims that humans historically did not eat raw meat. It wasn’t until the advent of fire that meat eating became common. The only just cause for killing animals is if they are “brutes”, creatures that unjustly attack humans. A wolf or a lion are brutes and can be killed because they pose a threat to others. A snake will not bite unless provoked, but it still poses a threat to humans. But still, even if it is justified to kill a brute, it is not justified to then eat them. Porphyry uses the argument that just because some people are unjust, does that give us the right to eat them?

What food is just to eat? Porphyry brings up the issue of plants and honey and why we are justified in eating them:

“Someone, however, perhaps may say, that we also take away something from plants [when we eat and sacrifice them to the Gods]. But the ablation is not similar; since we do not take this away from those who are unwilling that we should. For, if we omitted to gather them, they would spontaneously drop their fruits. The gathering of the fruits, also, is not attended with the destruction of the plants, as it is when animals lose their animating principle. And, with respect to the fruit which we receive from bees, since this is obtained by our labour, it is fit that we should derive a common benefit from it. For bees collect their honey from plants; but we carefully attend to them. On which account it is requisite that such a division should be made [of our attention and their labour] that they may suffer no injury. But that which is useless to them, and beneficial to us, will be the reward which we receive from them [of our attention to their concerns]. In sacrifices, therefore, we should abstain from animals. For, though all things are in reality the property of the Gods, yet plants appear to be our property; since we sow and cultivate them, and nourish them by other attentions which we pay to them. We ought to sacrifice, therefore, from our own property, and not from the property of others; since that which may be procured at a small expense, and which may easily be obtained, is more holy, more acceptable to the Gods, and better adapted to the purposes of sacrifice, and to the exercise of continual piety. Hence, that which is neither holy, nor to be obtained at a small expense, is not to be offered in sacrifice, even though it should be present” (Porphyry: Bk11 :13:p.71).

In Porphyry’s view the Gods are not greedy, but rather of the philosophy that “small is beautiful.” No wonder the Christians had such a hard time with this, as their churches became filled with gold. Porphyry goes on to explain that not only are animals expensive, city dwellers usually don’t have access to them. But city dwellers do not grow their own fruits and vegetables either. However, these items are plentiful and inexpensive to purchase. The Gods take greater pleasure in small offerings and are not materialistic. More is not better:

“Experience also testifies that the Gods rejoice in this more than in sumptuous offerings. For when that Thessalian sacrificed to the Pythian deity oxen with gilt horns, and hecatombs, Apollo said, that the offering of Hermioneus was more gratifying to him, though he had only sacrificed as much meal as he could take with his three fingers out of a sack. But when the Thessalian, on hearing this, placed all the rest of his offerings on the altar the God again said, that by so doing his present was doubly more unacceptable to him than his former offering. Hence the sacrifice which is attended with a small expense is pleasing to the Gods, and divinity looks more to the disposition and manners of those that sacrifice, than to the multitude of the things which are sacrificed” (Porphyry: Bk 11 :15:p.72).

Antiphanes relates a poem that Porphyry records, expressing the same sentiment:

In simple offerings most the Gods delight:
For though before them hecatombs are placed,
Yet frankincense is burnt the last of all.
An indication this that all the rest,
Preceding, was a vain expense, bestowed
Through ostentation, for the sake of men;
But a small offering gratifies the Gods.
(Porphyry: Bk11 :17:p.74)

Fruits are the best foods of all to sacrifice. In this passage Porphyry describes them as luscious and female, the ultimate earth mother:

“But the benefit derived from fruits is the first and the greatest of all others, and which, as soon as they are matured, should alone be offered to the Gods, and to Earth, by whom they are produced. For she is the common Vesta of Gods and men; and it is requisite that all of us, reclining on her surface, as on the bosom of our mother and nurse, should celebrate her divinity, and love her with a parental affection, as the source of our existence. For thus, when we exchange this life for another, we shall again be thought worthy of a residence in the heavens, and of associating with all the celestial Gods, whom, now beholding, we ought to venerate with those fruits of which they are the causes, sacrificing indeed to them from all these, when they have arrived at maturity, but not conceiving all of us to be sufficiently worthy to sacrifice to the Gods” (ibid: Bk11 :32:p.85-6).

The ultimate sacrifice, however, is immaterial:

“To the Gods, indeed, the most excellent offering is a pure intellect and an impassive soul, and also a moderate oblation of our own property and of other things, and this not negligently, but with the greatest alacrity” (ibid: Bk11: 61: p.107).

Porphyry cites Plato in stating that once a philosopher is on the right path, s/he should not be dissuaded by criticism. It is the duty of philosophy to try to change depraved individuals. If this proves to be impossible, then it is best to disassociate oneself from those who are not willing to change, so that they will not influence you in a negative way. He discusses the impenetrable nature of food taboos and prejudices:

“… that the Syrians indeed will not taste fish, nor the Hebrews swine, nor most of the Phoenicians and Egyptians cows; and though many kings have endeavored to change these customs, yet those that adopt them would rather suffer death, than a transgression of the law [which forbids them to eat these animals] and yet that we should choose to transgress the laws of nature and divine precepts through the fear of men, or of a certain denunciation of evil from them. For the divine choir of Gods, and divine men, may justly be greatly indignant with us, if it perceives us directing our attention to the opinions of depraved men, and idly looking to the terror with which they are attended, though we daily meditate how we may become [philosophically] dead to other things in the present life” (ibid: Bk11:61 p.108).

Animals deserve justice in part because they possess reason, consisting of external speech and the disposition of the soul. Animals can understand commands from their masters. They know when they are being spoken to in anger or with kindness. Animals also have a sense of justice within their species. Certain behaviors are not tolerated within the animal world. Humans have had long- standing relationships with animals where we attribute moral attitudes to them. Take for example, the fables where animals are given all types of emotions and analyze morality.

Porphyry believed it was unnatural, unnecessary, and vile to eat the dead bodies of animals. Eating animals would pollute the soul and lead one astray from the just life. The gods did not demand the killing of animals to make them happy. A harmless diet was the humane way to live, and it was the duty of philosophers to lead the way by their example.


The ancient Greek vegetarians had several views in common. Most of their beliefs were based upon the Pythagorean tradition of abstaining from meat for ethical reasons. Transmigration of the soul was accepted by all of the vegetarians featured in this post as a major reason for not eating animals. The implication was that if animals were eaten, a form of cannibalism was potentially taking place. No one knew for sure if the animal had been a person in his/her former life. Humans and animals were part of nature’s cosmic cycle. Ovid expresses this outlook in his Metamorphoses Bk XV:

“Our souls are deathless, and ever, when they have left their former seat, do they live in new abodes and dwell in the bodies that have received them … All things are changing; nothing dies. The spirit wanders, comes now here, now there, and occupies whatever frame it pleases. From beasts it passes into human bodies, and from our bodies into beasts, but never perishes … Therefore, lest your piety be overcome by appetite, I warn you as a seer, do not drive out by impious slaughter what may be kindred souls, and let not life be fed on life” (Ovid: Loeb:165- 175:p.377).

The ancient vegetarians were early animal rights advocates, attuned to the sensitivities of animals. Eloquent arguments were made on behalf of animals, crediting them with the ability to understand language and think rationally. To sacrifice animals to the gods was an unnecessary and unspeakable horror.  I am sure these philosophers would be appalled by the contemporary practice of sacrificing animals for science in the animal testing laboratories.

Animal products were not to be used either. Wool from sheep and leather were shunned. However, honey was an acceptable food, and an elaborate explanation is given by Porphyry. Cheese was also eaten in moderation by a few of the early vegetarians, so some animal products were acceptable on a limited basis.

The vegetarian philosophers were responding in part to some of the behavioral excess around them. They all preached moderation in diet, temperance in drinking wine, and sexual abstinence or restraint. A pure life was one that did not over-indulge the senses.

Uniqueness in appearance and dress made the vegetarians physically stand out from the norm. With long hair, beards, and bare feet, they were making a statement about values. The parallels to the 1960’s are striking although moderation was certainly not part of the 1960’s agenda. The ancient vegetarians were anti- establishment in rejecting animal sacrifice, a prevailing religious

In ancient times as now, there is often a price to pay for taking a strong moral position that bucks the system. Apollonius was put on trial because people thought him a wizard who performed evil magic. One is reminded of the Salem Witch trials over time. Porphyry’s books were publicly destroyed because they argued against Christianity. Around the time of Porphyry, Christianity developed it’s grasp on western thought, and the school of philosophy in Athens was closed.  What would have happened if philosophy continued to flourish as a challenge to prominent thought?

It is interesting to realize that Empedocles came very close to developing a theory of evolution. Empedocles even went so far as to include plants as beings with souls. Aristotle, whose view dominated, thought that animals did not have a soul and so therefore it was just to eat them. Aristotle and the Judea-Christian tradition following him, believed that animals were put on earth by God to be dominated by man.

Pythagoras founded a school in Italy at Croton that was famous and included women. He a had students go through periods of silence so they could reflect on their thoughts. He banned the eating of anything animal and his followers did not wear wool or leather.

Theophrastus is credited as the ‘Father of Botany”. He conducted hundreds of experiments on plants and wrote extensively about this work. Two of his books, Enquiry into Plants, and On the Causes of Plants, had major influence on how people observed and grew plants which he classified as to food, medicinal, soil health, and stated their nutrient and climatic requirements. His work was highly regarded and during the renaissance served as a guide to gardening considerations.

The ancient Greek philosophers predominately came from privileged backgrounds but espoused an egalitarian philosophy of being kind to others including plants and animals. They appreciated the fact that humans were not on earth to dominate the natural world but to honor the special abilities of other living beings that had their own way of functioning and communicating which should be observed and honored.

We have managed to get ourselves embroiled in ecological destruction due to our attitude that humans are superior to other life forms, and plants and animals are here to serve our needs. One can only wonder if the ancient vegetarians had gained greater popularity in their views about the role humans play within nature, would the earth’s resources have been as exploited by humans to the extent that they are today.



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