A Taste of the Ancient World:
Religion and Death

Gods were believed to watch over the success or failure of crops. Sacrifice - the offering of food to the gods - formed the principal link between mortals and the beings they worshipped. Death was observed and the dead commemorated with meals. Nothing played a more integral role in religious practices and beliefs in the ancient world than the sharing and consumption of food.


KM 79.4.6
Late 4th c BC

A shallow dish used in the performance of sacrificial rituals in ancient Greece, Etruria, and Rome, the phiale was intended to hold wine or the blood of a slain victim for pouring on the altar. Blood sacrifices were thought to link the human and divine spheres, and were celebrated on countless occasions. Sacrificial victims were usually domestic animals such as goats, sheep, pig and oxen. Their flesh would be shared and consumed by the worshipers present at the sacrifice.



 Incense burner: knife
KM 94582
Probably from Karanis, Egypt

 Incense burner: urceus
KM 94582
Probably from Karanis, Egypt

In the form of a large public altar in miniature (although it is solid stone, it weighs only three pounds), the size of this incense burner indicates usage in a private setting, probably a household shrine. Carvings of a knife, phiale, lituus (ritual stick), and urceus (ritual jug), one on each of the altar's four sides, illustrate the essential equipment for animal sacrifice.


 Cinerary Urn
KM 1461
ca. 150 BC
Rome, Italy

Human ashes were placed inside this Etruscan urn, the front of which depicts a mythical battle between two Greek heros, the sons of Oedipus. On top is a representation of the deceased, who reclines as if he were dining at a table. Reclining banqueters were also painted on the interior of many Etruscan tombs. Food played an important part in ancient funerals, with meals served to feed both the dead and the living left behind.


 Funerary Inscription
KM 932
late 1st- 2nd c AD
Pozzuoli, Italy

In the second line from the bottom, this funerary inscription mentions a taberna (food shop) located on the grave plot. Tabernae, which sold cheap foodstuffs and provided a modest income to their proprietors, were more usually part of residential complexes. This tomb plot, functioning as a place to mourn, pray, celebrate and eat, illustrates the integral role of food in both life and death in the ancient world.


This segment marks the end of A Taste of the Ancient World. For bibliography and more links to information about ancient food, please visit the syllabus for Classical Civilization 452: Food in the Ancient World: Subsistence and Symbol, the class which produced this exhibit.

Exhibit Index

 Feeding Karanis

Exhibit Acknowledgements


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