Feeding Armies Throughout History
From Sparta to the Mongol Empire, soldiers needed fuel for the fight.
Feeding physically active soldiers requires thousands of calories a day more than the average civilian consumes. Here’s what some of history’s most notable warriors ate:
The Spartans: Spartans weren’t exactly known for their luxurious lifestyles, but their warriors typically got a reasonable balance of barley, bread, and cheese. Melas zomos, or “black soup,” was one of the staple foods that kept the notoriously tough Spartan soldiers battle-ready. The broth gets its dark hue from pig’s blood, emulsified with vinegar, which would have packed extra iron into the diet.
The Mongols: At the height of its power, the Mongol Empire covered roughly 12 million square miles. The nomadic warriors who claimed new territory could live for days on little more than meat jerky, dried cheese curds, and airag, a fermented mare’s milk. The latter had about 2 percent ABV, which made it boozy enough to keep for long journeys, but not enough to get the Mongols too intoxicated for battle.
The Romans: Roman legionnaires relied heavily on grains such as millet and emmer wheat for sustenance, often in the form of a simple porridge, or puls, which earned them the nickname “porridge-eaters.” Since the Romans had a tendency to raid conquered villages for food supplies, they often ate relatively well. By some accounts, they even taught their Northern European subjects to make cheese, so as to have a ready supply.
The Vikings: While on land, Vikings at all levels of society enjoyed a diet higher in meat and fish than many of their European counterparts. At sea, however, meals were pretty barebones. Excavations of Viking ships show no full-size galleys. Archeologists believe they subsisted largely on dried halibut and other fish, as well as hafnest, a kind of grain porridge enriched with butter and cooked in a large riveted pot. After days of nothing but this gruel, it’s no wonder they were so eager to plunder coastal villages.
Return to “How to Feed an Army,” about our visit to the world’s largest and most advanced military food R&D lab.
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