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Unearthing the Ancient Roots of Vegetarianism

Unearthing the Ancient Roots of Vegetarianism

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The vegetarian diet has become very popular around the world over the last decades. However, the history of this lifestyle and its foundation on the respect for animal life and the planet has its roots in the Indus River valley and ancient Greece.

Vegetarianism has been known about and practiced since ancient times. Although ancient people are sometimes depicted with loads of meat on their dinner tables, this image may be based more on artistic creativity than reality. In fact, it seems that humanity in general has only eaten larger quantities of meat for the last 1,000 years. Before then, the consumption of meat was less popular. This could have been due in part to problems associated with hunting. For example, in desert countries like Egypt it would have been extremely difficult to produce enough meat for the whole population. Many ancient people also had a different worldview – one which was largely forgotten by later generations.

Eating large quantities of meat may only have occurred in the last 1,000 years

Eating large quantities of meat may only have occurred in the last 1,000 years (public domain)

Respecting Animals in Asia

It is known that prehistoric people sacrificed animals during rituals. The discovery of animal bones also shows that they were not vegetarians. However, with time some people started to avoid a diet based on meat and preferred to consume plants instead. Ancient writings suggest the first reason for this change was due to a different perception of life and the world of animals.

Evidence suggests that the founders of a non-meat diet lived in Asia, especially in ancient Indian civilizations. One of the foremost advocates of Buddhist vegetarianism was the emperor Ashoka (304-232 BC), who tried to encourage people to care for animals.

Ashoka's queen standing in front of the railings of the Buddhist monument at Sanchi.

Ashoka's queen standing in front of the railings of the Buddhist monument at Sanchi. (Public Domain)

Ashoka’s vision was to stop animal sacrifice and teach people to respect animals. In his edicts he wrote:

"Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dhamma edict to be written.  Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. Nor should festivals be held, for Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, sees much to object to in such festivals, although there are some festivals that Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does approve of.

(…) Twenty-six years after my coronation various animals were declared to be protected—parrots, mainas, aruna, ruddy geese, wild ducks, nandimukhas, gelatas, bats, queen ants, terrapins, boneless fish, vedareyaka, gangapuputaka, sankiya fish, tortoises, porcupines, squirrels, deer, bulls, okapinda, wild asses, wild pigeons, domestic pigeons and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible. Those nanny goats, ewes and sows which are with young or giving milk to their young are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old. Cocks are not to be caponized, husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures. One animal is not to be fed to another."

The vegetarian diet appears in many other ancient Asian religious and cultural writings. Vegetarianism is mostly associated with two religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. Although currently some followers of these religions disagree with the aversion to eating meat, traditionally it was a strong part of their religious practices.

In ancient Japan, Emperor Temmu banned the eating of wild animal meat in 675 AD. Japanese people from the Nara to the Meiji restoration period (about 1,200 years), ate mostly rice with beans and vegetables. Fish was served occasionally, but their national cuisine was almost completely vegetarian. The ancient Japanese people also had a very long lifetime during this period, but that started to change after the rise of Emperor Meiji - who canceled the ancient ban on meat in the second half of the 19th century.

Vegetarianism in Ancient Europe

The first accounts of vegetarian people come from Herodotus, who wrote about people from the North African coast. Later, Diodorus Siculus explained that tribes in Ethiopia didn’t eat meat either. In the 6th century BC, the vegetarian diet arrived to Greece. The famous philosopher Pythagoras wrote of the religious movement of ‘The Orphics’ which promoted an aversion to eating meat as well. Pythagoras was one of the first of the western philosophers to promote a vegetarian lifestyle - his followers didn't have to be vegetarians, but many were. It is unknown if that was the first time a thought like this had appeared in Europe, but older written records discussing vegetarianism have not been found there.

Pythagoras advocating vegetarianism, painting by Rubens.

Pythagoras advocating vegetarianism, painting by Rubens. (Public Domain)

The philosopher known as Empedocles who lived during the 5th century also wrote declarations which made him a radical advocate for animal rights and vegetarianism. Plato, Hesiod, and Ovid suggested that not eating meat is good for humans. Moreover, some Stoics and Cynics also supported this idea. Plato’s academy had a huge following of vegetarianism too. Xenocrates, and Polemon didn't eat meat. Also, Porphyry, Plutarch, and Plotinus tried to be vegetarians (but it is unknown how long they followed this diet.)

Christian Vegetarianism

It is believed that the famous theologians St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine, and St Francis of Assisi were also vegetarians. However, due to the lack of resources this has not been confirmed. According to some writings, the first Christians preferred vegetarianism.

Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Saint Thomas Aquinas. (Public Domain)

Vegetarianism was a normal thing in early Greek-Orthodox Christianity. In Russia, Greece, Serbia, Cyprus and other Orthodox countries people who belonged to the church followed a diet which was free of meat (and alcohol too).

The Rebirth of Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism largely disappeared in Europe between the 4th and 6th centuries. However, it was still practiced by several early Christian orders of monks in medieval Europe, who banned the eating of meat (but not fish) for religious reasons. The non-meat diet returned in popularity for a time during the Renaissance and currently it is being reborn once again.

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. (Public Domain) He was among some of the first famous individuals from the European Renaissance era who supported vegetarianism

Top image: Krishna with cows, herdsmen and Gopis, Pahari painting [Himalayan] . Source: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak


Colin Spencer, Vegetarianism: A History, 2004.

Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism: From 1600 to Modern Times, 2008.

The history of Vegetarianism, available at:

Beans and Greens: The History of Vegetarianism, by Stephanie Butler, available at:

World history of vegetarianism, available at:

A Translation of edicts of Asoka, available at:



amour, love, amore, amor to all animals and living beings ....

In my opinion: Man fashions fangs and incisors with knifes and his claws with forks. Man is simply not a meat eater and never will be, no matter how many thousands upon thousands of years pass. We are behavioural meat eaters but natural raw food vegans.



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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