Ancient Greek Cheese Graters

By Owain Williams 

One thing that I really love about reading history – not just ancient history – is delving into the intimate details about daily life, whether that be the jobs of the non-elites, such as sausage sellers and wood collectors, or clothing, and food. One such object that has taken my interest recently is the ancient Greek grater. It is surprising how much literature there is devoted to this one object type. However, this seemingly every day object is, in fact, connected to wider discussions of trade and interconnectivity in the Early Iron Age.

Bronze graters are a common find among the grave goods of Early Iron Age Greek burials. One, for example, was included in the grave of a Euboean warrior trader from Lefkandi, dating to the early ninth century BC, whose grave also included numerous Near Eastern objects, such as a cylinder seal dated to ca. 1800 BC, possibly an heirloom or taken during a raid (Popham and Lemos, 1995, 152–4). Graters seem to have been so popular that they spread throughout the Greek world, as far as the shores of France (Villing, 2021, 4), and seem to have been adopted by various Italic cultures, notably the Etruscans (see Ridgway, 1997).

A collection of ancient Greek graters (British Museum)

The first thing that most readers will think of when they learn of such an object will be the creation of kykeon, a kind of restorative potion, in Homer’s Iliad:

“In that (cup) she mixed (it) for them, the woman like goddesses, with Pramnian wine, and she grated goat’s cheese over it with a bronze grater, and sprinkled white flour over it” (11.638–40)

Of course, it is more than likely that these graters were used for grating cheese. Indeed, Ridgway argued that graters were a standard piece of kit for Early Iron Age Greek warriors (1997, 330; see also West, 1998, 191). However, Susan Sherratt finds it “hard to believe that the bronze graters, of which ninth-century Euboian warriors appear to have been so proud, were regularly used only for the ceremonial grating of a mundane item such as cheese, which can just as effectively be scraped with a knife” (2004, 328). In other words, would such a mundane object as a cheese grater really afford such prestige that it would be chosen as a grave good?

Now, Sherratt here offers a good reason why graters were prestige objects, because they were a utensil that served a specific function that could just as easily be done by a simpler tool, a knife. However, it is possible that graters were used for expensive spices. Many Greek and Etruscan jugs had sieves built into the spouts, although these may have been intended for pulp and pips in wine; Theophrastus, writing in the late fourth century BC, mentioned how aromatics added a pleasant taste to wine (On Odours 10); and Aristotle, recorded in Athenaeus’ Dinner Sophists, wrote how the addition of aromatics boiled in water to wine made it less intoxicating (11.464c).

A terracotta figurine of a woman using a grater from Tanagra, Boeotia, early fifth century BC (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

Yet Homer and other early Greek literature contain no mentions of such spices and nor is there any evidence for them in the Mycenaean world (Davies, 2016, 306). The first mention of such aromatics is Sappho, writing ca. 600 BC, who refers to frankincense, myrrh, cassia, and cinnamon (frr. 2, 44). By the late sixth century, Xenophanes considers frankincense a key component of the symposion (fr. 1). Naturally, the earliest literary reference is not the earliest an object appeared. The Greeks had been in contact with the Levant for centuries prior to this, and the Levant had trade links with Arabia, where aromatics were cultivated. There is evidence for an ‘Incense Road’ between Arabia and Mesopotamia by ca. 750, but the reference to this road – the record of an arrest of the caravan for evading tolls – suggests that such trade routes had already been established for some time prior to this.

Unfortunately, the evidence for spiced wine in early Greece is inconclusive. It is entirely possible that graters were primarily used for grating cheese, but we it isn’t too farfetched to imagine the Greeks sitting down to some glühwein when Boreas was blowing.


J.K. Davies, ‘Towards a general model of long-distance trade: aromatics as a case study’, in E.M. Harris, D.M. Lewis, and M. Woolmer (eds.) The Ancient Greek Economy: Households and City-States (Cambridge, 2016), 299–315.

M.R. Popham and I.S. Lemos, ‘A Euboean Warrior Trader,’ Oxford Journal of Archaeology 14 (1995), 151–157.

D. Ridgway, ‘Nestor’s Cup and the Etruscans’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 16 (1997), 325–44.

S. Sherratt, ‘Feasting in Homeric epic’, Hesperia 73 (2004), 301–37.

A. Villing, ‘Spicing wine at the symposion: fact or fiction? Some critical thoughts on material aspects of commensality in the Early Iron Age and Archaic Mediterranean world’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 141 (2021), 1–30.

M.L. West, ‘Grated cheese fit for heroes’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 118 (1998), 190–91.

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