The First Vegetarians

How Vegetarianism Was Born Out of Philosophy and Mysticism.

King Pentheus torn apart by Maenads in a Bacchic frenzy. Roman wall painting from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. The Dionysian rite of sparagmos involved dismembering a living animal or even a human being. The flesh was then eaten raw, while still warm and dripping with blood. Pentheus, like Pythagoras and Empedocles, had refused to embrace Dionysus.

Pythagoras (d. c. 495 BCE) is usually remembered for the theorem that bears his name, concerning the relation between the three sides of a right triangle. But although he may have introduced the theorem to the Greeks, it had been discovered centuries earlier, and separately, by the Babylonians and Indians. Instead, Pythagoras ought to be remembered for being the first recorded vegetarian in the West.

At the age of 40, Pythagoras left his native Samos for Croton in southern Italy, where he established a philosophically minded religious community. The men and women who entered the community’s inner circle were governed by a strict set of ascetic and ethical rules, forsaking personal possessions, assuming a mainly vegetarian diet, and observing the strictest silence. Some of the community’s more idiosyncratic rules, such as “do not break bread” or “do not poke the fire with a sword,” may have stood as riddles or metaphors.

Music played an important role in Pythagoras’ community. Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo, and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of body and soul. One day, or so the story goes, Pythagoras passed by some blacksmiths at work and noticed that their hammering on anvils produced especially harmonious sounds. He then found that the anvils were simple ratios of one another, one being half the size of the first, another two-thirds of the size, and so on. This discovery of a relationship between numerical ratios and musical intervals led him to believe that mathematics underlies the structure and order of the universe. According to his “harmony of the spheres,” the heavenly bodies move according to equations that correspond to musical notes and form part of a grand cosmic symphony.

Pythagoras never divorced religion from philosophy and science, which, even in his day, left him open to accusations of mysticism. No doubt under the influence of Orphism, a mystery religion rooted in pre-Hellenic beliefs and the Thracian cult of Zagreus, he came to believe in metempsychosis, that is, in the transmigration of the soul at death into a new body of the same or a different species, until such a time as it became moral. According to lore, he once recognized the cry of his dead friend in the yelping of a puppy. He himself claimed to have lived four lives and to remember them all in detail: in his first life, he had had the good fortune of being Aethalides, son of the god Hermes, who had given him the faculty of remembering everything even through death.

Pythagoras’ influence and legacy

In Croton, Pythagoras laid down a constitution. According to the first-century historian of philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, he and his Pythagoreans governed the state so well that it was “in effect a true aristocracy (government by the best)”. But after Croton’s victory over neighbouring Sybaris in 510 BCE, certain prominent citizens demanded a democratic constitution. When the Pythagoreans rejected it, the supporters of democracy attacked them. Supposedly, Pythagoras almost managed to escape but came over a field of fava beans and refused to step over it. His aversion to fava beans might have owed to a belief that fava beans contain the souls of the deceased, or to favism, an inherited disease that is exacerbated by the consumption of fava beans.

After Pythagoras’ death, the Pythagoreans deified him, and attributed him with a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation (being in two places at once). He became a paradigm of the sage, such that the Romans tried to assimilate him and claim him as their own. But in his lifetime, Pythagoras had always been a paragon of humility, declining to be called a “wise man” [sophos] and preferring instead to be called a “lover of wisdom” [philosophos]—thereby coining the term “philosopher”.

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that Plato’s teachings owed much to those of the Pythagoreans; so much, in fact, that Bertrand Russell upheld not Plato but Pythagoras as the most influential of all Western philosophers. Pythagoras’ impact is perhaps most evident in Plato’s mystical approach to the soul and his emphasis on mathematics, and, more generally, abstract thought, as a secure basis for the practice of philosophy.

Pythagoras’ community served as an inspiration and prototype for later philosophical institutions such as Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, and, subsequently, for the monastic life and associated early universities. Pythagoras’ teachings as represented in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 CE) influenced the modern vegetarian movement to such an extent that, until the word “vegetarianism” was coined in the 1840s, vegetarians were simply referred to in English as “Pythagoreans”.


Like Pythagoras, of whom he knew, the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles (d. c. 432 BCE) believed in metempsychosis, and his beliefs, at least in this area, may shed light on those of Pythagoras. Empedocles held that, to atone for an original sin involving bloodshed, souls must go through a series of mortal incarnations before they are able to rejoin the immortal gods. They can, however, help themselves by adhering to certain ethical rules, such as refraining from meat, beans, bay leaves, and heterosexual intercourse

Empedocles himself claimed to have already been a bush, a bird, and ‘a mute fish in the sea’. But now, as a doctor, poet, seer, and leader of men, he had reached the highest rung in the cycle of incarnations—and could, just about, count himself among the immortal gods. In a story that is almost certainly false but too good not to tell, he killed himself by leaping into the flames of Mount Etna, either to prove that he was immortal or make people believe that he was.

Empedocles and Pythagoras believed that animals and even certain plants are our kin and should not be killed for food or sacrifice. They were vegetarians and pacifists long before the hippies came around. Their mortification of the flesh is, in some sense, the apotheosis of the pre-Socratic privileging of Apollonian reason over Dionysian sense experience.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.