Life, Society, Houses and Towns in Ancient Greece

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20120221-perfume bottle Stoa_of_Attalus_Museum s.jpg
perfume bottle
According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Daily life in the golden age of Greece varied, as it does today, according to economic status as well as by other factors such as war and even the type of government that was in place. The best way to get an appreciation of this is to look at a few specific examples and from these draw some general conclusions. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

Greek aristocrats were not very fond of the masses. One member of the ruling elite used to walk through the streets clubbing people he disliked. Aristotle classified humanity into two kinds of people: The few, smart people destined to be masters: and the multitudes of less talented people designated to be slaves. As people were able to make a living by trading and selling crafts, a fledgling middle class emerged.

Only free, land owning, native-born men could be citizens entitled to the full protection of the law in a city-state. In most city-states, unlike the situation in Rome, social prominence did not allow special rights. Sometimes families controlled public religious functions, but this ordinarily did not give any extra power in the government. In Athens, the population was divided into four social classes based on wealth. People could change classes if they made more money. In Sparta, all male citizens were called homoioi, meaning "peers". However, Spartan kings, who served as the city-state's dual military and religious leaders, came from two families. [Source: Wikipedia]

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Ancient Greek Hygiene

The oldest known confirmed bath tub come from Minoa. Shaped somewhat like a modern tub, it was found in the palace of King Minos in Knossos and was dated to around 1700 B.C. The Greeks did not have the luxurious bathes that the Romans had. Their public baths had showers and hot air rooms attached to the gymnasium.

The Greeks prized cleanliness and may have bathed regularly but they did not use soap. They anointed their bodies with oil and ashes; scrubbed themselves clean with blocks of pumice or sands, and then scrapped themselves with a curved metal instrument called a “ strigil”. After they did all that they immersed themselves in water and were anointed with olive oil.

The strigil was a strange-looking device usually made of bronze. It was used mostly by athletes to scrape dirt and oils off their bodies after competitions and training. The athletes did this rather than wash with soap. The strigil looked sort of like a long spoon with the spoon part stretched and elongated and bent forward and the handle stretched and bent backwards. Strigils first appeared in Greek art in the 6th century B.C. and became symbols of athletes, some of whom where found to have them buried with them in ancient graves.

In “ The Romantic Story of Scent” , John Trueman wrote, "The men of the ancient world were clean and scented. European men of the Dark Ages were dirty and unscented. Those of medieval times, and modern times up to about the end of the 17th century, were dirty and scented...Nineteenth-century men were clean and unscented."

Labor and Slaves in Ancient Greece

The Greeks were not known for having a strong work ethic. Citizens abhorred physical labor and came to rely on slaves. Even the tireless classifier himself, Aristotle, believed that the goal of a civilized man was to attain a life of leisure so that he was free to pursue the higher things in life. How was this life of leisure attained?...With slaves, of course. Tradesmen and merchants were looked down upon and teachers and doctors had about the same status as a craftsman. The only respectable occupations were farming, politics and philosophizing. Aristotle also believed that the laws of nature dictated that free men should rule and dominate slaves and women.|[Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Slaves were bought at the market. The were used in mining, agriculture, construction and as household slaves. Slaves could be craftsmen, entertainers, teachers, secretaries or even businessmen trading for themselves. One thing a slave was not was a citizen. Mycenaean tablets, dated at 1200 B.C., described slave women who worked as grain grinders, spinners, and pourers of baths, They were often grouped by the places they were captured: "women in Asia," "women of Knidoes," "women of Miletos."

The Greeks used slaves and prisoners to build their temples. Most slaves were people captured in wars or pirates raids. In many cases they were serfs, or conquered people, that came with the land and passed their statuses down from generation to generation .

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collared slaves
The status of a slave was often closer to that of an animal than a human being. They were tortured on the stand in a court of law until they told the "truth" and put to death for simply belonging to a murdered man. They sometimes held their chamber pots of their masters. Slaves were branded on their faces until the A.D. 4th century when Constantine, the first Christianized Roman emperor, decided that it was a inhuman thing to do to a creation of God, so he ordered that they be branded on their arms and legs instead. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

A good book on slavery in the ancient world is “Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology” by Moses Finley. On this book Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard said, “When I read this book it was the first time I realized that there could be, and ought to be, an explicit connection between a modern political stance and the ancient history that I was studying. Slavery is a classic case for thinking about those connections. Greece and Rome were one of the few mass slave-owning societies that there have ever been. What Finley was interested in doing was looking hard at ancient slavery and thinking about how it was the same or different from modern slavery. One key difference that comes out is that modern slavery is tinged by racism, whereas ancient slavery wasn’t. He was the first person I had read who looked ancient slavery in the eye and said it was something really terrible. All the stuff that I had read before had been slightly embarrassed about ancient slavery and saw it as a blot on the landscape. They said: “The Greeks were so wonderful and slavery was a bit of a problem but you shouldn’t think about it. It was more like domestic service really!” And Finley says you can’t let the ancient world off the hook. You have to have a moral stance on this one.

Slaves were often freed or allowed to buy their freedom.

Slaves, See Labor Under Economics

Scenes of Everyday Life Depicted on Ancient Greek Vases

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “By the mid-sixth century B.C., craftsmen of the Athenian potters' quarter, known as the Kerameikos, had arrived at a fully developed style of black-figure vase painting. Many depicted scenes of hoplites putting on their armor, bidding farewell to loved ones, or advancing in phalanx formation. Most vases illustrated myths or heroic tales in which gods, goddesses, legendary heroes, and Amazons mingled with warriors in hoplite armor. These elegant battle scenes must have afforded great pleasure to an aristocratic class that embraced an ethos of military valor and athletic competition. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002, \^/]

“In the years around 530 B.C., the red-figure technique was invented, quite possibly by the potter Andokides and his workshop. It gradually replaced the black-figure technique as innovators recognized the possibilities that came with drawing forms, rather than laboriously delineating them with incisions. The use of a brush was suited to the naturalistic representation of anatomy, garments, and emotions. As vase painters were able to represent the human body in increasingly complex poses, they more frequently depicted scenes of everyday life–athletics, drinking, and warfare–that allowed them to show off their mastery of the new medium. Apart from a few significant exceptions, these vases depicted an Athenian man's world. It was not until the middle of the fifth century B.C. that vase painters broadened their repertoire to include scenes of daily life that focused on women engaged in domestic activities. This innovation reflected not only decorative preferences, but also the uses to which the finest vases were put. \^/

“By the late fifth century, there was another distinct change in tone as vase painters opted to depict more poignant moments. Warriors arming or fighting were replaced by statuesque youths taking leave of their families, and scenes of music making associated with symposia earlier in the century were transformed into intimate depictions of several figures listening to a performer. Scenes of women performing domestic activities became particularly focused on wedding preparations and celebrations of the bride. “\^/

Time of Day on Painted Athenian Vases

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The scenes of myth and daily life that decorate Athenian vases often have a pronounced sense of time, which is depicted in simple pictorial terms that are meant to be easily recognized. Night, for instance, can be signified with lamps, torches, and the presence of the appropriate nocturnal deities, Selene the moon goddess, and Nyx, the very personification of night. Similarly, Helios the sun god and Eos the goddess of dawn indicate daytime. The great frequency of temporal motifs on vases suggests that time was integral to the narrative construction of many vase paintings. Moreover, the deliberate references to time on Athenian vases can often be explained as an essential feature of the specific subject portrayed. [Source: Jennifer Udell, Bothmer Fellow, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, \^/]

“The degree to which a given subject requires a clear indication of time is best illustrated by the numerous depictions of the Attic wedding, in particular, vase paintings that show the procession of the married couple to their new home. In these scenes, the participants consistently carry torches because the nuptial procession was a nocturnal event. Torches in fact seem to be the only constant pictorial motif of this aspect of the wedding celebration. Their practical necessity to the procession, furthermore, is explained by the literary sources, which confirm the time of day of the nuptial march as it is depicted on vases. Homer, for example, in his description of the Shield of Achilles, writes that, "by the light of blazing torches they were leading the brides from their rooms throughout the city …" (Iliad 18.490–493). \^/

“Torches figure prominently in another subject treated by vase painters, the Return of Persephone, a myth that equates the arrival of spring with the notion of the young goddess' return to earth from the Underworld. Although the story is mythological, the torches, which place the scene at night, allude to the real-life propensity of the ancient Greeks to celebrate many of their most important seasonal festivals and religious rituals at night, a cultural practice well attested in the ancient literary sources. The ritualistic aspect of the Persephone myth lies in the fact that it is an allegory for the return of spring, which is itself a yearly (ritual) event. The torch and, by extension, the clear indication of night are therefore essential elements of the iconography of this subject in vase painting. \^/

“Lamps appear regularly in vase paintings of nocturnal events that take place indoors. Subjects include the Greek symposium and other nighttime activities, such as a reveler calling on a hetaira(prostitute). The small, controlled flame of a lamp would have made them preferable to a burning torch for interior illumination. That lamps were the favored method of lighting the home is suggested by the great numbers of them excavated from domestic contexts, and by the ancient texts, which account for their use indoors. \^/

“There are many subjects in vase painting that (merely by virtue of the activity shown) can be said to take place during the day. Harvest and hunt scenes fall into this category. When a more deliberate reference to daylight hours is required, Helios and/or Eos will often be included. Both, for instance, preside over sacrifices in vase paintings. Their dual appearance visually confirms the actual ancient Greek practice of making sacrifices at daybreak, as attested by Hesiod, an eighth-century B.C. Greek poet, and Plutarch, a Greek writer from the first century A.D. When the daytime gods are present in a scene of a common daily ritual, it may signify that a particular myth is portrayed. A temporal consistency was thereby retained in the iconography of specific mythological subjects in vase painting, which reflected the time of day that specific activities took place in daily life. The relationship between the temporal specificity of certain aspects of life in ancient Greece and their treatment in Greek mythology is also evident in depictions of the story of Eos, the goddess of dawn, and Tithonos, a schoolboy. In mythology, the goddess takes Tithonos away to live with her. This was an abduction of opportunity, given that the school day started at daybreak in antiquity. The law stating that school began at sunrise is preserved in the legal code of Solon, a sixth-century B.C. Athenian statesman, and it demonstrates once more that elements of ancient Greek myth reflect certain aspects of ancient Greek life. \^/

“The importance of time as an underlying theme in Greek life is revealed through an examination of Greek vase painting and literature. While never overtly expressed in either medium, the prevalence of temporal allusions (both written and visual) speaks to the significance of time as a structuring and ordering force in Greek society. The consistency with which particular activities such as weddings, sacrifices, and religious rituals were depicted within a specific temporal context, moreover, supports the idea that many events were bound to certain times of day, and suggests that the clear indication of time was a significant component of the iconography of many subjects treated by vase painters. “ \^/

Minorities and Racism in Ancient Greece

Different states had different personalities: Sparta was the land of warriors. Sybaris was known for its love of luxury. The word “barbaros”, from which “barbarian” is derived did not originally have pejorative connotations. It simple meant people who didn’t speak Greek and their speech sounded to the Greeks like “bar-bar-bar”.

On racism in ancient Greece and Rome, Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard wrote in her blog A Don’s Life: “There is no doubt at all that they often treated outsiders badly. The idea of the “barbarian” (someone whose speech is just an incomprehensible “ba ba”) is a well known Greek invention. But the cultural identity of both societies was even more pervasively based on what we would now see as an unhealthy distrust of anyone different from themselves. Xenophobia in other words. [Source: Mary Beard, A Don’s Life Blogg, January 22, 2007]

peasant mask

The list of unnatural things that foreigners were supposed to get up to is a long one. It ranged from peculiar eating habits (not just frogs legs or poppadoms, but at its worst cannibalism) to strange regimes of hygiene (women standing up to piss was a notable source of wonderment and/or disdain) and topsy-turvy ideas of sex and gender (women in charge).

The Greeks painted a contemptuous picture of the Persians as trousered, decadent softies who wore far too much perfume. Then the Romans came along and, minus the trousers, said much the same about the Greeks: a nice example of being given a taste of your own medicine. But, strikingly, it’s usually claimed that neither Greeks nor Romans bothered very much about skin colour. This was a time “before colour prejudice”.

It’s certainly the case that there seems to have been no general idea of social, cultural or intellectual inferiority based on the colour of a person’s skin. There was no homogeneous slave class, of a different race and colour from their masters. And, in fact, exactly what skin colours were represented, and in what numbers, in the multi-cultural population of the Roman empire is something of puzzle. The second century AD emperor, Septimius Severus who came from modern Libya definitely wasn’t black (even though that’s sometimes asserted); but then he probably wasn’t as white as some of his marble busts make him seem either.

Ancient stories too suggest a very different set of assumptions about blackness and whiteness. There is marvellous episode which touches just this subject in the Aethiopica (Ethiopian Story), a novel by Heliodorus, a third-century AD Greek writer from Syria. Persinna, the black queen of Ethiopia, with a black husband, gave birth to a white daughter. How did she explain it? She had been looking at a picture of (white) Andromeda at the time of the girl’s conception.

But is it all quite so simple? Probably not. There’s a recent book by Ben Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, which claims to have identified if not racism, then at least “proto-racism” in the ancient world. Isaac insists (as do most serious analysts) that racism goes beyond casual xenophobia. It is a deterministic ideology, which sees some groups as unalterably inferior, thanks to natural or inherited characteristics. In modern society, the key natural characteristic has been skin colour.

Not so in the ancient world. But Isaac thinks he can identify something similarly deterministic (and so racist) in other, quite different, natural factors. For him, the ancients were not colour-prejudiced; instead they were geographical and environmental determinists. To over-simplify a bit, he charges the Greeks and Romans with being “proto-racists” in the sense that they believed that the characteristics which certain races derived from their (inferior) environment and from the climate in which they lived — the rain and fog of Northern Europe, for example — were fixed and irreversibly inferior.

Aristotle on Family and Community Relationships

Aristotle wrote in “Politics,” Book I; Chapter II: “He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state or anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them. In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue (and this is a union which is formed, not of deliberate purpose, but because, in common with other animals and with plants, mankind have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves), and of natural ruler and subject, that both may be preserved. For that which can foresee by the exercise of mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and that which can with its body give effect to such foresight is a subject, and by nature a slave; hence master and slave have the same interest. Now nature has distinguished between the female and the slave. For she is not niggardly, like the smith who fashions the Delphian knife for many uses; she makes each thing for a single use, and every instrument is best made when intended for one and not for many uses. But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female. Wherefore the poets say, "It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians; "as if they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one. [Source: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

Spartan woman gives a shield to her son

“Out of these two relationships between man and woman, master and slave, the first thing to arise is the family, and Hesiod is right when he says, "First house and wife and an ox for the plough, " for the ox is the poor man's slave. The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men's everyday wants, and the members of it are called by Charondas 'companions of the cupboard,' and by Epimenides the Cretan, 'companions of the manger.' But when several families are united, and the association aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village. And the most natural form of the village appears to be that of a colony from the family, composed of the children and grandchildren, who are said to be suckled 'with the same milk.' And this is the reason why Hellenic states were originally governed by kings; because the Hellenes were under royal rule before they came together, as the barbarians still are. Every family is ruled by the eldest, and therefore in the colonies of the family the kingly form of government prevailed because they were of the same blood. As Homer says: "Each one gives law to his children and to his wives. " For they lived dispersedly, as was the manner in ancient times. Wherefore men say that the Gods have a king, because they themselves either are or were in ancient times under the rule of a king. For they imagine, not only the forms of the Gods, but their ways of life to be like their own.

“When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.

“Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the "Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one, " “whom Homer denounces- the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts.

“Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

“Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. But things are defined by their working and power; and we ought not to say that they are the same when they no longer have their proper quality, but only that they have the same name. The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society. . . .

Cities and Towns in Ancient Greece and Rome

Troy ruins

Athens, Alexandria and Syracuse (on Sicily) were the greatest centers of Greek culture. In the 5th century B.C., Athens had only 30,000 people.

Although the temples and the buildings at Greek ruin sites seem orderly and tidy, real Greek cities were anything but. The residential and communal areas of a Greek city was were disorganized, chaotic and all over each other and the open angora was filled with stalls and vendors. This method helped protect the city from invasion in two ways. A small, congested city was easier to enclose with a wall and a network of disorganized street created problems for invaders.

The Romans were the ones known for their organized and well planned cities. This was made possible partly by the fact they controlled such a vast amount of territory they didn't have to worry designing individuals towns and small cities so they were impregnable. Some Roman cities had elaborate drainage and sewage systems.

The construction of cities into a grid pattern is believed to have evolved in the Greek colonies in Italy. Early Greek settlements evolved in a haphazard way around and a central hearth and communities were arranged in clusters. The first grid cities were believed to be cities on the Greek mainland and Asia built in the 5th century, but in the 1990s archaeologists discovered the city of Megara Hyblaea in Sicily, which older than the 5th century, had grid-like streets and parts of the city that served specific functions.

City state dwellers occupied the valleys, while a small number of independent farmers tried to make a go of it on the rocky hillsides. Population boomed. Ultimately there was not enough land, and fighting ensued.

The Phoenicians, Persians and Greeks built many of their cities on hilltops. Water came from springs and was often carried in subterranean tunnels. Long tunnels were driven through rock to bring water to Athens. Fortified breakwaters helped the Greeks build three harbors in Pireus.

City Life in Corinth

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece” Book II: Corinth (A.D. 160): “In the middle of the market-place is a bronze Athena, on the pedestal of which are wrought in relief figures of the Muses. Above the market-place is a temple of Octavia the sister of Augustus, who was emperor of the Romans after Caesar, the founder of the modern Corinth. On leaving the market-place along the road to Lechaeum you come to a gateway, on which are two gilded chariots, one carrying Phaethon the son of Helius (Sun), the other Helius himself. A little farther away from the gateway, on the right as you go in, is a bronze Heracles. After this is the entrance to the water of Peirene. The legend about Peirene is that she was a woman who became a spring because of her tears shed in lamentation for her son Cenchrias, who was unintentionally killed by Artemis. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“The spring is ornamented with white marble, and there have been made chambers like caves, out of which the water flows into an open-air well. It Is pleasant to drink, and they say that the Corinthian bronze, when red-hot, is tempered by this water, since bronze . . . the Corinthians have not. Moreover near Peirene are an image and a sacred enclosure of Apollo; in the latter is a painting of the exploit of Odysseus against the suitors.

“Proceeding on the direct road to Lechaeum we see a bronze image of a seated Hermes. By him stands a ram, for Hermes is the god who is thought most to care for and to increase flocks, as Homer puts it in the Iliad:
“Son was he of Phorbas, the dearest of Trojans to Hermes,
Rich in flocks, for the god vouchsafed him wealth in abundance.

“Throughout the city are many wells, for the Corinthians have a copious supply of flowing water, besides the water which the emperor Hadrian brought from Lake Stymphalus, but the most noteworthy is the one by the side of the image of Artemis. Over it is a Bellerophontes, and the water flows through the hoof of the horse Pegasus. [2.3.6] As you go along another road from the market-place, which leads to Sicyon, you can see on the right of the road a temple and bronze image of Apollo, and a little farther on a well called the Well of Glauce. Into this they say she threw herself in the belief that the water would be a cure for the drugs of Medea.

“Above this well has been built what is called the Odeum (Music Hall), beside which is the tomb of Medea's children. Their names were Mermerus and Pheres, and they are said to have been stoned to death by the Corinthians owing to the gifts which legend says they brought to Glauce. But as their death was violent and illegal, the young babies of the Corinthians were destroyed by them until, at the command of the oracle, yearly sacrifices were established in their honor and a figure of Terror was set up. This figure still exists, being the likeness of a woman frightful to look upon but after Corinth was laid waste by the Romans and the old Corinthians were wiped out, the new settlers broke the custom of offering those sacrifices to the sons of Medea, nor do their children cut their hair for them or wear black clothes. On the occasion referred to Medea went to Athens and married Aegeus, but subsequently she was detected plotting against Theseus and fled from Athens also; coming to the land then called Aria she caused its inhabitants to be named after her Medes. The son, whom she brought with her in her flight to the Arii, they say she had by Aegeus, and that his name was Medus. Hellanicus,1 however, calls him Polyxenus and says that his father was Jason.”

Agora of Athens

Agoras (Ancient Greek Markets)

Many Greek cities were organized an agora (known to Romans as a forum), which served as a market area and meeting place Bronze workers, marble craftsmen, makers or terra cotta figurines and farmers all sold their products in the agora.

The Agora in Athens (on the north side of the Acropolis) is a huge area covering about 30 acres and is littered with thousands of pieces of columns and building. Laid out today like a park, the Agora was ancient Athens' administrative center and main marketplace and gathering place. Located between ancient Athen's main gates and the Acropolis, it was filled with workshops, markets, and law courts. One work days, vendors set up shop in wicker stalls. There were areas for moneychangers, fishmongers, perfumeries, and salve traders. Visitors today still find hobnails and bone eyelets in an ancient cobbler' shop.

The Agora was where people shopped, voted, socialized and discussed the issues of the day. The comic poet Eubulus wrote: "You will find everything sold together in the same place at Athens: figs, witnesses to summons, bunches of grapes, turnips, pears, apples, givers of evidence, roses, meddlers, porridge, honeycombs, chickpeas, lawsuits, bee-sting-puddings, myrtle, allotment machines, irises, lambs, water clocks, laws, indictments."

Socrates likes to hang out the agora in Athens. Xenophon wrote that his former teacher "was always on public view; from early in the morning he used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people." Socrates used to address his followers in the Agora and he was kept in the prison annex outside the angora while on trial for insulting the gods. Plato, Pericles, Thucydides and Aristophenes all spent a lot of time in the agora. Citizens who avoided military service, showed cowardice in battle and mistreated their parents were forbidden from entering the Angora.

Around the agora in Athens were courts, assembly halls, military headquarters, the mint, keepers of weights and measurements, commercial buildings, a racetrack and shrines. On a hill behind the agora are the remains of the columned halls is the Hephaisteion (449 B.C, a temple dedicated to Hephaisteion), the best preserved Doric Temple in Greece. It contains friezes of Theseus battling the Minotaur, the labors of Hercules and the battle of the Centaurs.

Homes in Ancient Greece

20120221-house Greek_house_400BC.jpg
model of Greek House from 400 BC
Most Roman and Greek homes, whether they belonged to rich city dwellers or poor farmers, were built around a courtyard. The openings of the house faced inward towards the courtyard rather than outward towards the street and other buildings. Ancient houses, for the most part, were made of sun dried bricks placed on a stone foundation, like dwelling in the third world today.

The walls and roofs were probably supported and reinforced by timbers and beams, but we can't say for sure because wood and mud bricks decompose rapidly, which is also why there are hardly ever any houses at archaeological sites. Generally only temples and monuments were built of marble and stone. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

According to the University of Pennsylvania: “Greek city houses of the 6th and 5th century b.c. were usually modest in scale and built of relatively inexpensive materials. They varied from two or three rooms clustered around a small court to a dozen or so rooms. City house exteriors presented a plain facade to the street, broken only by the door and a few small windows set high. In larger houses the main rooms included a kitchen, a small room for bathing, several bedrooms which usually occupied a second floor, the men's andron for dining, and perhaps a separate suite of rooms known as the gynaikonitis for the use of women.”

In Olynthos and Halieis, street plans in the classical city were rectilinear, and thus houses were of regular shapes and sizes. By contrast, in Athens houses appear to have varied much more in size and shape. In the classical period, houses excavated from Olynthos were "invariably" organised around a colonnaded courtyard. Likewise, of the houses excavated at Halieis in the Argolid, most of the houses seem to have had a single entrance which gave access to a court, and Nevett also cites three buildings excavated on Thasos as being similarly arranged around a courtyard. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Historians have identified a "hearth-room" in ancient Greek houses as a centre of female activity. However, Lin Foxhall has argued that Greek houses often had no permanent kitchens. For example, a house in Attica known as the Vari House had multiple possible places which may have been used for cooking, but no fixed fireplace, and no one place was used for the entire lifetime of the house. Lisa Nevett points out that houses frequently had a "complex pattern of spatial usage", with rooms being used for multiple purposes. +


The ancient Greek word oikos refers to three related but distinct concepts: the family, the family's property, and the house. Its meaning shifts even within texts, which can lead to confusion. The oikos was the basic unit of society in most Greek city-states. In normal Attic usage the oikos, in the context of families, referred to a line of descent from father to son from generation to generation. Alternatively, as Aristotle used it in his Politics, the term was sometimes used to refer to everybody living in a given house. Thus, the head of the oikos, along with his immediate family and his slaves, would all be encompassed. Large oikoi also had farms that were usually tended by the slaves, which were also the basic agricultural unit of the ancient economy. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Traditional interpretations of the layout of the oikos in Classical Athens have divided into men's and women's spaces, with an area known as the gynaikon or gynaikonitis associated with women's activities such as cooking and textiles work, and an area restricted to men called the andron. In Lysias' speech On the Murder of Eratosthenes, the women's rooms were said to be situated above the men's quarters, while in Xenophon the women's and men's quarters are next to one another. +

More recent scholarship from historians such as Lisa Nevett and Lin Foxhall has argued for a more flexible approach to household space, with rooms not simply having a single fixed function, and gendering of space not being as simple as some rooms being for men and others for women. It has been argued that instead of dividing the household space into "male" and "female" areas, it is more accurate to look at areas as being private or public. In this model, private areas were restricted to the family, while public areas were open to visitors but not to the women of the household. +

Rooms and Parts of a Wealthy Greco-Roman Home

ancient toilet seats in Dion, Greece

In front of the courtyard in a typical Greco-Roman dwelling was the “ atrium” , the main room in the house. It was often a square room with a hole in the roof to let light in. Guests were entertained here and friends and family gathered here to socialize and relax. In this large room family treasures were displayed, and usually there was an altar with figures of gods or bearded snakes placed on it. Rooms sometimes contained niches. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

In small houses, the bedrooms, kitchen and dining room were placed around the atrium. In larger houses and villas the bedrooms, recreation rooms, libraries, guest rooms, baths, eating chambers and other facilities were often in separate wings. The spacious atriums are misleading. Respected Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard has pointed out they would probably have been decorated with gaudy curtains and filled with wooden furniture, storage cupboards, looms and a variety of stuff.||

The roof of a typical house was covered by pottery tiles and designed so it directed water into a storage basin. During Roman times, when urban areas became crowded and concrete construction was developed, houses with several stories were built for the first time on a large scale. Rural houses were surrounded by sheep pens, small orchards and gardens that varied in size depending on how rich the owner was. Many families kept bees in pottery hives.||

Kitchens were poorly ventilated and had packed dirt floors. They were meant for slaves only and not for public viewing. Even middle and upper class homes in Pompeii often had a tiny kitchen that was combined with the latrine. Beard wrote that the kitchen in the House of the Tragic Poet, the setting of a banquet in the popular novel “The Last Days of Pompeii”, would have been far too small to produce a large banquet. And worse: “Just over the back wall of the garden...was a cloth-processing workshop, or fullery. Fulling is messy business, its main ingredient being human urine...The work was noisy and smelly. In the background of Glaucus’ elegant dinner party there must have been distinctly nasty odors.”

Ancient Greek and Roman Household Possessions and Primitive Toilets

20120221-Bronze_mirror 150_AD.jpg
Bronze mirror 150 AD
Some houses had water piped in but most homeowners had to have their water fetched and carried, one of the main duties of household slaves. During Roman times sewers were developed but few people had access to them. The majority of the people urinated and defecated in clay pots.

Ancient Greek and Roman chamber pots were taken to disposal areas which, according to Greek scholar Ian Jenkins, "was often no further than an open window." Roman public baths had a pubic sanitation system with water piped in and piped out. Baths at home were generally only big enough to sit up in and they were filled with water from pottery buckets by slaves. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

A typical bedroom in 600 B.C. contained a bed made of wicker or wood, a coffer for valuables and a simple chair. Clay jars as tall as 1½ meters were used for storing grain, oil and wine. Pine tar was valuable stuff. It was used for everything from caulking wooden ships to a flavoring for wine.

Greeks and Romans used umbrellas for protection from the sun. Men regarded them as effeminate and they were used primarily by women, who also used ones water-proofed with oil in the rain. The Greeks had schools for mirror making, where students were taught the finer points of sand polishing.

Ancient Greek Pottery

Ceramics created by the Greeks were far superior to anything made by civilizations that preceded it. The Greeks produced vases, urns and bowls. They were known for their craftsmanship. The most famous pieces were vases with paintings such as Apollo playing a tortoise shell lyre. Unlike oriental pottery which came in all kinds of shapes, ancient Greek pottery was more limited, comprised of only a few dozen shapes that changed little over time.

Many things — including grain, olive oil or wine — were stored and carried amphorae (large clay jars) with two handles near the mouth that made it possible to pick them up and carry them. They generally were two to three feet tall and carried about seven gallons. Their shapes and markings were unique and these helped archaeologists date them and identify their place of origin.

Most Greek pottery was connected with wine. Large two-handled amphorae (from the Greek “ amphi” , “on both sides,” and “ phero” , “to carry”) was used to transport wine. Smaller, flat bottom amphorae were used to hold wine on the table. Kraters were amphora-like vessels with a wide mouth used to mix water and wine. From a krater wine and water were retrieved with a metal ladle and placed into pitcher and from the pitcher poured into two-handled drinking cups.

Hydria, with two horizontal handles, were round jars used to carry water from a well to a fountain. Before glassblowing was developed in the 1st century B.C. “core glass” vessels were made by forming glass around a solid metal rod that was taken out as the glass cooled.

The largest ancient metal vessel ever found was bronze krater dated to the sixth century B.C. Found in the tomb of a Celtic warrior princess, it was buried with a chariot and other objects in a field near Vix, France. Almost as tall as a man and large enough to hold 300 gallons of wine, it had reliefs of soldiers and chariots around the neck and a bronze cover that fit snugly in the mouth. Ordinary amphora held only around a gallon of wine.

Lighting and Cooking in Ancient Greece

The earliest lamps were made from sea shells. These were observed in Mesopotamia. Lamps made from man-made materials such as earthenware and alabaster appeared between 3500 and 2500 B.C. in Sumer, Egypt and the Indus Valley. Metal lamps were rare. As technology advanced a groove for the wick was added, the bottom of the lamp was titled to concentrate the oil and the place where the flame burned was moved away from the handle. Mostly animal fats and vegetable and fish oils were burned. In Sumer, seepage from petroleum deposits was used. The wicks were made from twisted natural fibers.

oil lamps
Houses were lit with oil lamps, and cooking was done with coals placed in a metal brazier. Fires were always a hazard and it was not unusual for entire towns to burn down after someone carelessly knocked over an oil lamp. Greeks and Romans used oil lamps made of bronze, with wicks of oakum or linen. They were fueled by edible animal fats and vegetables oils which could be consumed in times of food shortages. The Romans were perhaps the first people to use oil as a combustible material; they burned petroleum in their lamps instead of olive oil.

In ancient times, olive oil was used in everything from oil lamps, to religious anointments, to cooking and preparing condiments and medicines. It was in great demand and traveled well and people like the Philistines grew rich trading it.

In Greco-Roman times the rich ate and drank from gold plates, silver cups and glass bottles while commoners ate and drank from clay plates, hollowed ram's horns and hardwood jugs. Upper class Greeks used spoons of bronze and silver while poorer people used ones carved from wood. To clean themselves at mealtime the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used towel-like napkins and finger bowls of water scented with thing like rose petals, herbs and rosemary.

Items found in ancient Greek and Roman kitchens included vessels for storing olive oil; bowls for mixing wine and water; bronze strainers for removing grape skins and seeds; and small bowls for salt and snacks. There were also ladles and large bowls for eating and serving food; mortars and pestles for grinding up food; and saucepans, baking pans and frying pans, all made out of bronze, for cooking food. Women and slaves both did the cooking. Women normally didn't fetch water, but when they did they sometimes carried the vessels sideways on their head to the well and upright on the way home. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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