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Daily Life in Fifth Century Greece

The daily existence of ancient civilisations has been a source of fascination for both historians and archaeologists over the centuries. An abundance of information relating to eating and drinking, clothing, childhood, cosmetics and jewellery survives in the ancient official documents, biographies and plays which have remained in tact. The majority of these however, reflect only the luxurious lives of the rich and those with authority.

In the artefacts, paintings, epigraphs and other such structures which archaeologists have uncovered in the last centuries, not only do we learn more about the lives of the wealthy, but also of the lives of the growing population of poorer citizens. There was a considerable difference present in the housing and living conditions of the rich and the poor, for example, Athens roads were narrow, unpaved alleys between flat-topped houses, little more than huts with no sanitation or rubbish disposal.

Ancient Greek housing was most commonly built of relatively inexpensive materials such as stone, wood or clay bricks, painted white to deflect the heat of the sun, and despite the elite architectural standards demonstrated by the Greeks, due to the materials used there were inevitably some flaws in their design. The walls of houses built with sun-dried bricks had a tendency to wash away little by little in the rain which would eventually lead to the complete collapse of the house, burying everything within it’s walls. The ground would then be levelled off and another house would be built on top.

With time a mound would grow where several houses had been levelled to the ground and it is due to this method of building that much of the information regarding the living conditions and standards of the ancient Greeks has been discovered by archaeologists. The rich lived in what could have been described as a large town house, conveniently close to all town facilities and consisting of a dozen or so rooms. The typical house stood beside a narrow, crooked street, it’s front exterior broken only by a door and possibly a few small windows positioned high in the wall.

Rooms were built around a small open-air courtyard in which the family would spend much of their time relaxing and entertaining. The furnishings of Greek homes were relatively simple and can be identified from illustrations on vases and stone reliefs. They included such items as chairs, stools, couches, tables and various chests, boxes and baskets, many of which were made of wood or other organic materials and therefore had a poor survival rate, explaining why very few have been uncovered in ancient remains.

The main sources of lighting candles, resinous torches and oil lamps, all of which were fairly costly, for example olive oil was most commonly used in the oil lamps and was expensive enough on it’s own. Although the remains of Ancient Greece appear grand in terms of scale and design, this often presents a misguided view of society. Only a fortunate few were wealthy, living such a desired and luxurious lifestyle. In truth the majority of the population was poor, making a living as best they could. Houses were simple with one main room in which the entire family lived and ate and a communal bedroom with few furnishings.

The barren Greek soils and dry climate often produced a poor harvest, resulting in an unpredictable income. The majority of the poorer population lived in remote land villages, separated by mountains. People farmed just enough to feed their family and for the fortunate communities nearer the sea there was an abundance of fresh seafood. Peasants were sometimes forced to leave poorer conditions to help populate new colonies within the empire as part of the expansion scheme, rather than facing starvation.

Greek women had virtually no political rights and were controlled by men at nearly every stage of their lives. The most important duties for a city woman were to bear children, preferably male, and to run the household. Duties of a rural woman included some of the agricultural work such as the harvesting of olives and fruit gathering of vegetables. Since men spent most of their time away from their houses, Greek home life was dominated by women. The wife was in charge of raising the children, spinning, weaving and sewing the family’s clothes.

She supervised the daily running of the household. In a totally slave-based economy, plentiful numbers of female slaves were available to cook, clean, and carry water from the fountain. Only in the poorest homes was the wife expected to carry out all these duties by herself. A male slave’s responsibilities were usually limited to being doorkeeper and tutor to the male children. Greek custom dictated that a woman limit her time outside the house to visiting only with female neighbours.

The only exceptions to such social convention were weddings, funerals and state religious festivals in which women were expected to play prominent public roles. Vase scenes portraying women inside their houses are often lacking specific details. The common presence of columns suggests that women spent much of their time in the courtyard of the house, the one place where they could regularly enjoy fresh air. Greek cooking equipment was small and light and could easily be set up there. In sunny weather, women probably sat in the roofed-over areas of the courtyard.

Men’s activities included politics, arts and crafts, construction, agriculture, sea faring, manufacturing and trade. Agriculture was the most common male activity however it is only rarely illustrated. Yet the large majority of citizens of all Greek states relied upon the land for their basic income, even the rich who did no work in the fields themselves, tended to oversee directly the farming of at least some of their property as opposed to leasing it all out. For the common people, agricultural work was the overwhelming reality of their lives.

Education in schools in ancient Athens was at first limited to aristocratic boys however, by the 4th century, all 18-year-old males spent two years in a gymnasium, a state school devoted to the overall physical and intellectual development of a young man. More advanced education in philosophy, mathematics, logic and rhetoric was available to the aristocracy in highly select gymnasia like the Academy of Plato and the Lycaeum of Aristotle. Although girls in ancient Greece received no formal education in the literary arts, many of them were taught to read and write informally at home.

The sunny climate of Athens made the living conditions out doors pleasant and for this reason Athenian men often saw a dwelling as a house, not a home, leaving early in the morning for work or relaxation. On an ordinary day, the average Athenian man rose early in the morning and dressed in the commonly worn knee length woollen garment called a chiton. After a small breakfast of coarse bread dipped in wine, the average citizen might go to the market of Agora, the central meeting place of the city, before the beginning of the work day.

The market was a large bustling area, separated into sections of different items. It was also the civic centre of the city where much of the official business took place, for example meetings of the council and worship of the gods. At midday a light lunch would be had at home and the afternoon was often spent at the gymnasium where men wrestled, boxed and ran as well as found time for a serious discussion with other citizens. Dinner was usually eaten as a family and would consist of foods such as olives, vegetables, fish, cheese, bread, apples or figs, honey for sweetening and eaten with wine and water.

Meat was usually too expensive to be enjoyed by most people. If Athenian men wished to entertain friends they were usually invited to dinner in the evening lead by serious discussion. In such instances women were banned from attendance. The abundance of slaves in fifth Century Greece did much of the real work, leaving the Athenian citizens free, and therefore leisure was seen as an essential part of life, especially sporting activities which were regarded as necessary for good health.

Sports were also seen as a method of training for warfare as well as a means of honouring gods. An excellent example of this is the Olympic games. Music and dance was popular with Greeks from all classes, not only as a past time but also a religious festival. Musicians often accompanied plays at the theatre or performed with dancers at private banquets. Most Greek cities also had an amphitheatre at their centre in which plays or enactments of stories of gods and legendary heroes were presented for entertainment.

It was through such means as sports, music and dance that ancient Greek citizens found entertainment at their leisure. The Ancient Greeks were extremely racist people and referred to all non-Greeks as barbarians, meaning “not speaking”, simply an adjective representing the sound of incomprehensible speech. It was originally used in referral to the Persians, but because their empire covered so many of the foreign people in question, for example the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Phrygians and Thracians, it was soon extended to all non-Greeks.

This reflected and boosted the Greeks sense of their own superiority and it is obvious through records that they were often portrayed as the opposite of the ideal Greek. There are few references to the different physical appearance of barbarian characters except in the case of blacks, their skin supposably darkened by the sun. It was argued that colour determine not only physiology, but also temperament and political behaviour. In issues such as these the Greeks were very set in their ways and anyone with a contradicting opinion was often rejected from society and sometimes even ostracised.

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