Life In Ancient Greece

By Tim Lambert

Cities in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek cities were protected by stone walls. Inside them, most of the land was occupied by private homes. However, there were also many temples and workshops. In a typical workshop, a craftsman worked with one or two assistants and perhaps a slave.

Methods of government varied among the Greek city-states. However, Athens is famous for its democracy. In Athens, there was a council made up of 500 men. They proposed new laws which were debated in an assembly, which all men could attend, held every 10 days. The Athenians also had a method of removing politicians they disliked. At an assembly, each year men wrote the name of an unpopular politician on pieces of broken pottery. If 600 men voted against him he was banished for 10 years. This practice gave us the word ostracize.

The Ancient Greeks also founded many colonies in the Mediterranean between 750 BC and 500 BC. The Greeks founded colonies in southern Italy and southern France. They also began colonies on the Turkish coast, around the Black Sea, and on the coast of North Africa.

Society in Ancient Greece

Like all early civilizations Ancient Greece was an agricultural society. Most of the people lived by farming and the main form of wealth was owning land. In each city, there was an upper class and a middle class of men like substantial farmers, doctors, and teachers.

However, the vast majority of people were peasants and craftsmen or slaves. Slavery was common. (It is estimated that about 30% of the population of Athens was made up of slaves). If they worked in rich people’s homes slaves could be reasonably treated.

However, by law owners were allowed to flog slaves. Those slaves who worked in mines probably suffered the most. Prisoners of war were made slaves. Furthermore, any child born to a slave was automatically a slave. However, there were also a huge number of slaves imported from abroad. Slaves were cheap and only the poorest Greeks could not afford them.

Even if they were not slaves most of the people in Ancient Greece had a very low standard of living. Despite all the achievements of Ancient Greece for most of its people life was hard.

When a child was born it was not regarded as a person until it was five days old when a special ceremony was held and the child became part of the family. Parents were entitled, by law, to abandon newborn babies to die of exposure. Sometimes strangers would adopt abandoned babies. However, in that case, the baby became a slave.

The Greeks worshiped goddesses as well as gods. Women participated in religious festivals. However, in a wealthy family women usually stayed apart from men. They usually stayed in the back or upper part of the house. In a rich family, the wife was expected to run the home and very often manage the finances. However rich women would normally stay indoors and send slaves to do the shopping.

Poor women, of course, had no choice. They might also have to help their husbands with farm work. Women, even rich ones were expected to spin and weave cloth and make clothes. However, in Sparta, women owned much of the land. We also know from records that women owned land in Thessaly and the Cretan city-state of Gortyn. In Ancient Greece, some women were tavern keepers. Others sold food or perfume. Some were wool workers.

In Ancient Greece, some girls were taught to read and write. Women from wealthy families were often well-educated. Girls married when they were about 15. (Except in Sparta where they were typically older). Marriages were often arranged.

Greek women were not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. However, women had their own games dedicated to the goddess Hera (wife of Zeus). The Heraean games were held once every 4 years.

There were many great women in Ancient Greece. Sappho (6th century BC) was a famous Greek woman poet. Theano of Crotona (born c.546 BC) was a famous mathematician. Telesilla of Argos was a famous poet who lived around 500 BC. Gorgo queen of Sparta (born c. 508 BC) was an influential woman.

About 400 BC Arete of Cyrene was a famous philosopher. Timycha of Sparta was a philosopher about 375 BC. Hipparchia of Maroneia (350-280 BC) was a philosopher. Anyte of Tegea was a great poet who lived around 250 BC. About 150 BC Aglaonike was a woman astronomer.

The Olympic Games

Athletic competitions were held during religious festivals in every Greek city. However, the Olympic Games began in Olympia in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, the chief god, and people who came from all over Greece and the Greek colonies to take part in them. Wars stopped to allow everyone to take part. Athletes competed in boxing, wrestling, running, horse racing, chariot racing, and the pentathlon (five athletic events). Winners were not given medals. Instead, they were given a crown of leaves.

Houses in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek homes were usually plain and simple. They were made of mud bricks covered in plaster. Roofs were made of pottery tiles. Windows did not have glass and were just holes in the wall. Poor people lived in just one, two, or three rooms. Rich Greeks lived in large houses with several rooms. Usually, they were arranged around a courtyard and often an upper story. Downstairs was the kitchen and the dining room (called the andron). So was the living room. Upstairs were bedrooms and a room for women called a gynoecium (the women wove cloth there and also ate their meals there away from the men).

Furniture was basic even in a rich home. The Ancient Greeks stored things in wooden chests or hung them from wooden pegs on the walls. A rich home would also have a dresser to display expensive cups. People reclined on couches (which could also act as beds). The couches were simply wooden frames with rope webbing and mats or rugs laid on top. Poor people rose at sunrise and went to bed at dusk but the rich lit their homes with olive oil lamps.

Food in Ancient Greece

Ordinary Greeks lived on a staple diet of bread (made from barley or, if you could afford it, wheat) and goat’s cheese. The meat was a luxury but fish and vegetables were plentiful. Ordinary Greeks ate pulses, onions, garlic, and olives. They also ate hen’s eggs. Peasants caught small birds to eat.

The Greeks also ate fruit such as raisins, apricots, figs, apples, pears, and pomegranates. Rich Greeks ate much more varied and interesting diets such as roasted hare, peacock eggs, or iris bulbs in vinegar. Poor people drank mainly water. If they could afford it they added honey to sweeten it. Wine was also a popular drink. Usually, the wine was drunk diluted with water.

Clothes in Ancient Greece

Originally Ancient Greek women wore a peplos. It was a rectangle of cloth folded and pinned together. It was tied at the waist.

Later Greek women began to wear a long tunic called a chiton. Women also wore cloaks called himations. Women wore jewelry like necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. Rich women carried parasols to protect themselves from the sun. Women did not cut their hair unless they were mourning. It was worn in many different styles.

Men wore plain tunics of wool tied at the waist. Men also wore cloaks called himations and if they were traveling they wore broad-rimmed hats. Although ordinary Greeks wore clothes of wool or linen the rich could afford cotton and silk.

Most Greeks washed in a basin called a louterion though the rich sometimes had bathrooms. People rubbed themselves with olive oil and then rubbed it off with a tool called a strigil.

Education in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, girls were taught by their mothers. They learned skills like weaving. Many girls also learned to read and write at home. Boys from better-off families started school when they were seven. Boys from rich families were escorted to school by a slave. The boys learned reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as poetry and music. The Greeks also believed that physical education was very important so boys did dancing and athletics. Discipline was severe and children were often beaten.

In Sparta, children were treated very harshly. At the age of 7 boys were removed from their families and sent to live in barracks. They were treated severely to turn them into brave soldiers. They were deliberately kept short of food so they would have to steal – teaching them stealth and cunning. They were whipped for any offense. Spartan girls learned athletics and dancing – so they would become fit and healthy mothers of more soldiers.

In Ancient Greece when boys were not at school and girls were not working they played ball games with inflated pig’s bladders. They also played with knucklebones. Children also played with spinning tops, dolls, model horses with wheels, hoops, and rocking horses.

Art in Ancient Greece

The Greeks are famous for drama. Theater probably began with a group of people called a chorus singing and dancing in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine. Then about 534 BC, a man named Thespis added a single actor to the chorus. A second actor was added and then a third. Eventually, the three actors stood on a stage while the chorus stood in the foreground and commented on the action. All the actors were male and they wore masks. The audience sat in tiers of seats in a semi-circle. (Our word theater is derived from the Greek word theatron, which means the place where people listen).

The Ancient Greeks invented tragedy in which some great person is destroyed not by wickedness but through error. They also wrote comedies. (Our word comedy comes from the Greek word for merrymaking, Komoidia). Among the great Greek dramatists were Aeschylus (525-456 BC), Aristophanes (448-380 BC), Euripides (480-406 BC), and Sophocles (496-406 BC). A woman named Sappho who lived about 600 BC was a famous poet.

The Greeks are also famous for their lifelike sculpture. Among the great sculptors were Phidias (490-430 BC), Praxiteles, and Lysippos (both of whom lived and worked in the second half of the 4th century BC). One of the greatest examples of Greek sculpture is the Venus de Milo, which was carved about 100 BC. It was found on the Greek island of Milos in 1820. Unfortunately, the arms are missing.

Ancient Greek pottery often has scenes from mythology or everyday life painted on it. In the 6th century, BC figures in black glaze were painted against a red background. This was called the black-figure style. About 520 BC the red-figure style was introduced. The colors were reversed. In Ancient Greece, funerary urns usually had figures painted on a white background. Painting on walls was also an important art in Ancient Greece. Unfortunately, very few examples survive.

Greek musicians played a wind instrument like a clarinet. One pipe was called the aulo and two pipes played together were called auloi. Greeks also played cymbals and a stringed instrument called a lyre. They also played a kind of tambourine called a timpanon.

Architecture in Ancient Greece

Symmetry was very important to the Greeks and Greek architects went to pains to work out correct ratios and proportions. Greek architecture is usually divided into 3 styles called orders. They are Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The most important temples had colonnades (rows of columns) in one of the three styles. Doric columns were relatively short and broad. Their height was six times the diameter of their base. They were also quite plain and simple although they did have fluting (vertical indentations) for decoration. Ionic and Corinthian columns were 9 times the diameter of their base in height. Both had tops called capitals. Ionic columns had capitals carved like scrolls while Corinthian columns had columns carved like leaves.

The most famous work of Greek architecture is the Parthenon, a temple in Athens. The building began in 447 BC and was completed in 438 BC.

Ancient Greek Philosophers

Ancient Greece produced some great astronomers. Anaxagoras (500-428 BC) realized that the Moon does not shine with its own light, but reflects light from the Sun. Aristarchus (310-230 BC) realized that the Earth spins on its axis. He also realized that the Earth moves around the Sun not the other way round. Finally, Eratosthenes (276-194 BC) calculated the circumference of the Earth.

The Greeks are also famous for their philosophers (philosopher means lover of wisdom). Among the greatest philosophers were Socrates (469-399 BC), Plato (428-348 BC), and Aristotle (384-322 BC). One of the most influential philosophers was Empedocles (494-434). He taught that the world is made of four elements, earth, fire, water, and air. This view dominated Western thought until the 17th century.

A brilliant mathematician named Pythagoras (580-500 BC) made important discoveries. Another mathematician called Euclid wrote a geometry book called The Elements. It was a standard textbook for over 2,000 years.

Meanwhile, a Greek named Democritus (460-370 BC) said that all things are made of tiny pieces of matter he called atoms. However, it was not until the 19th century that he was proved right.

Herodotus (484-424 BC) was a great historian. He has been called the Father of history.

Religion in Ancient Greece

The Ancient Greeks were polytheists (they worshiped many gods). The Greeks imagined that gods and goddesses were like human beings. Among the gods and goddesses were Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, Athena, goddess of wisdom, Artemis goddess of hunting, the moon, and childbirth, and Ares god of war. They also worshiped Dionysus god of wine, (he was also the god of music, dancing, and the theater), Demeter goddess of crops, Hephaestus the blacksmith of the gods, and Hermes the messenger of the gods.

Other gods were Poseidon god of the sea and Hades the god of the dead who ruled over a gloomy underworld where the spirits of the dead dwelt. Apollo was the god of the sun, music, and poetry. The chief god was Zeus. His wife was Hera, the goddess of marriage.

Every city had many temples. People went to the temple to pray. Outside them were altars where offerings were made and animals were sacrificed. Very often Greek houses also had an altar in the courtyard where they made offerings to the gods.

When Ancient Greeks died they were either buried or they were cremated and their ashes were then buried. Food, drink, and goods were buried with the dead person, and from time to time the family of the dead person made offerings on the grave. The Ancient Greeks believed that when you died a ferryman called Charon rowed your spirit across a river called the Styx to the entrance of the underworld. The entrance was guarded by a three-headed dog called Cerberus, who prevented anyone from leaving!

If you were very bad during your life then after your death you went to a place called Tartarus to be punished. If you were very good you went to a beautiful place to be rewarded. However, most people were neither particularly good nor bad. After death, they went to a dull and dismal place. The Greeks believed that if they made offerings to a dead relative it would temporarily brighten their existence in the dreary underworld.

The Parthenon

Weapons in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek armies were based on infantry called hoplites. The hoplite had to buy his own armor and weapons so he usually came from the middle class. Hoplites were protected by helmets, breastplates, and backplates, and shin guards called greaves. They carried round bronze shields. Hoplites carried 1.8-meter-long spears made of wood with a metal point. They also carried swords and daggers. When they went into battle Hoplites marched in lines with their shields overlapping to form a metal ‘wall’.

Only the rich could afford horses so they provided the cavalry. Cavalrymen carried two throwing spears and a sword. Poor men became archers or were armed with slings. They did not wear armor. The Athenians also had a large navy. The ships were called triremes. They had three rows of oars. Two rows poked out of portholes. The third row was on the top deck. Ships were armed with a ram at the prow.

Medicine in Ancient Greece

The roots of modern medicine are in ancient Greece. On the one hand, most Greeks believed in a god of healing called Asclepius. People who were ill made sacrifices or offerings to the god. They then slept overnight in his temple. They believed that the god would visit them in their sleep (i.e. in their dreams) and when they woke up they would be healed.

At the same time, Ancient Greek doctors developed a rational theory of disease and sought cures. However one did not replace the other. The cult of Asclepius and Greek medicine existed side by side. Medical schools were formed in Greece and Greek colonies around the Mediterranean. As early as 500 BC a man named Alcmaeon from Croton in Italy said that a body was healthy if it had the right balance of hot and cold, wet and dry. If the balance was upset the body grew ill.

However, the most famous Ancient Greek doctor is Hippocrates (C.460-377 BC). (Although historians now believe that he was much less famous in his own time than was once thought. It is believed that many of the medical books ascribed to him were written by other men). Hippocrates stressed that doctors should carefully observe the patient’s symptoms and take note of them. Hippocrates also rejected all magic and he believed in herbal remedies.

Several Greeks speculated that the human body was made up of elements. If they were properly balanced the person was healthy. However, if they became unbalanced the person fell ill.

Finally, Aristotle (384-322 BC) put forward a theory of disease. He believed the body was made up of four humors or liquids. They were phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. If a person had too much of one humor they fell ill. For instance, if a person had a fever he must have too much blood. The treatment was to cut the patient and let him bleed. The Greeks also knew that diet, exercise, and keeping clean were important for health.

Later Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. In 332 BC he founded the city of Alexandria and a great medical school was established there. Doctors in Alexandria dissected human bodies and they gained a much better knowledge of anatomy. However little progress was made in understanding diseases.

Last revised 2024