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5-08-2015, 22:57

Daily Life

Men met to discuss philosophy and politics at parties called symposia, but citizen women were not allowed to attend.


Greek society clearly defined the separate roles of men and women. Men had broader rights and freedoms than women. They were the only ones

The Hetairai

Most women in Greek society lived restricted and somewhat secluded lives. They had nowhere near the same rights or freedoms enjoyed by men. A notable exception was with the hetairai. These women were paid to provide the entertainment at the symposia, and were known for their charm and engaging conversation skills. Often they could dance and play musical instruments, too. Hetairai usually came from a different city-state from where they worked and, unlike other women, they had the right to speak to men in public.

permitted to engage in political activity, and they handled anything associated with the military. They also assumed most of the financial responsibility for the family. Women contributed by taking care of most household tasks, such as cooking and weaving, either doing the work themselves or directing slaves. Poor women might work in the market.

Men and women usually socialized separately. Men hosted and attended symposia, parties at which there was food, drinks, and entertainment. Such events were closed to their wives and other respectable women, who were supposed to remain out of the public eye. In a play by Euripides, a character remarks, “There is one prime source of scandal for a woman—when she won’t stay at home.”1 However, reality dictated that women leave the house at times. Particularly in the lower classes in which there were fewer slaves to do the work,

citizen women would go out to fetch water from public fountains or perform other chores. Tending the graves of family members was also the role of women, giving them another opportunity to mix with society. The city-state of Sparta offered somewhat of an exception to the rule. There, women enjoyed much more freedom. They could own property, and they wore much shorter skirts than in other parts of Greece. They were expected to keep physically fit and healthy so they could have strong children.


Greek families wanted children—but not too many, because that diluted inheritances. To keep their numbers in check, the Greeks often subjected infants to harsh treatment. They stopped short of killing unwanted children, but girls and sickly babies might be put outside to let the gods decide their fate. Sometimes they died, but often they were rescued and brought up in another household. Once a child had been accepted into a family, it was treated well.

Some Greek children received a formal education, particularly those from wealthy families. Boys went to school beginning at age seven. They learned reading, writing, and math, and they studied music. Beginning at approximately age 12, boys took part in rigorous physical exercises to prepare them for military service, which they began at age 18. Girls did not attend formal schools but were taught by tutors at home. Spartan customs were somewhat different, and military service was the cornerstone of society. Boys were committed to military service from age seven to 30, and both boys and girls were expected to participate in physical activity.

Marriages were arranged early in children’s lives, and usually mates were selected by the families to ensure the continuation of both families’ fortunes. Girls were considered ready for marriage shortly after puberty, at age 14 or 15. Men, however, did not usually marry until they were close to age 30. There were few 50-year wedding anniversaries: the life expectancy for an ancient Greek was approximately 46 years old for men and 36 for women. Women often died in childbirth, which lowered the average. This was a relatively long life expectancy in the ancient world, probably aided by the Greeks’ healthy diet and emphasis on exercise. At death, the women of the household prepared the body for burial, which occurred three days later, and then men and women came together for a feast.


Meeting the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter took up much of the ancient Greeks’ time and energy. Their diet consisted mostly of bread, as well as fruits and vegetables such as olives, asparagus, onions, cucumbers, cabbage, figs, and grapes. For protein, they ate fish, eggs, and cheese, as well

as the meat from sheep and goats, often after the animals had been sacrificed to the gods, who were given their portion first. Wine was the preferred drink, but it was diluted with water to lessen the alcohol content.

Greek clothing was simple and practical. The peplos was a tunic, usually made of wool, fashioned into a rectangle that was draped over the shoulders and fastened with a pin. Loose armholes allowed freedom of movement. A chiton was a simple tunic crafted from a lighter-weight material such as linen.

Puppy Love

Dogs were an important part of Greek society. In mythology, the dog Cerberus stood guard at the entrance to the underworld, ruled by the god Hades. Dogs accompanied the goddess Artemis when she hunted. The Greeks also used dogs in their hunting, and the poet Homer notes that his hero, Odysseus, had a dog named Argos, which means “swift-footed.” Most names corresponded to the qualities of speed, power, and physical appearance. The writer Xenophon, from the 400s BCE, wrote that short names were best and made a list of acceptable names. Common ones (translated) included Tracker, Butcher, Dagger, Stubborn, Happy, Jolly, Plucky, and, of course, the tried-and-true Whitey and Blackie.

Either garment could be brought in at the waist with a belt. Women’s garments were floor-length, whereas men wore them at the knee. In colder weather, a cloak was worn over the tunic. Shoes were usually sandals or slippers, but there was no need for them inside the house, where everyone went barefoot.

Although few ruins of ancient Greek homes remain, scholars believe the styles were similar throughout the country. Examples from Athens show houses were typically built of dried mud and plaster with small windows. Most of them were rather flimsy and unimpressive. One writer from the time, Herakleides, remarked, “Most of the houses are mean, the pleasant ones few. A stranger would doubt, on first acquaintance, that this was really the renowned city of the Athenians.”2 Several rooms surrounded a central courtyard, and some houses had an upper floor. Often several generations of the family lived under one roof.


Much of what is known about Greek life comes from the remains of Greek art, mostly in the form of shards of pottery. In these scenes, people attend the theater or athletic competitions. Hoplites don their armor and go into battle—often accompanied by the Greek gods. Men at the symposia eat, drink, and listen to musicians. In the middle of the 400s BCE, scenes painted on vases expanded to show the activities of women—cooking, weaving, marrying, and taking care of children. Art styles and decorations changed gradually over the centuries, with scenes becoming more detailed and showing more emotional depth with time. Taken as a whole, they help reflect the ideas and values that defined Greek society.

The Greeks’ busy trade with other civilizations affected their art greatly. In the 600s BCE, their contact with artisans on Crete and Cyprus influenced their work in metals, gems, and jewelry making.

Bronze was a particularly popular material during the Archaic Age.

The Kindness of Strangers

If a stranger came knocking at the door, Greek custom dictated that it be opened and the person treated as a valued guest. The concept of xenia, meaning “hospitality,” appears throughout Greek myths and stories. The god Zeus was the protector of travelers, and in one tale, he comes to Earth disguised as a mortal.

He is refused a place to sleep several times before an old couple welcomes him. As punishment, he destroys the town but spares the people who took him in.

Red and Black Pottery

Early Greek pots were made out of red clay and then decorated with figures etched in black. By the late 500s BCE, this style had been flip-flopped, with artists preferring red figures on a black background. Reversing the process gave artists more control in creating their figures. On black-figure pots, artists had to etch in details into the form, whereas in red-figure pottery, they could paint them with a brush. As a result, the scenes on red-figure pots are much more detailed and natural, better showing people’s bodies, clothing, and facial expressions. Some artists also began signing their works, as a sense of pride of ownership emerged. Because sculptors were of higher status, it was more likely for them to sign their names than painters.