Chapter 15

Going About Daily Life in Ancient Greece

In This Chapter

● Observing the Greek calendar and time

● Eating, drinking, and celebrating

● Making money

● Exploring sex and sexuality

● Visiting the doctor

Like much of the ancient Greek experience, many things seem very close to how people live today, whereas other aspects seem very strange. In this chapter (and Chapter 16), I examine how people lived their lives on a day-to-day basis. After shedding some light on how the ancient Greeks kept track of their days, this chapter focuses on three staple elements of daily human existence: eating, drinking, and procreation. Along the way, I also touch on two other essentials: money and medicine.

Biding Their Time: The Greek Calendar and Clock

As I mention in Chapter 1, people in the ancient world most commonly dated things by events rather than an actual year. For example, they probably said ‘In the year Pericles died’ or ‘the year after the battle of Marathon’, rather than 429 BC or 479 BC, respectively.

Although this convention is very straightforward, the actual Greek calendar was really complex. The following sections cover the basics.

Figuring out the day

Part of the challenge of working with ancient Greek dates is that the region didn’t operate under a single calendar. Although every city based its calendar on the lunar cycle, they named individual months and fixed dates after local gods and religious festivals.

In fact, not only did every town or city have a different name for each month, but each possibly used a different date for the start of a new year. So if you were celebrating the New Year in Athens, folks in Thebes may still be in the previous one. The dissimilarities weren’t vast and probably didn’t make that much difference. In the time it took to travel from Athens to Thebes it would be new year when you got there anyway!

Exploring the Athenian calendar

Because this chapter, as well as most of Part III, focuses on Athens, this city’s calendar is worth examining in detail. Table 15-1 outlines the Athenian calendar.

Table 15-1

The Months of the Athenian Calendar




June / July



July / August



August / September




September / October



October / November



November / December




December / January



January / February



February / March




March / April



April / May



May / June

Each of Athens’s 12 months was either 29 or 30 days long, meaning that a year usually added up to about 354 days. Except the system wasn’t actually that simple. The arkhons designated some years as leap years and added a whole extra month. Leap years sometimes involved just repeating an already existing month, and mostly the ekklesia chose to have another month of Poseideon. This curious custom meant that a leap year was up to 384 days in length.

Although this was a lunar calendar and the Greeks were using the moon to calculate it, this wasn’t the main reason for making changes. More often than not the changes were used to create extra time. In 271 BC the Athenians added four extra days to the month of Elaphebolion to allow more time to prepare for the City Dionysia festival (see Chapter 16). It’s probably fair to assume that other cities did the same sort of thing.

What day is it again?

The days within each month were even more complicated. The Athenians didn’t name the day (Monday, Tuesday, and so on) - instead, they numbered them. But even this convention wasn’t as straightforward as it may seem.

A month started with the new moon and the Athenians then divided it into three parts: waxing, full, and waning. The first two parts counted forward the next 21 days. However, at the 22nd day things changed. As the moon began to wane, the Athenians counted backwards from 10 until the end of the month, finishing at day 1. This last day was known as the ‘old and new’ day.

So, despite having a 30-day month, the last day of Poseideon, for example, was actually the 1st. It’s very confusing. It confused me when I was writing about it.

Additional calendars

Incredibly, time keeping was actually even more complicated. In addition to the calendar conventions I describe in the preceding section, the ancient Athenians used two other forms of calendar:

● A calendar for scheduling religious festivals

● Another calendar to date political documents and legislation

Phew, that was a long week!

If you read through the details of the section 'Exploring the Athenian calendar', you may wonder how the numbering system left any room for weekends. Well, it didn't. There weren't formal days of 'non-work' apart from festivals and when you worked depended on what you did. For many people, if they didn't work they didn't eat. Other wealthier farmers or business people would be able to choose what they did and when. At certain times there was more to do, particularly in seasonal work like farming.

In Athens pretty much every day was a work day except when they held religious festivals. Athenians spent about 60 days in festivals every year, and probably about another 20 days were other specified non-work days for those taking part: citizens, women of Attica, and in some cases metics. Slaves were mostly excluded.

With the current two-day weekend, modern folks get about 20 extra days off each year compared with the ancient Greeks - but then again, they also had thousands of slaves to do a lot of the work for them!

The various calendars were mapped against each other, and on many occasions people must have needed to be told what day it was! The public slaves, or demosioi (see Chapter 14), were put in charge of keeping dates and records straight.

Working from dawn till dusk

The average Athenian day began at dawn, or just before, and carried on until last light (probably an average of about 15 hours). Because most jobs and activities required light, they usually ceased by the evening, when it was time for eating, drinking, and socialising - if you were male. See the later sections for more on these good-time activities.

However, like keeping track of the specific day, telling the time in ancient Greece was tricky. The Greeks only really worked on the basis of the hour rather than minutes. The two main methods were:

Sundial: The Greeks found out about the sundial from Babylon in Persia where the device was developed, and first started using their own less refined versions in the sixth century BC. The Greek instruments weren’t terribly accurate until the third century BC when Hellenistic scholars (see Chapter 12) worked out the mathematic formula that made sundials work properly.

● Water-clock: At night and when no sunlight was available, some people turned to crude water-clocks that used the flow of water as a timing device. Again, these devices weren’t very accurate, and the Hellenistic scholar, Ctesibius of Alexandria, refined the mechanism in the third century BC.

Greeks referred to time by using dawn, midday, and dusk as reference points and then adding hours, such as ‘in the third hour after dawn’.

After you got up in the morning, what you actually did for the rest of the day was pretty dependent on who you were. Ancient Athens didn’t include a wide range of occupations: farmer, artisan, labourer, or slave were the most common. For these people, most days were very similar and very hard.

More interesting are the lives of those people who were wealthy enough to be able to afford not to work every day. For them life in the city - particularly Athens - held other attractions like the ekklesia (see Chapter 7), the jury-courts, the gymnasium, and the theatre (see Chapter 16). The pleasures of wine, women, and song were also popular as the later section ‘Acknowledging the oldest profession’ explains.

Managing Your Money

Just like today, ancient Greeks had to pay to run a household and to buy products at the market, and the Greeks were the first people in the Mediterranean to introduce the actual concept of money.

Money started off as a measure for assessing how rich in possessions people were. By 800 BC the Greeks had introduced small wooden sticks called obeloi, meaning ‘spits’. These sticks were a measure of an amount of wealth, like a modern-day cheque or a note.

Within a couple of hundred years, the Greeks moved on to using actual coins of which the main basic unit of currency was known as the obol. Greek coins, as shown in Figure 15-1, were made from gold, silver, or copper alloy. Their weight determined the value of the coins so this was closely regulated by officials appointed by the governing council. This caused a new trade to develop, that of the money changer who would swap coins for a hefty commission when you visited a city.

Coins were illustrated with an image on each side that indicated where they came from. Most often the coin represented a god or local deity. Demeter was very popular because she was the goddess of crops and fertility, and she was often represented by an ear of barley. (Refer to Chapter 13 for more on Demeter.)

Figure 15-1: Example of Greek coins.

Dining and Delighting

Some of the first written descriptions of meals in Greek literature appear in Homer’s The lliad and The Odyssey. Both poems feature multiple scenes that involve a sacrifice and a subsequent meal. The description is repeated whenever the heroes make a sacrifice and then sit down to a meal. In The Odyssey it’s often when Odysseus and his men set down their ships on an island - think of them doing this on the beach!

Once they'd prayed, slaughtered and skinned the cattle, they cut the thighbones out and then wrapped them round in fat. . . once they’d burned the bones and tasted the organs they hacked the rest into pieces, piercing them with spits.

That’s right - Odysseus and his men were making beef shish kebabs!

The people of ancient Athens loved to eat, and in the fifth century BC, when Athens was a rich and successful port, a range of food was readily available. In this section, I look at what everyone ate - from basic everyday foods to the splendid feasts that took place as part of a symposium.

Putting your money where your mouth is

One of the more remarkable stories about the ancient Athenians was that they carried their small change in their mouths. Because people mostly wore clothes without pockets, your mouth was seen as a way of keeping your money safe and out of the reach of thieves. This practice gives a good guide as to how small Greek coins were. You had to be careful though - if you swallowed at the wrong time, you had to wait a day or so until you got your change!

Enjoying a simple meal

Depending on who you were in ancient Athens, most meals were pretty basic. As I write in Chapter 13, the staple of the Greek diet was cereal crops like barley and wheat. That meant that most meals involved bread in combination with other things. The Greeks described anything that was eaten with bread (perhaps cheese, honey, or another accompaniment such as being dipped in spiced wine) as opson.

A breakfast snack may be just some bread dipped in olive oil. A more substantial meal usually included beans, peas, lentils, or chick-peas - again with bread. A typical midday meal included honey or cheese as the opson - rather like a Ploughman’s lunch. A huge variety of cheeses were available, the most traditional being goats ‘feta’ cheese but, like wine, regions had their own specialities.The ancient Greeks kept lunch simple because work continued in the afternoon.

The big meal of the day was in the evening after work. At this meal a greater variety of food was available (especially at more formal meals like a symposium - see the later section ‘Sipping at a symposium’). Fish was usually on the menu. Beef, pork, and even poultry were less popular and eaten less often - people usually ate meat after sacrifices and saw it as something of a luxury food.

Favouring fish

The Athenians loved fish. The Greek word osophegos meant ‘fish eater’.

As I mention in Chapter 13, fish were quite difficult to catch in the ancient Mediterranean because the fishermen lacked modern deep sea fishing techniques. As a result, fish were highly sought after.

Greek literature is full of references to fish and where different specialities came from. Eels from Boeotia and dog-fish from Rhodes are quoted as being real delicacies. If you visit Athens today, you still find a large number of fish restaurants offering these delicacies!

In addition to fresh fish, pickled fish and fish sauce were highly prized delicacies. Often fish was used to flavour other foods, and the most expensive type of sauce, which later became known as garum, was popular throughout the Greek and then Roman world.

Hedylos was a Hellenistic poet from Samos who wrote mainly about food and drink. In the following poem, he describes the excitement over a special fish dinner. He also references the myth about Zeus turning himself into a shower of gold so that he could fit through the keyhole and have sex with Danae whose father had locked her away!

Our prize fish is done! Now jam the door-pin in Proteus! Agis the fancier of fishes might come in. He ’ll be fire and water, anything he wants. So lock it up... but maybe he ’ll arrive turned into Zeus and shower gold upon this Danae of a dish!

Sampling side orders

The ancient Greek diet wasn’t all just bread and fish. Some of the feasts put together for expensive formal dinners included all kinds of ingredients. A lot of vegetables supplemented main courses but people didn’t usually eat veggies on their own. Vegetarians did exist but they were thought of as unusual people.

The most popular veggies were onions, turnips, leeks, and celery. (The potato hadn’t been discovered yet.) Fruit was available, but mostly only grapes, apples, and figs. The Greeks didn’t have bananas or citrus fruits, and they didn’t have tomatoes either.

Cooking up a storm

Although not as advanced as today, the Greeks did use some cooking techniques. Baking was common practice, with bread being a staple part of the diet. Cooks usually boiled vegetables and beans, and heated other foods on a brazier (small portable stove), which was hot, sweaty work. In good weather cooking would be done outside and the food then taken in to eat.

Cooking skill was all about how a cook used sauces and spices to flavour the food. People whom the Greeks considered knowledgeable about food and cooking were those who understood the process of flavouring rather than cooking itself. Cooks often used wine to enhance the flavour of a dish, along with olive oil and the stock produced from cooking meat and fish. Marinating was a secret technique for boosting the flavour of ordinary ingredients.

Celebrity chefs

The life of a cook in ancient Greece was varied. Many cooks worked like caterers for hire to individual households, but some richer Greeks had their own cooks who were part of their domestic staff.

Some people even wrote about food and cooking. Fragments of two of the most famous cookbooks - Gastronomy by Archestratus and The Art of Cookery by Heracleides of Syracuse - still exist.

Shopping for ingredients

Most Athenians did their food shopping in the market that was located in the centre of the city. The farmers of Attica held monthly markets, bringing their wares to the city and selling them to the market traders.

Markets in Athens and elsewhere were made up of individual tables (trapezai) and booths rather than actual shops. The closest thing to shops were the workshops of specific artisans like potters or smiths who also did business there.

Sometimes, Athenians would travel a good distance to buy goods direct from the supplier. Fish lovers often made the half a day’s walk to Piraeus to buy fresh fish from the fishing boats.

Drinking It Up

The most important accompaniment to food was drink, and drinking was a big part of Greek life. Wine was, of course, the main drink (see Chapter 13 for more on wine and viticulture), although the Greeks knew about beer because people drank it in Egypt, Syria, and the east.

Greeks drank a lot of wine, but they mixed it with water. The Macedonians were considered vulgar because they drank their wine without mixing it. The wine wasn’t as alcoholic as modern wine, but ancient Greeks still got drunk and sometimes drank with the intention of doing so.

Imbibing publically - and privately

The most famous drinking sessions took place at symposiums (see the following section ‘Sipping at a symposium’), but plenty of other places existed where you could sink a few. The most popular spot was a tavern or kapeleion.

These establishments were pretty basic places that sold only wine and their managers were called kapeloi-men who ran the business, mixed the wine, and dealt with any troublemakers, much like modern pub landlords.

The Greeks had an interesting take on drunkenness. In private (such as in the symposium), intoxication was entirely permissible and even encouraged. In fact, drunkenness formed a large part of many religious festivals (see Chapter 22). Public drunkenness, however, was regarded as uncouth and unpleasant.

Sipping at a symposium

Simply put, a symposium was a posh drinking party for men only with a bit of philosophical chat and some flute girls. Women did meet with each other but it was very rare that they attended a symposium. The only women usually present were the flute girls and possibly prostitutes. Held in the andron of a private household (see Chapter 14), a symposium was a two-stage evening:

● The first stage was the deipnon, or formal dinner.

● The following stage was the symposion, or session of drinking together.

Usually, a symposium involved 14 to 30 guests who drank from special wine cups, or craters as they were known (see Chapter 17 for more on Greek pottery). During a symposion, guests discussed philosophical issues. Professional performers such as poets, singers, and actors entertained the guests, and slave boys and sometimes expensive courtesans known as hetairai (see the section ‘Acknowledging the oldest profession’) attended to guests’s every need.

The evening ended with a torch-lit procession through the streets known as komos, to show the bonding within the group that had taken place.

In one of his poems Hedylos gives a flavour of the symposion mood:

Let’s drink up: with wine, what original, what nuanced, what sweet fancy speech I might hit on! Soak me with a jug of Chian, and say ‘Have fun Hedylos.’ For I hate wasting time unless I’m high.

Hedylos’s boisterous words are probably a good guide to the quality of the philosophical discussion after a few craters of wine!

Pondering Sex and the Ancient Greeks

The concepts of love and sex were very different from that of marriage. As I mention in Chapter 14, Greek men commonly had affairs with other women - and in some cases, younger boys (see the later section ‘Contemplating homosexuality’).

More often than not, the heterosexual affairs were with prostitutes or other sex workers, and sometimes these relationships were considered love affairs.

Love, sex, and wine were all linked together in the Greek mind. The following poem by Asklepiades from Samos is very evocative in its description of wine and unhappy love.

Wine is love s test. Nicagoras told us he had no lover, but the toasts betrayed him. His tears, yes and unhappy eyes, the tight wreath on his bent head slips out of place.

Acknowledging the oldest profession

Prostitution was legal in Athens. Indeed, it was a thriving business that actually paid tax to the city treasury. The women involved were very unlikely to be Athenian and were most often from Asia Minor.

Although prostitutes is the general term used to describe these women, three distinct classes existed:

● Pallakai (concubines): These women were ‘permanently’ attached to a male and may even have lived in his household. Often men set up their pallakai in separate houses and apartments within the city and visited them regularly. These women were more like mistresses than prostitutes, although they did receive money and gifts.

● Hetairai (courtesans): These ladies were very expensive and exclusive, handpicking their clients. Often highly educated, hetairai had more in common with a Japanese geisha than other classes of prostitute. They were employed for their intelligence and conversation as much as their sexual attractiveness.

● Pornai (prostitutes): This term covered all types of prostitute from those who worked in brothels to more expensive girls for hire. They include the aulos or ‘flute girls’ who were invited to the symposia. The category also included some male prostitutes, although these were unusual.

Contemplating homosexuality

The Greeks regarded homosexuality as nothing unusual. If a man found women attractive, then there was nothing surprising about the fact that he found adolescent boys attractive also and chose to actively pursue them.

Athens does Pericles a favour

A public association with pallakai or hetairai was seen as nothing unusual in ancient Athens. Pericles, the famous Athenian politician, even went as far as divorcing his Athenian wife so that he could live permanently with a hetaira from Miletus called Aspasia. They had a son who couldn't receive citizen rights under Athenian law. However, when Pericles's two sons from his first marriage died of the plague in 430 BC, the ekklesia voted that his son with Aspasia be made a full citizen.

The normal situation was that an older man (the erastes meaning ‘lover’) pursued the affections of a younger boy (the eromenos, or ‘beloved’).

The most common place where such liaisons took place was the palaestra at the gymnasium where older men watched the young boys exercising. This being the case, only leisured aristocrats with time on their hands probably really engaged in homosexual affairs.

This short poem by Phanias describes his love for a boy who has grown slightly too old to be considered an eromenos, and it shows how quickly these relationships were considered to be finished.

By Themis and the wine that made me tipsy, your love won’t last much longer Pamphilus. Already there’s hair on your thigh, down on your cheeks and another lust ahead. But a little of the old spark’s still there, so don’t be stingy - opportunity is love’s friend.

That’s not to say that the Greeks didn’t mock homosexuality - the plays of Aristophanes are full of jokes. But their scorn was specifically reserved for men who carried on relationships with each other into middle age and those who showed any sign of effeminacy. Finding young boys attractive was entirely acceptable - a mature man allowing himself to be treated like a woman was not.

Love and sex between two women probably happened regularly in ancient Greece but it was never public and there’s very little evidence of it. The most famous association is with the poet Sappho (seventh century BC) who came from the island of Lesbos (giving rise to the term ‘lesbian’). Sappho wrote beautiful lyric poems about love and the goddess Aphrodite, many of which could be interpreted as being about both men and women and we know little about her actual life. The Greeks didn’t recognise Sappho as being gay; only more modern readers. Sappho’s poems are wonderfully evocative of the ancient times she lived in before the Greeks had begun to record their history.

Seeking Medical Assistance

So what did you do if you’d overindulged in food, drink, or sex? Consulting a doctor was relatively easy in ancient Athens, but it was also very expensive - and some of the methods were rather scary.

Doctors were professional people rather like craftsmen or artisans, and as such their methods were equally varied. Doctors travelled throughout Greece, finding work where they could. In big cities like Athens, however, they ran small businesses like a kind of shop and charged high prices.

Turning to the gods

Throughout the whole of Greek history many people believed that anger of the gods caused illness. Many gods had associations with health and wellbeing including Apollo, but the most important of all was Asclepius.

Asclepius was an interesting character who was born a mortal but became a god when he died. As the son of Apollo, he was born with miraculous healing powers, and he travelled far and wide healing the sick. In the end, Asclepius’s powers didn’t do him much good because, when he tried to resurrect the dead, Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt for trying to act like an immortal! Apollo intervened and Asclepius was made into a god.

Greeks all over the Mediterranean worshipped Asclepius and made offerings to him, hoping to be cured of illness. He had sanctuaries in several places but the most famous was on the island of Cos. Quite an industry built up around the shrine, and people travelled from all over the Mediterranean to visit it. The deal was that if you made an offering to the god Asclepius (such as some money, a piece of art, or the sacrifice of a small animal like a chicken), he may visit you in the night and cure you. And if he didn’t? Well you obviously hadn’t made a big enough offering!

Some temples offered healing services, but it was unlikely that the priests had any medical training. A large amount of belief was the best that people received.

Meeting the Father of Medicine: Hippocrates

Other people did try to cure illnesses. The most famous and influential of these was a man called Hippocrates of Cos (460-377 BC). His father was a doctor and Hippocrates followed in his footsteps. He eventually left the island of Cos and was in Athens during the Peloponnesian War, where he treated people suffering from the plague.

What made Hippocrates special was that he was one of the first ancient Greeks to argue that illness was caused by natural factors rather than being a punishment from the gods. He was keen on a healthy diet, clean conditions, and the use of herbs and pastes to treat patients. Because of his healthy lifestyle he was rumoured to have lived to be 120 years old - he didn’t!

After the Peloponnesian War, Hippocrates returned to Cos and founded his own school of medicine and put together the Hippocratic Corpus. This massive book included 60 different essays on good medical practice, including the famous Hippocratic Oath.

I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfil according to my ability this oath and this covenant.

The Hippocratic Oath was written by Hippocrates as a guide for new doctors about what they should do. It includes promises not to carry out abortions, euthanasia, or any surgery that they haven’t trained in, or to have sexual relations with patients. Much of the oath’s language and philosophy is very out of date now, but some doctors swear by it even today!

Treating all manner of ills

Most ancient medical treatments involved the use of herbs or spices and some attempted to either cool or heat the body as a way of controlling the illness. Most doctors were keen on the idea of balance in everything and that a lack of it caused illness. So if you were too hot, you needed cooling down, and vice versa.

Surgery was rarely attempted because people knew little about the inner workings of the body. The Greeks considered the examination and dissection of corpses to be sacrilegious, and so opportunities to discover anything further after a patient’s passing were slim. For example, most Greeks believed that the heart was in the head and not the body.

For anybody who contracted a serious illness, the chances of recovery were slim. Those injured in battle very often died of their wounds.

Things changed a little when the philosopher Aristotle began his study of the human body (see Chapter 23), but no major advances in medicine occurred until late in the Roman Empire through people like Galen (circa AD 200). The best advice was not to get ill!

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