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What Was Life Like in Ancient Greece?

By Yann, published on 14/08/2019 We Love Prof - AU > Academia > History > Ancient Greeks

If we should take an informal poll, it would be a good bet that everyone responding would know of at least one Greek philosopher and at least one mythological tale from Ancient Greece.

If we were to stretch the point, surely everyone could name at least one Olympic event from that time: discus throwing, chariot racing… even marathon running has its roots in Ancient Greece.

What about Greek architecture?

The Parthenon is one of the world’s most recognised structures. So renowned and admired is it that you can visit duplicate Parthenons in Regensburg, Germany, where it is known as the Walhalla Memorial and in the US state of Tennessee, in their capital city.

In fact, Tennesseeans must be great admirers of Ancient Greece; they have a host of cities with Greek names: Athens, Antioch, Smyrna, Sparta…

And it’s not just Tennesseeans who commemorate the Greek: the National Monument of Scotland, nicknamed Edinburgh’s Folly, was modelled on Athena’s temple!

Much is known about this civilisation that flourished in Antiquity – indeed that defined Classical Antiquity!

Archaeologists have been hard at work for centuries, uncovering the treasures of Ancient Greece: their poetry and artistry, philosophers and deities.

Even if we condensed their findings, this article would be prohibitively long!

Instead, let us stipulate that you are familiar with the greatest accomplishment of Greek civilization: that Greek culture became the foundation of western culture overall.

Let us further stipulate that you are aware philosophy, politics, language and science, education systems and the arts – literature, visual and performing arts, all have their roots in Ancient Greece.

If you already know all of that, Superprof undertakes the Homeric task of bringing you a rendering of life for the ancient Greeks.

Timeline of the Ancient Greek Civilisation

This rendering of the Acropolis is a symbol of Greek reverence for the law The Acropolis is an excellent example of Greek law and philosophy Image by Jo-B from Pixabay

It goes without saying that the region we identify as Greece has been inhabited for a long time, but just how long was it until they established themselves into cities and developed a culture?

In other words: what exactly is meant by the designation ‘Ancient Greece’?

More importantly: what prompted the dramatic social evolutions that underpin our societies still today?

In the very beginning, the people inhabiting that region were hunters. Archaeological finds date human activity to 6,000 BC; in the Neolithic period.

While much was accomplished during that time – establishing a tradition of pottery and animal husbandry, it still predates the period indicated by the term ‘ancient’, which lasted from 800-500 BC.

By then, Minoan art had established its legacy and the Greek Dark Ages (1100-750 BC) were just coming to an end.

These Dark Ages cover the time between the fall of the Mycenean civilization and the resurgence of the Greek written language.

While many advances had been made by Myceneans in engineering, military infrastructure and architecture, they could not withstand the attacks of the Dorian, who fought with iron weaponry.

The Dorian were a people from the mountainous region of southwest Macedonia. They fought their way through central Greece, effectively bringing about the first decline of Greek civilization.

Mycenea’s rigid social hierarchies, strict political systems and regimented economical ventures, driven by a palace-centred leadership fell into chaos, propelling Greece into their Dark Age period.

During this time, people lived in small farming villages scattered throughout the region.

Although no records have been found of this period, it is estimated that substantial shifts away from palace rule and toward a more decentralised form of socio-economic government permitted the people to regroup and reorganise.

Archaeological evidence of emerging nation-states after 800 BC has been found, indicating that Greek civilisation was indeed rebuilding herself.

This is the era, sandwiched between the Grecian Dark Ages and the Classical Period (500-336 BC) that is referred to as Archaic, or Ancient.

How well-developed was the Egyptian culture by this time?

These roughly 300 years saw the foundations of democracy laid, an explosion of intellectual and academic growth and unparalleled artistic expression.

Now we look at the living conditions that permitted this growth.

Coming Together After the Dark Ages

The phrase ‘the fall of the palaces’ indicates the end of the Mycenaean civilisation, the time when people fled the cities they had built.

While some established themselves in small farming communes, others banded together and wandered the land as nomads for a time.

The agricultural tribes soon established themselves as city-states or ‘poleis’, built fortifications – city walls and defence units, and established trade relations with nearby poleis.

Greek poleis gave us our root word for ‘politics’.

Indeed, these settlements had to be quite diplomatic: they traded with one another regularly and lived in relatively close proximity but established their own cultures, laws and political structures.

Throughout these Greek colonies, the wealthiest citizens were chosen (or elected themselves) as leaders, forming an oligarchy that had the power of a king – a rather strange turn of events, seeing that most colonies had recently overthrown their monarchs.

The trend continued: the oligarchs were also soon overthrown, this time by tyrants who played on political or economic crises to seize and hold power. Once the crisis situation was resolved, citizens would accuse their tyrant of having illegally taken the reins of power and promptly oust them.

This ongoing cycle of oligarchic and tyrannical rule followed by eviction continued for some time and it even spread throughout the land and into Italy.

During the 6th Century BC, a new body of government arose: democracy – rule by the people.

Of course, you have to understand that, at the time, only free men were considered ‘people’. Women, slaves and foreigners had no say in government proceedings which means that, essentially, the oligarchical system simply expanded to include all ‘legal’ males.

This new era of politics required a massive system of laws. Arguing them, formulating them and drafting them into the lawbooks was a monumental work, meaning that men once again had a measure of economic stability.

With economic stability came population growth. Greek city-states were on their way to becoming metropoli again but small, isolated patches of farmland wouldn’t do.

All across the Mediterranean and into Anatolia, a frantic period of colonization ensued.

Discover another colonization effort on the other side of the world: the Mayans.

Life in the Archaic Period

For all of these societies’ political and philosophical advances, they were still largely agrarian. That meant that leisure time was often in short supply – especially around sowing and reaping times.

The olive harvest brought long hours of heavy labour.

Such work included beating the olives out of the trees with sticks, gathering them, processing them either into oil for cooking or lighting, into beauty products or preserving them for later consumption.

Likewise with the grain harvest: first the grain must be cut with a sickle, threshed and then pounded with a pestle to remove husks. And again, the work of storing it.

Once all the work was done, if there was a spare moment or if it was a religious observance, Greeks enjoyed certain pastimes.

Greek men liked going to the theatre Going to the theatre was a popular pastime in Ancient Greece Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

Leisure Time

In times of high celebration or for special occasions, one might catch a play at the theatre. Even today, Greek tragedies and comedies resonate; in fact, it was the Greek poet Thespis who gave us our first tragedy.

Credited as being the world’s first actor, he also gave us the word ‘thespian’.

If nothing at the theatre appealed, one might join in discourse with fellows, discussing either politics or philosophy.

Other than that, sedentary games – dice, checkers and bones attracted a fair share of players. If one wanted a bit of movement, a brisk game of marbles might do.

If one was too young to sit through a theatre production or to participate in oration – in other words, one was a young lad, he might enjoy playing marbles or, if he is particularly energetic, a game similar to hockey.

Such games were usually played in the nude so, naturally, girls were not allowed to join in the fun.

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Life for Women in Ancient Greece

While life for females was not exactly one of penury and desperation, it certainly was unequal to being a man in Ancient Greece.

For one, women did not have a voice in politics; in fact, they were not considered Greek citizens – that title came with the privilege of being male.

Women had few economic opportunities – selling olive oil or pottery in the market remained forbidden to them although the males in their family could take the oil and pottery the women had made or the cloths they’d woven and turn a profit.

Women were not allowed to enjoy the theatre – not to act in plays or be in the audience. To be sure, Greek tragedies certainly had roles for females but they were played by men in costume.

Females of all ages were not expected to crave physical exertion as a pastime so, even if the female in question were a young girl who would have loved to run alongside her brother and his friends, that would not have been permitted.

Overall, women’s social position worsened during the Archaic period.

Records show that, until that time, women in cities like Delphi, Megara and Gortin owned property – an indication of wealth and independence.

However, in Classical Greece, the period immediately following the Archaic age, records show that women were property; a part of the household which belonged to males.

Still, there was one avenue that women could follow to maintain an independence of sorts: she could become a priestess.

Read about another ancient society that welcomed women as priestesses

Religious Beliefs

It is important to remember that, even though Greek mythology invokes many of their deities, Greek religion is a completely separate institution from storytelling, although they are closely intertwined.

Like many civilisations, the Greek pondered their origins and the meaning of their life. Their existence was given depth and a purpose by the gods they entertained.

What we know today as Greek mythology came about through the practice of the ancient Greeks honoring their gods.

One way that religion was practised in those times was the telling of stories and seeing those stories recorded in writings. One such narrative, Hercules, is an excellent example of how a human must travail to earn a place among the gods even though he was descended from gods.

In Ancient Greece, religion and gods were a part of everyday life.

The Incans also believed their gods shadowed their lives…

At the dinner table, people would set a place for Hestia, the household goddess and worship at the altar they had set up for her. Religious observances didn’t stop there…

In this article’s introduction, we mentioned that the Parthenon was built to worship Athena. Other temples, such as the one on the Attic peninsula, were built in honour of other gods:

  • Zeus: ruler of the gods and god of the sky
  • Hera: wife of Zeus; patron city was Argos
  • Poseidon: god of the sea, second to Zeus in power; father of Triton
  • Demeter: goddess of the harvest whose daughter, Persephone, was abducted by Hades
  • Athena: goddess of war, wisdom, art, industry and justice. Zeus’ favourite child
  • Apollo: god of prophecy; twin brother of Artemis
  • Artemis: goddess of the moon, hunting and animals
  • Ares: god of war; mostly worshipped in Thracia
  • Aphrodite: goddess of love and beauty; wife of Hephaestus
  • Hephaestus: initially cast down from Mount Olympus, he regained their good graces by forging thrones of gold for all of the gods.
  • Hermes: messenger of the gods, he had winged shoes and hat
  • Hestia: the aforementioned household goddess
  • Dionysius: god of grapes and wine-making; he was revered everywhere that grapes grew

The more powerful Olympian gods were worshipped everywhere but, in the case of Dionysus, for example, only the people living in the wine regions of Greece would actively and routinely worship him.

Besides obeisance to all of the Olympian gods, each city-state had their own deity to protect them and sometimes the city individual gods favored was named after them – Athens being a good example of such.

Finally, the ancient Olympic games were conducted as a tribute to Olympian gods.

Archaeology finds that the Olympic games got their start around 700 BC, during the Archaic period, apparently as a tribute to Zeus. The games were well-attended but, in spite of a large Macedonian population, only Greek citizens could be present at the games.

Women couldn’t attend because they weren’t considered citizens, if you’ll remember.

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This period saw life-sized carvings of statues The Archaic Period was when the Greeks started carving human statues to scale Image by Ionas Nicolae from Pixabay

Bringing the Archaic Period to a Close

This relatively peaceful time in Greek history was all too short-lived; it only lasted for about 300 years, of which only about 160 were truly progressive.

The onslaught of Dorians that brought about the end of King Mycenae’s munificence left Greek citizens in the ignoble role of slaving for their Dorian masters.

Fleeing the cities that their occupiers now called home, Greeks established themselves initially as small clans, eventually returning to their previous way of life by building up city-states.

Even though at that time, the Greek economy was agrarian-based, they nevertheless set the stage for greater academic and civic establishment.

Emerging from the Greek Dark Ages, Greece saw unparalleled advances in medicine, art, philosophy and politics, and they were uniquely placed to spread these disciplines throughout the Mediterranean territories.

It helped quite a bit that they had allies in Rome who would incorporate Greek wisdom and knowledge into their own culture and propagate it throughout their empire.

It was during this time that Greek scientists and mathematicians made great advances; you might not know of Anaximandros, who devised an early theory of gravity but surely you would recognise the name ‘Pythagoras’.

This was the time that Homer wrote his Illiad and Odyssey and sculptors carved proportionate human figures – rather than towering figures of gods.

This time of relative peace and productivity that was soon eclipsed by a series of wars: the Ionian Revolt, the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War and others all took their toll on the population and resources of Greece.

Isn’t it remarkable that, for such a brief period, Ancient Greece had such an amazing impact on the rest of the world?

And isn’t it even crazier that, though long-past, it still shapes our societies and beliefs?

Now discover other ancient civilisations that laid the foundation of today’s societies.

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