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What was Life Like in Ancient Athens?

Life ancient Athens
Life ancient Athens. The Karyatides statues of the Erechtheion on its Acropolis. Credit: Harrieta171, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikipedia

Everyday life in Ancient Athens of the Hellenistic era was more intellectually stimulating and exciting than in most ancient cities mainly due to the fact that Greeks excelled in theater and philosophy, and were involved in politics and athletics contests, as well.

In addition, their culture had developed the vital art of public discourse at the agora. Men, if they were not training as soldiers, often discussed politics in groups or went to the theater to watch tragedies or comedies for entertainment.

They could strongly relate to the plays, of course, which often involved current politics and the actions of Greek gods in some form.

Life Ancient Athens
Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz. Public Domain

The men of Ancient Greece also had full citizenship status and could vote, something women were not allowed to do.

Regarding the realm of theater, women were also not allowed to even watch plays—much less act in them. The theater was a masculine affair and the roles of women were always played by males.

Life for men in ancient Athens also involved playing games which did not involve physical activity also, including marbles, dice, and checkers. The ancient Greek version of checkers was similar to the current game of backgammon. However, the Ancient Greek version of checkers involved a board, stones, and dice.

Life for women in Ancient Athens

The life of women in ancient Athens was closely tied to domestic work, including spinning, weaving, cooking, and other domestic chores. They were not involved in public life or in politics whatsoever.

Life ancient Athens
Respectable free women were expected to involve themselves in domestic tasks such as washing clothes, Public Domain

Females, as a rule, were mostly confined to the home although one vital public duty for them was to serve as priestesses at temples.

Female children in ancient Athens were not formally educated; rather, their mothers taught them the skills they needed to run a household. They married young—often to much older men. When they married, Athenian women had two main roles: to bear children, and to run the household.

The ideal Athenian woman did not go out in public or interact with men she was not related to, though this ideology of seclusion would only have been practical in wealthy families.

In most households, women were needed to carry out tasks, such as going to the market and drawing water, which required taking time outside the house where interactions with men were possible.

Farming around the seasons

Ancient Athenians had to eat, of course, as well. It was only natural that the majority of them made their living and got food on the table from farming. Citizens often owned land outside the city which provided their income.

The Greek landscape and climate, however, made farming a difficult endeavor.

In September, it was time to harvest the grapes, which were either kept for eating or used to make wine. Winemaking was done by treading the grapes by foot and then keeping the juice in enormous casks to ferment.

Olives were either picked by hand or knocked out of tress with wooden sticks. Some were crushed in a press to produce olive oil while others were preserved for consumption. Olive oil was extremely critical to ancient Athenians since it had many uses, such as for cooking, lighting, beauty products,  and athletic purposes.

Olives and their associated products were so vital to the economy that uprooting an olive tree was a criminal offense in Ancient Greece.

Grains were usually harvested in October to ensure they would be able to grow during the wettest season. The farmer would use a plough driven by oxen while a second man would follow closely, sowing the seeds.

In spring, crops were harvested using sickles. After harvesting the grain, it was then threshed, using mules and the help of the wind to separate the chaff from the grain. The husks were then removed by pounding the grain with a mortar and pestle.

Ancient Athenians ate bread made of barley or wheat along with porridge and accompanied by cheese, vegetables, fish, eggs, and fruit. Animals such as deer, hare, and boars were hunted as well, but they did not comprise the main diet but were merely a sort of luxury food.

Seasoning usually involved coriander and sesame seeds. Honey was most likely the only sweetener that existed at the time, and honey’s great importance in ancient Greece is demonstrated by beehives being housed in terracotta vases.

Growing up in ancient Athens

Athenian boys played games similar to today’s hockey and participated in a variety of sports, including road races, wrestling, and calisthenics. Since they usually played unclothed, girls were forbidden from observing competitions.

Life Ancient Athens
Wrestling ring in ancient Athens. Public domain

Overall, women and girls were not expected to perform much physical activity for recreational purposes.

Children in ancient Greece usually occupied their time playing with toys and games. We know from archaeological research that they played with balls, miniature chariots, rattles, yo-yos, rocking horses, dolls, and animals made from clay.

Boys received instruction at home by their mothers until the age of six to seven, but all further education was the responsibility of the father while students were taught by private schoolmasters after that age.

Boys from wealthy families were escorted to school by a trusted slave, and students learned to write using a stylus on wax-covered tablets. Books were exceptionally expensive, so they were very rare.

Students in Athens learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. They also learned about fractions. Students learned the poems of Homer—surely knowing much of them by heart—  and how to play the lyre.

Wealthy children also learned to ride horseback. Other sports included wrestling, archery, using a sling, and swimming. At age fourteen, boys attended a higher school for four additional years until they were eighteen at which time they were sent to a military school from which they would graduate at age 20.

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