Lifestyle of the Ordinary
Ancient Greek

by Christopher Xenopoulos Janus
The daily Lifestyle of the anient Greek - just the ordinary people men and women, children and the elderly, slaves and foreigners, rich and poor - has always been of special interest to me.

Not more so, of course, than the philosophers, artists and dramatists who have contributed so enormously to our culture and ways of life but the study of the ordinary Greek in ancient times tells us so much, or puzzles us so much about what ordinary people are like in extraordinary times, namely the Golden Age of Greece.

Let's start with housing in ancient Athens. One would think that the Greek house would be among one of the first things to reflect a rich and renowned society. No so. The residential area of Athens consisted of narrow, winding streets and small, poorly constructed houses.

Somewhat paradoxically, it was not until the fourth century B.C: when Athens' economy was declining that houses began to be constructed in a more luxuriously style.

The best preserved Athenian house was found in the Attic countryside near the modern town of Vari, a few miles to the southwest of Athens. I have visited the area with a friend who has a two-story modern house there. Though this is a farm house, its plan is probably similar to that of many prosperous houses in Athens. There was only one entrance to the house from the road. A south-facing veranda provided a space to work and relax shade from the summer heat and the winter rain.

The houses of the poor consisted of only one room, divided up into two different spaces by makeshift platforms. However, since Greek husbands regarded it as a matter of honor that their wives not be exposed to the public gaze even when at home, those who could afford it provided their wives with a separate living area known as the Gynaikeion or romans' quarters.

In time, well appointed houses also came to acquire an andron or men's quarters. The andron was the setting for the symposium or drinking party.

All water had to be fetched from the outside. Greeks in general relied on the nearest public fountain for their drinking water.

An inside toilet or bathtub, in later times the mark of a luxurious house, was non-existent in Athens though bathtubs and some form of the inside toilet were reported in Crete and at Pylos at this time.

Judged by our standards Greek clothes were uniform and utilitarian in the extreme. It was virtually impossible to make a fashion statement by adopting an exotic style of dress. However, the wealthy aristocrat Alkibiades was distinguished by his special shoes that were named for him. The shoes were made from the leather of Corinth which was famous for its special leather and its treatment of it.

Most clothing, men and women's, was made on the loom in the home under the supervision of the mistress of the house. In earlier times, Athenian women wore the peplos, it long, heavy woolen garment which revealed little of the figure beneath it.

However, the ancient Athenian women found other ways to make herself attractive. Contrary today's taste, it was a sign of beauty in a woman to have a pale complexion, which is why women on vases are frequently depicted with whitened faces. Their pale faces was a natural consequence of spending most of their time indoors. However, some women sought to enhance their natural appearance by applying makeup. They also applied round spots on their cheeks and darkened their eyebrows with the soot produced by lamps. Eyes, eyelashes and lips were also painted a variety of colors.

Finally there was the matter of perfume. Perfume was described in ancient times as the poor woman's sword! Actually, perfume was popular among both men and women. It was generally manufactured by boiling the petals of flowers. However, Lais of Corinth, Greece's greater and wealthiest courtesan developed her own perfume which never has been duplicated, though she described her perfume as a boiling of spring-orange blossom petals with a fine grinding of oyster shells!

Athletes applied perfume to their bodies after exercise. Guests at a symposium also literally sprinkled themselves with perfume. A highly prized perfume container, usually owned only by women, Lais of Corinth had one, was the alabastron, so named because it was carved out of alabaster.

The Greeks did not just eat to live, on the contrary from earliest times dining had enormous social importance. In addition, most of the dialogues of Plato were written during the dining and the symposium.

The basic Greek diet was both frugal and monotonous. ANCIENT Athenians ate two meals a day - a light lunch, known as Ariston and dinner known as Deipnon, their main meal.

Well-to-do Greeks ate reclining on couches leaning on an elbow and using their free hand to take food from a small table in front of them. This had important consequences for the preparation of food, which had to be served in small pieces. Though knives and possibly spoons were common place, many Greeks probably made do with their fingers. Many gourmet diners today think that eating food with your fingers is the best way to get the fullflavors of the meal.

Among the small but important items we must write about to give a picture of the ordinary Greek was his use of olive oil. Olive oil, used in the preparation of many food was the principal source of fat. It also serve in religious rituals and was applied to the body after exercise. The importance of olives in Attica is indicated by the fact that goddess Athene calised an olive tree to spring up mysteriously on the Acropolis. I believe this is still a tourist sight. The use of butter was regarded as a mark of the barbarian. In place of sugar which was unknown the Greeks used honey and dried figs. I know my mother fed me honey long before I had ever heard of sugar and Greeks even today pride themselves on being the honey connoisseur on the almost the same scale as their judgement of wine.

Finally the favorite Greek drink in ancient times as today, was wine. Greeks almost invariably served diluted and often artificially sweetened and the Greeks preferred to drink wine in quantity only after they had finished eating. Incidentally it is a rarity to read of a Greek in ancient times as being drunk.

As an example, there is Archestratos, the parliamentarian, who boasted he could out drink any man in Athens and still stand up and from memory recite a page from Homer. Following is his interesting account of dining and drinking an his celebration of the good life as seen through eyes of an ordinary Athenian.

As you sip your wine let these delicacies be brought to you. Pig's belly and sow's matrix, seasoned with cumin and vinegar and silphuym, together with tender species of roasted birds, as each is in season. Pay no attention to those Syracusans who drink like frogs and don't eat anything. Don't follow their example but eat what I mean boiled chick peas, beans, apples, and dried figs. The flat cake made in Athens deserves praise, though. If you can't get hold of that, demand some Attic honey, as that will set your cake off well. This is the life of a free-man! Otherwise one might as well go below the earth, even below the pit into which condemned criminals are cast) and Tartarosa (the lowest religion of Hades) and be buried measureless fathoms underground.

Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Christopher Xenopoulos Janus started his writing career as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. Later he became a special writer for The New York Times Sunday News Magazine section where the late Lester Markel was his editor. During World War II, Janus joined the Department of State serving in Washington, Cairo and Athens on Greek War Relief and Rehabilitation programs. This experience had a great influence on his writing.

After World War II, the author was involved in various entrepreneurial experiences. At one time he owned Adolph Hitler's Mercedes Benz and toured it through the United States. He was an Investment Banker, but always took the time to be involved in the world around him.

Since his retirement from business, the author has devoted his time to writing, publishing and traveling. He founded and published the widely acclaimed Greek Heritage, The American Quarterly of Greek Culture, and with William Brashler wrote Search for Peking Man (Macmillan 1975). Janus' novel Miss Fourth of July, Goodbye has been filmed by Disney Productions. Around the World in 90 Years reflects much of the author's own warm and caring philosophy of life embodying unconditional loyalties and boundless enthusiasm. They feature a strong sense of self-reliance and the courage and wisdom to be interested in everything. Yet, as his mentor, George Santayana once cautioned the author: "Don't be awed by anything."

Most recently, the prestigious American Hellenic Institute Foundation of Washington, D.C. awarded its Hellenic Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award to Christopher Xenopoulos Janus.

Mr. Janus is the author of numerous articles appearing on HCS. Readers are invited to view: "The Drinking Parties--Symposiums in Ancient Greece" and "The Greatest Greeks of Antiquity" as well as other fine articles by him under our archival section bearing his name: Janus Articles.

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