Earned Knowledge, L6, P4

Daily Life In Greece

Daily life in the Greek city-states, as well as in the farming areas, was family-centered, usually involving what we’d call extended families. That is, the family (more often called household) included not only a mother, father and children, as it usually does now, but grandparents, in-laws and even cousins. Family groups might also be clustered together in the same general area.

Each family belonged to a tribe with a common heroic ancestor (real or fictional), worshiped the same god, owned large pieces of their land together, had a common treasury, defended one another, and were buried in the same place. This was the fundamental unit of civilization that formed in the time of transition and was carried into the classical era.

Marriage was seldom just about love between a man and a woman; generally it was based upon property. The Greeks understood the love between women and men very well, but marriage was arranged by families (often with a lot of negotiation), with the goal of improving, maintaining and extending the family as a whole. Status and wealth were very important in marriages, and a family marrying up or marrying down was carefully noted by many people.

As much as many modern people remain very aware of status, it was much more universal among the Greeks and Romans.

Marriage, in this time and in many others (going back to the Babylonian empire that took over from Sumer and forward almost to modern times), involved dowries, which were gifts made by the bride’s family, and which accompanied her into the marriage. Without such a gift, a girl would be unable to find a good husband.

But the dowry wasn’t precisely a gift. Rather, it was the woman’s property, though often given to the groom to use. It was the property of the bride, to be used by her new family. If the marriage somehow ended, it would be her property again, and the husband was always responsible for his handling of the dowry. If he wasted the dowry, it was a shame to him and his family. And, of course, there were many variations of these arrangements.

Greek husbands and wives did very often love one another, but that usually came after the marriage rather than before.

A great deal of Greek life revolved around the sea. Greeks, and particularly Greek men, spent a great deal of time on the Mediterranean sea, fishing and/or trading. Farmers spent most of their time tending their crops or herds, of course, but as we noted earlier, the Greek islands weren’t terribly useful for agriculture. And so fishing and trading were more common. There was a lot of farming in the colonies, the locations of which were usually chosen because they had rich farmland.

The way people measured time – hours or watches, days and years – generally carried over from Sumer. Once such methods of measurement were in place there was no advantage in changing them, which would have been very hard to do anyway. In fact, we still use a a great deal of the Sumerian model, such as counting time in 60s and 12s, rather than the 10s we use for most everything else. Even the ways we measure circles and angles are based on the 60s model.

The Greeks had ten months in their year, as did the Romans, until powerful emperors were able to add two more. (July for Julius Caesar and August for Augustus Caesar.) If you look at the last three months of our modern calendars, you’ll see that they still have the Roman designations for eight, nine and ten: Oct, Nov and Dec. They were the 8th, 9th, and 10th months before July and August were added.

Once larger cities formed (Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Ephesus and quite a few others), wealthier men would go to a gumnasion. That’s the word that became gymnasium for us, and also the word for school in many parts of the world still. The gumnasion was a place to exercise both mind and body. They also spent a lot of time in the market area of their city, called the agora.

Quite a few Greeks became rich. One reason for this was that slavery was a profitable economic system. Another was that these people were their own rulers, and didn’t choose to pay a great deal of money for the upkeep of government. It’s hard to say precisely what these people contributed to rulership, but it was clearly a small fraction of what modern workers pay. And so, keeping their own money rather than having it stripped away week by week, many of them developed good habits (like saving money rather than spending it all) and became rich over time.

Greeks wore plain clothes, usually just two squares of cloth tied together. Usually the garment was white, though bright colors were sometimes used. In some places, like Athens, people were tunics and robes. Children and workmen generally went barefoot, while other men and women wore sandals, shoes and boots, but without socks. Jewelry was common for both sexes, and men often carried walking sticks.

Men and women both wore their hair long, usually in braids or tied up on the back of the head. Ladies sometimes wore ribbons in their hair and a jewel on their forehead.

These people ate grains, occasionally vegetables, roast meat of many kinds, fish, honey, lard, and oil. Rather than our style of bread, they ate large and flat cakes of grain. They generally ate with their hands, and they all, even children, drank wine. This wine, however, was diluted into two parts water and one wine. Drinking undiluted wine was frowned upon.

The Greeks enjoyed all sorts of voluntary associations: Family clubs, worker’s clubs, religious clubs, political clubs, and many others to care for the sick, poor and old.


Paul Rosenberg


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