Blowhard, Esq. writes:
It’s the 5th century BC. Because Athens’s allies pay the city tribute (i.e. protection money in exchange for Athens shielding them from the Persians), you are sufficiently wealthy that you don’t need to work for a living. You are a man of leisure, so most of your days are spent relaxing.
You rise before dawn and walk down to the agora north of the Acropolis. Your slave accompanies you. The agora is the civic, legal, religious, commercial, and social hub of Athens. It’s a level, open space, but a number of buildings surround it on all four sides. The agora is the location of much of the city’s official and unofficial business, as well as a place to merely hang out. At the center of the agora is the Monument of Eponymous Heroes, erected in honor of the men who gave their names to the ten tribes of Athens. On this morning there is a large group gathered around the monument looking at various documents — the agenda giving details of the next Assembly, a list of lawsuits, and another document listing the tribes being called for military service. You avoid the crowd and head over the philosophers’ area, perhaps join in the conversation for a little while. Everyone knows the Athenians love to argue. Socrates can be spotted here most days. Perhaps after that you go to the market stalls to shop for a while. Your slave will carry your purchases.
Next, you go to the gymnasium, literally “place of nakedness.” The gymnasium is a pleasure center — it has a wrestling ground, running track, bath, and lecture room for education. The most famous gymnasia of the classical period were Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. The gymnasia are mainly patronized by young men, but elderly Greek men are known to hang out there too. You’d probably spend a few hours here.
At midday you head home for lunch, visit with your kids for a while. If you’re tired, you take a nap. Or, if you’re feeling more energetic, you might go hunting or go to the cockfights.
By now it’s evening time. You could head down to the local tavern for a few jars of wine, but taverns are for the lower classes, not your sort of crowd. You prefer to drink at home or at a friend’s home in a semi-form setting, an activity known as a symposium, literally “drinking together.” Plutarch described a symposium as a “passing of time over wine which, guided by gracious behavior, ends in friendship.”
At the symposium you don’t sit, you recline on a couch that you share with two other men. You prop yourself up on your left elbow so can eat and drink with your right hand. A table was placed in front of you with food. Although drinking was the primary reason for the gathering, a full meal was served first. After dinner religious libations were poured and a hymn was song to the gods, usually Dionysus. The symposium proper began with a sip of neat wine to consecrate the proceedings. Just a sip, though. The wine served to the guests was diluted with water as no sophisticated Greek would ever consume wine neat because it was thought to make one go insane. Only barbarians drank wine straight.
There were different kinds of symposia. Perhaps the host would hire a flute-girl to entertain his guests. Perhaps, as famously documented by Plato, the guests would philosophize. Or, the host might hire some hetaira, female courtesans, usually ex-slaves, skilled in the arts of music, conversation, and sex. If Greek vases are to be believed, symposia frequently turned into orgies.
Symposia were also important transmitters of culture. The “capping game” was a popular activity: one person would quote a line of poetry, the next person would quote the next line, etc. Or, the first person would quote a line of poetry and the next person would quote a line that began with the the last letter of the line previously quoted. When guests got drunk, they played the decidedly more lowbrow kottabos, in which participants flung drops of wine at targets.
Classical Greek culture was heavily male-centered. Respectable Greek women were not only barred from symposia, they were excluded from most of public life. They spent most of their time at home tending to the children and domestic duties. Women in public were chaperoned at all times. As for relaxing, Greek women were permitted to host or visit other female friends, attend certain religious festivals, or spend time with their husbands.
- This is the second post I’ve ripped off from Robert Garland’s Teaching Company lectures on daily life in the ancient world. Back here I shared a few tidbits about daily life in ancient Egypt.
- I also pilfered from Robin Waterfield’s introduction to Plato’s Symposium.