Greek Life

Athens in the 5th century

Athens in the 5th century


Unlike their expensive and solid public buildings (especially temples), most Greek private houses were simple, mud-brick buildings around a courtyard which sometimes included a well. They had one or two storeys. The roofs were sometimes tiled, sometimes flat, and the walls were plastered. The door was relatively solid and made from heavy wood. The few windows were high up to minimise dust and heat. Wooden shutters were used (their glass was not smooth or clear enough). Floors were normally hard earth or occasionally tiled with stone.

The rooms were broadly divided into ‘men’s quarters’ near the front of the house (including dining room, master bedroom and guest rooms) and ‘women’s quarters’ towards the back of the house (including a room for spinning and weaving, store rooms, children’s room and sometimes kitchen and bathroom – not all Greeks had these). Greeks had relatively little furniture, partly to save space and partly because it was expensive. Bedrooms did not have wardrobes; instead they used hooks and chests for storage, along with a chair, and jug and basin for washing. In the dining room couches were arranged around a small table. The spinning room would have housed a loom, chair and stools as well as equipment for spinning and weaving.

Sanitation was limited. If the house did not include a well, slaves would fetch water from the nearest public spring. Athens did not have an underground sewage system: pots from the houses were emptied into gutters in the street; the sewage would then be taken outside the city and the streets washed down by slaves.



Food and cooking

In a world without refrigeration, food had to be stored in cool, rodent-proof conditions. The large clay storage jars called amphorae were ideal for this purpose. Foodstuffs in store would have included barley and wheat, fruit, nuts, cheese, olive oil, wine, onions and garlic, herbs and spices, honey, salt and vinegar. Smoked fish and salted meat would also be stored.

Cooking utensils were hand-made from clay or bronze, and nearly as varied as those in use today with the exception of forks which were not used by the Greeks. They could be hung from the wall or in the case of larger items stored on racks or on the floor. A small portable hearth (eschara) could be used in the courtyard like a barbecue or moved inside in poor weather. The hearth could be used to boil food in pots or for roasting and baking if combined with a portable clay oven.

Greek pets

Not surprisingly dogs were favourite pets and sometimes formed a close bond with their owner, like Odysseus’ dog Argos and the Thessalian hound Lykas commemorated in this epitaph by Simonides:

Your bones, Ο huntress Lycas, here we hide, 

White bones the wolf yet fears may hunt him down; 

Your fame still rings from Pelion’s massy side 

And lone Cithaeron’s peaks and Ossa’s crown. 

As well as dogs, there is evidence that various birds, tortoises and grasshoppers (amongst other animals) were kept as pets.




In the ancient world, in the absence of mechanisation, most countries had slaves ( and there are still some slaves today). Many Athenian households owned one or two slaves, who were paid small wages and could buy their freedom if they saved enough. Some slaves were prisoners of war or victims of piracy, so they might be a long way from home. In some parts of Greece dealers could buy unwanted children as slaves.

Slaves had few legal rights, but most seem to have been treated well. In Athens people sometimes complained that you couldn’t tell slaves from free men. House slaves probably carried out chores like cleaning, fetching water and wood, moving furniture and digging their owner’s land. Specialist slaves might have a trade, like carpentry or making furniture or pots. The slaves who experienced the worst conditions were probably those who worked in the silver mines at Laurion.




Most Greek clothes were made from rectangular pieces of cloth, so they could be stored in chests without creasing. All ages and sexes wore rectangular tunics (called a chiton) with holes for their arms and head. They were normally pinned at the shoulders and sewn up the sides. In cold weather they might wear a second garment over the chiton. This long cloak was normally a himation for men and a peplos for women. Clothes might be dyed, or have a geometric design around the border.

Other clothes kept in chests included sandals, boots, hats, and belts. Girls also had jewellery, often made from gold or silver, and combs and scarves for dressing their hair. There would normally be a pot of perfume in the bedrooms.

If you were a busy Athenian man, without all the benefits of modern entertainment systems, one way to relax would be to invite your male friends to dinner followed by a drinking party (called a symposium).

Seven or eight guests might be invited to recline round the table. The invitations, in the form of little clay statues, would be delivered by a slave. A professional cook would be hired for the occasion; after discussing the menu, he would probably bring his own portable barbecue. Normally there would be three courses: sharp-tasting appetisers, meat or fish, and something sweet.

The choice of wine would be important. Some Greek wine was quite sweet, and would be mixed with water. Entertainment might be provided by acrobats, musicians or dancers as well as by conversation. The man’s wife would help prepare the room with flowers, even though she wouldn’t attend the dinner. A rose might be hung above the table to remind guests not to gossip about what they heard over dinner.

As the evening wore on, talk would turn from stories and jokes to more serious matters like politics and religion. It was also an opportunity for what we call networking.

Flute girl at a symposium

Flute girl at a symposium


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