Acropolis in Athens
Athens, Alexandria and Syracuse (on Sicily) were the greatest centers of Greek culture. In the 5th century B.C., Athens had only 30,000 people.

Although the temples and the buildings at Greek ruin sites seem orderly and tidy, real Greek cities were anything but. The residential and communal areas of a Greek city was were disorganized, chaotic and all over each other and the open angora was filled with stalls and vendors. This method helped protect the city from invasion in two ways. A small, congested city was easier to enclose with a wall and a network of disorganized street created problems for invaders.

The Romans were the ones known for their organized and well planned cities. This was made possible partly by the fact they controlled such a vast amount of territory they didn't have to worry designing individuals towns and small cities so they were impregnable. Some Roman cities had elaborate drainage and sewage systems.

The construction of cities into a grid pattern is believed to have evolved in the Greek colonies in Italy. Early Greek settlements evolved in a haphazard way around and a central hearth and communities were arranged in clusters. The first grid cities were believed to be cities on the Greek mainland and Asia built in the 5th century, but in the 1990s archaeologists discovered the city of Megara Hyblaea in Sicily, which older than the 5th century, had grid-like streets and parts of the city that served specific functions.

City state dwellers occupied the valleys, while a small number of independent farmers tried to make a go of it on the rocky hillsides. Population boomed. Ultimately there was not enough land, and fighting ensued.

The Phoenicians, Persians and Greeks built many of their cities on hilltops. Water came from springs and was often carried in subterranean tunnels. Long tunnels were driven through rock to bring water to Athens. Fortified breakwaters helped the Greeks build three harbors in Pireus.

Ancient Greek City States

Ancient Greece was divided in polises , or city-states, which were neither cities or states. They were self sufficient communities with their own army, customs and laws. Each polis contained one town, which was also the center of the government. The first true city states have been traced to Dorian settlements (850-750 B.C.) on Crete, where constitutions were drawn up that granted certain rights to the Dorian conquerors but denied them to everybody else. Between 750 and 500 B.C. chiefdoms and villages coalesced into city-states on the Greek mainland, Aegean islands and Asia.

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Zeus Statue, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, in the the Temple of Zeus in Olympia

Many city-states were centered around citadels built on mounds or hills (an acropolis) hills for protection. Within the settlement were houses, an agora , or marketplace, and temples for worshiping. Their authority often spread no further that the surrounding plains or valley. The historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, they were "just large enough and just small enough, neither wholly urban nor wholly rural, for it needed both countryside and city...The polis strictly speaking consisted not of the territory but of the citizens....there were several hundred such Greek polis so varied that general history of them is not possible."

The polis had a “religion-like importance.” Different city-states had different forms of government. Many began as oligarchies ruled by land-owning aristocrats. Most had councils made up of male citizens that made laws. Some suggest that temples with large central room may have been used for political as well as religious assemblies. As the demos , or people, gained more say, democracies arose, most famously in Athens.

Homes in Ancient Greece and Rome

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model of Greek House from 400 BC
Most Roman and Greek homes, whether they belonged to rich city dwellers or poor farmers, were built around a courtyard. The openings of the house faced inward towards the courtyard rather than outward towards the street and other buildings. Ancient houses, for the most part, were made of sun dried bricks placed on a stone foundation, like dwelling in the third world today.

The walls and roofs were probably supported and reinforced by timbers and beams, but we can't say for sure because wood and mud bricks decompose rapidly, which is also why there are hardly ever any houses at archaeological sites. Generally only temples and monuments were built of marble and stone. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Rooms and Parts of a Wealthy Greco-Roman Home

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squat toilet in Pompeii
In front of the courtyard in a typical Greco-Roman dwelling was the atrium , the main room in the house. It was often a square room with a hole in the roof to let light in. Guests were entertained here and friends and family gathered here to socialize and relax. In this large room family treasures were displayed, and usually there was an altar with figures of gods or bearded snakes placed on it. Rooms sometimes contained niches. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

In small houses, the bedrooms, kitchen and dining room were placed around the atrium. In larger houses and villas the bedrooms, recreation rooms, libraries, guest rooms, baths, eating chambers and other facilities were often in separate wings. The spacious atriums are misleading. Respected Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard has pointed out they would probably have been decorated with gaudy curtains and filled with wooden furniture, storage cupboards, looms and a variety of stuff.||

The roof of a typical house was covered by pottery tiles and designed so it directed water into a storage basin. During Roman times, when urban areas became crowded and concrete construction was developed, houses with several stories were built for the first time on a large scale. Rural houses were surrounded by sheep pens, small orchards and gardens that varied in size depending on how rich the owner was. Many families kept bees in pottery hives.||

Kitchens were poorly ventilated and had packed dirt floors. They were meant for slaves only and not for public viewing. Even middle and upper class homes in Pompeii often had a tiny kitchen that was combined with the latrine. Beard wrote that the kitchen in the House of the Tragic Poet, the setting of a banquet in the popular novel The Last Days of Pompeii , would have been far too small to produce a large banquet. And worse: “Just over the back wall of the garden...was a cloth-processing workshop, or fullery. Fulling is messy business, its main ingredient being human urine...The work was noisy and smelly. In the background of Glaucus’ elegant dinner party there must have been distinctly nasty odors.”

Ancient Greek and Roman Household Possessions and Primitive Toilets

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Bronze mirror 150 AD
Some houses had water piped in but most homeowners had to have their water fetched and carried, one of the main duties of household slaves. During Roman times sewers were developed but few people had access to them. The majority of the people urinated and defecated in clay pots.

Ancient Greek and Roman chamber pots were taken to disposal areas which, according to Greek scholar Ian Jenkins, "was often no further than an open window." Roman public baths had a pubic sanitation system with water piped in and piped out. Baths at home were generally only big enough to sit up in and they were filled with water from pottery buckets by slaves. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

A typical bedroom in 600 B.C. contained a bed made of wicker or wood, a coffer for valuables and a simple chair. Clay jars as tall as 1½ meters were used for storing grain, oil and wine. Pine tar was valuable stuff. It was used for everything from caulking wooden ships to a flavoring for wine.

Greeks and Romans used umbrellas for protection from the sun. Men regarded them as effeminate and they were used primarily by women, who also used ones water-proofed with oil in the rain. The Greeks had schools for mirror making, where students were taught the finer points of sand polishing.

Ancient Greek Pottery

bird-shaped vases
Ceramics created by the Greeks were far superior to anything made by civilizations that preceded it. The Greeks produced vases, urns and bowls. They were known for their craftsmanship. The most famous pieces were vases with paintings such as Apollo playing a tortoise shell lyre. Unlike oriental pottery which came in all kinds of shapes, ancient Greek pottery was more limited, comprised of only a few dozen shapes that changed little over time.

Many things--- including grain, olive oil or wine---were stored and carried amphorae (large clay jars) with two handles near the mouth that made it possible to pick them up and carry them. They generally were two to three feet tall and carried about seven gallons. Their shapes and markings were unique and these helped archaeologists date them and identify their place of origin.

Most Greek pottery was connected with wine. Large two-handled amphorae (from the Greek amphi , “on both sides,” and phero , “to carry”) was used to transport wine. Smaller, flat bottom amphorae were used to hold wine on the table. Kraters were amphora-like vessels with a wide mouth used to mix water and wine. From a krater wine and water were retrieved with a metal ladle and placed into pitcher and from the pitcher poured into two-handled drinking cups.

Hydria, with two horizontal handles, were round jars used to carry water from a well to a fountain. Before glassblowing was developed in the 1st century B.C. “core glass” vessels were made by forming glass around a solid metal rod that was taken out as the glass cooled.

The largest ancient metal vessel ever found was bronze krater dated to the sixth century B.C. Found in the tomb of a Celtic warrior princess, it was buried with a chariot and other objects in a field near Vix, France. Almost as tall as a man and large enough to hold 300 gallons of wine, it had reliefs of soldiers and chariots around the neck and a bronze cover that fit snugly in the mouth. Ordinary amphora held only around a gallon of wine.

Lighting and Cooking in Ancient Greece

oil lamps
The earliest lamps were made from sea shells. These were observed in Mesopotamia. Lamps made from man-made materials such as earthenware and alabaster appeared between 3500 and 2500 B.C. in Sumer, Egypt and the Indus Valley. Metal lamps were rare. As technology advanced a groove for the wick was added, the bottom of the lamp was titled to concentrate the oil and the place where the flame burned was moved away from the handle. Mostly animal fats and vegetable and fish oils were burned. In Sumer, seepage from petroleum deposits was used. The wicks were made from twisted natural fibers.

Houses were lit with oil lamps, and cooking was done with coals placed in a metal brazier. Fires were always a hazard and it was not unusual for entire towns to burn down after someone carelessly knocked over an oil lamp. Greeks and Romans used oil lamps made of bronze, with wicks of oakum or linen. They were fueled by edible animal fats and vegetables oils which could be consumed in times of food shortages. The Romans were perhaps the first people to use oil as a combustible material; they burned petroleum in their lamps instead of olive oil.

In ancient times, olive oil was used in everything from oil lamps, to religious anointments, to cooking and preparing condiments and medicines. It was in great demand and traveled well and people like the Philistines grew rich trading it.

In Greco-Roman times the rich ate and drank from gold plates, silver cups and glass bottles while commoners ate and drank from clay plates, hollowed ram's horns and hardwood jugs. Upper class Greeks used spoons of bronze and silver while poorer people used ones carved from wood. To clean themselves at mealtime the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used towel-like napkins and finger bowls of water scented with thing like rose petals, herbs and rosemary.

Items found in ancient Greek and Roman kitchens included vessels for storing olive oil; bowls for mixing wine and water; bronze strainers for removing grape skins and seeds; and small bowls for salt and snacks. There were also ladles and large bowls for eating and serving food; mortars and pestles for grinding up food; and saucepans, baking pans and frying pans, all made out of bronze, for cooking food. Women and slaves both did the cooking. Women normally didn't fetch water, but when they did they sometimes carried the vessels sideways on their head to the well and upright on the way home. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Agoras (Ancient Greek Markets)

Many Greek cities were organized an agora (known to Romans as a forum), which served as a market area and meeting place Bronze workers, marble craftsmen, makers or terra cotta figurines and farmers all sold their products in the agora.

market activity at the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, One of the Seven Wonders of the World

The Agora in Athens (on the north side of the Acropolis) is a huge area covering about 30 acres and is littered with thousands of pieces of columns and building. Laid out today like a park, the Agora was ancient Athens' administrative center and main marketplace and gathering place. Located between ancient Athen's main gates and the Acropolis, it was filled with workshops, markets, and law courts. One work days, vendors set up shop in wicker stalls. There were areas for moneychangers, fishmongers, perfumeries, and salve traders. Visitors today still find hobnails and bone eyelets in an ancient cobbler' shop.

The Agora was where people shopped, voted, socialized and discussed the issues of the day. The comic poet Eubulus wrote: "You will find everything sold together in the same place at Athens: figs, witnesses to summons, bunches of grapes, turnips, pears, apples, givers of evidence, roses, meddlers, porridge, honeycombs, chickpeas, lawsuits, bee-sting-puddings, myrtle, allotment machines, irises, lambs, water clocks, laws, indictments."

Socrates likes to hang out the agora in Athens. Xenophon wrote that his former teacher "was always on public view; from early in the morning he used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people." Socrates used to address his followers in the Agora and he was kept in the prison annex outside the angora while on trial for insulting the gods. Plato, Pericles, Thucydides and Aristophenes all spent a lot of time in the agora. Citizens who avoided military service, showed cowardice in battle and mistreated their parents were forbidden from entering the Angora.

Colossus of Rhodes, One of the Seven Wonders of the World

Around the agora in Athens were courts, assembly halls, military headquarters, the mint, keepers of weights and measurements, commercial buildings, a racetrack and shrines. On a hill behind the agora are the remains of the columned halls is the Hephaisteion (449 B.C, a temple dedicated to Hephaisteion), the best preserved Doric Temple in Greece. It contains friezes of Theseus battling the Minotaur, the labors of Hercules and the battle of the Centaurs.

Below the Hephaisteion is the New Bouleuterion, where the 500-member Boule (Senate) met. Nearby is the Tholos, where the 50 members of the executive committee of the Boule met. In front of the Bouleuterion there were statues of the Eponymous Heroes (ten tribal namesakes chosen by the oracle of Delphi). This was a popular gathering spot. Other building in and around the Agora included the Shop of Simon the Cobbler, the Stoa of Zeus (a covered colonnade and religious shrine for Zeus), the Royal Stoa, the Painted Stoa (contained beautiful wall paintings that were taken by the Romans and have since been lost), the Altar of the Twelve Gods, the Panathanaic Way (a diagonal street running uphill to the Acropolis and parade route during major festivals), Mints, Fountain House, South Stoa and a, Racetrack.

Stoa of Attalus (159-138 B.C.) is completely restored two story building in the Agora in modern Athens, with internal and external rows of columns, that was formerly an arcade with 21 shops. The museum inside the Stoa Attalus contains a slotted marble slab with numbered balls used to select assembly members, a water clock that ensured that speeches did no exceed six minutes, thimble-size terra cotta vessels used by executioners to measure doses of hemlock, pottery shards that were used for secret votes to ostracize people (a 10 year banishment), part of an old ballot box used for the election of city officials and a bronze shield taken from the defeated Spartans.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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